Existential Moods

Unknown.jpegIn our everyday lives, we tend to throw around the words “anxiety,””dread,” and “despair” interchangeably, substituting one for the other, as in the anxiety we feel before a test, or the dread of losing a competition. These words, in particular, are taken to be the same expression of uneasiness and uncomfortableness, so they find themselves being used frequently and incorrectly. However, these words are each separated by a nuance, and they find their roots, surprisingly, in Existential philosophy, deriving from such eminent thinkers as Kierkegaard, Sartre, and Heidegger, all of whom investigated the essence of man’s existence and his place in the universe. In this post, I will be exploring the philosophical significance of the following moods: angst/anxiety/dread, despair, anguish, forlornness, and nausea.

Christian Existentialist Søren Kierkegaard wrote in 1844 The Concept of Anxiety, in which he put forth his theory regarding angst, coining the new word, which he developed as a sort of philosophical anxiety. Unlike fear, dread is intransitive; it has no object. Fear is fear of something, whereas dread is of nothing, literally. It is absurd, yet gripping nonetheless, as he describes it as both appealing and discouraging, like curiosity, to the extent that it draws you in, although you do not know what it is. In this sense, it is a fear of the unknown, but the mere thought of it still piques your interest. Therefore, anxiety results from an ignorance, or naïveté, of a sort. Kierkegaard stated that anxiety is the precursor to sin. He says the first instance of anxiety can be found in Adam, who, told by God not eat from the tree, was enticed by what would happen, knowing he would have no way of knowing what would happen otherwise, if he had not. Accordingly, Kierkegaard defined the feeling as follows: “[D]read is freedom’s reality as possibility for possibility”[1] and “the alarming possibility of being able.”[2] Anxiety, then, is the realization of one’s unbridled freedom. The fact that we are able to make choices at any time, that there is a possibility for us to make possibilities, gives us the ability to do anything we desire. Adam had no knowledge of good and evil before eating the apple, so it was impossible for him to know images.jpegnot to eat from it; as such, he was faced with a choice: obey God or risk eating the apple, to see what happens. The same fascination that occurs in a child occurs in Adam, as he knows he probably should not, but when he is told No, he becomes all the more interested. Famously, Kierkegaard declared, “Thus dread is the dizziness of freedom,” by which he meant that the tremendous freedom we are awarded is often overwhelming.[3] The fact that we can do whatever, whenever, is frightening, and it produces within us a dizzying effect, for we know that whatever we do will have an irreversible effect. However, dread is not entirely negative; rather, it helps us after we experience it. When we are placed in a dilemma in which we encounter anxiety, we become aware of ourselves as actors, and we realize the importance of decision-making, so every time we make choices, we learn from them, and they, in effect, influence our future decisions—of course, Kierkegaard puts it much more eloquently:

[H]e who is educated by possibility remains with dread, does not allow himself to be deceived by its countless counterfeits, he recalls the past precisely; then at last the attacks of dread, though they are fearful, are not such that he flees from them. For him dread becomes a serviceable spirit which against its will leads whither he would go. Then when it announces itself, when it craftily insinuates that it has invented a new instrument of torture far more terrible than anything employed before, he does not recoil, still less does he attempt to hold it off with clamor and noise, but he bids it welcome, he hails it solemnly, as Socrates solemnly flourished the poisoned goblet, he shuts himself up with it, he says, as a patient says to the surgeon when a painful operation is about to begin, “Now I am ready.”[4]

For Jean-Paul Sartre, anxiety took the form of responsibility. We experience anxiety whenever we make a decision, reflecting on the possible consequences it may carry. Every action, we must remember, will have an effect, not only on ourselves, but on others and the environment. There are other people who will be affected by our decisions, and they, too, will be making decisions that will impact us. Martin Heidegger concurred with Kierkegaard regarding the nature of dread. He identified dread with no object, claiming dread was the confrontation between pure Being and negation, Nothingness. To Heidegger, dread is a matter of distinguishing the authentic from the inauthentic. In our everyday life, we are in condition Heidegger called “Verfallenheit,” or “fallenness,” which refers to the trivialization of our lives. Because we are thrown, as Heidegger liked to say, into life, we are forced to conform, since we find comfort in doing so. We lose our individuality to das Man, or the average, inauthentic personality, becoming just another, ordinary person, not unique in any way. This state of being thrown results in Verfallenheit, and we forget about who we are and why we are here, surrendering to our boring, repetitive routines, until we are authentic no more. It is only through dread, Heidegger argued, that we can become aware of ourselves as beings-in-Unknown-2.jpegthe world. Dread is like a memento mori. “But the state-of-mind which can hold open the utter and constant threat to itself arising from Dasein’s [an individual] ownmost individualized Being, is anxiety,” Heidegger said.[5] Since Heidegger said dread was confrontation with Nothingness, and since Nothingness to us means death, the absence of self, it means dread is confrontation with our own deaths. When Heidegger talked about death, he meant it in the most serious way; he showed contempt for today’s society, which makes death seem less serious than it really is—“This ordinary hackneyed Nothing, so completely taken for granted and rolling off the tongue so casually.”[6] He criticized our culture for denying the reality of death, because whenever we speak of the death, we say it will inevitably come, just not yet, not at this moment. What vexed Heidegger was the fact that death is the most certain thing in each of our lives, and it can happen at any moment, even when we do not expect it. Death, Heidegger believed, is our most personal possession, the only thing that cannot be taken from us; one can take our material positions, one can take our pride, one can even take our own life, yet even in the last case, it is we who die, so our death is reserved for us alone. Because of this unique property of ours, Heidegger called humans “Sein-und-Tode,” or “Beings-toward-death,” as we are always on our way to death. In this way, Heidegger assured us we all have a “freedom to death” (“Freiheit zum Tode”).

The second most common of these words is probably despair, usually used to signify hopelessness. Kierkegaard thought despair was instead an unacceptance of the self in his 1849 book The Sickness Unto Death. Throughout our life, we come at points in our life where do not like ourselves, either out of ignorance or rejection. In the case of the former, we usually do not find who we are until later in life; until then, we are ignorant of our true nature, and since we do not even know our own identities, we hate ourselves; unfortunately, we are stuck with ourselves, so there is no point in despairing, Kierkegaard warned. In the case of the latter, it is the opposite. Eventually, we find out Unknown-3.jpegwho we are, or we find out for what we are destined or about what we are passionate, and as a result, we do not like who we are or for what we are destined; this, too, leads to despair, as we do not want to live with ourselves. If we find that we have a personality or vocation we would rather not have, we trick ourselves into thinking it is the personality or vocation itself with which we are unsatisfied, but it is really us with whom we have a problem. We want to change ourselves and be someone else, but this, Kierkegaard said, is cowardly, and we should accept and love ourselves for who we are. Despair for Sartre is manifest in our dependence upon the world. Oftentimes we like to count on Life to play by our rules, or we expect it to do what we want it to. Life, however, does not play by our rules, nor does it work in our favor. Meaning is internalized, not externalized, Sartre asserted. Deriving meaning or morality from the world is not a reliable method, nor a dependable one; we need to derive meaning from ourselves. Imagine planning an outdoor party and accounting for the weather perfectly; the success of your party depends entirely on the weather, about which you are confident; you place your trust in the weather forecast as a result; however, when the date comes, the part is ruined because a storm comes—this is what Sartre found wrong with relying on the world to give us meaning. We cannot rely on the world. When we discover that we are alone, we despair.

Unknown-4.jpeg“[I]t is in anguish that freedom is, in its being, in question for itself,” wrote Sartre.[7] Anguish is similar to Kierkegaard’s angst in that it is the realization of one’s choices. In the above quote, Sartre explains that when we consider our freedom to make choices, we are exercising our freedom in an attempt to understand our choices. Freedom is manifest in anguish, as we become free to act of our own free will. Sartre develops anguish further as an awareness not only of choices, but of possibilities, of could-be’s. “Vertigo is anguish to the extent that I am afraid not of falling over the precipice, but of throwing myself over,” he clarified.[8] All possibilities must be considered when making a choice, because even the improbable ones can be made possible. In a rather confusing passage in Being and Nothingness, Sartre talks about possibilities. Our present state is determined by the possibilities we acknowledge, self-persevering and self-destructive, but the latter still exist as possibilities that can happen, but it is we who, acting out of self-preservation, hold out from making them actuality, and so avoid them, but it is the fact that these possibilities exist as able-to-happen that anguish occurs. Hence, anguish is the consciousness of the unpredictability of one’s future. Echoing his opinion of anxiety as well, Sartre commented, “[T]his kind of anguish,… is explained,… by a direct responsibility to the other men whom it involves.”[9]

Forlornness is not common nowadays, although it is a classic Existential mood, insofar as it is the loneliness and abandonment of man. Man is a lonely being, seeing as he is responsible for his actions and his actions alone; it is he who answers for everything he does. Everyday man has to carry this burden on his own shoulders throughout life, without help from anyone or anything. In pure Existentialism, as in Sartre and Heidegger, God does not exist, and as such, we have no outside being from which to derive our values. There is no scripture from which to read, no commandments by which we can live, nor any words of others to which we can listen, as we must pave our own paths. Meaning comes from the self. This is not like school where we can ask our peers or teachers for help. And there is certainly no reading any Self-Help books or reading famous philosophers, for wise though they may be, their words cannot be abided by, considering they do not work for everyone. According to Sartre, tradition cannot be adhered to either, because cultural norms are just the choices made by previous people, and they are not here anymore; now it is you; therefore, you must make your own norms and live by them, with no God, no aids, no guidance whatsoever. It is just you and the world.

4UYBZd1a.jpegThe feeling of nausea will be lightly be touched upon, as delineated in Sartre’s novel Nausea. A notable work of Sartre’s, Nausea tells of a man who suffers from bouts of nausea, the cause of which is the total meaninglessness of the world. To think that every day we encounter lifeless, non-conscious matter is not often considered, though when it is, it is truly nauseating. Man, a conscious being, what Sartre called the “For-itself,” constantly comes into contact with objects, non-conscious beings, what Sartre called “In-themselves.” Look around you right now and take account of every inanimate matter around you. Recognize that you are surrounded by matter—abiological, inanimate, dead, non-conscious, lifeless, inert, matter. It is when we realize the profound absurdity of life, the total and complete meaninglessness of the world around us, that we feel nauseated.

In conclusion, Existentialism is very sad—but it also provides us with a deeper view of life and the meaning of the universe, or lack thereof. Compared to their everyday usage, Existential emotions carry with them much more depth, insight, and relatability than we usually think. Occasionally, we should all reflect on Nothingness, death, despair, possibility, loneliness, and nausea so we can appreciate life more and get a deeper feel for life and perhaps be more authentic.


[1] Gardiner, Nineteenth-Century Philosophy, p. 311
[2] Ibid., p. 314
[3] Ibid., p. 315
[4] p. 320
[5] Heidegger, Being and Time, H. 266
[6] Heidegger, What is Metaphysics?, p. 301c*
[7] Sartre, Being and Nothingness, p. 35
[8] Id.
[9] Bierman, Philosophy for a New Generation, 4­­th ed., p. 396
For further reading: 
Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy 3rd ed. by Simon Blackburn (2016)
Philosophy for a New Generation 4th ed. by A.K. Bierman (1981)
Introduction to Modern Existentialism by Ernst Breisach (1962)
The Oxford Companion to Philosophy 
by Ted Honderick (1995)

The Encyclopedia of Philosophy Vol. 3 by Paul Edwards (1967)
The Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Vol. 4 by Paul Edwards (1967)
A History of Philosophy
Vol. 7 by Frederick Copleston (1994)

Philosophy: The Classics 3rd ed. by Nigel Warburton (2008)
Nineteenth-Century Philosophy by Patrick Gardiner (1969)
Dictionary of Philosophy by Thomas Mautner (2005)
Being and Nothingness
by Jean-Paul Sartre (1966)

The Philosophy Book by Will Buckingham (2011)
The Story of Philosophy by James Garvey (2012)
History of Philosophy by Julian Marías (1967)
Being and Time by Martin Heidegger (1962)

*Page in reference found in The Great Books of the Western World Vol. 55 by Mortimer J. Adler (1990)


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