On the colorings and shadings of moods

The mood is heavy this morning. The window appears squeegeed with water. The rain clicks and thuds and thumps. Three pigeons in the birch tree hold themselves to a small branch tilted at an upward sloping angle. This morning New York City might as well be a trawler out at sea, caught in the midst of a storm.

Talk of a mood as being “in the air,” “in the scene,” or “in the day” gets things right, gets right the sense of something’s having come over us. A mood is never my mood because no mood lies or moves or dwells in the head. (Try to imagine where a dark mood resides. If you’ve put a mental X within the head, you’ve just failed this test. Try again. This time squint your mental eyes.)

In addition to the thought that moods are collective phenomena that come over us, we speak of moods as being those kinds of experiences that, when we go to describe them, invite us to draw from a wide range of elemental concepts such as color, weight, tightness, skin, etc. Consider some common examples:

  • During warm-ups, the team felt loose on the field.
  • The mood in the war room was tense.
  • Included in the playwright’s directions is a note about the scene being light.
  • Everyone in the organization had a dim sense that things were getting heavy.
  • Oh, the family is in a foul mood this evening, in a funk really.
  • As you might imagine, the mood at the cemetery was grim.

And so on.

What makes a mood a mood then? First, a mood is not something one does; it is indeed something that “comes over one.” Second, a mood has a basic tinting, coloring, shading, or weighing of some social setting. From the first and second consideration, it could be shown that moods have an “up” or “down” orientation, either drawing us upward (cf. loose, giddy, light, etc.) or pulling us downward (cf. tense, heavy, grim, etc). Fourth, moods pass at different rhythms, move from “up” to “down” and vice versa; moods, like seasons, pass over us (provided the social settings change). (I would not want to be living in Denmark right now. Sunless Denmark winters. Slumped shoulders and supine figures. A Nordic mood. A mood that stays for a while.)

Hence, moods could be described most accurately as those collective experiences that are, at best, intimated or sensed when we appeal to a certain subset of collective, elemental, embodied verbs and adjectives.

My interest in moods stems in part from a larger project whose aim is to help us overcome the Cartesian picture of mindedness according to which the realm of “the mental” dwells inside the head. On this picture, our problems also must reside within our heads. But this conception, despite our psychologistic and medicalized vocabulary which presumes as much, is sorely mistaken and sadly misleading. And it leads many to overextend blame and guilt concepts (it’s my mood for which I must be responsible) well outside their native dwellings and to think that this weird figure called the Therapist can help “treat” the “mental illnesses” that reside spookily within the skull

I can’t make this case today, so instead let me end, fittingly, with a joke. Two philosophers, J.M. Bernstein and Stanley Rosen, are sitting in a pub, drinking beer. Bernstein is a Hegelian while Rosen is a Platonist. Plato held that the Forms are the basic constituents of reality and, in a famous allegory of the cave, likened the Form of the Good to the sun. In the scene, Bernstein is animated, getting more and moreso as he speaks, Rosen all the while remaining serene.

Bernstein: “Dammit Stanley! When I ask you ‘where is mind?’ you point with your goddamn finger up toward the ceiling. No! No! And when I ask Freudians ‘where is mind?’ those assholes point at their goddamn skulls. But I’m telling you that mind is out here.” Bernstein, like a conductor or a calligrapher, traces his finger first between them and then about the room.

Bernstein laughs, Rosen smiles. The night is dark but the mood is getting lighter.