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Heidegger on Befindlichkeit


To: Mary J.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Heidegger on Befindlichkeit
Date: 7 November 2005 16:45

Dear Mary,

Thank you for your email of 23 October, with your seventh Associate essay, ''The sign of the times in the mood of the moment': a discussion of Heidegger's concept of Befindlichkeit in Being and Time.'

This is an excellent piece of exposition which makes intelligent use of commentaries, such as Dreyfus and Mulhall. You have also gone further than mere exposition, in attempting to apply Heidegger's analyses to situations with which you are familiar: Catholic and Protestant perceptions of the Orange Order marches, and the controversy over the Irish 2005 Disabilities Bill.

I need some persuading that Heidegger's notion of 'mood' offers insight into these situations which is not available to someone who has not had the benefit of studying Heidegger. Or maybe I just need to be persuaded that Heidegger would regard the examples you have given as paradigms of what he is talking about.

The example of the teenager who finds everything 'boring' seemed closest to my reading of Heidegger. Wittgenstein expresses a similar thought in the 'Tractatus', 'The world of the happy man is a different one from that of the unhappy man' (6.43). In the case of the Orange Order marches, or our attitudes to people with disabilities, much is accounted for by entrenched systems of belief. For example, the wickedness that Protestants perceive in Catholic 'idolatry', or the Catholic's view that Catholicism is the only true form of Christianity (my wife is Catholic).

In the case of the teenager's boredom, there are no beliefs or prejudices that you could challenge. As you imply, the more you bang on (boringly) about how 'riveting' you find some issue, the more it merely confirms the very perception that you are trying to dispel.

I have a student who has suffered depression following the death of his wife from cancer. It is evident - and he has accepted this - that in our discussions of the problem of other minds, his mood somehow renders the philosophical considerations redundant. Stanley Cavell talks of the problem of other minds as 'not scepticism, but tragedy'. This is another attempt to gain a handle on something which is central to philosophy yet seems - in certain 'moods' - beyond rational discussion.

I am not denying that this can be applied to the issues of religious difference and to the disability issue. Perhaps all I am saying is that the role of mood is shown in sharpest relief when questions of 'belief' are seen to be clearly redundant. Of course, the very fact that the phenomenon of mood is universal gives us every reason to believe that it is manifested no less in these cases than in the examples of boredom or depression. I am only saying that the political examples are not the one's you would choose if you were trying to persuade a sceptic - because there are or seem to be alternative, less theoretically 'loaded' explanations available.

Let me make an attempt at digging deeper at the disability issue - see how this works for you. I fatally pranged my last car - a nice example of a Ford Capri - about five years ago. Various reasons prevented or dissuaded me from becoming mobile again. My life is simpler, easier without the worry, finance is a problem and so on. Also, I tend to be an absent-minded driver, the incident was my third or fourth in as many years.

Cars appear to me now as 'glorified invalid carriages, running on smelly petrol'. I find it funny how few people notice the similarity.

Well, imagine a race of alien beings who were born with wheels. An adult alien can travel hundreds of miles at high speed with its family on its back. Aliens who lose their wheels are regarded as severely disabled, reliant on others to transport them around.

These are perceptions. There are no true or false 'beliefs' that you could identify in either case. We can agree on all the facts, including the threat posed to the environment, the health advantages of walking and so on. Nor is it a question merely of subjective 'attitudes' or 'values'. It is a matter of different worlds. 'The world is different for the driver from that of the non-driver.'

I suspect that similar points could be made about disability, for example, in relation to attitudes to the paralymics, or employment legislation - or advertising. I have yet to see a wheelchair bound actor in an ad for washing up liquid.

All the best,