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From Faint Mood to Strong Emotion: Merging Heidegger and Sartre?


This paper contrasts Sartre’s account of emotion with Heidegger’s account of Befindlichkeit and ‘mood’ (Stimmung). Sartre’s account of emotion is a strong one: emotions occur only when a more neutral and colourless ‘pragmatic attitude’ is frustrated or breaks down. In this manner, emotion has to be acutely felt in and through the body, which also means that there are many circumstances and states in which we do not undergo any emotion at all. In fact, Sartre’s ‘pragmatic attitude’ is precisely the mode in which we simply go about our business in an emotionless manner. This raises the question as to whether Sartre’s stark opposition between emotional and non-emotional experiences actually holds. I believe Heidegger’s account of Befindlichkeit and its moods are key in this regard, in that it can be used to nuance the Sartrean account. Indeed, Heidegger famously states that Dasein is never unattuned. In fact, precisely because of the ontological structure of Befindlichkeit, the world always already matters to us in one way or another, with moods being one of our primary ways of experiencing what matters and why. This discussion therefore aims to yield an account whereby faint moods (Heidegger) and strong emotions (Sartre) form two poles of the same dynamic. To use a metaphor, moods are the tectonic plates that make the various emotional shakes and quakes possible in any given situation. Finally, I finish with some possible remaining tensions between the two thinkers, as well as a way to look for a possible solution.

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  1. I am not going to attempt a translation of this term; I will just use the German.

  2. The appearance of the Schwarze Hefte leaves Heidegger scholars with a choice: either Heidegger’s anti-Semitism, as found in those pages, corrupts the whole corpus; or there are certain works or concepts that can be read and used without fear of any explicit or hidden anti-Semitism. Obviously I support the latter option, whereby, in what follows, Heidegger’s discourse on Befindlichkeit and moods applies to a basic structure of Dasein as such, and thereby has absolutely no ties with Heidegger’s anti-Semitism in his later years and words. In fact, I would go even as far to claim that the Heidegger of Being and Time may be used against Heidegger the anti-Semite; the latter, for me, is no clearer example of someone falling victim to the dominant and thoughtless forces of ‘the they’ (das Man) of his time; Heidegger’s anti-Semitism of the 1930s onwards is an example of his inability to think for himself, thereby falling into the ‘inauthenticity’ (Uneigentlichkeit) of the ravings of Nazi Germany.

  3. Hereafter I will use the sigla ‘STE/ETE’ for referencing this work.

  4. One might argue that striking someone in anger, or running away in fear, both enact efficient causal change, and in a sense they do. This does not destroy Sartre’s theory, however, because the pragmatic attitude is almost never completely eradicated (except in cases of complete emotional breakdown), but often merely blurred with emotive qualities that preclude the possibility of acting more pragmatically (i.e. talking instead of hitting; standing one’s ground instead of running away—or even running away without fear, because for Sartre real fear is normally paralysing).

  5. The issue of Sartrean magic is a highly complex one, and although I cannot say much here, elsewhere I am developing a recognition of four main types of Sartrean ‘magic’, namely personal reflections (ego), emotions, imaginations, and values, which all share a fundamental underlying structure: consciousness incants qualities into various objects (things in the world; one’s own personal reflections; one’s own imaginations) to the extent that these objects accrue a power of their own, thereby bewitching that very same consciousness. For brief introduction that focuses on the magic of Sartre’s imaginary, please see: O’Shiel 2011.

  6. Translation modified—« toutes reviennent à constituer un monde magique en utilisant notre corps comme moyen d’incantation. Dans chaque cas le problème est. différent, les conduites sont différentes. Pour en saisir la signification et la finalité, il faudrait connaître et analyser chaque situation particulière ».

  7. Sartre distinguishes between emotive joy and a merely satisfactory feeling (cf. STE/ETE: 46/90), where the latter lacks the transformative characteristics that all of the main strong emotions (anger, fear, disgust, joy, etc.) contain. In short, joy is an emotion for Sartre, whereas a ‘merely satisfactory feeling’ is what we will see as a mood in what unfolds.

  8. This is what Sartre later calls the ‘spirit of seriousness’ (« lesprit de sérieux »)—see: Sartre [1943] 2012: 75.

  9. For an account of how this ‘centripetal’ aspect of emotion is a precursor to Sartre’s more full-blown theory of ‘the look’ and our ‘being-for-others’, please see: Richmond 2011.

  10. Hereafter I will use the sigla ‘BT/SZ’ for referencing this work.

  11. I will only provide the page numbers of the original German, seeing as these can also be found in the margins of the Macquarrie & Robinson translation.

  12. In Bollnow’s ([1941] 2009: 21) terms: ‚unterste Schicht des seelischen Lebens’.

  13. Here we may see where Sartre’s technical concept of ‘the situation’ comes from, with both his and Heidegger’s notion heavily indebted to Husserl’s own conception of the ‘lived-body’ (der Leib) as essentially containing a ‘zero-point of the Here and Now’ (cf. Husserl 1952: 158–159) that also essentially contains an inherent ‘I can’. This is closely related to Heidegger’s own notion of Verstehen, as well as Sartre’s notion of possibility as an intrinsic structure of the pour-soi (cf. Sartre [1943] 2012: 132–139). Thus, although Heidegger does not explicitly mention any ‘lived-body’ here, one can see how it already implicitly figures, which is not insignificant when considering that Sartrean emotion is explicitly bodily—and so Heideggerian attunement would be also.

  14. Translation modified – ‚erschließt das Dasein in seiner Geworfenheit und zunächst und zumeist in der Weise der ausweichenden Abkehr’.

  15. Think, for example, of the rather uniform characteristics and aspirations of the modern-day business ‘rat-race’, where even one’s wardrobe (suits) belongs to the power of das Man.

  16. My translation—‚existenziale Grundart der gleichursprünglichen Erschlossenheit von Welt, Mitdasein und Existenz, weil diese selbst wesenhaft In-der-Welt-sein ist.’

  17. Translation modified—‚liegt existenzial eine erschließende Angewiesenheit auf Welt, aus der her Angehendes begegnen kann’.

  18. Cf. Bollnow [1941] 2009: 22: ‚[Die Stimmungen] sind Zuständlichkeiten, Färbungen des gesamten menschlichen Daseins’.

  19. Ratcliffe (2008) takes this basic ‘background’ orientation of Befindlichkeit and its moods and turns it into a whole new category of feeling—‘existential feeling’.

  20. Which one can always then reflect upon (‘God I’m in such a rotten mood today!’).

  21. An interesting extension of this would be to investigate resonance in reference to moods, both with regard to others, love, and friendship (e.g. laughter); as well as with regard to other human phenomena (think of, for instance, the resonance (and often the good mood created) when listening to a favourite piece of music).

  22. ‚Die Stimmung überfällt. Sie kommt weder von »Außen« noch von »Innen«, sondern steigt als Weise des In-der-Welt-seins aus diesem selbst auf.’—SZ: 136.

  23. I would like to thank one of the anonymous reviewers who helped me arrive at this point.

  24. This is a very interesting topic in its own right, and is one that I intend to pursue in a different piece.

  25. This insight is thanks to another anonymous reviewer.


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I would like to thank all that were present at the ‘Meaning of Moods’ workshop near Basel in December 2015, where a skeletal form of this paper was presented. Not only did I receive useful feedback, but I also learned from, and was influenced by, many of the other papers and discussions. I would also like to thank the Research Foundation – Flanders (FWO) for providing me with the necessary funds to make such research possible. And finally, I would like to thank the two anonymous reviewers whose comments have been used in order to improve certain aspects of this paper.

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O’Shiel, D. From Faint Mood to Strong Emotion: Merging Heidegger and Sartre?. Philosophia 45, 1575–1586 (2017).

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  • Befindlichkeit
  • Emotion
  • Heidegger
  • Mood
  • Pragmatic attitude
  • Sartre