Taught MA in Philosophy: Philosophical Methods Lecture


The Role of Feelings in Philosophical Enquiry


Matthew Ratcliffe



Heidegger on Angst and the Nothing

Passages from ‘What is Metaphysics?’:

Science wants to know nothing of the nothing. But even so it is certain that when science tries to express its proper essence it calls upon the nothing for help. It has recourse to what it rejects. What incongruous state of affairs reveals itself here?

Is the nothing given only because the ‘not’, i.e., negation, is given? Or is it the other way round? Are negation and the ‘not’ given only because the nothing is given? [….] We assert that the nothing is more original than the ‘not’ and ‘negation’.

The receding of beings as a whole that closes in on us in anxiety oppresses us. We can get no hold on things. In the slipping away of beings only this ‘no hold on things’ comes over us and remains.

That anxiety reveals the nothing man himself immediately demonstrates when anxiety has dissolved. In the lucid vision sustained by fresh remembrance we must say that in the face of which and for which we were anxious was ‘properly’ – nothing. Indeed: the nothing itself –as such – was there.

Carnap’s Critique

Passages from ‘The Elimination of Metaphysics through Logical Analysis of Language’:

…the meaning of a statement lies in the method of its verification. A statement asserts only so much as is verifiable with respect to it. Therefore a sentence can be used only to assert an empirical proposition, if indeed it is used to assert anything at all. If something were to lie, in principle, beyond possible experience , it could be neither said nor thought nor asked.

Perhaps music is the purest means of expression of the basic attitude because it is entirely free from any reference to objects. The harmonious feeling or attitude, which the metaphysician tries to express in a monistic system, is more clearly expressed in the music of Mozart.[…] Metaphysicians are musicians without musical ability.

Existential Feelings

There are feelings of being detached from things, at home in the world, slightly lost, removed from it all, abandoned, disconnected, empty, powerless, in control of things, trapped and weighed down, at one with nature, part of a greater whole, out of it, at one with life, there, not quite there, part of things, cut off from reality, brought down to earth, unreal. And the list seems to go on indefinitely. There are feelings of strangeness, unreality, oneness, intangibility, belonging, familiarity, completeness, power, fragility, disjointedness, coherence, meaningfulness, emptiness, mystery, unintelligibility, separation and so forth. Some of these terms are synonyms for others, whereas others seem to be subtly distinct. Most such feelings are not ordinarily referred to as moods or emotions and I think that they comprise a distinctive experiential category. All are ‘ways of finding oneself in a world’.

Consider the following passage from Sebastian Faulks’ The Girl at the Lion d’Or:

She thought of the landscape of her childhood and the wooded slopes around the house where she was born. They seemed as alien to her now as these anonymous fields through which she passed. Since she felt she belonged to no part of it, she could make no sense of this material world, whether it was in the shape of natural phenomena, like woods and rivers, or in the guise of man-made things like houses, furniture and glass. Without the greeting of personal affection or association they were no more than collections of arbitrarily linked atoms that wriggled and chased each other into shapes that men had named. Although Anne didn’t phrase her thoughts in such words, she felt her separation from the world. The fact that many of the patterns formed by random matter seemed quite beautiful made no difference; try as she might, she could dredge no meaning from the fertile hedgerows, no comfort from the pointless loveliness of the swelling woods and hills.

Existential Feeling and Psychopathology

‘Renee’, in Autobiography of a Schizophrenic Girl (Sechehaye, 1970):

To begin with, we have “a disturbing sense of unreality”; the schoolyard appeared “limitless, unreal, mechanical and without meaning”. Renee also reports a loss of relatedness to other people, who seemed like puppets or mechanisms, rather than purposive agents interacting in a shared world; “it was as though reality, attenuated, had slipped away from all these things and these people”. Renee describes how, initially, she was drawn back into the world through practical activities and routines, which partially restored a sense of reality and of relatedness to things. But then she “lost the feeling of practical things” and “sensed again the atmosphere of unreality”. She later describes herself as “rejected by the world, on the outside of life, a spectator of a chaotic film unrolling ceaselessly before my eyes, in which I would never have a part”.

Equivocation of ‘Bodily Feeling’

A bodily feeling can be:

A feeling that has the body as its object.


A feeling done by the body that has something other than the body as its object.

Feelings in Philosophy

Wittgenstein’s characterization [of philosophy as a sickness] can almost be taken literally: the sicknesses of the understanding he examined in his later work, sicknesses bound up with the philosopher’s predilection for abstraction and alienation – for detachment from body, world, and community – have a great deal in common with the symptoms displayed by Schreber and many other mental patients with schizophrenia or related forms of illness. (Louis Sass, 1994)

William James on Philosophy, Religion and Feeling

..in the metaphysical and religious sphere, articulate reasons are cogent for us only when our inarticulate feelings of reality have already been impressed in favour of the same conclusion. (1902)

Pretend what we may, the whole man within us is at work when we form our philosophical opinions – Intellect, will, taste, and passion co-operate just as they do in practical affairs… (1956)

…the philosophy which is so important in each of us is not a technical matter; it is our more or less dumb sense of what life honestly and deeply means. It is only partly got from books; it is our individual way of just seeing and feeling the total push and pressure of the cosmos. (1981)

…..it is far less an account of this actual world than a clear addition built upon it, a classic sanctuary in which the rationalist fancy may take refuge from the intolerably confused and gothic character which mere facts present. It is no explanation of our concrete universe, it is another thing altogether, a substitute for it, a remedy, a way of escape. (1981)

John Wisdom on Philosophical Doubt

…no philosopher becomes really a Sceptic; because if a man really feels what the Sceptic says he feels then he is said to have ‘a sense of unreality’ and is removed to a home. In fact the sceptical philosopher never succeeds in killing his primitive credulities which, as Hume says, reassert themselves the moment he takes up the affairs of life and ceases to murmur the incantations which generate his philosophic doubt. (1964)

…we have all read of the man who cannot be sure that he has turned off the tap or light. He must go again to make sure, and then perhaps he must go again because though he knows the light’s turned off he yet cannot feel sure. [….] The neurotic, we might say, doesn’t believe what he says. Still he does go back at the risk of losing his train to make sure that the lights are off. The philosopher doesn’t. His acts and feelings are even less in accordance with his words than are the acts and feelings of the neurotic. (1964)


Recommended Reading

Carnap, R. (1959), ‘The Elimination of Metaphysics through Logical Analysis of Language’. In A.J. Ayer ed. Logical Positivism (New York: The Free Press).

Damasio, A. (1995), Descartes Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain (London: Picador).

Gallagher, S. (2005), How the Body shapes the Mind (Oxford: Clarendon Press).

Heidegger, M. (1962), Being and Time, trans. Macquarrie, J. and Robinson, E. (Oxford: Blackwell).

Heidegger, M. (1996), Being and Time, trans. Stambaugh, J. (New York: State University of New York Press).

Heidegger, M. (1978), ‘What is Metaphysics?’, in his Basic Writings, ed. and trans. Krell, D.F. (London: Routledge).

Hookway, C. (2002), ‘Emotions and Epistemic Evaluations’, in Carruthers, P., Stich, S. and Siegal, M. eds. The Cognitive Basis of Science (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press), pp. 251-262.

James, W. (1902), The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (New York: Longmans, Green and Co.)

James, W. (1956), The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (New York: Dover Publications).

James, W. (1981), Pragmatism (Indianapolis: Hackett).

Merleau-Ponty, M. (1962), Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Smith, C. (London: Routledge).

Ratcliffe, M. (2005), ‘William James on Emotion and Intentionality’, International Journal of Philosophical Studies, 13, pp. 179-202.

Ratcliffe, M. (2005), ‘The Feeling of Being’, Journal of Consciousness Studies 12/8-10: 45-63.

Rea, M. (2002), World without Design: The Ontological Consequences of Naturalism (Oxford: Clarendon Press).

Sass, L. (1994), The Paradoxes of Delusion: Wittgenstein, Schreber, and the Schizophrenic Mind (Ithaca: Cornell University Press).

Schreber, D. P. (2000), Memoirs of my Nervous Illness (New York: New York Review of Books).

Solomon, R. (1993), The Passions: Emotions and the Meaning of Life (Indianapolis: Hackett).

Van Fraassen, B. (2002), The Empirical Stance. (New Haven: Yale University Press).

Wisdom, J. (1964), Philosophy and Psychoanalysis (Oxford: Blackwell).