Maren Wehrle: Going back to Normal – Nostalgia, a (Bad) Habit?

In times of individual or global crisis and change, long-held beliefs lose their self-evidence and daily habits break down. What we thought was normal to or commonly-shared by everyone is questioned; supposedly routine tasks lose their familiarity and need special attention. A common response to such a situation of disorientation and discomfort is the nostalgic call for a return to a (prior) normality. Although normality is rarely mentioned or spoken of when one is in possession of it, in times of crises, as we have seen in the current Corona crisis, it has turned into something precious – the primary goal: going back to normal. In this pandemic, political leaders of all parties promise a restitution of our ‘old’ ways – a ‘new’ normality to which we will return. A return to normality is also a popular cry among far-right populist groups in response to the climate crisis and/or to normative changes in contemporary Western debates relating to gender, ethnic/racial and sexual differences and equality (e.g., #metoo; black lives matter, cancel or woke culture, etc.). Indeed, the recent election campaign slogan of the German party AFD was “Germany, but normal”.

However, is normality a fixed place, state or order to which one can return or merely preserve? To what extent can this longing be described as nostalgia? In my paper, I seek to investigate this longing for normality as a phenomenon of nostalgia. I will do so by analysing the relation between (different levels) of habit and nostalgia. This approach will endeavour to show (1) that nostalgia is an immediate affective response to a breakdown of habits (as a lost normality in terms of concordance), and (2) that nostalgia can be interpreted as a bad habit (that retreats from the challenges of a changing world).

Nostalgia can be defined as the longing for “reintegration of familiarity and spatial-temporal continuity” (Trigg 2018, 49). This is in line with what Edmund Husserl defined as one central aspect of normal experience, namely, concordance. To experience normally, every present experience (of the world) has to be in concordance with what we (and others) have experienced before. Whenever there is a discordance, there are basically two possibilities: either this was merely a temporary deviation to an overall concordance; or, the deviation is permanent and transforms into a new regularity/normality. Concretely, such a (temporal, practical and personal) concordance is achieved and maintained through repeated interactions with one’s environment and with others that result in (perceptual, bodily and personal) habits or a style of experience.

As Husserl and contemporary psychology emphasise, one has the tendency either to ignore unfamiliar facts and beliefs that do not conform to one’s worldview or to treat them as mere exceptions and try to hold on to a former sense of concordance. However, normality is not only about (retaining) concordance, but also about optimalisation – achieving my optimal state as well as others. Even when a specific behaviour is familiar to us (e.g., domestic violence or a dependence on alcoholic drinking), it is not necessarily conceived as normal because it is not an optimal way of being. With this second aspect of normality, Husserl wants to underscore the intentional structure and future orientation that is necessary for experiencing in a normal way. Normal experience aims at being optimal. This makes normality a dynamic albeit fragile process of adaption and negotiation. A state or order cannot be deemed ‘normal’ only because one (individual normality) or most (intersubjective normality) are used to it (concordance). A proper normality must be optimal with regard to the needs and aims of an individual or intersubjective community. The conflict lies in the fact that because the environment/external conditions as well as the needs and aims of subjects change, normality can never be returned to or preserved in some original way. In this respect, I ultimately propose that nostalgia (alone) is neither able to restore nor establish a sustainable – future-oriented and intersubjective – sense of normality.


Maren Wehrle, is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the Erasmus University Rotterdam, The Netherlands. Her areas of specializations are Phenomenology, Philosophical and Historical Anthropology, Feminist Philosophy and Cognitive Psychology. Wehrle has authored a monography on Attention in Phenomenology and Cognitive Psychology, ‘Horizonte der Aufmerksamkeit‘ (München: Wilhelm Fink Verlag 2013), and edited a handbook on Edmund Husserl (together with S. Luft), ‘Husserl Handbuch. Leben-Werk-Wirkung’ (Metzler: Stuttgart 2018). She published many Journal articles and book chapters on the topics of embodiment, habit, normality, and normativity, see for example, ‘Being a body and having a body. The twofold temporality of embodied intentionality.’ Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 19 (2020): 499–521; or ’There’s a crack in anything.’ Fragile Normality: Husserl’s Account of Normality Revisited.’ Phainomenon: Journal of Phenomenological Philosophy 28 (2018): 4.