Research Group

World sense – between existential feeling and belief


This text provides a brief phenomenological account of the concept of world sense. To introduce this term, I first sketch out the notion of existential feeling, as well as translate the division of belief into explicit and implicit from analytic philosophy to phenomenology. Complementary to existential feelings, which are defined as ways of finding oneself in the world, I propose the concept of world sense as the experienced world one finds oneself in. I explain why I prefer the word to feeling or belief while maintaining that world sense shares characteristics with both. After providing a brief explanation of the common ground between existential feelings and world sense, I provide some further direction a phenomenological analysis involving the notion of world sense could take.

The essence and characteristics of existential feelings

There are states that colour the world in a more broad sense than emotions or moods. These states are referred to as existential feelings – “ways of finding oneself in the world” (Ratcliffe, 2005: 46). Existential feelings are related to emotions and moods, and sometimes overlap with them. But while emotions are directed at something specific (such as being angry at someone, or being afraid of something) and moods are generalised emotions, existential feelings encompass a broader, more general relationship with the world. Ratcliffe (ibid.) also describes existential feelings as “the feeling of being”, naming the feeling of being at home, the feeling of being in control and the feeling of being at one with nature, to cite but a few examples.

Existential feelings do not have intentionality. They are not about anything specific, are not directed at something or someone. Rather, they structure experience as a whole: “whenever one has a specific experience of oneself, another person or an inanimate object being a certain way, the experience has, as a background, a more general sense of one’s relationship with the world” (ibid.).

To elucidate on a previous example, feeling at home is not directed at any specific object, neither just the chair I am sitting on, nor just the room I am in. It is not just a sense of familiarity with my surroundings, or the feeling of safety I have when I am in this space, or the confidence I feel when interacting with the various objects I am used to encountering here. It is also not tied to a specific place. I can feel at home in the apartment I am currently living in, but also feel at home when visiting my parents, or feel at home in my home city, or feel at home at a friend’s house. Also, feeling at home is not an amalgamation of the above mentioned sense of familiarity, safety and confidence (which are but some of the many ways to describe feeling at home), but is a background feeling that structures experience as a whole.

Ratcliffe stresses that existential feelings are feelings in the sense that they are “bodily states which influence one’s awareness” (Ratcliffe, 2005: 46). In the context of Shaun Gallagher’s (2005) differentiation between ‘body schema’ (the body as a tacit background that shapes experience without being an object of awareness) and ‘body image’ (the body as an object of awareness which accessible to phenomenological reflection), Ratcliffe likens existential feelings to the body image in that they are a reflectively accessible part of the structure of experience, though he often mentions their role in shaping that structure.

Another characteristic of existential feelings emphasised by Ratcliffe is the experience of possibility. Connecting the notion of possibility to Husserl’s concept of the horizon, in that, for every experience of an object, there is a horizon of possible experiences connected to the present one. Ratcliffe gives the example of a cup, which seems to be present to us in its entirety, despite only one side of it being visible to us at any given time. We simply experience, along with the visible side, a horizon of possible perceptions of the sides not immediately visible to us. But possibility is not only tied to perception. We also experience the cup as having the possibilities for us to interact with it, it is something graspable, something with a certain texture or temperature. He draws a distinction between instances of possibility, such as ‘this cup can be touched’, and kinds of possibility, such as ‘tangibility’. “Existential feelings,” he writes, “constitute a sense of the kinds of possibility that the world offers” (Ratcliffe, 2012: 32).


Seeing how existential feelings shape my relationship with the world, do they also shape how I believe the world to be? Ratcliffe himself touches upon the topic of belief, asking himself whether beliefs might affect existential feelings and vice versa, though he uses belief as synonymous to conceptual thought. He comes to the conclusion that existential feeling does shape conceptual thought, and that conceptual thought is sometimes just an expression of existential feeling. Allowing for the possibility of conceptual thought affecting existential feelings, he points out a need for more clarification and elaboration on this point (Ratcliffe, 2012).

I would like to clarify that Ratcliffe’s conception of belief as synonymous to conceptual thought can be conceived as but one of (at least) two aspects of belief. Borrowing the nomenclature of analytic philosophy, I would talk of explicit belief and implicit belief – conceptual thought corresponding to the former. The terms stem from representationalism, which encounters the problem of a potentially infinite amount of discrete beliefs needing to be represented in a finite mind. To borrow Eric Schwitzgebel’s (2015) example: if I believe that our solar system has 8 planets, then I should also believe that it has less than 9 planets, and less than 10 planets and so on ad infinitum. This (easily generalizable) example alone would amount to an infinite number of sentences taking up an infinite amount of space in the believing mind. This problem is solved by introducing the term implicit belief, that is, a belief that is not explicitly represented in the mind, but can be swiftly derived from other beliefs (Schwitzgebel, 2015). Explicit beliefs, then, are beliefs already formed and articulated (aloud or not).

In phenomenology’s study on belief, Jeffrey Yoshimi (2009) all but applies these terms to his interpretation of Husserl’s theory of belief as consisting of two systems or levels: “a first, more fundamental level of embodied perceptual ‘horizons’ and passive synthesis, and a second, derived level of attentive focusing and active synthesis” (Yohsimi, 2009: 123). The first system, signified by the natural attitude and horizon expectations, could be likened to a system of implicit beliefs, while the second system, signified by “free volitional activity” (Yoshimi, 2009: 127, quoting Hua XXXI, p. 11; 2001, p. 283) and explication, could be interpreted as a system of explicit beliefs or conceptual thought.

In the realm of implicit beliefs, there is a phenomenon I consider similar to existential feelings, one that Ratcliffe himself alludes to in defining existential feelings as its counterpoint. Existential feelings being ways of finding oneself in the world, the “how” we experience our world, the form of experience. I would like to call attention to the content of experience, the “what” we experience, the world itself.

Experiencing a world

Husserl describes the experience of a world in his conception of the natural attitude as “a tacit belief in the existence of a mind-, experience-, and theory-independent reality” (Gallagher & Zahavi, 2007: 24). Ratcliffe refers to this as ‘sense of reality’ or ‘feeling of reality’: reality that is “incorporated into experience of the world as a whole, other people and even oneself. […] [It is] the everyday, taken-for-granted sense that things ‘are’ and that we are ‘in’ the world” (Ratcliffe, 2005: 51).

However, we do not only believe that a world is there, we also have a (more or less) firm conviction in what populates it – a holistic system of implicit beliefs about what those things we perceive are. But the world does not consist only of our immediate perception. In addition to the current object of experience, there is a context for it, a horizon of experiences connected to it. There are expectations regarding how the object might behave, there are possibilities for our interaction with it, or for how other objects (or subjects) might interact with it. There is a horizon of what lies beyond our current focus, a sense of the other side of the cup I am looking at, a sense of the room behind me, and a sense that all that belongs to a greater, bigger world ‘out there’, a world that functions according to rules, a world that is real, that is true.

I would argue that this belief or set of beliefs regarding the content of the world – what I shall call world sense for easier reference – is quite similar to existential feelings. The phenomenon I am describing does, in a way, adhere to both the definition of belief and feeling, yet slightly diverges from both.

Belief, feeling, sense?

That there is a world, what is in it and how it works can be understood as a kind of belief – as something I take to be true. Barring pathology, I generally do not doubt the reality of the world I find myself in. I unreflectingly take it to be true. In that way, the world I experience is like an implicit belief (or system of beliefs). But I would argue that it is much more than just belief – it is that against which all other beliefs are measured. Rather than it being something I take to be true, it is truth. When I consider whether a statement is true, for example, whether ice is hot or whether there is a pink elephant in my bathroom, I compare them against how I believe the world is. Upon checking with my world sense that ice is actually cold and pink elephants do not exist (and one could not have somehow found its way into my bathroom without me noticing), I judge these proposition to be false. However, finding that the consideration that grass is green is in accord with my world sense, I confirm that I believe grass to be green.

Seeing how my sense of what the world is like is that which I use to determine the truth value of proposition I consider, the truth value of this world sense itself is seldom questioned. Indeed, it takes very shocking information, pathology, or intense philosophical contemplation to really shake my belief in the reality of the world I am immersed in. Ratcliffe (2005) points out that the sense of reality can vary in intensity, allowing for things to seem unreal.[1]This might also be explained by a disconnect between the immediately experienced and one’s world sense, where the two no longer align. Though to confirm or deny this hypothesis, further study … Continue reading However, cases of doubting the reality or truth value of the world, or as Ratcliffe illustrates with: “it is the form of the real that is warped, as opposed to the specific contents of the real” (2005: 54), fall into the domain of existential feelings as opposed to the phenomenon in question.

In a way, it could also be described as a feeling, a bodily state which influences my awareness. Though, saying that the world I experience influences my awareness is a bit like saying the ground influences how I walk – it is trivially true. Most of the time, my attention is on the world (or some part of it) and becoming aware of something else takes effort and reflection (Depraz, Varela & Vermersch, 2003). It is, however, not the only thing that influences my awareness, the obvious examples being (existential) feelings, emotions and moods.

The world can also be considered as a bodily feeling – not that it is felt within the body, but through the body. To borrow Ratcliffe’s example: “Consider picking up a glass of water. It feels cold. But what is the ‘it’? The glass of water is what feels cold, rather than one’s hand. Awareness is not directed towards one’s own hand but towards the glass, which is felt to be smooth round and cold.” (2005: 47) But the body holds even more importance for the world, as what I perceive the world to be is shaped according to relevance to my body. What I experience is what Richard Dawkins refers to as “Middle World – where the objects that mattered to our survival were neither very large nor very small; a world where things either stood still or moved slowly compared with the speed of light; and where the very improbable could be safely treated as impossible.” (Dawkins, 2006: 412) Dawkins used the term to explain why the quantum realm and the grand scale of the universe are so hard to grasp for us, our Middle World is already different to the world of, for example, a water strider, for whom the surface of the water offers very different possibilities than it does for humans. The world I find myself in is thus a world that ‘suits’ my body, where, for example, what I cannot pass through is experienced as solid.

This ties in to the concept of sense-making, from where I take the word sense over belief or feeling. When Di Paolo, Rohde and De Jaegher (2010) introduce the term sense-making, they start with the argument that the interaction between an organism and its environment hold importance for the organism (with self-preservation as its goal). This creates a normative perspective on the world where some interactions or possibilities are more important than others (Di Paolo, Rohde and De Jaegher, 2010). Thus, organisms (or their cognitive systems) “cast a web of significance on their world […] and this is the definitional property of a cognitive system: the creation and appreciation of meaning or sense-making, in short” (Di Paolo, Rohde and De Jaegher, 2010: 39). So when I find myself in a world, it is a ‘Middle World’, a world of meaning and significance where what is too small or too big to be (evolutionarily) relevant for me to interact with is not perceived at all, for example.

Di Paolo, Rohde and De Jaegher (2010) emphasise that the organism is not just a passive recipient of information from the environment, which is then translated into internal representations and evaluated: “cognitive systems are simply not in the business of accessing their world in order to build accurate pictures of it” (Di Paolo, Rohde and De Jaegher, 2010: 39). Meaning is not an attribute of the environment that is discovered or attained by the organism, and neither is it something from within the organism that is reflected onto the world. It is the result of an on-going dialogue between the environment and the organism’s embodied action (cf. Varela, Thompson & Rosch, 1991). While this difference was already suggested in the quote by Dawkins, it is perhaps better highlighted by a quote from Heinz von Foerster:

“‘out there’ there is no light and no color, there are only electro-magnetic waves; ‘out there’ there is no sound and no music, there are only periodic variations of the air pressure; ‘out there’ there is no heat and no cold, there are only moving molecules with more or less mean kinetic energy, and so on” (von Foerster, 2003: 214).

To summarize, world sense is the sense that there is a world, what is in that world and how it works. It could be called a belief – I take it to be true – but it holds a special status in that it is what I use to determine whether something (else) is true. It could also be considered a feeling – it impacts my awareness (most of the time, in fact, it occupies it completely) and it is embodied, both in the sense that it is felt through the body and shaped for it. In the end, I opt for the word ‘sense’, connecting the phenomenon in question to the concept of sense-making. The world I experience is a world that has meaning for me and that is filled with possibilities.

Two sides of a coin: possibility

Possibility is where existential feelings and world sense largely overlap. While Ratcliffe defines possibility based on Husserl’s horizon as “further possible perceptions and actions” (2012: 29), he also emphasises that the horizon includes “ways in which things appear significant to us” (2012: 31). This is very similar to the notion of sense-making, though here it does not refer to us perceiving the Middle World as opposed to the quantum world, of perceiving heat as opposed to moving molecules with more mean kinetic energy, but to Husserl’s idea that our world is populated by ‘nature-Objects’, but ‘value-Objects’ – where “a hammer ‘matters’ in the sense that it is ‘practically significant in the context of a project’, and it is practically significant in the context of the project of building a shed because it offers the possibility of ‘hammering’” (ibid.).

As far as world sense is concerned, both instances and kinds of possibility refer to how the world works (for me), one more specific than the other. And although Ratcliffe (2012) argues that it is existential feelings that determine the kinds of possibility I experience in the world, these viewpoints are not opposed, since world sense and existential feeling are not as separated as strict categorisation might lead to believe. Kinds of possibility are as much a matter of the world I experience as they are of my relationship with it, so existential feelings affecting an aspect of world sense is not surprising.

Further considerations

What warrants further consideration is the relationship between world sense (as well as existential feelings) and explicit belief. I have proposed that, when considering a proposition and judging its truth value, one measures that proposition against one’s world sense for correspondence. Not only does this process need further and more detailed clarification, it might not even be an invariant. The process I described is based on my own personal experience. However, the limited second-person phenomenological research on this field that has been conducted until now suggests that there is great interpersonal and interinstitutional variance between each individual’s experience of explicating a belief (Klauser, 2017; Kordeš & Klauser, 2017). While this does not undermine the consistency of the concept of world sense as a whole, it does emphasise that the certain characteristics are still shaky. The aforementioned research also highlights the social aspect as another important factor in the explication of belief, suggesting that belief – perhaps even our world sense – might be influenced not only by existential feelings, but also by a drive towards agreeing with another person (perhaps someone we consider an authority).

Another interesting topic to pursue further is the relationship between world sense and fiction, as fiction oftentimes introduces us to worlds different (though not radically) from the one we inhabit. Would it be fair to say that fiction introduces a whole new world sense, or does it perhaps expand our everyday world sense? When I express my belief that Petyr Baelish poisoned Joffrey Baratheon (characters from A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin), how is that different from my belief that yesterday was cloudy? The relationship between fiction and world sense might also pertinent to the field of psychopathology in cases where the ability to differentiate between the two is lost. Additionally, fiction sometimes has an effect on existential feeling (I was among many whom the movies The Matrix and Inception left with doubts regarding the reality of the world I am used to experiencing on a daily basis), and sometimes even on world sense itself (my personal experience being a partial transformation of my world sense to feature a more expressed awareness of smells after reading Patrick Süskind’s Das Parfum).


In this text I have provided a rough sketch of existential feelings and transposed the distinction between explicit and implicit belief from analytic philosophy to phenomenology. Building on those two concepts, I have introduced a new idea of world sense, a phenomenon between existential feeling and implicit belief, opting for the word ‘sense’ in reference to the concept of sense-making. I have sketched out some differences and some similarities between existential feeling and world sense, as well as provided further possible considerations for this concept.


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1 This might also be explained by a disconnect between the immediately experienced and one’s world sense, where the two no longer align. Though to confirm or deny this hypothesis, further study is needed.