Phenomenological Psychology

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Odysseus’ Moods

July 8th, 2007 by David Kronemyer · No Comments


It isn’t possible to have any “new” insights about the Odyssey. It still may be possible, however, to juxtapose the views of other original thinkers in a novel way that illuminates Odysseus’ character. Such was Hubert Dreyfus’ accomplishment in his recent lectures entitled “Man, God and Society in Western Literature” at U.C. Berkeley. Dreyfus proffered an interpretation of the Odyssey characterizing each stage of Odysseus’ journey as a separate “world,” governed by a god with a particular “mood.”

Dreyfus’ account readily is derived from Heidegger’s concept of “background” and the role played by gods in focusing a culture’s practices. This being so, Dreyfus only considers the ontological aspects of each of Odysseus’ worlds. Dreyfus is predisposed to dismiss as “ontic” anything that smacks, however remotely, of psychologism. While this instinct is correct, the problem is, in a way, subtler. Because “ontic” can be interpreted in a way that does not implicate Dasein’s “mood,” or “the unconscious,” or other (for Heidegger, at least) mental gobbledygook. Rather, Dasein’s ontic aspect is the nature and scope of, and extent to which, Dasein iterates, instantiates, and inculcates the ontological temperament of the culture in which Dasein is-in-the-world. Such an ontic account of Odysseus’ travails not only complements that offered by Dreyfus, but also is consistent with Heidegger (oh yes, and Homer, too).

I. Odysseus’ Peregrinations

In Spring 2007, Professor Hubert Dreyfus of the University of California at Berkeley presented a class entitled, “Man, God and Society in Western Literature.” Dreyfus’ starting point was Homer’s Odyssey – one of Western literature’s canonical texts. Homer’s main theme, said Dreyfus, is the interaction between gods and men. The “gods” in this case are the Olympic pantheon; “men,” the Greeks and the Trojans, and, in particular, our erstwhile protagonist, Odysseus.

The main characteristic of the Olympian gods is their “mood” – a certain attitude, or disposition, or outlook, most characteristic of each one of them. Each god is the exemplar, or paradigm, of a particular mood. For example, Ares, the god of war, is bellicose; and Aphrodite, the goddess of love, is erotic.

Dreyfus continued, each stage of Odysseus’ journey back from Troy can be thought of as a separate “world.” A world need not be a unique, spatialized environment. Rather, it comprises a disclosive space, establishing the ways in which things “show up” for those in the world, and offering possibilities for action. Each world has its own roles, and equipment.

Each world also is the domain of a god. And, when one enters a world, one falls under the applicable god’s influence, or mood. “Mood” therefore shouldn’t be thought of psychologically, and certainly not in a trivial or whimsical sense. Rather, it’s an ontological characteristic of the applicable world. It entirely determines that world’s tenor, or tonality. For example, when Odysseus lingered with Calypso, whose world was governed by Aphrodite, he became wholly eroticized, to the exclusion of other moods, until Zeus sent Hermes to instruct Calypso to release him.

This has an interesting side-effect, in that it exculpates the actor from personal or moral responsibility. Because of mood’s influence, there is a profound sense in which the actor does not control, or is not “in control of,” what he or she does. Helen, for example, may have “caused” the Trojan War, but it wasn’t her “fault.” The reason why is she was within Aphrodite’s purview. She ran off with Paris, under the spell of erotic love, but this entails no moral culpability. She remained “peerless among women,” and Menelaus evidently was happy to have her back, a decade later, none the worse for wear.

The Trojan War must have been awful. It resulted in the destruction of a culture and thousands of deaths, one of whom was Iphigenia, Menelaus’ niece. Nonetheless, what transpired simply was “something that happened” – a functional outcome of the culture’s belief in its gods. Had the culture believed in different gods – or even believed in the same gods, but with different attributes – the outcome would have been different. Consider, for example, the Oresteia. Aeschylus relates events ostensibly occurring during the same approximate time span, yet it was written several hundred years after the Odyssey, and has a completely different deistic outlook.

Once under the influence of a mood, you’re not expected to remain there forever. Unless of course you’re the sponsoring god, you’re not “in love” (Aphrodite) or “at war” (Ares), all the time. However, you can’t choose where you’re going to, next (though, as illustrated by the Calypso incident, it may be possible, to some extent, to decide when you’re going to segue out). Odysseus’ entire voyage, in fact, illustrates the futility of using a map, or even having a sense of direction. Where he landed next entirely was up to the gods (or, at least, out of his hands).

As corollary, one can’t “choose” to be in a particular mood, or “will” oneself out of it, once in it. That too is up to the god of the particular world where you’re at. In this sense, a mood also is a powerful constraint on freedom, or choice. Since it is tied to a particular god, who in turn is tied to a particular world, one must be prepared to leave that world, in order to escape the constraints of its associated mood.

Homer’s pluralism, or polytheism, consists in the fact he doesn’t prefer one mood over another, or rank them hierarchically. In fact, he doesn’t judge them, or even compare them. For Homer, the Cyclops have every bit as much of an entitlement to be in their world, as the Lotus Eaters do, in theirs.

II. Enter Heidegger

So what are we to make of all this? As with all matters Dreyfus, the starting point is Martin Heidegger. What we might characterize as the “Cartesian view” is that moods are some kind of an interpretive filter through which we see the world. Take a camera, for example. If you put a filter over the lens, it affects the texture, brightness, or color-balance of the resulting picture. Now imagine you are the camera, what you’re taking a picture of is “the world,” and emotion is the filter over the lens. Change the filter, change the appearance of the world, it’s that simple.

Heidegger rejects this approach. Rather, for him, moods comprise an integral part of what he calls “the background,” enabling us to make sense of the world, to begin with. Without them, the world isn’t intelligible, or for that matter even recognizable as “our” world. To go back to the camera, there is no world to be seen without use of the filter, it’s an essential component of the camera itself (and the camera in turn is an item of equipment integrating its user with the world).

“Moods … give sense to Dasein’s world and to the manner in which Dasein finds itself relating to the world. Dasein always ‘belongs’ to a world, which is first disclosed by background ‘moods’ as a significant whole in which Dasein dwells,” Ratcliffe 289. [“Dasein” is the name Heidegger gave to the entity who is being-in-the-world and for whom the question of the “meaning of being” is foremost – not only “who am I?” but also, “what is it for something (anything) to be?” to begin with.]

One consequence of being-in-the-world is, we are “attuned” to the ways in which things and ways of acting matter to us. We are “always finding ourselves already affected in some way or other … The specific way we are affected is experienced as mood.” Mood “performs the ontological function of opening a world,” Dreyfus, H. & Hall, H. 12.

At this point, there are several different directions in which we might turn. “As Heidegger uses the term, mood can refer to the sensibility of an age (such as the romantic), the culture of a corporation (such as aggressive), the temper of the times (such as revolutionary), as well as the mood in a current situation (such as the eager mood in the classroom) and, of course, the mood of an individual,” Dreyfus, H. & Hall, H. 12.

I would like to focus on two of these senses of mood. The first is what Dreyfus and Hall characterize as “the sensibility of an age.” The second is what they refer to as “the mood of an individual.” The main reason why the character of Odysseus has remained vibrant throughout the history of Western culture is because Homer successfully distilled or synthesized these two perspectives.

III. Public Moods and Cultural Sensibilities

“Public moods or cultural sensibilities” played the decisive role “in establishing the succession of clearings that make up the history of being in the West. … [T]hey make history possible by giving everything that shows up a certain tone which thought then seeks to articulate,” Dreyfus, H. & Hall, H. 12. We might call these congeries of meanings “background practices,” because they “provide a background understanding of what matters and what it makes sense to do, on the basis of which we can direct our actions. … [a space] in which things and people can show up as mattering and meaningful for us,” Dreyfus 351.

But where does the clearing come from, and why does it matter? Not surprisingly, the Greeks are key to unfolding these relationships. By “Greeks,” Heidegger means pre-Socratic Greeks – say, around the time of Homer. They were the first, says Heidegger, to experience the “astonishment, the fundamental mood of the first beginning.” It “struck and dazzled them,” Haar 168.

According to Heidegger, the single most important thing for these Greeks was the temple. It was their clearing, because it “held up to the Greeks what was important” and “manifested and focused” their practices. The Greeks “lived in a moral space of gods, heroes, and slaves, a moral space that gave direction and meaning to their lives,” Dreyfus 353.

But the temple was far more powerful than this. “Religious” or quasi-religious issues were not its only domain. The reason why is, the Greeks’ “practices for seeing and dealing with the temple attuned in a specific way their practices for dealing with virtually everything else in their world,” Spinosa 210 (emphasis added). The temple, and its divinities, were “the ones who give things and situations their feel.” They controlled “the way things appear … affectively.” They revealed or disclosed “how things and people matter in attunements or moods,” Spinosa 214. They “determine every essential affective disposition from respect and joy to mourning and terror,” Heidegger 106. The gods held such authority over the Greeks’ lives, because they manifested what they shared. “Since such a cultural paradigm … creates and sustains their world, it will fill them with love, pride, respect and devotion,” Spinosa 211.

“Attuning” is a way of making sense of experience – “the coming into an appropriate mood for making sense of things and people,” Spinosa 209. Since it sounds like a musical term, maybe the best way to think of it is when an orchestra settles into tune around an A note played by the lead oboe before the start of a symphony concert. Although the analogy isn’t perfect, think of the temple as being the oboe, and the Greeks as being the rest of the players in the orchestra. Getting “in tune” – so important if the orchestra’s going to sound remotely right – only can be facilitated through the intervention of the catalyzing figure of the oboe. So the attunement of a society around a cultural paradigm only can be facilitated through the intervention of a catalyzing figure.

A “god” in this sense is extremely powerful. It takes over “whatever perceptual material is available in order to express the power of the feeling of a particular situation,” thereby controlling the “affective aspect of common meanings.” In this way it can “transform states of affairs,” Spinosa 224. “Perceptual material” in this context might be sounds, or the intensity of light. The “affective aspect of common meanings” is the way a group of people understands or comprehends the perceptual material. The “god” is the one interacting with the people – focusing and directing their attention, through skillful adaptation of the perceptual material. To me, at least, this seems a lot like what a compelling orator does, or even the feeling of catharsis inspired by the enactment of Greek tragedy.

Furthermore, “When a god brings his or her energies to bear on something, the god changes the force or kind of its affective character,” Spinosa 219. “The divine beings have a power on a human or even animal order such that their looking at a situation can transform it,” Spinosa 220 (emphasis added). Imagine, therefore, an object in the world – a “thing,” if you will. The god’s power is so strong that, like a latter-day alchemist, it can transubstantiate the thing’s properties, or, at least, the way in which the thing is regarded. For me, an obvious analogy is Christian communion, where the bread and water literally are thought to change into Christ’s flesh and blood, upon the priest’s (minister’s) intercession.

These are powerful attributes indeed. The presence of gods focuses us “on the way things gather us to them, the way they draw us to regard them with a certain attunement,” Spinosa 216. And this is how Odysseus came to be affected by them. He was drawn in by the mood of each world he encountered, as if caught in a Star Wars-like tractor beam. “[T]hings draw our attention with looks that act as affective solicitation. … This solicitation determines the mood in which we will be disposed to act and the strength of our disposition to act,” Spinosa 217. Odysseus thus is a practical illustration for the Greeks of their own relationship with their gods (in much the same way Jesus is the ontic incarnation of the Christian god). Odysseus is someone they can understand, and appreciate, from their own perspective. “For Heidegger’s Greeks, change in the look of things or in our attunement occurred when a god him- or herself looked at the thing – brought his or her energies to bear on it – or when a new god looked at it differently,” Spinosa 219. Which is exactly what happened to Odysseus, each time he bravely entered into a new world.

IV. The Mood of an Individual

Dreyfus told his listeners it was important to eschew a “psychological” interpretation of Odysseus, but he didn’t say why. His request we do so seems inconsistent with his other comment that one of Heidegger’s senses of “mood” was the “mood of an individual.” Isn’t “mood” is the sort of thing psychology is, or should be, about?

I think there’s a way to clear up this confusion. Dreyfus only considers Odysseus in his capacity as a feature-revealer of the worlds he visits. He rejects interpretations of Odysseus depending for their sufficiency and vitality upon concepts like motive, intention, ambition, or aspiration – all psychological traits or characteristics. The reason why seems clear enough – these have nothing to do with the background practices (the “clearing”) of Homeric culture.

Just because we’re not particularly interested in psychological interpretations, though, doesn’t mean we need to reject the perspective of Odysseus himself. But instead of considering, say, his unconscious motivations, instead we need to view him as the iteration or instantiation of his culture’s ontological preferences. In Heidegger-ese, we must adopt an “ontic” perspective (“ontic” is a Greek-derived Heidegger word meaning concerning specific beings, as opposed to ways of being in general).

Thus, when Odysseus falls under the spell of a “mood,” it doesn’t mean he develops a psychological condition originating within himself, or his unconscious thoughts and feelings. Rather, he is an instrument, or a vessel, for the expression of the will of the god of the world he inhabits, however transiently. He is, if you will, in a mode of being-towards, or even reverence for, that god.

And it is this attention to divine temperament that in turn assures Odysseus’ continued existence. “The primary reason that he alone survives the ordeal of the wanderings while all his men perish is that he most unfailingly honors the warnings and instructions of the gods,” Bloom 19. First and foremost among these was Athena, who protected him from, mainly Poseidon. The terms of such a contract are remarkably simple – you believe in me, and I’ll go to work for you. If you stop believing in me, on the other hand, then I’ll no longer exist, so I won’t be able to do you much good.

Such a contract also is found, among other places, in the covenant Yahweh made with Moses on Mt. Sinai. The ancient Israelites “had promised to worship Yahweh alone … and, in return, he had promised that they would be his special people and enjoy his uniquely efficacious protection,” Armstrong 23.

One aspect of the deal for Yahweh is that the ancient Israelites stop worshipping all of those other pesky gods who were hanging around, in particular, Baal, the resident god of Canaan. You can tell this was a material term of the contract for Yahweh, because his part of the bargain is phrased in suggestive terms such as “fidelity” and “loyalty.” “God will never, in the course of the Bible, accept in so many words any obligations imposed upon him by mankind. However, he will impose obligations upon himself in function of those he imposes on mankind and, by this process, he will move out of the realm of the purely arbitrary and into the realm of the bounded and lawful,” Miles 121.

Although he was thinking about the ancient Greeks, and neither Odysseus nor Moses, Heidegger came to the same conclusion. “Just as, for Heidegger, being depends on man so does divine power,” Spinosa 212 (emphasis added). “[T]he temple did not do its work in isolation,” Spinoza 213. Rather, it depended on the reciprocal interaction between the divine and the mortal – if you will, between the ontological, and the ontic.

Seen in this light, the reason why today’s culture does not believe in gods, or believes in them less, is simple. Like Merlin taking leave of Arthur’s Camelot, they simply have withdrawn themselves, because we stopped believing in them. In other words, “our practices do not let us see attuning. We are the ones who are killing the gods,” Spinosa 211 (2000). If this had been Odysseus’ outlook, he’d be in a big bunch of trouble, that’s for sure.

V. Disapproved Psychological Perspectives

Like I said at the beginning of this essay, many people have given this topic a whole lot of thought. Richard Caldwell, for example, wrote an entire book entitled The Origin of the Gods – A Psychoanalytic Study of Greek Theogonic Myth. Caldwell is prone to say things like, we should regard the Homeric epics “not as mythical versions of a cosmic reality but rather as cosmic symbols of a psychological reality,” Caldwell 128. The reason why the Greek myths resonate “is due to their derivation from the universal human experience, unconsciously remembered, of primal gratification, loss, and desire in earliest infancy,” Caldwell 131.

Caldwell’s account is not disinteresting, but not particularly explanatory, either. His big problem is, he cannot bridge the gap between those psychological factors impacting on a particular individual, and an iconic myth with cultural significance. The only way he would be able to do so, is by showing the specific author of the myth had certain psychological concerns, or was subject to certain psychological conditions, which in turn influenced the myth’s composition, either consciously or unconsciously, but probably the former. This depiction in turn resonated throughout the centuries with other similarly-situated persons, sharing similar concerns.

In other words, if Caldwell can show something like Homer’s father deserted his family when Homer was young, and child Homer was traumatized by the event and decided to write a story about it, in which search for a father is a prominent theme, then Caldwell would be entitled to start making psychological claims about the Odyssey. But he can’t – nothing against him personally – but it just can’t be done. And this is the main reason why “psychologist” readings of myths are inherently dubious – they are insensitive to the ontological-ontic distinction. It’s far more explanatory if we “move away from the notion of the subject” and “think about the forms that human societies take without rooting” the analysis “in the examination of individuals,” Mills 4.

It doesn’t even really make sense to think of the latter as a weird kind of metaphor for the former. Consider, for example, Norman O. Brown, who got himself concerned with reshaping Freud “into a wider general theory of human nature, culture, and history, to be appropriated by the consciousness of mankind as a whole as a new stage in the historical process of man’s coming to know himself,” Brown xi. Later, Brown claims “the bondage of all cultures to their cultural heritage is a neurotic constriction” and because of this, it “follows” that “a theory of history must embrace a theory of neurosis,” Brown 12.

Brown’s second proposition, however, does not “follow” from the first. In fact, it’s a complete non sequitur. More seriously, it’s difficult even to attach sensible meanings to the words he uses. The idea of Homer sitting around worrying about his mother and father may be amusing, but it doesn’t provide an adequate platform for analysis of the Odyssey.

Another offender is Joseph Campbell. In his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell analyzed what he called the “hero’s journey” – an existential voyage comprising several distinct stages. Odysseus, says Campbell, is the paradigmatic example of a hero on just the sort of quest he describes.

The significant thing about Campbell’s account is that it is all about the hero, and from the hero’s first-person perspective. It is the hero’s consciousness that is transformed by trials and revelation. The culture in which the hero lives – against which he throws himself – remains unperturbed by this interaction.

Heidegger would disagree completely with this approach. “There is no hero,” is what Heidegger would say, if by “hero” we mean some kind of a self-willed, self-created individual, embarked upon adventure, cast against an impervious world. Which seems to be Campbell’s model.

Instead, Heidegger would say, “A culture gets the heroes it deserves,” because the heroes are created by the culture, they are given meaning and definition by the culture, they focus the culture’s practices, and only can be understood against the culture’s web or matrix of background significations. The character of Odysseus certainly can be understood as an individual under the pull of powerful forces beyond his control – the moods of the gods. But that precisely is the ontic perspective of the ontological reality of the culture from which he emanated, and has nothing to do with self-centered concepts like “voyage of self-discovery,” “quest for personal meaning,” and the like.

Then there is Carl Jung and his theory of archetypes and the collective unconscious. Can Odysseus be understood as enacting an archetype, itself a manifestation of the “collective unconscious” (whatever that is)?

The answer is, “no.” As expressed by Jung, the collective unconscious does not “owe its existence to personal experience and consequently is not a personal acquisition.” Rather, it is “a second psychic system of a collective, universal and impersonal nature which is identical in all individuals,” somewhat like an instinct. It “is made up essentially of archetypes,” which are a kind of “motif” “present always and everywhere.” These in turn “have never been in consciousness and therefore have never been individually acquired, but owe their existence exclusively to heredity.” Jung 42, 43 (1968).

What Jung means here by “heredity” really is “evolution.” “Whereas Freud insisted that the unconscious mind was entirely personal and peculiar to the individual and made up of repressed wishes and traumatic memories, Jung maintained that there existed an additional phylogenetic layer (the ‘collective unconscious’), which incorporated the entire psychic potential of humankind,” Stevens 75.

As this description makes clear, Jung also is off-the-mark. While the terms “collective unconscious” and “archetype” certainly sound promising, their source turns out not to be the background of cultural practices, but rather, “evolutionary pressures” that “had determined the basic structures and functions of the human psyche,” Stevens 74. This, too, is a form of psychologism. It differs from Freud, only on the level of scale.

Another Odysseus-like voyage is that of Leopold Bloom in James Joyce’s aptly-named Ulysses. Fraught with Homeric allusion, Joyce essentially walks his players through each of the Odyssey’s worlds. But although its characters lead (and express) complex interior, emotional lives, it would be incorrect to characterize Ulysses as a psychological novel. Rather, in all of their brightness and vivacity, its characters best are understood as creatures of the time and world they inhabit, and they only make sense in that context. Unlike, say, Dostoyevsky’s characters, they are not “universal” in their motivations or pathos. Instead, they are “local” and “parochial” to the culture of Dublin, Ireland (and on a specific date — June 16, 1904). For this reason, I think Joyce should get the Heidegger-Dreyfus “seal of approval,” whereas Campbell and Jung are much more dubious.


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Bloom, H., Homer’s Odyssey (1996).

Brown, N., Life Against Death (1959).

Caldwell, R., The Origin of the Gods – A Psychoanalytic Study of Greek Theogonic Myth (1989).

Campbell, J., The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949).

Dreyfus, H., “Nihilism, Art, Technology and Politics,” The Cambridge Companion to Heidegger (2d ed. 2006).

Dreyfus, H. & Hall, H., “Introduction,” Heidegger: A Critical Reader (1992).

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