“The earth keeps some vibration going
There in your heart, and that is you.”
- Edgar Lee Masters
All people by nature desire good vibes. We are not content merely to live. We want to vibe. Everything about us, both individually and collectively, is shaped by the vibes. A flourishing and successful life would be impossible without contributing to and taking part in good vibes. They make us feel a certain way. They have an energy that we like or don’t. We are surrounded by them. We are informed by them.
But do we know what they are?
Given the overwhelming importance of vibes, one would expect a rich philosophical tradition on the subject. Yet this is not what we find. We instead find thinkers who have, use, and contribute to vibes, whose ideas and theories have vibes, but don’t discuss the subject directly. How should we feel about this? If we want to understand the world, and if we want to vibe harder and better, must we understand the nature of vibes?
What follows is an initial sketch for a philosophy of vibes. My method is to answer general questions in ways that pose more specific questions. Accordingly, the sketch is an invitation to a proper philosophy of vibes. But I know I do more than provide details of an account. The invitation is, of course, also a vibe. Nearly all of its details remain unarticulated.
What is a vibe?
It is fitting to begin philosophical investigations with the basic Socratic question: τι ἐστι ; quid est? What is it? What is the essence of a vibe? When we talk about vibes, what are we talking about?
It might be tempting to unabbreviate the word and instead investigate vibrations. Although there is some sense in which literal vibrations are relevant to our experiences, in this context ‘vibration’ is metaphor and image. The metaphor is helpful, but we don’t find a shortcut by lengthening the word. In what follows, I take ‘vibe’ and ‘vibration’ to reference the same concept or feature of reality (though I recognize that the two words have different vibes).
A more promising first step is to place ‘vibe’ alongside related terms, like ‘energy’, ‘feeling’, and ‘atmosphere’. What do they have in common? In each case, we are talking about what contributes to or constitutes the affective register of an experience—the set of emotions or affects included in it that is often utilized in evaluative and aesthetic judgments. Sitting in a cafe, on a bus, or at a concert are different experiences with different feels. The differences are explained by the features of the world that cause perceptions. Somewhere in the process of perceiving the features of the situation, one catches its vibe.
What features of the world communicate vibes? There are two levels to the answer. First, a vibe is primarily the result of non-obvious features. The coffee smell is only the most generic description of an experience. The smell is endlessly detailed, with nearly all of the details sitting under the threshold of consciousness. The smell is associated with particular places, people, cultural markers, and situations. Like Proust and his madeleine, one could spend lifetimes cataloging the tiny specific details of one feature of an experience—a feature that is nearly always passed over but whose details give the experience its distinctive sense.
The point is that vibes are a function of a moment’s subtle details that are under the surface of explicit awareness. Although the details are subtle, implicit, and in the background, they are deeply important. The microfeatures of the world responsible for vibes are not only essential parts of experience but also account for the lion’s share of its descriptive content. They are the submerged part of the iceberg. They are the structure that supports all else.
This is why ‘vibe’ seems like a murky, nebulous, or vague term. It is meant to point out significant parts of experience/the world that we cannot (without great effort) point out explicitly and distinctly.
We come to the second level of the answer when we recognize that this initial gloss is the result of an incomplete picture of experience. If someone is smelling coffee in a cafe, they are smelling more than coffee, and their experience includes more than odors. A vibe is the result of the shifting relations among all the details in experience. The list of unarticulated features is vast, rich, and complex. It includes smells, sights, sounds, feels, tastes, memories, associations, inferences, assumptions—and how all play off each other, mixing to generate the moment. This dynamic interrelation captures some sense of ‘vibration’.
A vibe will be related to the interdependent character of experience—the network of microdetails and the affects they produce. As a result, a vibe, on first pass, is the affective register constituted by the systematic complex of details in experience, most of which go unarticulated. More simply, a vibe is the stuff in an experience that we don’t notice directly but makes us feel a certain way.
My account has been ambiguous on the metaphysical status of vibes. What type of thing is a vibe? Where are they? Vibes are a function of features of the world, but seemingly they are not identical to those features (though sometimes we say that something “is a vibe”). Vibes are an affective register in the mind, but seemingly they are also something we perceive.
We distinguish between two positions:
- Vibrational objectivism. Vibes are objective features of the world that we can perceive accurately or inaccurately. Vibes exist as they are, regardless of how they are perceived, and belong in the same ontological category as tables, the moon, and air.
- Vibrational subjectivism. Vibes are features of the perceiving mind and do not exist in the world. Vibes are an affective layer that the mind includes within its representation of the world.
There are different versions and hybrids of these views. For instance, vibes may be secondary qualities: they are powers in objective features of the world that produce in the perceiver certain sensations. The vibes that exist in the world, although real, differ from how they are represented in the mind. Needless to say, vibes are mind-dependent in some sense, but sorting out the sense is a challenge.
Instead of settling these questions, I turn to a more general question: what has a vibe?
What has a vibe?
The simple question can be answered in a word—”everything.” Everyone will accept this answer as true, but there is room for disagreement on how to identify vibes in particular cases. A moment, person, or thing might plainly have a vibe, but what exactly has it?
To make progress, consider a spectrum of context size. By this I mean contexts that both contain smaller contexts within them and are part of larger contexts. For example, someone’s apartment has a certain vibe. It is also true that smaller parts of the apartment, like the bedroom or couch or plant, have their own vibes. How small can we go before we encounter a vibeless context? Does the couch cushion have a vibe? Does a leaf on the plant have a vibe? We keep asking, all the way down to the gyrating strings themselves.
One might also go in the opposite direction along the context spectrum. It seems true that the apartment building, neighborhood, and city district have vibes. Does Earth have a vibe? The Milky Way galaxy?
Relative to what is most salient in our experience, there is a range of contexts in the middle of the spectrum that is uncontroversial. For instance, rooms obviously have vibes. The furniture in the room has vibes. Neighborhoods have vibes. States and countries probably do too. But as we depart further from the middle, we lose confidence.
The context spectrum applies generally. For example, a song has a vibe. The song has parts with their own vibes. Is there some tiny unit of a song that is vibeless? Bigger contexts like albums have vibes. What about whole subgenres or genres? What about music or art in general?
Relationships have vibes, though they are not ‘objects’ in a standard sense. So does an interaction with a person in a particular moment. A small community has a vibe. How big does a community need to get before it no longer has a vibe? What is humanity’s vibe? The animal kingdom?
From considering these questions we learn that the uncontroversial contexts concern the features of experience we would be first to articulate in an explanation of our feelings or affects. In other words, among all the vibes, they are closer to the surface of explicit awareness. When I’m at my desk, the room and whole apartment’s vibe are the most salient to me. When I’m listening to music, the verse and the whole song. When I’m with a friend, the moment and the whole day’s interaction.
The smaller and larger the contexts become, the deeper under the surface and less salient the vibe is. The context size, then, depends on my focus, intentions, or goals in a moment. One can imagine the spectrum like a bell curve: the middle contexts with more salience and closer to awareness, with contexts decreasing in salience and awareness as they get smaller and larger.
The view assumes distinctions among:
- Whether something has a vibe at all
- How easy it is to perceive the vibe
- How relevant the vibe is to experience
Each is a separate issue. The inability to identify x’s vibe does not mean x is vibeless and does not mean that you don’t perceive x’s vibe. Although a vibe might be more relevant in a moment, it does not follow that other related contexts are vibeless or that they don’t contribute to the vibe. For instance, the vibe in a cafe may be affected by the vibe of the city, state, and country in which it is found. We may be perceiving vibes in a moment but not be aware of it. After all, something like this is true the vast majority of the time.
In addition, one may lack direct perceptual access to a vibe, like a state or country’s. It may be available only as a backdrop that contributes to the particular character of smaller, immediate vibes, like those of a neighborhood or apartment building. A more intuitive example is music. We only ever experience concerts, albums, and songs. We do not have direct experience of a genre itself. Nevertheless, one might say, we experience a genre and its vibe by way of songs. A genre still has a vibe, and we perceive it, even without unmediated experience of the genre itself.
To fill out the picture, we combine the context spectrum with the systematic nature of the world and our experience of it. The cafe has a vibe, but the cafe and our experience of it is an endlessly rich network. The vibe is the result of the unarticulated features and the complexity that constitute them. What is the complexity but the interrelation and interdependence among the many contexts that exist in and around the cafe? The cafe is not a bare, generic, undetailed space. It contains unique objects, people, values, and relations—each with their vibes. The neighborhood, city, and state also have vibes that include the cafe as a part. Although nearly all these details sit under the surface of experience, it is this complexity that is and produces the vibe.
Emphasizing relation and interaction is prudent because, at any moment, what makes a vibe is not an object divorced from context but the unique confluence of unacknowledged details that set the stage on which explicit awareness performs. The fact that attention frequently fixes on individual items should not lure us away from the importance of experience’s systematic nature. Talk of ‘vibes’ is useful because it treats as specific and identifiable something that is by nature subtle and amorphous.
My discussion leaves space for disagreement on another metaphysical topic. Everything might have a vibe, but what is included in ‘everything’? Is a city, music genre, or relationship actually a ‘thing’? Is it possible for a thing not to exist but still have a vibe? There are two contrasting positions:
- Vibrational nominalism. Certain classes of abstract objects or universals do not have vibes. Examples might be numbers, democracy, redness in general, or kinds like ‘humanity’ or ‘pop music’. The strongest version of this view would maintain that the only things that have vibes are concrete objects, like tables, particular people, and cafes.
- Vibrational realism. Abstract objects and universals, and not merely concrete objects, have vibes.
There can be hybrid versions of these views. Perhaps some abstract objects have vibes but not others. Someone could also be a vibrational skeptic. For a skeptic, although it may seem like a concrete object has a vibe, it actually does not. This leads to questions of vibal corrigibility. If something seems like it has a vibe, is that the same as it truly having a vibe? Can we think there is a vibe but be wrong? Further, can we misjudge the quality of a vibe? How should we handle disagreement about the quality?
Instead of settling these issues, I will consider how vibes play off each other.
How many vibes can something have?
There is typically no meaningful difference between ‘vibe’ and ‘vibes’. “Our relationship has a good vibe” means the same as “Our relationship has good vibes.” The singular/plural equivalence is a feature of the word.
To make sense of this detail of linguistic usage, I propose that a vibe by nature contains and is contained by other vibes. The context spectrum, we recall, is about parts and wholes. There is interdependence and interrelation. We cannot talk about one vibe without implicating others.
More specifically, a single vibe, relative to a particular context, is the systematic whole of vibes it contains. For example, a relationship is a type of unity. We refer to it as, in some sense, a single item. It is a particular context salient in experience. But the relationship is experienced as particular moments, interactions, commitments, recognitions, etc. It has parts, each with its own vibes. Thus we say that the relationship has vibes. But those experiences and vibes are not discrete and disconnected. They interrelate and unify. Thus the relationship has a vibe.
The same analysis is available for any context. A song has a vibe. It also has vibes—namely, the vibes of its parts or related contexts. A city has a vibe. It also has vibes. This, however, should not be taken to imply that the song or city’s vibe is only the aggregate of its vibal parts. We also sometimes assign a parts’ vibe to the whole.
My discussion of vibal systematicity has been agnostic on the question of fundamentality. Which vibes are most basic? We can distinguish two positions:
- Vibrational particularism. There are many fundamental vibes. Vibes made up of fundamental vibes are derivative: their nature is grounded in the properties of the fundamental vibes.
- Vibrational holism. There is one fundamental vibe and all other vibes exist within it. The vibes included in the single vibe are derivative: their nature is grounded in their particular placement within the one.
One can see how proponents of the two positions would answer the question of how many vibes something has. A particularist says that a context has as many vibes as vibed contexts it contains. And the vibe of a context is a function of the vibes of its parts, down to the most fundamental. A holist says that a context has as many vibes as contexts that contain it. And the vibe of a context is a function of the vibes of the larger wholes, up to the single most fundamental.
I will not settle a debate between these two positions. Elsewhere I have argued that they are the same. Instead, I will shift to questions about the creation and quality of vibes.
How are vibes made?
One not only has vibes, but one can vibe. Vibing is an activity. I can contribute to the vibes. I give and get vibes. So the question is about what happens when we vibe. What exactly are we doing? What role does agency have?
This might seem like a different sort of question, but the same account applies. Just as an object, experience, or relation has a systematic network of unarticulated microfeatures, so does action (and inaction). These details come along with performing the action and are rarely if ever directly intended. Nevertheless, they provide the affective background that shapes the action, how it is received, and how others respond. Thus, although one is always vibing, it is impossible solely to vibe. Rather, one performs actions that have vibes.
How one acts in a moment is responsive to countless contextual details. Actions, events, objects, relations, etc. interrelate. Our wills are determined by these vibes. Then the action becomes part of the context, mixing in with the complex of details to influence the larger vibe. The vibrational flux then impacts everyone’s reactions, which influences the vibe further. There is constant communication, augmentation, and fluctuation among the vibes in a context.
The natural question is about how much power one has over vibes. Can you control the vibes you put out? One might freely choose to perform an action, but whether one also chooses the action’s vibes is another matter. We distinguish the following positions on the relation between choice and an action’s vibal content:
- Vibrational libertarianism. In performing an action, one has free choice over all the action’s vibes. One chooses both the action and its attendant vibes. The vibes are not determined by other features of the context. (A theoretically possible version of this view is that one does not freely choose an action but does freely choose its vibes. It is difficult to imagine what this would look like.)
- Vibrational determinism. In performing an action, one has free choice over none of the action’s vibes. The vibes are entirely determined by other features of the context (including the action).
- Vibrational compatibilism. In performing an action, one has free choice over some of the action’s vibes. The vibes are partially determined by other features of the context (including the action).
The nature of vibes provides two reasons to find vibrational libertarianism implausible. First, because vibes are at least partially unarticulated, and insofar as a free choice requires some reasoned awareness of the choice and its content, libertarianism would seem to demand omniscience from an agent. They have total explicit knowledge of every detail of the context. It might be said that, since nothing is in the background, such an agent wouldn’t vibe at all.
The second reason is related. Due to the systematic nature of vibes, an action’s vibes are determined in large part by contextual details other than the action. Vibrational libertarianism, therefore, would either reject vibal systematicity or demand that the agent be omnipotent. They have complete power over all the contexts that determine the action’s vibes, which may be every context. It might be said that only a god could vibe in this way, if it would qualify as vibing at all.
The remaining positions are determinism and compatibilism. The distinction between an action (which is typically treated as single) and its attendant vibes (which are legion) has far reaching implications. I will not settle the issues here. Instead, I will consider how vibes can be changed.
How do vibes change?
Vibes are constantly changing. And not all changes are for the better. I will turn to vibal assessment next, but first, it helps to distinguish different types of change.
A large share (or all, if you’re a vibrational determinist) of vibes change naturally and inexorably as a result of processes that have nothing to do with free choices. Weather, news, history, culture, technology, politics, language, biology—all major vibal contributors that I do not control. The dynamic nature of the world explains vibe change.
But what about the power of self-awareness? What happens when I reach below the surface of a context and pull details into explicit awareness? Insofar as I have any control of a vibe, it would seem to require such a process. This presents what might be called the paradox of vibrational explication: if the nature of vibe x is explicitly articulated, does x cease to be a vibe? Since it is part of the essence of a vibe to be unarticulated, does it follow that articulating it makes it no longer a vibe? Do we eliminate the subject by speaking about it?
The answer, in short, is no. There is a difference between the vibe and the details that constitute it. I can note the vibe, but explaining it requires articulating details that constitute it. I might become aware of some of the details, but this merely shifts the vibe. The awareness becomes a detail in the mix of contextual complexity. The context accepts and incorporates it, like a rock placed in a stream, altering its current. While I may be aware of how a detail contributed to a vibe, my awareness might not immediately translate into the new context.
The response is not that it is impossible to articulate all the details that constitute a vibe (though I’m inclined to think that is true). Rather, vibrational explication is a bottomless spring of fresh details for the relevant contexts. Which detail you choose, how you articulate it, and what you intend to change by calling attention to it all have vibes of their own and all contribute to the contexts.
The resolution to the paradox is vibal self-reflexivity: the act of explicating vibe x a) has vibes of its own and b) affects x and the perception of x. Any attempt to discuss a vibe will itself have vibes and in turn affect the broader context. One cannot articulate or explicate a vibe from nowhere. All shifts to the current become part of the current.
Someone can change a vibe in many ways, including, as I’ve been describing, by bringing details into explicit awareness. Whether the vibe is changing for the better or worse is a different issue. Sometimes vibes get ruined. So what makes vibes good or bad?
What makes a vibe good or bad?
Sometimes we are indifferent to a vibe. We can recognize its presence but don’t feel any significant way about it. No revulsion or attraction. More frequently, however, we feel that someone, something, or someplace is off putting. Or it is appealing, comfortable, or cool. The feeling might be strong or subtle. What explains the sense?
Vibes show up immediately as good or bad. We often think “this is good” or “this is bad” before we recognize that ‘this’ is a vibe. We might be asked why we are happy or unhappy. Then we have to reflect before realizing that the vibes are good or bad.
A vibe pertains to details that set the affective register of an experience or action. I have used this term to refer to a broad set of psychological and physical sensations roughly like emotions (or passions, to use an archaic term) that make us happier, stronger, more powerful or the opposite. In a vibe, these affects are subtle and unarticulated. They form a complex network I’m calling the ‘affective register’.
A useful related term is ‘mood’, a background emotional state that colors other, often more salient emotions. We usually don’t know why our mood is what it is. Sometimes we aren’t even aware of it. It is simply there, the result of some complex mix of factors, including the environment, how others are acting, and how one acts.
Good affects make us happier, stronger, and more powerful. Accordingly, we strive for good affects. Sometimes this happens directly and explicitly, like when we are aware of how an experience makes us better. For instance, the meal gave me energy and the gift made me feel appreciated. Other times we have experiences in which we are made better in subtle, unarticulated ways. We may not be aware of it, or we may not know why we feel it, but we feel happier. Something seems right. This is when vibes are goods.
Bad affects make us less happy, less powerful, and weaker. Accordingly, we avoid bad affects. When we are made worse in subtle, unarticulated ways through background features of a context, vibes are bad.
Although we typically give vibes straightforward evaluative labels, because they are compositional and complex, they can be good or bad to different degrees and in different ways. A good vibe might make us better overall, but it can still include other vibes that make us worse. It is not necessarily the case that each vibe within the context promotes wellbeing. Likewise, a bad vibe can include some good vibes.
When the overall quality of the vibe is difficult to determine, we say the vibe is ‘weird’. When two different contexts produce the same or similar affective registers, we say the vibes are the same or similar.
To the extent that we can, we hope to improve vibes. Sometimes we blame people for ruining or killing vibes. This presents a natural question about vibes and moral responsibility. What justifies moral assessment? What basis is there for praise or blame? With how important vibes are to wellbeing, ethics needs space for them.
Although we tend not to praise or blame a vibe itself, how should people act with respect to vibes? There are numerous possible theoretical positions:
- Vibe Utilitarianism. This view advocates the Principle of Utility: an action is right insofar as it contributes to good vibes, wrong insofar as it contributes to bad vibes. We evaluate actions on the basis of their consequences on the vibes. One should perform the action that improves the vibe most. What makes someone a good person—and likely why they have a good vibe themselves—is that their actions (tend to) contribute to good vibes.
- Vibe Virtue Ethics. The goal is to live a life that has a good vibe as a whole. This is done through inculcating character traits that dispose you towards making good contributions to the vibes. Virtue is less about discrete actions and more about a stable character. You emulate those who vibe the best. Eventually you possess vibrational wisdom: a general understanding of life that enables you to contribute to good vibes in any context.
- Eco-vibe Ethics. The focus is not human action or character but the broader ecosystem. It is a context that includes animals, plants, land, and their complex relations. Ethics should focus on the ecosystem’s vibe. This view advocates something like the following principle: a thing is right when it tends to preserve the goodness of the biotic community’s vibe. It is wrong when it tends otherwise. The concept of an affective register is broad enough to apply to a biotic community or ecosystem.
- Buddhist Vibes Ethics. The desire for good vibes is responsible for all bad vibes. No vibe will ever be ultimately satisfying. As long as you continue thinking of vibes as good or bad, and as features of reality you can wrestle into alignment with your preferences, you will suffer. But you can learn to accept vibes as they are, live in harmony with them, and be liberated.
One could list many other positions and versions. I do not argue in favor of any of them here. However, as a general point, given the nature of vibes, it is challenging to argue that they are morally irrelevant. I would propose that ethics is already substantially about vibes: moral theories have vibes of their own, entail claims about vibes, and utilize vibes called ‘moral intuitions’. If we seek to live the good life, how can we ignore an examination of vibes?
This sketch of a theory of vibes doubles as a list of philosophical questions that require further consideration. I am content to produce a landscape in which vibes can be integrated into existing discussions. The background claim I have been exploring throughout is that, once we recognize the importance of vibes, it is essential to incorporate them into certain philosophical debates. The debates are likely to change in structure, priority, and focus when we become more aware of vibes. This is most evident in ethics, but, through more examination, in the unarticulated details, the same may be found in many other areas.
The vibes were there all along. They will continue to be. The goal, however, is to improve them.