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A critical examination of existential feeling


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.

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  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.


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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.

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Correspondence to Jussi A. Saarinen.

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Saarinen, J.A. A critical examination of existential feeling. Phenom Cogn Sci 17, 363–374 (2018).

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