Tetheredness and intentionality

I have outlined above my understanding of the essential structure underpinning the identity of the questioning being regardless of the particular meaning-clusters each individual accrues. Whether for example you’re Black and learned, a woman and decisive, Albanian and shy, creative and disabled. Identity is derivative of intentionality that both expresses, and attempts to fulfil, a primordial desire for significance and capacity for purpose singular to each individual questioning being.

Each life accrues its own meaning cluster

Each life accrues its own meaning cluster

Maximum grip

Maximum grip

I have also noted that one’s identity-sense, registered throughout one’s embodied being is that of an existential audit, what might be expressed as operative, both tacitly and explicitly, in a manner resonant with Merleau-Ponty’s ‘maximum grip’. I, in my whole being, in an intersubjectively intentional engagement with the world, seek to harmonise in order to maximise meaning, the shared human world with those aspects of the Lifeworld I appropriate for myself.

In due course I explore in more detail the thwarting of an individual’s efforts to achieve this optimal alliance with its own Lifeworld and the world of the other, showing that one’s identity is revealed most specifically in the human experiences of enforced-waiting and of exploration. The thwarting of my intentionality towards the world, and its consequent realignment, brings home to me who and what I am. Here however I wish to consider in more detail the profound tetheredness to the world that the questioning being is necessarily constrained by.

Cyclones and floods are most commonly disasters

Cyclones and floods are most commonly disasters

The questioning being is, as Heidegger has shown, embedded in the world. But this does not of course merely mean that we are dependent upon air to breathe or the light of the sun for warmth, though certainly our physiology and the world’s physics combine to set the parameters of our lives. Fundamental to the Landscape of Being is a mandatory human ‘thrownness’ which must nevertheless be appropriated authentically for oneself. Heidegger goes further however. The questioning being is tied to the foreground Lifeworld, so calibrated to the world that even its questioning protests are derivative of that world’s concepts and imperatives and tied to its empirical background because hurricanes and floods are rarely mere ‘natural phenomena’ and far more often ‘natural disasters’.

Heidegger explores this human tetheredness as correlative to our concernful dwelling and Care. We dwell in the world tethered to it in concernful moods that commit us in some way to relationship with it. Like it or not, the questioning being, even as it interrogates existence finds already that it has taken a stance, pre-empted questioning, and taken the plunge concernfully this way or that. ‘In having a mood, Dasein is always disclosed moodwise as that entity to which it has been delivered over in its Being; and in this way it has been delivered over to the Being which, in existing, it has to be.’[1] The world, which it has not chosen nor constituted, does indeed matter to the questioning being because of the ubiquitous ‘state-of-mind’ or affectedness[2] which accompanies its every move. Every world-moment is of potential significance and is potentially purposeful.

Thus in Being and Time Heidegger explains that ‘The entity which is essentially constituted by Being-in-the-world is itself in every case its there…’.[3]  In the fundamental interestedness or ‘state of mind’ of human living  ‘Dasein is always brought before itself and has always found itself, not in the sense of coming across itself by perceiving itself, but in the sense of finding itself in the mood that it has’.[4] Far from providing an existential compass for life without bias, an unfettered Sartrian freedom, or an aloof Husserlian forensic, Heidegger can be read as saying that my deseverant-directional-and-concernful bearings in the world are tethered to my Lifeworld and its binding commitments. I look to the world to provide significance for me, to serve my purposes… as if it were obliged to do so.

The questioning being displays the character of ‘not being closed off’, but this means that the world neither furnishes existential co-ordinates I can steer my way dispassionately by, nor does it touch me not at all. The background of the empirical world, forces its way into the foreground of my life, through what Merleau-Ponty has alternatively described as its motivations. I am as evocatively tethered to the world as is my shadow to me.

Even as I shake my fist at the situatedness of my life I reveal the very situatedness of my life more distinctly; ‘the disclosive self-attunement’ that one’s moods exemplify, echoes Heidegger’s observation that ‘Dasein’s capacity to encounter objects as ready-to-hand involves grasping them in relation to its own possibilities-for-Being.[5] Nevertheless, in being tethered to the world, to employ a different metaphor, whilst I jump and twist as a kite does with the wind, I am vividly disclosing the potency of that wind. Heidegger prompts us to see that the concernful tetheredness of the Subject to the world evokes a disclosure of how the world really is when one is tethered to it.

Can one remain aloof from the world?

Can one remain aloof from the world?

Just as Merleau-Ponty has prompted an acknowledgement that motility is prior to rational comprehension of the world, so Heidegger is insisting that one’s ‘moods are thus ontologically prior to any form of mental directedness’.[6] Given that this is the case, ‘a mood-less Dasein would not be Dasein’.[7] The ancient Stoic tradition, founded by Zeno, whilst committed to social involvement, nevertheless advocated a disengaged rationalism and a fatalist contentment which somehow renders human life less human due to its tidy denial of tetheredness to the world.

What does this mean for human identity? Let me illustrate this firstly in terms of a person’s identity-sense and then secondly in terms of person’s identity construed as an accretion of meaning prompted by the desire for significance and capacity for purpose I have delineated above. Inevitably tetheredness clothes human experience in moods or states of mind. Some moods, such as anxiety, may be construed as more fundamental than others because their prompt ‘is nothing and nowhere’[8] and they are indicative of the structure of being in the world. If this is indeed true, then fulfilment and discontent are equally moods of this fundamental kind. My illustrations will consider these moods more closely.

Being is coloured by mood

Being is coloured by mood

Let me suppose that I am shaving before leaving for work. I teach in a school with intelligent, amiable students and an interesting programme of learning. If I look back over the course of my career I can as easily experience fulfilment or discontent regarding the course that career has taken. I may see the lines of age in my face as indicative of maturity or alternatively of encroaching incapacity. I may regard my morning weariness as justly indicative of the toll exacted by the ‘rough and tumble’ of teaching or as a reluctance to ratchet up the effort for another day’s work. I may conclude that I should be fulfilled in my responsibilities, with my good results and steady employment, yet at the same time regard the tenseness in my body as a negativity that belies my reasoning. Perhaps some other unnamed aspect of my life is robbing me of fulfilment; I may wish for a simpler life, fear I am neglecting my role as a father, or feel I am misunderstood by my employers or the public. Indeed perhaps it is just the grey leaden sky outside the window that draws from me an enigmatic sigh. The audit of my life, such as it is, endeavours to find significance and purpose, and weighing it, however tacitly, is of import for my identity- sense.

The reader may however wish to take issue with this and argue that I have overlooked a significant aspect of Heidegger’s account of the unique mood of anxiety. According to Heidegger, anxiety renders the entities of the world of little relevance, in doing so it brings forward the worldhood of the world and its extensive possibilities and yet also discloses to us the groundlessness of our ultimate choices[9].   I argue that these characteristics are shared by discontent and fulfilment too; as a result of the former for example, one may no longer find the lure of foreign travel exotic and long instead for home; one may finds one has amassed a fortune but sense it is a hollow victory and feel unfulfilled. Alternatively fulfilment may cause one to no longer find the lure of further travel exotic and so one decides to settle down wherever they are abroad. Likewise, it may cause them to feel fulfilled in their entrepreneurial efforts and no longer sense the need to ‘burn the candle both ends’ in pursuit of wealth. In my view fulfilment and discontent fulfil what Heidegger has identified in anxiety and more. Let me explain.

The Lure of exotic travel

The Lure of exotic travel

If I have left my home country because of a purposive desire to see other cultures, or because I wish in some indeterminate way to acquire significance by it, I may at some point feel discontent with life and consequently, mistrust further aspirational hopes. As a consequence I might come to the conclusion that my ambitious or adventurous plans are ungrounded and arbitrary; ‘In future I’ll go where the wind takes me’. This is however only part of the story. Beneath the judgement that one’s decisions are in fact groundless is an auditing of one’s attempted harmonisation of appropriated meaning and its validity in terms of significance and purpose which is indicative of an expectation that significance or purpose is to be found. The fact that one returns a negative verdict on the meaningfulness or significance of some choice or other does not mean that significance is no longer the issue; it means that the desire for significance has not been fulfilled or its tension with one’s capacity for purpose has not been resolved. Discontent and fulfillment are consequently prompts that are ‘nothing and nowhere’ and are equally indicative of the structure of being in the world as that of an essential questioning.

Heidegger aligns the mood or state of mind of anxiety with the realisation Dasein has of its finitude. The inevitability and ownness of one’s death is disclosed in anxiety. ‘Dasein’s mood can bring it face to face with the thrownness of its ‘that it is there’. But the state-of-mind which can hold open the utter and constant threat to itself arising from Dasein’s ownmost individualized Being, is anxiety’. Anxiety then, is the reality check that puts one’s possibilities and the finitude in which one can realise them into proportion[10]. But this is not all. Heidegger uses the term significance to denote that which is an authentic disclosure of what is for the being that cannot help but care about the outcome. Death brings home the true significance, he implies, of the choices one is to make, choices that would otherwise be ungrounded. In my view discontent and fulfilment reveal the questioning being’s yearning that the outcome of one’s life might not be in vain.

This individuation of one’s choices on the basis of signification found in the inevitability of death assumes that the disclosure of significance is a means to authenticity and resoluteness in Dasein. As one scholar puts it, ‘Mortality is behind our sense of finitude, and the recognition of finitude is what first makes some things matter more than others’.[11] It has been argued that because of the limitations of Dasein’s ‘future projection of possibilities’, Dasein can avoid that indecision whereby ‘every set of possibilities would be open to it and this would mean that nothing would stand out for Dasein as significant’.[12] Whilst I do not deny the focus that finitude brings to one’s choices, I do not accept that the paucity of time one has, in which to accomplish a range of projects, is alone sufficient to render some projects more significant than others. All things being equal I am not likely to build a cathedral out of matchsticks nor do a Master’s degree in Crochet even if the threat of death were exceedingly remote or somehow not a certainty. Significance comes from somewhere else. In my view Heidegger’s discussion of Being-towards-death conflates the justification one needs for one’s choices with the provocation one needs to get on and choose. As death is approaching I am not assisted in my choosing by the tyranny of the urgent but by the enrichment or functionality my choices offer me.

Mortality and finitude: Cambodia's Killing Fields

Mortality and finitude: Cambodia’s Killing Fields

It is my contention that essential to the questioning being is the desire for significance and capacity for purpose that identifies the threat death represents to this quest, and whilst death conveys a sense of urgency, it is the primordial drive I have posited which reveals the significance of this fact. If my identity is an accretion of meaning that I must appropriate from my Lifeworld possibilities then that which is significant for me may be to accomplish my favourite projects before death; it may be to prepare for death; it may be to escape into the anaesthetising distraction of ‘the they’ in denial of finitude; it may be to welcome death as the very significance I seek. Fundamental to all these and other outcomes of Being-towards-death is the disclosure that the human being cares whether life has significance and successful appropriation of that which offers significance promises authenticity.

Let me in conclusion return to my discussion of the tetheredness of the questioning being in relation to singular identity. I remember returning to school to teach on 12th September 2001. My father had died peaceably after mowing his lawn just three days before. I and my students arriving back at school had spent the previous evening watching in horror as financial workers in New York had plunged to their deaths from the twin towers, or travellers had alerted their loved ones by phone, to the fatal hostage situation on their airline flight. My professional concern as a religious studies teacher was to allow the students a safe place in my lessons in which to get to grips with the catastrophe.

In manifold ways my state-of-mind was tethered to the world; my multi-faceted mood was indicative of the complexity of my identity. And, whilst I understood professionally the necessity Heidegger speaks of for us to ‘master’ our moods, I saw that each person in the classroom was in touch with a ‘primordial kind of Being’ which ‘disclosed us to ourselves’. My identity as a Westerner was expressed in outrage at those who had instigated this wanton waste of human life, whilst as a theology graduate I had some sensibility of the mind-set that regarded as offensive the aggressive consumerism and moral permissiveness attributed to the USA. As a Christian I lamented the loss of life there, some insufficiently mourned; I understood why the USA might be targeted. As a bereaved son I felt respect for the brave people who faced their death courageously, and relief and gratitude that my father had died with dignity three days before. As a teacher in front of various classes that day I was mindful that some anxious students had parents caught up in the tragedy and others had strong revengeful emotions evoked by the terrorist attack; I sensed that I was professionally accountable for the way that I managed their lessons. My multi-faceted, even oscillating, state-of-mind was interwoven with the significations and purposes of all these intentionalities.

The 12th September 2001 was a highly charged but fruitful teaching day profoundly tinged with sadness. In so many ways I was tethered to the world and to cut myself adrift from these powerful moods would have been to deny my humanity. I would furthermore, have been unable to assist my students responsibly and sensitively without this anchorage. The recursivity of these events furthermore was evident to me in the way that I experienced a catharsis regarding the loss of my father and a closeness to my students based on the sharing of a common humanity; indeed my identity-sense of fulfilment during that challenging teaching day depended upon some kind of successful harmonisation of the aspects of my identity whose moods I could not fail to experience. Embodied intersubjective intentionality is tethered to the world in which it is necessarily embedded.


[1] Heidegger, M. BT, (Trans.) John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson, Malden, Blackwell Publishing, 1962/2006, 173

[2] Malpas, j. Heidegger’s Topology, Being, Place World, Massachusetts, The MIT Press, 2008, 99. Malpas notes that whereas Macquarrie and Robinson translate ‘affectedness’ as ‘state-of-mind’ Stambaugh translates it as ‘attunement’.

[3] Heidegger, M. BT, ibid, 1962/2006, 171

[4] Heidegger, M. BT, ibid, 1962/2006, 174

[5] Mulhall, S. Heidegger and Being and Time, Abingdon, Routledge, 2005, 77

[6] Hans-Pile, B. Affectivity, in A Companion to Phenomenology and Existentialism, (Eds.) Hubert L. Dreyfus and Mark Wrathall, Malden, Wiley-Blackwell, 2009, 245

[7] Hans-Pile, ibid

[8] Heidegger, M, BT, §40, 231

[9] Hans-Pile, B. ibid, 246

[10] Heidegger, BT, ibid, §53, 311

[11] Couzens Hoy, D. Death, in A Companion to Phenomenology and Existentialism, (Eds.) Hubert L. Dreyfus and Mark Wrathall, Malden, Wiley-Blackwell, 2009, 283

[12] Malpas, J. Martin Heidegger, in (Eds.) Robert C. Solomon and David Sherman, The Blackwell Guide to Continental Philosophy, Malden, Blackwell Publishing, 154


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