Disordered existentiality: Mental illness and Heidegger’s philosophy of Dasein


In this paper, I propose an existentialist-phenomenological model that conceives of mental illness through the terminology of Heidegger’s Being and Time. In particular, the concepts of (i) existentiality, (ii) disturbance and (iii) the relation between ‘being-with’ and ‘the one’, will be implemented in order to reconstruct the experience of mental illness. The proposed model understands mental illness as a disturbance of a person’s existentiality. More precisely, mental illness is conceptualized as the disturbance of a person’s existential structure, the process of which leads to a becoming explicit of the otherwise implicit dynamical structure that constitutes a person’s experience. In particular, the existential component of ‘being-with’ comes to play a central role in the disturbance of existentiality, thus, I will claim, that it enables a person’s structure of experience to be ‘open for normativity’. By adopting a pragmatist stance on Heideggerian phenomenology, the suggested model proves compatible with naturalist and normativist theories of mental illness while still offering a phenomenological description of the phenomenon.

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  1. 1.

    For a re-evaluation of the distinction between naturalism and normativism, see Simons (2007).

  2. 2.

    For an analysis of the distinction between notions of disease, illness and sickness, see Heinz (2014, 24ff.) or Schramme (2012, 22 f.).

  3. 3.

    Some of the most influential precursors for today’s phenomenological studies in the philosophy of psychiatry have interpreted mental illness as a “complete form of existence” (Merleau-Ponty 1981, 107) that confronts a life with a different “style of experience” (Binswanger 1960, 46).

  4. 4.

    Binswanger (1960), for example, focused on the temporal structure of experience, describing bipolar disorder in terms of a ‘disorder of temporality’, Blankenburg (1971) famously located the basic experience of schizophrenia in a ‘loss of the sense for familiarity or taking-for-grantedness’ and, in more recent publications, Ratcliffe has identified the basic alteration of the experiential structure in depressive persons as a loss of the ‘sense of reality and belonging’ that underlies all existential experience (Ratcliffe 2008, 2015).

  5. 5.

    Henceforth to be abbreviated to ‘BT’, referring to Heidegger (1996).

  6. 6.

    Also, see Broome and Ratcliffe (2012) for a helpful characterization of relation between existentialism and phenomenology and its use for philosophical inquiry concerned with the subject of mental illness.

  7. 7.

    Henriksen et al. refer to ‘Being-alongside’ as the pre-reflective “sense of familiarity with the world, others and oneself” (2010, 361). However, they do not specify on how this sense of familiarity depends on the realization of particular existentials, in the context of this study on ‘being-with others as with-Daseins in a with-world’.

  8. 8.

    This also marks a difference between Binswanger’s and my reading; the former’s analysis of ‘being-with’ presents it as a form of interpersonality, as the relation to concrete persons (Binswanger 1957, 94ff.).

  9. 9.

    I hereby follow translations of Dreyfus instead of the original translation of Zuhandenheit as ‘handiness’ (Dreyfus 1991, 60ff.).

  10. 10.

    Dreyfus translates Vorhandenheit as ‘occurrentness’ instead of ‘presence-at-hand’ (Dreyfus 1991, 60ff.).

  11. 11.

    Both Sass and Parnas (2003) and Fuchs (2005, 2006) describe psychopathological phenomena in terms of a distinction between implicitness and explicitness (tacit and focal knowledge (Sass & Parnas); embodied or disembodied consciousness (Fuchs 2005, 2006)). In line with this study, their distinctions serve to differentiate between implicit or pre-reflective awareness/knowledge and explicit or thematic awareness/knowledge of something (as an object) (e.g. Sass and Parnas 2003, 430). However, they do not investigate the relevant distinction in Heidegger’s context, thereby overlooking the connection between implicitness/explicitness and the notion of disturbance as such.

  12. 12.

    Obviously, this marks an experience that is also common in ‚normal’ existence, it is my contention that the experience of mental illness is not one that is absolutely alien to non-affected people but on the contrary, stands on a continuum with what we understand as ‚everyday experience’. However, persons that do not suffer from mental illness are also not ‘existentially’ forced to incessantly thematize the conditions of that process but can retreat into an implicit mode of self-realization.

  13. 13.

    At this point, it has to be noted that I do not agree with Boss’ analysis that mental disorders never modify a person’s way of being-in-the-world but only the concrete contents of this structure (Boss 1957, 94ff.); on the contrary, my approach exactly points towards Binswanger’s proposal that mental disorders go hand in hand with a change in a person’s existentiality – this is indeed what leads to the experience of mental illness.

  14. 14.

    In the second division of Being and Time, Heidegger analyses Being-In-the-World in its temporal realization, which leads him to the conclusion that Dasein, in that it temporalizes itself, is or stands ‘outside-itself’ (ἔκστασις) (BT 307ff.).

  15. 15.

    „[F]inding oneself in a world through one or another mood“(Ratcliffe 2015, 55).

  16. 16.

    This connects well to Fuchs’ point that BPD patients seem to lack a continuous self-narrative that extends from the past into the future as “they are only what they are experiencing at this moment, in an often intense and yet empty and flat present; for this present may only be experienced passively, not as the result of one’s own planning and will“(Fuchs 2007, 381).

  17. 17.

    Sass (1990) in a study on schizophrenia arrives at similar conclusions when interpreting Renée’s experiences as illustrating Heidegger’s notion of Cartesianism.

  18. 18.

    Here, I follow a line of interpretation that stems from the pragmatist school of Heidegger interpretation and includes authors such as Brandom, Carman, Dreyfus, Haugeland, Malpas, Okrent, Stern and Wrathall. I am well aware that this interpretation is not undisputed. However, within the confines of this paper I shall not discuss exegetical intricacies. See Theunissen 1984, for an alternative.

  19. 19.

    Dasein’s self-interpretive being is ‘thrown projection’ [geworfener Entwurf] (BT, 188).

  20. 20.

    Henriksen et al. arrive at the same conclusion when criticising approaches that „fail to recognize both the positive dimension of inauthenticity and also the fact that authenticity cannot be a persistent mode, but only a liminal possibility of existence” (2010, 365).

  21. 21.

    By way of an explication of the dynamics of this process, Henriksen et al. set out to describe the phenomenology of schizophrenic autism and perplexity, detailing it to experiences of an estranged feeling of ‘not belonging to the world’ ‚not feeling at home’ in it and ‘exposure’ to others (2010, 362).

  22. 22.

    ‘Gradual’ because the measure of influence a mental illness can have on one’s experiential structure varies greatly.

  23. 23.

    A similarly strong reading of the existentiale of ‘being-with’ has been issued by Rousse (2013), who interprets it to denote the way in which others appear to me through the disclosedness of the world with others, which thus appear through the practical relational whole as part of its constitution (430ff.). Conceptions along those lines miss the constitutiveness of ‘being-with’ for ‘the one’, which leads to the interpretative mistake of attributing openness to normativity to ‘the one’ instead of to the disclosing quality of ‘being-with’.

  24. 24.

    I take Schmid (2005) to make a similar argument in his paper ‘The Broken ‘We”, as he takes shared intentionality to play a constitutively prior role to social norms or conventions.

  25. 25.

    A good part of the criticism on BT has accused Heidegger of constructing human existence in terms that are way too individualistic. Dasein, these criticisms maintain, is conceived of as being care for itself and not for others, e.g. see Arendt 1998; Binswanger 1983; Theunissen 1984. While it is not my aim to counter the criticism of Heidegger’s conception of human existence as essentially self-care, I do maintain that others appear in the phenomenological build-up of our experiential structure in the sense as ‘they’ render this structure receptive for the normativity of shared interpretations. Heidegger himself states in the Zollikoner Seminare: “All adaptation is only possible and only makes sense on ground of being-with.” (Heidegger 2006, 202)

  26. 26.

    It is probably for those reasons that Brandom conceives of ‘being-with’ as ‘sociality’. However, this notion remains too unspecific, as it does not grasp the phenomenological aspect of encountering a world that is already shaped and interpreted by others (Brandom 2002, 310).


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I wish to thank Brigitte Hilmer, Rebekka Hufendiek, Matthieu Queloz, Mario Schärli, Arno Schubbach, Markus Wild, Malcolm and Leslie, as well as two anonymous referees for their helpful comments and suggestions.

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Correspondence to Schmid Jelscha.

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Jelscha, S. Disordered existentiality: Mental illness and Heidegger’s philosophy of Dasein. Phenom Cogn Sci 17, 485–502 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11097-017-9523-1

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  • Martin Heidegger
  • Philosophy of psychiatry
  • Existential phenomenology
  • Being-with