June 2014


Written by Simon Critchley

As I showed in the previous article, moods are essential ways of disclosing human existence for Heidegger. Yet, there is one mood in particular that reveals the self in stark profile for the first time. This is the function of anxiety (Angst), which Heidegger calls a basic or fundamental mood (Grundstimmung). Rudiger Safranski rightly calls anxiety; "a shadowy queen amongst moods".

Anxiety makes its appearance in Division 1, Chapter 6, where Heidegger is seeking to define the being of Dasein as what he calls "care" (Sorge). It would take far more time than I have at my disposal to lay out in adequate detail the structure and meaning of care. But we can get more than a hint by looking at anxiety.

Dasein is being-in-the-world. Our everyday existence is characterised by complete immersion in the ways of the world. The world fascinates us and my life is completely caught up in its rhythms and activities. The question Heidegger asks in Chapter 6 is: how is the being-in-the-world as a whole to be disclosed? Is there an experience where the world as such and as a whole is revealed to us? Is there a mood in which we pull back from the world and see it as something distinct from us? Heidegger's claim is that being-in-the-world as a whole is disclosed in anxiety and is then defined as care. As such, anxiety has an important methodological function in the argument of Being and Time.

But the existential resonance of anxiety is much more than methodological. The first thing to grasp is that anxiety does not mean ceaselessly fretting or fitfully worrying about something or other. On the contrary, Heidegger says that anxiety is a rare and subtle mood and in one place he even compares it to a feeling of calm or peace. It is in anxiety that the free, authentic self first comes into existence. It was, of course, the mood that launched a thousand existentialist novels, most famously Sartre's Nausea and Camus's The Outsider (although Heidegger was very critical of existentialism).

In order to understand what Heidegger means by anxiety, we have to distinguish it from another mood he examines: fear. Heidegger gives a phenomenology of fear earlier in Being and Time. His claim is that fear is always fear of something threatening, some particular thing in the world. Let's say that I am fearful of spiders. Fear has an object and when that object is removed, I am no longer fearful. I see a spider in the bath and I am suddenly frightened. My non-spider fearing friend removes the offending arachnid, I am no longer fearful.

Matters are very different with anxiety. If fear is fearful of something particular and determinate, then anxiety is anxious about nothing in particular and is indeterminate. If fear is directed towards some distinct thing in the world, spiders or whatever, then anxiety is anxious about being-in-the-world as such. Anxiety is experienced in the face of something completely indefinite. It is, Heidegger insists, "nothing and nowhere".

But let's back up for a moment here. Heidegger's claim earlier in Division 1 of Being and Time (discussed in blog 3), is that the human being finds itself in a world that is richly meaningful and with which it is fascinated. In other words, the world is homely (heimlich), cosy even. In anxiety, all of this changes. Suddenly, I am overtaken by the mood of anxiety that renders the world meaningless. It appears to me as an inauthentic spectacle, a kind of tranquilised and pointless bustle of activity. In anxiety, the everyday world slips away and my home becomes uncanny (unheimlich) and strange to me. From being a player in the game of life that I loved, I become an observer of a game that I no longer see the point in playing.

What is first glimpsed in anxiety is the authentic self. As the world slips away, we obtrude. I like to think about this in maritime terms. Inauthentic life in the world is completely bound up with things and other people in a kind of "groundless floating" – the phrase is Heidegger's. Everyday life in the world is like being immersed in the sea and drowned by the world's suffocating banality. Anxiety is the experience of the tide going out, the seawater draining away, revealing a self stranded on the strand, as it were. Anxiety is that basic mood when the self first distinguishes itself from the world and becomes self-aware. Anxiety does not need darkness, despair and night sweats. It can arise in the most innocuous of situations: sitting in the subway distractedly reading a book and overhearing conversations, one is suddenly seized by the feeling of meaninglessness, by the radical distinction between yourself and the world in which you find yourself. With this experience of anxiety, Heidegger says, Dasein is individualised and becomes self-aware.

Anxiety is the first experience of our freedom, as a freedom from things and other people. It is a freedom to begin to become myself. Anxiety is perhaps the philosophical mood par excellence, it is the experience can begin to think freely for myself. Yet, as Heidegger was very well aware, anxiety is also a mood that is powerfully analysed in the Christian tradition, from Augustine to Kierkegaard, where it describes the self's effort to turn itself, to undergo a kind of conversion. Heidegger's difference with Christianity is that the self's conversion is not undergone with reference to God, but only in relation to death.