Mood, Shades, and Hues: Aesthetics and the Phenomenology of Emotion

Yi Chen

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“IN THE RIVERS north of the future/ I cast the net, that you/ haltingly weight/ with the shadows the stones have been/ writing” (Atemwende, Breathturn). This poem, composed by Paul Celan (1920-1970), the acclaimed German language poet, conveys an emotional attachment to the world, indeed, a voice tuned by silence. The silence might be heavy, the shadows seem to be dark, and the mood is perhaps somber. But all of these features are not necessarily negative. I see a similar theme in the work of the Japanese essayist Junichirō Tanizaki (1886-1965), who praises shadows in a perceptive description of the walls in a traditional Japanese house: “[...] if we are not to disturb the glow, we finish the walls with sand in a single neutral color. The hue may differ from room to room, but the degree of difference will be ever so slight; not so much a difference in color as in shade, a difference that will seem to exist only in the mood of the viewer” (“In Praise of Shadows”, Tanizaki, 2001, p. 30). Encountering both texts, I wonder, how is “mood”, embodied in shadows, experienced as a concrete phenomenon? And how is it expressed as a lingering emotion? Indeed, are we talking about a subtle phenomenon of nature or is the subtlety a web, woven from human relationships? Philosophically gazing at shadows, the natural world and the human domain are inevitably intertwined, but are they analogous or contradictory to each other, and how to go about mapping such complexity in terms of relationships and fissures between the natural, the humane, and the cultural? Finally, how could such delicate and intricate phenomenon guide our ethical and aesthetic existence in this world –– could there be the possibility, once again in history, that philosophy would provide us not only with a hope, but also with a sense of wonder that we do not only exist, but truly, happily and beautifully live together? A recent study sets out to understand emotions as “manners of thinking” (Berninger, 2016), focusing on how emotions affect cognitive activities. Indeed, this study helps us to understand to what degree emotional modes of thinking (happily or sadly) will influence the consequences of our perception and cognition. However, emotions in such studies are only referred to as “occurrent, short term” (ibid), and therefore widely considered as a topos of psychology. On the other hand, the “long-term” emotions, or we might say, mood, have been discussed as an ontological concept in the 20th century phenomenological tradition. Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) developed an existential philosophy based upon his conception of “mood” (Stimmung), which influenced Hermann Schmitz’s (1881-1960) new phenomenology of “Atmosphere” (Atmosphären), and the contemporary phenomenologist Klaus Held’s theory of “Fundamental mood” (Grundstimmung) within the context of our living world. Recently, the Japanese phenomenologist Tadashi Ogawa modified this European-phenomenological line of thinking through an Eastern Asian perspective, from which he proposed a “phenomenology of wind” (Ogawa, 1998). Our philosophical approach to mood is not confined to any single type of emotion such as happiness, anger, or sadness, nor does it describe a short occurrence. We perceive mood as a complexity of emotions with hues and shades that involve the Husserlian “time consciousness”, modified and re-shaped through time-being, i.e. space and location. By discerning and analyzing such intricate relationships, we will re-encounter the phenomenological world as understood by the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961), developing an inherent connectedness, sometimes expressed as fissures and gaps, through analyzing both literary, artistic and philosophical works, as well as life experiences. Rather than concluding moral principles, we will continue our journey by engaging in a conversation with the East Asia traditions setting out from the proto-Shinto world view, and explore the unique aesthetic phenomenon wabi-sabi, which, throughout the history up to the present, was able to transform and merge traditional ideas of the ethics of respect into daily routines. Though wabi-sabi as an aesthetic idea may be ephemeral and floating, whimsical and intangible like antelopes’ traces, the essence of our cultivated self is indeed expressed in every single step of our daily life, embodied in everything we encounter. Wabi-sabi embraces the phenomenon of shadows and constitutes an important aspect of our phenomenological study of emotion. The purpose of this paper is to examine our personal wonder on how such lived experience can turn to joy, and constitute the foundation of our immanent being, and raises an open question, whether it is possible and desirable, for each one of us, to experience, and even to live according to such an emotionally integrated ethical-aesthetic principle.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages3
Publication statusPublished - 2019
Event6th Annual Conference of the European Philosophical Society for the Study of Emotions (2019) - University of Pisa, Pisa, Italy
Duration: 10 Jun 201912 Jun 2019
Conference number: 6th


Conference6th Annual Conference of the European Philosophical Society for the Study of Emotions (2019)
Abbreviated titleEPSSE
Internet address


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