Detail of Interior of Courtyard, Strandgade 30 (1899), by Vilhelm Hammershøi. Courtesy the Toldeo Musuem, Ohio
Anxiety might be uncomfortable, but with a philosophical approach you’ll find it can awaken a thrilling sense of freedom
by David Egan + BIO
Detail of Interior of Courtyard, Strandgade 30 (1899), by Vilhelm Hammershøi. Courtesy the Toldeo Musuem, Ohio
Anxiety isn’t normally considered a good thing. It’s an unpleasant feeling associated with inner turmoil, sleepless nights and chewed fingernails. Take it far enough, and a psychiatrist will diagnose you with an anxiety disorder. And yet some philosophers have looked on anxiety as, well, not exactly a good thing but at least as potentially valuable. Clinical anxiety is simply disabling, but existential anxiety, adopted in the right spirit, is potentially liberating.
In the first half of the 20th century, the philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Martin Heidegger both gave a central place to anxiety in their bold analyses of human existence. Both were influenced – more than they acknowledged – by the 19th-century Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard.
Kierkegaard (1813-55) was a misfit in the buttoned-down world of Lutheran Copenhagen. He came from a well-to-do family, studied theology, and became engaged to an intelligent and engaging young woman. Everything was on course for a life of bourgeois respectability. Then something inside of him snapped. He broke off his engagement, withdrew from society, and devoted himself to writing at a ferocious pace while living off inherited wealth. In the 1840s, he produced more than 30 volumes. His writing was bitterly polemical, attacking the hypocrisies of Danish society and the Danish Church. Many of his books were written under extravagant pseudonyms, permitting Kierkegaard to quarrel even with himself. But no one in tight-knit Copenhagen was under any illusion about the author’s identity.
His prodigious output included the first analysis of existential anxiety. In The Concept of Anxiety (1844), the pseudonymous ‘Vigilius Haufniensis’ (‘the watchman of Copenhagen’) argues that anxiety is the consequence of an honest confrontation with freedom. Nothing but our own free choice determines what we will make of ourselves, and the consequences of that choice echo through eternity. For the most part, we don’t feel the burden of this responsibility because we simply go along with the crowd. Anxiety (ångest in Danish) lifts us out of that happy torpor and confronts us with our individual responsibility. This anxiety is burdensome and terrifying but also liberating.
For Sartre (1905-80), our freedom distinguishes us from things. The operations of nature are causally efficacious. When I throw a rock into the air, its trajectory is subject to the force of gravity in exactly the same way on every single throw. Human motives lack this causal efficacy, as anyone who’s made a New Year’s resolution can attest. In that gap between motive and action – a gap that doesn’t exist between cause and effect – lies the experience of freedom. And we experience that freedom, Sartre says, as anxiety or anguish (angoisse).
Sartre gives two examples of the experience of existential anxiety. The first is vertigo. Sartre distinguishes vertigo from plain fear. If I’m walking along a precarious mountain ledge, a bit of loose rock could send me tumbling to my death. I fear for myself as a thing that is every bit as much subject to the force of gravity as the loose rock I might slip on. Vertigo, by contrast, is a response not to my subjection to external forces but to my freedom. With a shudder, I recognise that I could at any moment throw myself over the ledge. I don’t want to, I’m firm in my resolve not to, but all my present desire and resolve is causally inefficacious. My present self doesn’t get to determine the choices of my future self. At every moment, I’m free to chuck all my resolve and throw myself over the ledge. Anxiety is the chilling recognition of that freedom.
Vertigo is anxiety oriented toward the future: it’s a recognition of the radical freedom of my future self with regard to my present self. Sartre also imagines a past-oriented anxiety in the form of a gambling addict. The gambler recognises the harm his addiction does to him and to those around him and has firmly resolved never to gamble again. But then he sees a gaming table and feels that resolve melt away. Even as he sits down at the table, he continues to endorse the resolve not to gamble – he genuinely wants to not gamble – but his past resolve has no power to compel his present actions.
In the resolve not to gamble and the resolve not to throw myself over the precipice, I wish, if only temporarily and only in some respects, to be a thing – to be something whose movements are as locked in place as a rock under the influence of gravity. But to wish my freedom away is to act in bad faith. Anxiety for Sartre arises as I recognise that, at every moment, my whole self is in play.
This idea of radical freedom had particular pertinence to Sartre, who was writing in the midst of the Second World War and supported the French Resistance. He and his fellow Frenchmen faced stark and dangerous choices concerning collaboration or resistance, and Sartre saw in these choices expressions that defined their identity.
Whereas Sartre condemned Nazism and French collaborators, Heidegger (1889-1976) notoriously welcomed the Nazi takeover of his native Germany. Philosophers since have had to grapple with the question of what to do with the writings of a man who was in many ways personally loathsome but also deeply insightful. Much of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness (1943) feels cribbed from Heidegger’s monumental Being and Time (1927), which offers its own analysis of anxiety (Angst).
For Sartre, anxiety reveals something about us. For Heidegger, it reveals something about the world – or rather the way that we’re related to it. We live in a world full of chairs and tables and pebbles and trees and clouds and songs. For the most part, we suppose those things are all just there and that we happen to be there too, one more item in the inventory list of the world. What we don’t realise for the most part, according to Heidegger, is that the world isn’t a collection of self-standing items but an interconnected whole bound together by care.
Consider chairs. I happen to be sitting on one at the moment. That’s handy because it means I can sit out on my balcony on a sunny day while I type this essay. I like breathing the fresh air and I like talking about philosophy with (and to) other people. The chair fits into a whole picture of a meaningful life, one where the chair is connected to the sun and air and other people and philosophy. The chair presents itself to me as a chair because it has a significant place in this and many other activities that fit into a world that I care about. Remove care, remove the sense of purpose and meaning that animates my activities, and the chair’s distinctive chairness starts to slip away.
This is what happens in anxiety, Heidegger says. Anxiety for Heidegger is like an existential version of that game where you repeat a word enough times that it starts to sound like meaningless babble. In anxiety, it’s not just the words we use that lose their familiar meaning but the things in the world around us. Stripped of its ordinary significance, the chair stands out like an alien object, some bizarre assemblage of stuff.
But like Sartre, Heidegger thinks that anxiety reveals something important: I don’t simply find myself in a world that makes sense; the significance of the world is connected to the significance I find in my everyday activities. And that means that I am partway responsible for the sense the world makes to me.
Kierkegaard, Sartre and Heidegger all think we have a strong motive to flee anxiety when it strikes us. Our freedom entails a heavy burden of individual responsibility, which is daunting. Much easier, then, to act as if the big questions of how to live and how to make sense of things were already settled. All three authors have a life of bourgeois respectability in their sights, a life where contemporary tastes and fashions dictate how ‘one’ ought to live. The contemporary world is more liberal in offering diverse lifestyles but those levelling pressures are still there, whether in the feeling that you ought to get a university degree as a springboard to a fulfilling career, or in the feeling of pressure to align yourself with the political or aesthetic preferences of your peers. Anxiety is discomfiting because it presents us with the stark reminder that it doesn’t have to be this way while providing no guidance about what way it might be instead.
Anxiety is discomfiting – but we can learn to transmute it into something transformative. In what follows, I offer a few pointers on how to evoke existential anxiety and put it to good use.
The game of ‘why’
As a starting point for getting a grip on the concept of anxiety, imagine being a five-year-old again. You might remember that game where a child discovers that there’s no explanation that can’t be met with the question ‘Why?’:
– What are you doing?
– I’m sending an email to my boss.
– Because I want to update her on the project that I’m working on.
– Because I want to stay on my boss’s good side.
– Because I don’t want to lose my job.
– Because I don’t want to have to worry about money.
Usually in these games, the grown-up runs out of patience before the child does. Persistent questioning can be annoying – consider what happened to Socrates. But it can also be instructive. If you’re willing to play along, the child can help you realise that financial security is a significant motivator in your life – and confront you with the question of whether it should be.
Try playing both sides of this game with yourself. Start with any ordinary activity – what you were doing at this time yesterday, what you plan to do this evening – and ask yourself why you’re doing (or did) that. Keep probing and see where you get. Try to answer each ‘Why?’ question as concretely as you can, and frame it in the first-person: I’m asking why I am invested in these activities.
The child’s discovery of the potentially bottomless series of ‘Why?’ questions reveals something about the structure of our reasons: there’s no definitive ‘Because…’ Whatever reasons you think you have for living in the way that you are, in odd moments those reasons might cease to have a grip on you. Your sense of purpose can swirl away into a vortex of ‘Why?’ like water swirling down a drain.
Vertigo – a scary version and a fun one
Now let’s consider Sartre’s examples of anxiety. He offers two: the experience of vertigo and an addiction relapse. The latter doesn’t recommend itself for obvious reasons but try exploring the former a little. Each of us has a different degree of tolerance for heights – some people are almost fearless and some start to shake when they’re feet away from a balcony. Know your own limit and bring yourself to a distance from a drop where you feel a little uncomfortable but not genuinely unsafe. Depending on where you are, you might find a rooftop, a balcony, a bridge or, if you live in rocky terrain, a genuine cliff. Hold yourself at that point of discomfort for a minute or two without withdrawing. Start by reminding yourself that there’s no real reason for fear. You’re at a relatively safe vantage and it would take a stroke of tremendous bad luck for any real mishap to befall you. That reminder probably won’t disarm your unease. But why not? Are you afraid of what you might do? Test Sartre’s hypothesis on yourself and see how well it fits.
Sartre focuses on unpleasant outcomes – a tumble over a cliff or a relapse – but there’s no reason anxiety can’t nudge us toward positive things. Nothing stops you from throwing yourself off a cliff – but nothing stops you from disrupting your shopping trip to sit by a panhandler and spend an hour getting to know them either. If anxiety for Sartre is the recognition that neither our own resolve nor social scripts can constrain our actions, embracing that freedom needn’t be chilling. It could be awesome.
Defamiliarise the familiar
Now let’s explore Heideggerian anxiety. I likened it to the game of repeating a word again and again until its meaning drains away. Start by trying a similar exercise with an everyday tool. Pick up a pen or a fork or a hat, or sit in front of a lamp or a table. (You could try this exercise with a more high-tech device such as a smartphone but those have been deliberately designed to arouse and direct your attention, and so it might be harder to detach yourself from them.) Start by simply looking at it. Spend a couple of minutes doing this, far longer than you would ordinarily hold an object like this in your gaze. Then try manipulating it, or yourself, in ways that go against the ordinary grain. Try balancing the pen on its head. Turn the hat inside out or bring it so close to your face that you can see the threads of fabric holding it together. Lie on the floor and look up at the underside of the table. See if you can become absorbed in the bare thingness of the thing you’re looking at. See if you can unbind yourself from the significance this thing has in your life.
Once you feel somewhat alienated from your chosen object, direct your attention away from it and to the space around you. See if you can see everything as alien, as thing-y. Not walls and floor and ceiling but strangely smooth surfaces joined at abrupt angles. Try moving about this space in a spirit of wonder. Touch the walls, feel the slight unevenness of the paintwork, really register that funny sensation in your fingertips. What’s going on here? Why am I surrounded by this stuff?
Now see if you can see yourself as strange. Try looking at your hand and wiggling your fingers. Do the same exercise of defamiliarisation that you performed with the tool. How strange that there’s this odd spidery appendage at the end of your arm. Look at all the odd lines and creases, the hair follicles, the strange irruptions of fingernail at the ends of those gangly fingers.
See if you can hold on to this feeling of estrangement. It can be precarious: there’s a strong tendency to snap back to our familiar habits of thought and perception. Try stepping outside and walking about in a public place while preserving this feeling. What are all these people doing? All these buildings and cars and noise – what’s it all for?
Eventually, this experience has to fade and you have to get back to the business of living. But try to hold on to that memory of bemusement. At its most productive, anxiety can shake us out of comfortable habits and help us see possibilities – for ourselves and for the world – that ordinarily escape our notice.
I’ve just given you a bunch of tips on how to cultivate anxiety. But surely anxiety is something we want to avoid? A Google search for ‘anxiety’ turns up pages of information on anxiety disorders. A healthy soul is thought to be free from anxiety, and people seek expensive treatments to alleviate its symptoms.
To be clear, clinical anxiety – the kind described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) and treated by psychiatrists – is not identical to the existential anxiety that interested Kierkegaard, Heidegger and Sartre. And, to be fair, the philosophers got there first: The Concept of Anxiety was published more than a century before the first edition of the DSM in 1952. The two overlap, and not coincidentally so, but you can suffer from clinical anxiety without experiencing it as philosophically significant, and you can experience existential anxiety without needing psychiatric treatment.
Existential anxiety is a kind of perception. Psychiatrists regard anxiety as a disorder: something has gone wrong in the mind, and it needs to be set right so that the patient can perceive reality unskewed. Kierkegaard, Sartre and Heidegger, by contrast, think that anxiety helps us see something more clearly, something our ordinary ‘psychologically healthy’ modes of perception obscure. Heidegger, for instance, describes anxiety as a ‘fundamental mood’, one in which the world as a whole comes into view. Ordinarily, we’re caught up in our immediate preoccupations. By yanking us away from those preoccupations, anxiety enables us to see our place in the world more clearly – it helps us see the proverbial wood for the trees. (Heidegger thinks boredom is another fundamental mood, and his Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics helpfully provides a 100-page analysis of boredom to get you in the mood.)
We experience anxiety as unpleasant, according to these thinkers, because the truth isn’t pleasant. But, as that proto-existentialist Jesus of Nazareth said, the truth will set you free. The discovery that nothing necessitates that you carry on as before can be paralysing but it can also be liberating. With courage and commitment, you can turn an encounter with anxiety into an opportunity to explore new possibilities and new ways of being.
Anxiety has liberatory potential but that doesn’t make it fun. It’s hard work, and runs against our natural grain, to unshackle ourselves from familiar ways of inhabiting the world. In recommending anxiety as a valuable teacher, these dour Europeans offer a counterbalance to the relentless positivity that has become one of the United States’ chief cultural exports. It can feel wonderful to get deeply absorbed in an activity that matters to you. But if you never lift your head up and confront the question of why it matters to you, you risk running on happy autopilot all the way to the grave.
Kierkegaard’s seminal analysis of anxiety is in his book The Concept of Anxiety (1844). Heidegger examines anxiety in §40 of his masterwork Being and Time (1927) and also gives a somewhat more accessible presentation of the issue in his lecture ‘What Is Metaphysics?’ (1929). Sartre’s analysis of anxiety is in Part 1, Chapter 1, §5 of his book Being and Nothingness (1943).
None of these writers is easy to read. A more accessible introduction to existentialist themes can be found in Gordon Marino’s book The Existentialist’s Survival Guide: How to Live Authentically in an Inauthentic Age (2018). Sarah Bakewell’s prizewinning At the Existentialist Café (2016) offers a lively intellectual history of the emergence of a distinctive philosophy that came to be known as existentialism.
Existential anxiety has had tremendous influence in the arts. Sartre was himself a novelist and his first novel, Nausea (1938), examines themes related to those discussed here. Franz Kafka was another author who gave vivid expression to anxiety – his novel The Trial (1925) is one powerful instance. Anxiety and freedom are also recurring themes in the work of the playwrights Samuel Beckett and Eugène Ionesco. Also of note is the French New Wave cinema of the mid-20th century. Films such as Jean-Luc Godard’s À bout de souffle, or Breathless, (1960) and Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima mon amour (1959) also explore existential themes. And if you’d like to hang a little anxiety on your wall, seek out the work of Edvard Munch or Vincent van Gogh.
The late, great Hubert Dreyfus was a prominent scholar of Heidegger and existential philosophy, as well as an excellent lecturer. A number of his lecture courses have been preserved online and are available for streaming.
Melvyn Bragg’s BBC Radio 4 series In Our Time (1998-) brings together distinguished experts on a wide array of subjects. Over the years, he has hosted discussions of existentialism, Sartre, Kierkegaard, and authenticity, another theme that is closely connected to anxiety.