The Doxic Status of Atmospheres

Ola Sigurdson

The Doxic Status of Atmospheres

Mats Rosengren’s Doxology and New Phenomenology


Ingår i: Shadows in the Cave. Revisiting Mats Rosengren’s Doxology. Erik Bengtson, Karl Ekeman, Mirey Gorgis, Louise Schou Therkildsen & Alexander Stagnell (eds.), Retorikförlaget 2022.
Artikel s 107-122

Om skribenten

Ola Sigurdson är professor i tros- och livsåskådning, Institutionen för litteratur, idéhistoria och religion, Göteborgs universitet. 0000-0001-8031-1471



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In the so-called new phenomenology, the concept of atmosphere has gained prominence as a way to understand existential experiences of spatiality or the intersection be­tween self and world. In this essay, I wish to engage with Mats Rosengren’s doxological theory of knowledge to inquire about what it would mean to have knowledge of these atmospheres. I will also ask whether doxology undertheorizes the passivity of the subject affected by an atmosphere as well as the ‘quasi-objective’ status of the atmosphere. To do this, I begin with a short, impressionistic account of experiences of atmosphere to clarify what kind of experiences or phenomena this concept refers to. Then I introduce how new phenomenology understands atmosphere, particularly what it means when atmospheres are suggested to be ‘quasi-things’. Finally, I engage with Rosengren’s doxology in relation to atmospherology, suggesting that it elucidates what I call the doxic status of atmospheres, but that it needs to be more distinct about whether and, if so, how we as human beings can be affected by something outside of ourselves.


Atmospheric Impressions

Arriving at Paddington Station in London on the Heathrow Express, as I usually do when I take the early morning flight from Gothenburg, I feel enclosed by a certain mood of anticipation. Paddington Station, like most railway stations, could be understood as a kind of portal where my existential comportment is transformed from a state of travel into a state of being a visitor to London. With its arched glass ceiling, iron columns, and transepts, it is no wonder that it has been designated, along with other similar railway stations, a ca­thedral of the Victorian era. Like a cathedral, it offers an experience of voluminous space, as well as being a horizontal (rather than a vertical) threshold between different existential comportments. The experience of its spacious interior is not an experience of space only, however, but also of the rawness of the air, of the smell of coffee and dirt, of the sound from the loudspeakers announcing the next departures, of all the other passengers surrounding me hurrying to their destinations, of all the associations of this historic depot, and of the anticipation of my visit to this historic, cosmopolitan city. It reminds me of other railway stations visited, like Kyoto’s huge and hyper-modern travel and shopping complex, or the somewhat messy impression of the central station in my hometown of Gothenburg, but then mostly as a contrast. What makes Paddington Station unique – in the sense that each and every railway station, even the most mundane, could be said to be unique – is its own particular atmosphere or mood. Its atmosphere is brought forth by the material edifice of the station as well as the commotion on its platforms as they make an impression on my senses when I exit the train and enter the station. It is not just a matter of being in the mood for a visit to London; it is what I encounter, as something seemingly exterior to myself, when I enter the station, as something that puts me in the mood for a visit to London.

There are atmospheres of many kinds, not just those that characterize various railway stations. Some are related to atmospheres in the meteorological sense. Imagine me sitting at my office desk in February writing this text while the rain and wind hammer at my ­window. Then imagine Mats Rosengren sitting outside his French maison at l’heure bleu sipping un petit apéro. These are radically different atmospheres, but they are both dependent upon specific localities and situations even though they are not reducible to these localities and situations. Unfortunately, it is not enough to imagine myself sharing a drink with Mats in Beaumes-de-Venise to escape from the gloominess of February weather in Gothenburg, even though the thought of doing that on some later occasion might cheer me up. I really need to be there to have the actual experience. But I remain, for the moment, in Gothenburg, and my mood turns as gloomy as the weather, because of the weather.

Some atmospheres, as in my first example, have to do with specific buildings, edifices, or natural features, like a garden, a mountain, a sea, a church, a supermarket, a graveyard, or a stadium, while others are more related to time of day (l’heure bleu), season (spring), place (Beaumes-de-Venise), or history (the caves at Beaumes-de-Venise). Some overwhelm us, even confront us, while others barely announce their presence; some endure while ­others are more ephemeral or fleeting. Being embodied creatures, we human beings cannot but help being atmospheric creatures, as atmospheres are a way – or perhaps even the way, at least in a pre-reflective sense – that we relate to our environment. Even a purported lack of atmosphere, as in an airport or a hotel corridor, actually does feature this lack as an atmosphere in its own right. The boredom that we encounter when waiting for a connec­ting flight is at least in part caused by the sterility and repetitiousness of the edifice that we are waiting in. There is an abundance of atmospheres, and they affect us intensely. So how do we go about thinking about them?

Atmosphere in Phenomenology

As an introduction to atmospheres, I have in this impressionistic way tried to give an account of some of their experiential qualities. In philosophy, atmosphere or mood (Stimmung) has been a central concept in phenomenology’s attempt to understand human experiences of spatiality. An initial point of departure for phenomenology has been that space is not primarily experienced as measurable, geometric space, but as existential space. ‘Near’ and ‘far’, ‘up’ and ‘down’, ‘deep’ or ‘shallow’ are not just neutral designations that could be placed on a map; they all bear significance for one’s existential orientation. For phenomenology, spatiality’s primary or even true sense for human beings is not to be found at a third-person distance from the phenomenon, but in the first-person experience of being an embodied creature and therefore also a spatial creature. This means that human beings are embedded in space, not just as in a container but more intimately, as in a ‘third skin’. Phenomenology tries to give an account of this experience ‘from within’, so to speak. As embodied creatures, then, we human beings always already find ourselves in medias res, in spaces that are not just there but there in a way that is significant for us. Mood or atmosphere could be said to characterize this immediate experience of existence as significant and the way in which it is significant. Although it is, perhaps, an abstraction to speak of a pre-reflexive existence, it may help to think of mood or atmosphere as the way in which we orient ourselves in existence, before trying to make sense of it, through our sense impressions and our involvement in the world. Even the verb ‘orient’ here might, if this is so, be somewhat inadequate, as it seemingly ascribes active agency to the self, in which it supposedly operates more in a receiving than an acting mode. This does not make the self purely passive, however, but situates it more between active and passive, i.e., what is sometimes called the middle voice or mediopassive mode, where the self is both undergoing and acting upon the atmosphere.

There is no need to rehearse the history of the concept in phenomenology here, except for a few important points. Martin Heidegger used the term Stimmung (mood) in Being and Time and elsewhere, in a related way. It is through the fundamental mood of anxiety that the Dasein is disclosed. As Heidegger puts it, “[t]he mood [die Stimmung] has already disclosed […] Being-in-the-world as a whole, and makes it possible first of all to direct one-self towards something”. This use of the term was both continued and criticized by his student Otto Friedrich Bollnow who thought that Heidegger was reductive in suggesting that only anxiety could be understood as a fundamental mood; for Bollnow, who was also influenced by contemporary philosophical anthropology (e.g., Helmut Plessner, Max Scheler), there is a wide range of moods that are significant for human existence. For both Heidegger and Bollnow, however, it was important to recognize the distinction between feelings and moods. Feelings are more intentional, i.e., they presuppose an active subject whose feelings are directed towards something, whereas moods are more states that cha­rac­terize the self’s existence in its entirety and in which the distinction between ‘subject’ and ‘object’ is premature. In a related way, Walter Benjamin spoke of the ‘aura’ of the artwork as something that would be lost in reproduction, emphasizing its ‘here and now’. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, in his Phenomenology of Perception, spoke of atmosphere as that ‘in-betweenness’ that characterizes existence, i.e., the relation between something else and the self that at the same time sets the horizon for their relation. Elisabeth Ströker made a fundamental distinction between lived space, which is characterized by atmosphere and mood, and the observed space (der Anschauungsraum), which is characterized by measurability. I could go on.

The decisive step in making atmosphere a particular and extended object of ­phenomenological inquiry comes, however, from the so-called ‘new’ phenomenology, ­pioneered especially by Hermann Schmitz who in his monumental System der Philosophie dedicates one volume alone to Der Gefühlsraum (1969). Schmitz’s themes were taken up and developed by Gernot Böhme, Tonino Griffero, as well as many others, and it is this group of philosophers I will cite here when I speak of atmospheres. One ‘new’ thing in new phenomenology is the increased emphasis on how the self should not be understood in contrast to the environment; ‘old’ phenomenology and its privileging of intentionality, sometimes despite its own objectives, held on to a dichotomy between subject and object that obscured the phenomenon of atmospheres. Also, new phenomenology emphasizes how the self is an embodied self and a social self. Obviously, the newness of this ­phenomenological approach depends upon what kind of old phenomenology it is compared to, and whether it is as new as it claims need not concern us here. Better to turn to its claim that the phenomenon of atmospheres has been obscured by most if not all previous thinkers.

How has the phenomenon of atmospheres been obscured, according to new pheno­menology? Schmitz suggests that feelings have been understood as characterizing the inner life of human beings since Plato. It is an inherent trait of almost all Western philosophy. This interiorization of feelings is emphatically not true, however, according to new phenomenology. Some of the reasons for this I have tried to show through my impressionistic introduction to this text: atmospheres affect us as if from outside, since they can alter our mood when we enter them, whether we want them to or not. And even if or when we manage to resist them to some extent, they still are experienced as an external force somehow calling upon us. In the modern understanding of feelings as something subjective and internal, if we still insist on our experience of atmosphere as of something external to us, this is just a projection of our inner feelings onto something external. The rain and wind hammering on my office window evoke in me a sinking mood, but that mood is just my projection of feelings onto the indifferent weather. It is, in reality, not the weather that is gloomy but me. Schmitz, however, thinks that this is getting things the wrong way round: the weather envelops me in a gloomy atmosphere, and to suggest that my likewise gloomy mood is only subjective is an example of what he calls ‘introjection’. It is we ourselves who think that feelings are subjective and therefore regard atmospheres as projections; in real life, atmospheres take hold of us or claim our attention before we can relate to them subjectively, and therefore the ascription of feelings to our psyche is an introjection. To understand what new phenomenology means by atmospheres, we need to start by taking a look at how it understands the relation between atmospheres and us.

To begin with, in the experience of a particular atmosphere, our agency is secondary to our reception – understood according to the middle voice or the mediopassive mode – of it. Or to put it otherwise, the ‘me’ is more fundamental than the ‘I’; saying ‘the weather affects me’ more accurately describes one’s experience of rain and wind on the office window in February than ‘I am affected by the weather’. Not only am I affected by the weather as the receiver of its atmospheric impact, against which I can only defend myself in a derivative act of will, according to this way of putting it. I am also ‘there’ to be affected in first person, as actually present to the weather (behind a window, fortunately). The ­weather affects me and puts me in a glum mood, as a kind of intransitive state or dispo­sition, before I am able to intentionally direct my thoughts to something cheery, like Mats sipping un petit apéro at Beaumes-de-Venise, so as to lighten my mood. This can also be described in spatial terms: it is as if my surroundings become narrower because of the awful weather and my self contracts into itself, but at the thought of un aperó under sunny skies, my surroundings as well as self begin to revive. Thus, the atmospheres produce – in the sense of ‘bringing forth’ – spaces, not geometric spaces but affective spaces. These spaces are not just internal to me, but in some way external, as they can affect me and alter my mood before any conscious intention of my own. At the same time, however, they are not completely independent of my pathic perception of them. There might be different degrees of involvement here. Böhme, for instance, has distinguished between the atmos­pheric and atmosphere, with the former being more ‘objective’ (the feeling of l’heure bleu in general) and the latter more ‘subjective’ (what l’heure bleu means for me). It would not be improper to speak of an ‘atmospheric competence’ that is both innate and habitual to describe this ability to sense, recognize, and react to the atmospheres that surround us.

One way of understanding how atmospheres relate to us and we to them would be to say that ‘they’ and ‘we’ are entangled in each other to the point that the distinction between ‘them’ and ‘us’ is secondary if not inauthentic. Discursive articulations of atmospheres – like this one – always come, in a sense, too late, as they must distinguish to be able to articulate what atmospheres are all about. This ability to distinguish is, of course, not necessarily a disadvantage, as it helps us get hold of atmospheres to the extent that we could begin to critically evaluate them and possibly also avoid being overwhelmed by malignant ones. Think of the aesthetic manipulation that took place during the rallies of the Third Reich as well as the “aesthetic capitalism” (Böhme) that currently tries to stage every part of our lives. Not all atmospheres are benign, to say the least, so a critical evaluation of atmos­pheres might be necessary. At the same time, reflection on atmospheres may remove us from them and their impact to such an extent that it might support the illusion of our distance from and independence of them, as well as ignore the ‘synthetic’ quality of our perception of them. But this is not necessarily so: a description of atmospheres such as a philosophical account or, even more, a work of fiction – a novel or a poem – might evoke them in our minds or even in our felt bodies. This means that our entanglement in them is not a matter of either/or but rather a sliding scale: neither autonomy nor heteronomy but something in between (I will return to this matter below). Given that any textual account can be or is, in itself, part of a particular atmosphere, as in a research library where we become conscious of our own engagement with the text being read, the cognitive distance from our experience of atmospheres is never absolute. In a way, we are never free from the atmospheric conditions of our existence, even when we try to articulate them. Even though some atmospheres will not ‘survive cognitive penetrability’ of the kind that makes a critical distance possible – as in the story “The Emperor’s New Clothes” by H.C. Andersen – this distance is always, so to speak, a distance from within some atmosphere, one that we currently inhabit.

This also means that our articulation of what we see, what we hear, what we smell, what we sense, and what we taste, as in my example of Paddington Station, in which I sense the smell of coffee and feel the raw morning air on my skin, to some extent always deals with abstractions. An articulation of this kind is an abstraction from an experience in which such distinctions between the senses are not absolute and that, therefore, have a ‘syna­esthetic’ quality in which they all bleed into one another. The experience of sipping wine at Mats’s maison, the example to which I for some reason keep returning, is not an experience of drinking wine, sitting in the sun, and enjoying Mats’s company, as discrete entities perceived one by one, but is an experience of all of them together – as an atmosphere, in other words. This does not mean that ascribing one’s impressions to different senses is inauthentic, such as for a moment concentrating on the taste of the wine, just that the full and undivided experience of the atmosphere is fundamental even for this concentration and therefore influences the taste of the wine. As Nicola Perulli puts it, “[t]here is no essence of wine because wines exist only through concrete experiences where lines, traces, nodes, and relationships with someone who will subsequently drink them emerge, as, for example, on this May evening.” It is the warm and convivial atmosphere at the maison as a whole that sets the scene, and the wine would probably not taste as good if I had a glass alone at my office desk in rainy and windy February. Some – or maybe even most – atmos­pheres, however, do derive their character from a few particular signs that stand out from their background. As a cultural convention, the petit apéro signals conviviality and relaxation, and it may well be that its presence or absence gives a hint of the kind of atmosphere that characterizes a particular situation. That one can speak of a fullness of the atmos­pheric experience does not mean, on the other hand, that this is an experience of a massive and undifferentiated sense impression. Atmospheres are often complex entities, and to articulate them well in language, our renderings need a fair bit of nuance.

Atmospheres as Quasi-Things

I just used the word ‘entity’ about atmospheres, and after this brief outline of a phenomenological understanding of atmosphere, I now address one of the main questions that are the focus of this essay, namely, what kind of entities atmospheres are. I chose the word ‘entity’ to use a word that is quite general, but in new phenomenology this question is addressed as the question of whether atmospheres are ‘things’, i.e., the ontological status of this phenomenon. From my outline of atmosphere in phenomenology it is quite clear, I hope, that phenomenology treats these phenomena as distinct entities. They have their own particular character, and it is a character that we can perceive. Even if their character is, per definition, fleeting, they come in innumerable varieties, and it makes no sense to ask where they come from or where they go when they are gone. Nevertheless, they do exist as phenomena in a way that goes beyond mere mental figments. There is an intersubjective quality to them, as we can enter the same atmosphere by entering an edifice characterized by a certain atmosphere (I think Paddington Station has the atmosphere of anticipation, for example) to which we can relate in our individual ways, but nevertheless agree that we have partaken of it. But this intersubjectivity is not social only, but also material: even though it is in some sense a convention that an arched ceiling that spans a massive space induces a sense of being overwhelmed, this convention is materialized and transmitted through material means. Atmospheres are not independent of either sociability or materiality. Their existence is characterized by a certain ‘in-betweenness’ in that both the self and its environment are necessary but not sufficient conditions for it. Atmospheres charac­terize the relation between embodiment and spatiality in a lived sense.

The preferred way of speaking about the ontological status of atmospheres among the new phenomenologists is as ‘half-things’ or ‘quasi-things’. Atmospheres are, in the same sense, ‘half-objective’. Against the privileging of solid things that are tangible and well-determined or abstract things like numbers in all Western thinking since Aristotle, new phenomenology suggests that a quasi-thing like an atmosphere “fully coincides with the ‘character’ of … [its] appearance”, as Tonino Griffero puts it. Atmospheres exist as phenomena and not as physical or mental entities independent of the way that they appear; the space they occupy is not geometric space but existential space. Unlike things, which are not exhausted by their appearance, quasi-things cannot change without losing their charac­teristics and therefore also their existence. When l’heure bleu turns into night, it just is no longer l’heure bleu but late evening or even night. It is time to go home; the at­mosphere is gone. Thus, l’heure bleu ceases to exist, which does not mean that it cannot return tomorrow, without its being meaningful to ask where it was in the meantime. But quasi-things are still not just secondary qualities of more solid things; they act, in that they affect us, and they have properties, in that they affect us in a certain way, while they last. This does not mean, as I have mentioned, that quasi-things exist independently of physical or mental entities or of geometric spaces, but nevertheless they are irreducible to these. To use language somewhat foreign to this philosophical tradition, quasi-things exist in that they insist: they affect us, overwhelm us, and assault us against our intentions. If there were no quasi-things, the world, as Schmitz says, ”would be cold, faded and boring”. The world – in the sense of our environment – would be alien and mute if there were no atmospheric qualities to it, but this is not how we generally experience it, if we are not depressed or catatonic. On the contrary, our relation to the world is often experienced as filled with resonance, in that we are in tune with it (or even out of tune with it) in a way that transcends a mere causal relationship. Our relationship to the world is experienced as living rather than instrumental.

Atmospheres, in other words, exist, but not in the way things exist, but as quasi-things. What is significant here is of course not the claim that they do exist as some kind of entity, because there are many ways in which entities can be said to exist, but the way in which they exist. The insight that new phenomenology wishes to put forward concerns the way in which they exist, their mode of existence. And the mode of existence peculiar to atmos­pheres is, to summarize, that of quasi-things, which means that they exist between purely interior states, on one hand, and the qualities of ‘proper’ things, on the other. They are ­neither just private – which is the main polemical front for the new phenomenology – nor a function of things, but have their own distinct mode of existence. If this is so, then we may also ask in what way they are known, and my suggestion is that the particular mode of knowing that corresponds to the particular mode of existence of quasi-things such as atmospheres is doxic. This finally brings us to Mats Rosengren’s understanding of doxo­logy and its significance for atmospherology.

Atmospherology and Doxology

To begin with, it is evident that the mode of knowledge characteristic of atmospheres is what we could call embodied knowledge. We experience atmospheres mainly through our embodied participation in them. To really know what it would be to share un petit apéro with Mats during l’heure bleu we must actually do it. Of course, I can imagine what it would be like, as I have shared one or two aperitivi with him in the past, and thus have some experience in the field. But it would not be knowledge in any profound sense of this particular situation unless I participated in it through actually being there. Nevertheless, we can also reflect upon our participation in these situations, and, in some sense, we always do, so that our reflection is also part of the situation. The knowledge I am interested in here is, thus, not the kind of profound and intimate knowledge that we have of the world through our immediate participation in it, but the dimension of that participation that consists in our cognitive reflection on it. The emphasis on embodied presence in phenomenology’s talk of atmospheres should be understood as a critique of the separation of thought from life, but it would be an exaggeration to think of this embodied presence as devoid of reflection. On the contrary, our sensory impressions of a situation, for example, a sunny afternoon, are always already intertwined with our memories (individual and collective) and anticipations of other similar situations, and not least our reflection on them, or else we would not be able to relate to them in our experiences. The dimension of our experiences of atmospheres that we could call knowledge, in this sense, and that makes us able to reflect on and reminiscence about that sunny afternoon, is also part of the experience of that situation. This does not mean that we take leave of the atmospheres so as to reflect on them from some other, exterior point of view, devoid of all atmosphere.

This knowledge, it seems to me, could be understood as doxic knowledge in Rosengren’s sense. Why? Rosengren describes doxic knowledge as knowledge distinct from the ideal of epistemic knowledge, which would be a knowledge of something “eternal, unchanging and objective” (Rosengren ascribes this view to Plato). A prominent characteristic of epi­stemic knowledge is its claim to take a position external to the object of knowledge, as in Plato’s famous parable of the cave. Unlike epistemic knowledge, doxic knowledge does not claim to be able to leave the cave: “We should not try to get out of our human cave, but work on getting to know it even better”. Doxic knowledge, further, has a social character in that such knowledge belongs to a collective of human beings before it is also a property of a single human being. Even though logos is a name for this doxic ability as a capacity of every human being, it is indeed something that one is born into through culture and language and that forms us before we form it. Of course, we do form it through participating in it, but the participation is primary. A longer quotation from Rosengren summarizes doxic knowledge quite well:

In and through logos we give names and images to our sensations, perceptions and experiences so that we can speak and think about them; logos is our guide when we act in and upon the world. At the same time logos and doxa [constitute] something (that is not thing-like at all) that we are born into and formed by in and through habits and rituals, and that we in turn shape and re­shape.

Here, and elsewhere in his account of doxic knowledge, Rosengren emphasizes how logos is part of our perception of and orientation in the world of our experience that makes ‘thinking and planning’ possible as well as being “an ability to make relevant distinctions in ‘the stream of experience’”. Logos presents doxa to us, but not as “thought to reveal reality as it is in itself, but reality as it appears to us humans”. Doxa, then, is decidedly and unavoidably related to us as human beings.

Rosengren’s doxology seems to work quite well to explain how our reflection on atmos­pheres takes place within the atmospheric experience of our environment as a dimension of it: through logos we can “speak and think” about “our sensations, perceptions and experiences”, as he put it the longer quotation above. The suggestion in the same passage that both logos and doxa are things that are “not thing-like at all” might even suggest that they in themselves would amount to something like quasi-things. I hesitate to suggest that this is the case, however, but prefer to speak of doxic knowledge as an aspect or dimension of the experience of atmospheres. In some cases, it might certainly be correct to speak of the atmosphere of doxa, as is indicated in the expression ‘the spirit of inquiry’. But as logos accompanies much of our sensing, perceiving, and experiencing, and also is that which helps us orient ourselves in the world, I think it is better to say that our knowledge of atmospheres is doxic. If epistemic knowledge pertains to the ‘eternal, unchanging and objective’, then obviously this is not the kind of knowledge we have of the fleeting phenomena called atmospheres. Nor do we have knowledge of atmospheres from a position wholly outside of them, which would be the case with epistemic knowledge. Doxic knowledge is, according to a concept Rosengren uses and that I will return to, ‘anthropomorphic’ knowledge. And as atmospheres also are ‘anthropomorphic’ in that they are what they are in relation to us human beings as much as to the non-human environment, it makes perfect sense to say that our knowledge of them also is anthropomorphic. How could it be otherwise? With the help of Pierre Bourdieu, Rosengren further emphasizes the aspect of power that characterizes doxic knowledge in a way in which the phenomenological reflection on atmospheres may find some needed resources for further reflection on the critical distance from malignant or oppressive atmospheres.

In sum, knowledge of atmospheres is, as doxology makes clear, first of all practical knowledge that helps us orient ourselves in atmospheres in thought and action. As such, it is a dimension of the atmospheres themselves. Second, such doxic knowledge can also help us achieve critical distance from specific atmospheres. Third and finally, such critical distance can also help us towards a more theoretical knowledge of atmospheres in systemati­zing them and trying to describe their nature as far as this is possible. But this theoretical knowledge – if that is even a correct way of describing it – can never become an epistemic knowledge, as that would presuppose a more static, thing-like existence on the part of the atmospheres, and a more external, third-person perspective on the part of the knowing subject. If this is so, then it is no wonder that atmospheres will always be a matter of contention. That we will not necessarily agree upon the character of a particular atmosphere would not need to mean that it is therefore only subjective, but that knowledge as such does not work that way, especially when it is knowledge of atmospheres that are neither eternal, unchanging, nor objective, but rather fleeting, appearing and disappearing, and quasi-objective (whether ‘proper’ things are as stable as they might seem is another ­matter). Explaining why this is so is not the least insight doxology can share with atmos­pherology. To paraphrase Rosengren, we should not try to avoid atmospheres, but work on getting to know them even better.

Doxology, Anthropomorphism, and Anthropocentrism

Let me now turn to another matter about which I think that atmospherology raises a philosophical problem that has not yet been sufficiently treated by doxology. What role do objects or objectivity play in doxology, and how does doxology conceive of the relation between activity and passivity in the knowing subject? I think that both things and quasi-things share a certain objectivity, not in the epistemic sense, but as ‘things’ that are not just a quality of our minds or of our shared doxa. They provoke experience, even if they are not predetermined answers, to borrow a phrase from Perullo.

In a chapter on Ludwig Fleck’s ‘comparative epistemology’, Rosengren points out that the Polish biologist and physicist criticizes a bipolar understanding of knowledge in favour of a process with three factors: knowledge is about not just the knowing subject and the object of knowledge, but also “the social, historical, practical and discursive epistemic situ­ation having formed and continually forming the actual knowledge of the individual”. The discussion of Fleck gives rise to an emphasis on how the perception of the object of knowledge is never purely passive. Even if it appears to be an entirely passive relation on the part of the knower in relation to the object, as the object seems to be ‘simply there’ and ‘real’, nevertheless the human act of knowing is still a relation in which “one participates with one’s body, knowledge, competence, imagination and so forth creating the very objects of perception” (my italics). We do not just passively receive the objects of know­ledge but actively create them through our perception; moreover, we are seldom aware of how active our act of perception really is. This means that what we take for objective reality is not something that imposes itself upon our perception, but something whose status outside of this active relation of perception itself is precarious. The objects we perceive are what they are within a particular doxa – or what Fleck thinks of as a ‘thought collective’ – that we belong to and that by far exceeds any individual knowledge. Therefore, they are objective only in relation to this collective and not in any absolute sense. According to Rosengren, there is still reason to speak of ‘objective reality’ in the sense of something that puts up a certain resistance to our acting and thinking, but this is only an ‘objective reality’ within a particular thought collective.

There is much to be said for Rosengren’s use of Fleck for understanding how perception as well as science works, but one thing I find curiously underdeveloped is the third factor in Fleck’s understanding of knowledge, the object. In the sentence I just quoted, Rosengren uses words such as ‘creating’ in relation to objects of knowledge. His whole emphasis lies on how the act of perception is more active than we usually think; doxa prejudges what we perceive so that the object is not as absolutely objective as it may appear to us but only rela­tively so. But how we understand Rosengren’s doxology depends upon how we interpret the creative contribution of the thought collective. Is this contribution strong or weak? If it is strong, this would mean that there is, again, only a need for two factors in the process of knowledge: the knowing subject and the doxa that influences the subject, with the latter taking the place of the object in an epistemic understanding of knowledge. What we get is a kind of linguistic idealism in which the objects only seem to put up a relative resistance. But perhaps ‘creating’ should be understood in a weaker manner, so that the doxa is a condition of possibility of all our understanding of objects, but does not exhaust, so to speak, what there is to be known?

I think the latter version is the version of doxology that Rosengren tries to defend. For example, he raises, again in relation to Fleck, the question of whether the scientist should not learn “to perceive the unexpected”, and immediately answers that yes, this is the ideal, but seldom the case. But if this is so, at least in principle, if we, in our exploration of, say, cave art, astrobiology, or German literature, can be taken by surprise, then it seems to me that this presupposes something that imposes itself upon us that is not entirely of our own making, an exterior to our doxa, whether as an image, an alien, or a text. This something is what I mean by object here: that which resists all our attempts to incorporate it uneasily in our own cognitive orbit, be it a thing or a quasi-thing, and that therefore is not created by us. Having the ability to be taken by surprise presupposes, I think, three things: that our doxa or thought collective is not hermetically sealed against any outside; that our perception can encompass a genuine passivity, not in contrast to but alongside the active aspect of our perception; and, finally, this third factor that we call an object.

This is also, I think, what Rosengren suggests in taking up a distinction from Peter Gärdenfors between sensation, perception, and imagination. In short, sensations are signals to our organism from the world, perception is a preliminary representation of them, and in our imagination we incorporate them in our meaning making. At the same time, however, Rosengren is keen to emphasize that sensations, which we never experience purely, form a construct, and not any ‘Real World’ in the traditional sense. But as it stands, at least in Rosengren’s version, is this not merely a preliminary theory of objects? My question, coming from an interest in atmospheres, is whether there must not be some kind of ‘outside’ or externality with regard to the doxa if we are to be genuinely affected by them. Atmospheres, most clearly the kind of atmospheres that explicitly belong to a material edifice such as Paddington Station, are experienced in some non-trivial way as outside of and also operative on not only the knowing subject but also the doxa, and not merely a product of them. The atmosphere of Paddington Station is a quasi-thing, and as such, having a quasi-objective status with regard to the knowing subject and the doxa, it is also dependent upon Paddington Station as an edifice, i.e., a conglomerate of things.

At one point, Rosengren asks himself rhetorically, as a possible objection to his own position, “How can you claim to know that all knowledge is mediated, transformed and socially dependent in this way?” And I would add: How can you know that all sensations are constructions? Rosengren’s immediate answer (to his own rhetorical question, not mine) is that “nobody can know this, if by knowing we are still referring to some epistemic, neutral, objective knowledge”. To be sure, perhaps we can choose to think otherwise, that there really is some object that our perceptions perceive. But, as has been remarked in philosophy many times before, to draw demarcations on what is knowable is also in some way to transcend those very same demarcations. Put otherwise, the anthropomorphic character of human knowledge cannot claim to be either all-encompassing or all-sufficient if it is to avoid a linguistic idealism in which we as human beings cannot genuinely know anything other than our own selves. In Rosengren’s account of doxology, there is an emphasis on doxic activity in the act of knowledge as well as on autonomy in Cornelius Castoriadis’ sense (not subjective autonomy but the insight that the social imaginary is a human creation). This emphasis is understandable in relation to what he perceives as his polemical front, namely, a ‘platonic’ understanding of knowledge as the passive perception of an objective world that is just there. His critique of certain epistemologies of this kind is mostly well put. But it seems to me that this results in an undertheorizing of what kind of objectivity is still possible and perhaps inevitable if human beings should still be able to be surprised. I take it that the intention of doxology is not to control or dominate whatever there is, or could be, that is outside of our doxa.

Doxology, in the wake of much contemporary French theory, puts more emphasis on activity, effort, and intentionality, and less on passivity, intuition, and the pathic constitution of human beings. As Simone Kotva has shown, from Maine de Biran over Félix Ravaisson and Henri Bergson to Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, and Pierre Hadot, there is an increasing stress on philosophy as an activity at the expense of passive attention, as well as a tendency to regard activity and passivity as polar opposites. But what if thinking is more like swimming, a conscious effort to strive against the waves but that nevertheless is borne by the water? Then activity and passivity – as well as the knowing subject and the object of knowledge – could be seen as unavoidably and dialectically entangled in each other in a kind of mediopassivity. “For activity to be passive, it must receive something from beyond itself; it must be in excess of itself.” One reason for our contemporary stress on activity, according to Kotva, is that passivity is associated with ‘dispossessed agency’ – and Rosengren’s doxology makes precisely this association – but then it is forgotten that passivity is also characterized by “receptivity, openness, humility and wonder”, as in current ecological thinking, and not only heteronomy. In a more dialectical account of passivity and activity, they could hold each other in check, in which active critical effort balances the passive attention in a never-ending process.

It seems to me that such an understanding of philosophy as Kotva’s would not need to take leave of doxology, but could be understood as an emendation of it. Rosengren is quite right, I think, to point out that all human knowledge is anthropomorphic and thus does not immediately and in any naïve way correspond to the way things are in and of themselves, independent of us. But does that really preclude that the objects – whatever an object is – affect not just human embodiment but also the doxic dimension of our cognitive faculty, in excess of this faculty itself and its historical and social conditioning by doxa? Is there not, in doxology, a remnant of a certain neo-Kantianism in its emphasis on the autonomy of doxa? Does such a remnant not mean that the anthropomorphic character of doxa turns into an anthropocentrism in which we would, so to speak, be confined to our own doxa? Yes, change is possible, and in the transformation between different doxai, the gaps between them highlight the precarious nature of human knowledge as well as enable something new to appear. But if these transformations also appear to be less major than a paradigm shift, would that not include the possibility of relativizing the hegemony of the reigning doxa because of what we perceive even on a more mundane level? Yes, knowledge is in some sense immanent, but are the immanence of human knowledge and the transcendence of objects really polar opposites, if human immanence cannot be said to be absolute and hermetically sealed? Yes, “thinking and doing are interdependent”, but so are thinking and doing in relation to passive attention. What I am suggesting is that doxology has so far been dominated by an implicit logic of either/or that threatens to undermine some of its own best insights. It needs to come to terms with the experience of being affec­ted by something, for example, an atmosphere, that is in some sense external to ourselves and our reigning doxa.

Atmospherology and Doxology Once More

In all our experience of the world, whether it be a visit to Paddington Station or to Mats’ maison at Beaumes-de-Venise, atmosphere is an aspect of this experience without which it would not be humane, perhaps not even human; our human talent of almost intuitively grasping the atmosphere of a situation that we inhabit is an important skill for making do in our human world. One reason for this is that atmospheres affect us as if from the outside – not independent of our perception of them, I hasten to add, but then again not solely as a kind of self-suggestion – hence, their status as quasi-things. Doxology, it seems to me, puts due emphasis on the social character of the accompanying dimension of knowledge in the perception of atmospheres, but perhaps less on the embodied and medio­passive character of this perception. At times, it seems to acknowledge the latter in seeing doxa as a medium of human knowledge, but at other times it hovers precariously between knowledge in an active and a passive sense.

No doubt the final word on the matter is still to be said, but I conclude this engagement with atmospherology and doxology with yet another image of the particular atmosphere of sharing a glass of wine with Mats, engaging in yet another round of discussion of doxo­logy. One of his academic talents is the ability to create an atmosphere of conviviality around serious intellectual discussion. I am sure he is aware of how well this has affected his colleagues, friends, and students. In his own praxis, then, good atmosphere precedes any discussion of doxology, and his doxology invites such atmospheres without any urge to control them. Doxology could be instrumental in our reflection on how this could be the case, but even before developing his doxology, I am sure Mats Rosengren had know­ledge not only of how to have a good time but also of how to share a hospitable atmos­phere with his colleagues, friends, and students.


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Professor i tros- och livsåskådning, Institutionen för litteratur, idéhistoria och religion, Göteborgs universitet.

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