Heidegger and Mood
Mood as an Educational Issue
It is not uncommon to hear teachers talk about the moods of their classrooms. A morning art class might have an “exciting” or “adventurous” mood, while the very same class in the afternoon might seem “dead” or “flat.” Teachers use a variety of synonyms for such moods. When they walk into a classroom, they immediately and intuitively gage the “temperature of a room” or they pick up on the “vibe” of a class. These highly complex and poetic words indicate something is in the air, something that one cannot quite figure out yet nevertheless has a real presence. In fact, such moods are a constant topic of discussion. Are they caused by particular students, by the time of day, by the weather? The more one analyzes possible points of origin, the more mysterious and nebulous such moods become. And the implications are indeed serious. Adventurous or dead moods shape what is taught and how it is taught. The teacher, perhaps more than anyone else, understands that mood plays a role in how we relate not only to others but also to knowledge.
In this brief entry, I will assert that noted phenomenologist Martin Heidegger offers an important starting point for thinking through a philosophy of mood. By outlining Heidegger’s basic understanding of mood, I will hope to clarify three issues raised in my introduction: that moods seem to lack specific and identifiable causes, that they appear beyond our immediate and willful control, and that they disclose certain forms of knowing, relating, and being.
A Phenomenology of Mood
One of the most fascinating and controversial aspects of Heidegger’s analysis of Dasein in Being and Time is his description of mood (Stimmung). Rather than an internal state, Heidegger argues that mood is a constitutive aspect of Dasein’s being in the world. Heidegger uses the concept of Dasein (a compound composed of “da” there and “sein” being) to describe human beings in order to escape certain traps in the history of philosophy that attempt to define the human as a self-sufficient substance such as a soul. Instead of reifying the being of human beings into such a substance, Heidegger grounds our special kind of being in a “there.” Stated differently, Dasein is its situation. Because Dasein is the “there” of its situation, there is no fundamental gap separating the self from the world. Indeed, dichotomies between internal and external cease to make sense from a Heideggerian point of view. As such, Dasein is fully immersed in a world of relations, roles, practices, and equipment; it is its being in the world. Famously, Heidegger writes, “Dasein is its world existingly” (II.4, 364). Chapter 5 of the first division of Heidegger’s masterpiece Being and Time is an attempt to understand the structure of the “there” in Dasein’s being there. This peculiar sense of thereness is comprised of three interrelated and equi-primordial dimensions: understanding, discourse, and mood. These dimensions or structural facets are equi-primordial in the sense that they are all equally primary and none of them can be explained without reference to the others. Due to limitations of space, I will not be able to discuss understanding and discourse; thus, my presentation below is somewhat artificial, cleaving mood off from a greater whole of which it is merely one facet.
Mood is part of an interdependent totality of characteristics that constitute Dasein’s being in the world (its being there). The German word for mood, Stimmung, also means the tuning of a musical instrument. In English, we can play a bit with the word “tuning” in the sense that mood attunes us to what is meaningful in our lives. Stated differently, a mood tunes us into what is relevant. The there of Dasein is only a there (as a particular place wherein something meaningful can arise) because of mood. There are three important points to make about the nature and function of mood in relation to Dasein’s being there.
To begin, because mood is ontologically primary to Dasein, we are always already in a mood. There is no stepping outside of a mood. Dasein is moody as such. Mood has a kind of atmospheric quality that is neither inside us as a private emotional state nor is it outside us as an objective substance which we can objectively observe. Whereas individuals might be able to move from one mood to another, there is no being outside of any mood. In short, there is no transcendental perspective that is divorced from a mood. Dasein finds itself in a mood. In this sense, there is some phenomenological truth in the common, everyday phrase “so-and-so is in a mood.” The “in” here is not spatial so much as existential, indicating that Dasein is always already worldly, wrapped up with and attuned to its situation.
Second, if we did not have an ontological capacity for being in a mood, then Dasein would not find anything familiar, relevant, or important to care about. For Heidegger, mood is a “disclosive submission to the world, out of which we can encounter something that matters to us” (1.5, 138, p. 177). A mood makes possible the ability to orient one’s self toward something, therefore producing the precondition for meaning. To be in a mood is to find one’s self in a clearing where the mood lights up certain things, people, roles, and features of the situation that can become relevant. For instance, if I am in a depressed mood, then certain possibilities will not light up for me, the world will appear dim and lifeless, and nothing will solicit my attention. That which might have seemed important one day, now appears irrelevant. The equipment that once called out to be used goes silent, and the relationships with others that once motivated me now appear insignificant, strange, or uncanny. If I am in a mood of love, then new relationships and forms of intimacy open up as real possibilities, and all my efforts become directed toward a focal practice of courtship. When in love, the there of Dasein is charged with electric tensions, gestures become infused with heightened meaning, and life as such blooms with a new sense of beauty. In both cases, to be in a mood means that the world is suddenly unlocked as a place of significance (or lack thereof). Even seemingly detached and “objective” points of view (as in the empirical sciences) have, at their base, some kind of mood that situates them in a world (the scientific world or any other world for that matter). Without a mood, nothing of relevance could disclose itself to us, even in a science laboratory.
Third, and this follows from the second point, mood is not under our subjective control. Moods “assail us.” They seem to come from the outside and wash over us. Thus one cannot voluntarily enter into a specific mood, nor can one necessarily use one’s will to escape from a mood that one has entered into. As such, mood poses interesting questions to behavioral psychology, not to mention political theories of agency. On this reading, Heidegger emphasizes Dasein’s fundamental passivity. We receive moods, we find ourselves in them, and as such, there is something in our fundamental experience of the world that is beyond our control. Take, for instance, both depression and love. One cannot simply talk one’s self out of being depressed, nor can one talk one’s self into being in love. Depression and love happen; we find ourselves in these moods. And we should put full weight on the notion that we “find ourselves” in and through a mood. The self does not exist outside of the mood; it is its moody situation. Thus, the mood of depression or love is inseparable from who we are at the time and how the world is (how it appears). What is so infuriating about both of these moods is that they seem to arrive at the most inopportune of times and do not respond to our willful attempts to direct or control them.
In division one of Being and Time, Heidegger singles out anxiety (Angst) as an important mood. Anxiety is important because of the unique way it discloses Dasein’s being there (being in the world as a whole). Unlike fear having a definite cause (let’s say a bear in the woods), anxiety is rather diffuse and seems to lack a clear cause, which one can point out. Because there is no apparent cause, there is also very little that someone can do to ameliorate the overwhelming sensation of anxiety. In this sense, anxiety does not present Dasein with any action. Although Dasein is normally found coping and dealing with the world that it is in, anxiety presents an uneasy experience of being in the world but not of it. The focal practices that orient us are suspended, the equipment that affords us action is inoperative, and the relationships which give our lives meaning seem inconsequential.
Usually, the world is taken for granted and is thus part of our background practices, roles, and experiences. It is so close to us that we pay it no mind. But when the rich significance of the world that invisibly props up our daily activities collapses, we feel paralyzed. The brilliance of Heidegger’s phenomenological method does not see this paralysis as mere nihilism. Indeed, it is only when the call of the world falls silent that something significant about the world is disclosed to Dasein. When the world loses its significance, all we are left with is the bear structure of that world (the worldhood of the world). Heidegger summarizes: “the world as world is disclosed first and foremost by anxiety” (232/187). When the world breaks down, then Dasein realizes the fundamental structure that makes a world possible. Lack of a world reorients Dasein to the basic fact that it is worldly.
Implications for Educational Research
Having summarized Heidegger’s basic phenomenology of mood, I would now like to turn to why this feature of Dasein is so important to educational philosophy and research. First, as Lauren Freeman (2014) argues, Heidegger’s phenomenology of mood is an important resource for addressing certain oversights, contradictions, and misunderstandings found in the psychology of emotions. Central to Freeman’s analysis is the fact that moods are not mere mental states but are rather the worldly preconditions for mental states (including emotions, feelings, beliefs, and so forth). Stated differently, moods are more basic than cognitive and/or emotional states. Indeed, private states of mind are derivative of a more general (public) mood. Yet in psychology, the worldly dimension of mood is often ignored or confused with private, subjective, and internal emotions. And because the starting point of psychology presupposes an internal and an external, it misses Dasein’s fundamental connectedness with and responsiveness to the world. Further, psychology assumes that moods can be atomized and decontextualized. In this way, empirical studies of “mood” fail to recognize how moods are directly connected to being there in a place and are holistically connected with the other facets of one’s sense of self. Freeman concludes with suggestions for how psychology can clarify and complexify its understanding of mood as different from emotion.
Given the dominance of psychology in educational research, I would argue that Freeman’s critique is particularly pressing. Drawing on Freeman’s work, I would suggest that educational psychology (and certain branches of educational philosophy that draw heavily on psychological research) pays attention to the following questions: How are mood, emotion, feelings, and desires related to yet distinct from each other? What are the starting assumptions behind mood research, and how do these assumptions reveal and conceal certain features of mood? Do psychological experiments accurately ground mood in context and personal meaning? Does the experiment pay close enough attention to what it feels like from the first person perspective to be in a mood? Such questions interrupt the hegemonic dominance of psychology in educational research by returning us to the importance of phenomenological and ontological concerns.
Second, as I have explored with my coauthor Justin Garcia (2014), there are certain dangers in grounding teacher education in skill development and belief clarification. Both of these approaches miss how teaching is first and foremost contextual, embodied, and richly meaningful as a focal practice. Instead of beginning with clarifying what preservice teachers believe to be good teaching and with rudimentary skill building/knowledge acquisition (such as how to write a lesson plan or the proper way to handle disciplinary problems in a classroom), we suggest helping orient students toward teaching as a meaningful practice – as a worldly practice. To do so, we suggest students should observe classrooms not for learning about how to be a good teacher but rather to experience classrooms as worlds composed of interrelated subjects, pieces of equipment, practices, and moods. Garcia and I call for a phenomenological form of preservice teacher education that helps students get into the mood of classroom life through poetic writing and journaling that captures what it feels like to be in a classroom. Such writing does not merely describe the mood of a classroom as if mood were an objective thing. Rather it would be moody writing, and through such moodiness, open up the fundamental questions of teaching. It is only against a background of meaningful attunement to teaching as a way of being in the world that skill development and belief clarification can have any meaning or relevance beyond pure instrumentalism.
A third aspect of mood that is worthy of note for educational philosophers concerns the ways in which different moods might offer up different educational opportunities for students. As stated above, moods are world disclosing. New facets of the world can be revealed through changes in mood. On this view, knowledge of the world is never neutral, detached, and omniscient but rather refracted through various moods. This means that moods such as wonder, melancholy, anxiety, boredom, and love (just to name a few) might grant students multiple ways of experiencing and apprehending the world. Certain moods might be more conducive to certain kinds of activities, thinking, and teaching than others. Recognizing the moodiness of a classroom becomes a unique opportunity for teachers to reflect on what kinds of learning, studying, dialoguing, and practicing become real possibilities that Dasein can plunge into. Drawing on Heidegger’s evocative phenomenology of boredom, Jan-Erik Mansikka (2009) describes the educational relevance of this mood. Boredom can lead students from learning that is not meaningful to learning that leaves them empty to a profound experience of undetermined existential potentialities that manifest themselves when students stop learning and wait.
But remember, moods do not have clear causes; they assail us and therefore might very well be beyond an individual will or intentional act of control. As such, the moodiness of a classroom is a particularly pressing issue for teachers. Let us assume that a particular classroom has a “lousy” mood or a “disengaged” mood. It would be incorrect to attribute such a mood to any given student, activity, or piece of equipment as moods do not have direct, assignable causes. Attributing a “bad” mood to a particular student (or group of students), for instance, would miss how moods operate as worldly, atmospheric conditions that defy clear and easy subject/object, inside/outside dichotomies.
Yet is a teacher thus powerless over the mood of a classroom? Interestingly, Heidegger observes that great orators are great because of their understanding of mood. Audiences have a particular type of public mood that washes over them (think of public sporting events today). “It is into such as a mood,” writes Heidegger, “and out of such a mood that the orator speaks. He must understand the possibilities of moods in order to rouse them and guide them aright” (Heidegger 2008, p. 178). To understand the possibilities of moods means that the orator is himself/herself within the mood, effected by the mood, and thus moved by the mood. We can never be outside of the mood and as such have limited control and autonomy. And this goes for teachers as well as orators. By understanding mood, teachers dwell in the mood of the classroom in order to sense the mood’s educational possibilities. In this way, they might be able to rouse and guide students in and through moody variations. But first and foremost, the teacher must be open and receptive to the mood (whatever it is) in order to modify it from within through certain gestures, practices, and so forth. This is a line of philosophical inquiry and research that has not yet been adequately addressed within radical, progressive, or conservative forms of pedagogy, all of which often see the teacher as a heroic figure who can transform a classroom through his or her will.
In sum, I hope to have provided a tentative outline of mood as it is presented in Heidegger’s early masterwork Being and Time. I have also charted three ways in which mood is helpful for educational research and educational philosophy. First, a phenomenology of mood helps correct certain misconceptions of mood in the dominant psychology of emotions. Second, mood should become a main concern for teacher educators who are concerned with how students enter into the world of teaching. And third, mood is a pedagogical issue in that different moods can unlock different educational experiences and insights into the world. What all three of these lines of inquiry share in common is a concerted effort to return not simply to Heidegger to answer pressing educational questions but rather to return to phenomenology as a method for addressing questions that other dominant discourses such as analytic philosophy or psychology miss.
- Heidegger, M. (2008). Being and time (trans: Macquarrie, J. & Robinson, E.). New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics.Google Scholar