Skip to main content

A critical examination of existential feeling

Abstract

Matthew Ratcliffe (2008, 2015) has argued that existential feelings form a distinct class of bodily and non-conceptual feelings that pre-intentionally structure our intentional experience of others, the world, and ourselves. In this article, I will identify and discuss three interrelated areas of concern for Ratcliffe’s theory of existential feelings. First, the distinct senses in which existential feelings are felt as background bodily feelings and as spaces of possibility calls for further clarification. Second, the nature of the suggested bi-directional relationship between existential feelings and intentional experience remains ambiguous. Third, viewed in light of existential guilt, the categorically non-conceptual nature of existential feelings may not be as definite as presumed. The aim of the article is to draw critical attention to aspects of the theory that would benefit from further development, and therefore, to advance the ongoing discussion about existential feelings.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Notes

  1. 1.

    Riccardo Manzotti’s (2012) externalist questioning of Ratcliffe’s theory is perhaps the only critique that focuses on its core claims systematically and in relative depth.

  2. 2.

    It is worth noting that in both existential and noetic feelings the body is felt as that through which the world is disclosed: in the former pre-intentionally as a possibility space and in the latter as specific kinds of intentional objects.

  3. 3.

    Riccardo Manzotti (2012) has questioned whether existential feelings can be object-less feelings (and hence, free of representational content). He argues that existential feelings should not be designated as object-less feelings, but rather as feelings with a special kind of existential object, namely, the “subject as a whole” (2012: 95, see also Slaby and Stephan 2008: 511–513). The existence of content-less/object-less feelings is an overarching issue that bears on possible conceptualizations of existential feeling. However, addressing this broad topic in any further detail falls beyond the scope of this article. My more limited focus is on whether Ratcliffe’s own characterization of existential feelings entails, at least in some cases, the need for conceptual content.

  4. 4.

    Ratcliffe makes it clear that he is not interested in providing exact criteria for distinguishing between guilt and e.g. shame, remorse, and regret (2015: 134). Likewise, the single, unitary existential feeling that he designates as ‘guilt’ can also be expressed by “themes such as guilt, worthlessness, shame, and self-hate” (Ratcliffe 2015: 136). Be that is it may, my main concern here is not with labels, but rather with the phenomenology of the designated, unitary existential feeling. What kind of self-world relation does ‘existential guilt’ disclose, and is this possible without evaluative content?

  5. 5.

    Jan Slaby and Achim Stephan (2008: 513) have suggested that existential feelings can have “very complicated, high-level contents – contents that only beings with sophisticated conceptual capacities are capable of instantiating”. Accordingly, they have distinguished four different levels of existential feeling based on their “conceptual impregnation” and “situational specificity” (2008: 510–511). This taxonomy has not been put forward as a criticism of Ratcliffe’s theory, so it seems, but as an assumedly unproblematic extension to it. Ratcliffe, however, has responded by stating he does “not subscribe to the view that there are ‘levels’ of existential feeling” in the suggested sense (2012: 44, see also 2015: 63fn). In his view, such categorizations reflect “different descriptions of existential feelings rather than different feelings” (2015: 63fn). The conclusion to be drawn is that, despite alternative proposals, Ratcliffe holds on to the categorically non-conceptual nature of existential feelings, leaving the presently explicated concern unresolved and open to discussion.

References

  1. Andrejč, G. (2012). Bridging the gap between social and existential-mystical interpretations of Schleiermacher’s ‘feeling’. Religious Studies, 48(3), 377–401.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Benson, O., Gibson, S., & Brand, S. L. (2013). The experience of agency in the feeling of being suicidal. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 20(7–8), 56–79.

    Google Scholar 

  3. Bortolan, A. (2016). Affectivity and moral experience: An extended phenomenological account. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences. Online first. doi:10.1007/s11097-016-9468-9.

  4. Colombetti, G., & Ratcliffe, M. (2012). Bodily feeling in depersonalization: A phenomenological account. Emotion Review, 4(2), 145–150.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Fernandez, A. V. (2014). Depression as existential feeling or de-situatedness? Distinguishing structure from mode in psychopathology. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 13(4), 595–612.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Gerrans, P., & Scherer, K. (2013). Wired for despair: The neurochemistry of emotion and the phenomenology of depression. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 20(7–8), 254–268.

    Google Scholar 

  7. Guignon, C. (2009). The body, bodily feelings, and existential feelings: A Heideggerian perspective. Philosophy, Psychiatry & Psychology, 16(2), 195–199.

    Google Scholar 

  8. Heidegger, M. (1927/1996). Being and Time (Sein und Zeit), trans. J. Stambaugh. New York: SUNY.

  9. Manzotti, R. (2012). An externalist approach to existential feelings: Different feelings or different objects? In J. Fingerhut & S. Marienberg (Eds.), Feelings of being alive (pp. 79–99). Berlin: De Gruyter.

    Google Scholar 

  10. McLaughlin, B. P. (2010). Monothematic delusions and existential feelings. In T. Bayne & J. Fernández (Eds.), Delusion and self-deception: Motivational and affective influences on belief-formation (pp. 139–164). New York: Psychology Press.

    Google Scholar 

  11. Ratcliffe, M. (2005). The feeling of being. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 12(8–10), 43–60.

    Google Scholar 

  12. Ratcliffe, M. (2008). Feelings of being. Phenomenology, psychiatry and the sense of reality. Oxford: OUP.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  13. Ratcliffe, M. (2010a). Depression, guilt and emotional depth. Inquiry, 53(6), 602–626.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Ratcliffe, M. (2010b). The phenomenology of mood and the meaning of life. In P. Goldie (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of philosophy of emotion (pp. 349–371). Oxford: OUP.

    Google Scholar 

  15. Ratcliffe, M. (2012). The phenomenology of existential feeling. In S. Marienberg & J. Fingerhut (Eds.), Feelings of being alive (pp. 23–54). Berlin: de Gruyter.

    Google Scholar 

  16. Ratcliffe, M. (2013a). What is it to lose hope? Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 12, 597–614.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Ratcliffe, M. (2013b). Why mood matters. In M. A. Wrathall (Ed.), The Cambridge companion to Heidegger’s being and time (pp. 157–176). NY: Cambridge University Press.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  18. Ratcliffe, M. (2015). Experiences of depression: A study in phenomenology. Oxford: OUP.

    Google Scholar 

  19. Saarinen, J. A. (2014). The oceanic feeling: A case study in existential feeling. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 21(5–6), 196–217.

    Google Scholar 

  20. Slaby, J., & Stephan, A. (2008). Affective intentionality and self-consciousness. Consciousness and Cognition, 17, 506–513.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Stephan, A. (2012). Emotions, existential feelings, and their regulation. Emotion Review, 4, 157–162.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Stolorow, R. D. (2016). Matthew Ratcliffe: Experiences of depression: A study in phenomenology. Human Studies, 39(2), 307–311.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Svenaeus, F. (2013). Depression and the self: Bodily resonance and attuned being-in-the-world. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 20(7–8), 15–32.

    Google Scholar 

  24. Varga, S., & Krueger, J. (2013). Background emotions, proximity and distributed emotion regulation. Review of Philosophy and Psychology, 4, 271–292.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Warsop, A. (2009). Existential feeling, touch, and ‘belonging’. Philosophy, Psychiatry & Psychology, 16(2), 201–204.

    Google Scholar 

  26. Wynn, M. (2012). Renewing the senses: Conversion experience and the phenomenology of spiritual life. International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, 72, 211–226.

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgments

I would like to thank Giovanna Colombetti, Matthew Ratcliffe, Jaakko Vuori, Nina Reiman, two anonymous reviewers, and academic audiences in Jyväskylä, Exeter, and Osaka for their extremely helpful comments on prior versions of this paper. I would also like to thank the Finnish Cultural Foundation for supporting my research financially.

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Jussi A. Saarinen.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Saarinen, J.A. A critical examination of existential feeling. Phenom Cogn Sci 17, 363–374 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11097-017-9512-4

Download citation

Keywords

  • Existential feeling
  • Bodily feeling
  • Intentional experience
  • Matthew Ratcliffe