Do you ever get that feeling in your stomach when you walk across a bridge and something tells you to throw yourself off? If these odd urges of suicide are the result of your freedom, are they all that bad? Or does this create a deep anxiety which you prefer not to think about?
In 1844, Søren Kierkegaard wrote that anxiety is the dizziness of freedom. 102 years on, Jean-Paul Sartre said that existence precedes essence (whatever). These philosophers poured their lives into thinking and writing about how we live our lives. Today, some people are content with living the traditional bourgeois fashion, but does this predetermined life lead to despair?
This is part deux of my conversation with Patrick Stokes on A Very Short Introduction to Søren Kierkegaard (and existentialism). Patrick is a lecturer in philosophy at Deakin University and an author of two books on Kierkegaard. So, what’s the connection between freedom, anxiety, necessity and despair?
The Philotoric: The existentialists use words like anxiety, anguish, despair, nausea etc. Are any of these terms interchangeable?
Patrick Stokes: No, they’re not. But Kierkegaard does use anxiety (or angest), which becomes angst in Heidegger, and then again in Sartre.
The Philotoric: Ok. Let’s start with anxiety…
PS: Anxiety for both Kierkegaard and Sartre is fear that doesn’t have an object. It’s basically the feeling of freedom. The way in which we respond to the fact that what we do is not determined. For Kierkegaard, it’s religiously qualified because its got to do with the possibility of sin. Sin arises with Adam when he realises for the first time that he could eat the apple. Adam goes from a dim possibility of the possibility of sin – to the realisation that he is going to sin – to the realisation that he has sinned. Anxiety is there in all those stages. Kierkegaard calls it a sympathetic antipathy and an antipathetic sympathy. In other words, you can be simultaneously drawn to and repulsed by something. Now, think about Sartre when he talks about the experience of vertigo: the fear is that I might be blown off a cliff – Anxiety is the realisation that I could throw myself off that cliff and nothing is stopping me from doing that. It’s that response to the horror of freedom – that’s anxiety.
The Philotoric: And despair…
PS: Kierkegaard’s despair is a complicated psychological relation. It is either not wanting to be yourself, or wanting to be yourself in a despairing way. If you imagine a man who says I will be Caesar, or nothing (or insert whatever modern aspiration you like) – and he fails to become Caesar. He then becomes intolerable to himself because he still exists and he is not Caesar. Or alternatively, you could be in despair because you became Caesar – because you want to be essentially Caesar.
The Philotoric: But I want to be Caesar. Why am I in despair?
PS: In becoming Caesar you think that is all you are. In saying that I am essentially Caesar, you are saying I am nothing more than Caesar.
The Philotoric: Does this then map into Sartre’s idea of bad faith?
PS: For Sartre, bad faith is the idea of wanting to be yourself in one of the three modes of being that defines you. The waiter in Sartre’s example reduces himself to what he is for others. The woman flirting reduces herself to a mere body. They reduce themselves to a facticity and not their freedom. Likewise for Kierkegaard, you can inhabit social roles in such a way that you act as if that defines who you are and you are nothing more than that – that person doesn’t have a self. He or she doesn’t understand that they are more than just the clothes they wear. And it’s similar with Sartre – A person in bad faith denies that they are more than just one of those modes of their being.
The Philotoric: Can you expand on the self for Kierkegaard?
PS: Just remember that these are under pseudonyms. Although, Anti-Climacus and Vigilius Haufniensis are probably the closest pseudonyms to Søren Kierkegaard – these works were nearly published under his own name. So for Anti-Climacus, this model of the self is a theory of oppositions – finite and infinite, freedom and necessity, temporal and eternal, psychical and mental, etc. Where despair comes in (and this is very Sartrean) is that you identify with one of these in whole to the exclusion of the other. So you might live life entirely determined by social norms and bourgeois codes around you, never believe that you have any further possibilities and in doing so, that’s despair. On the other hand, if you do whatever you want and act to your imagination, you are also denying your facticity – you’re denying your reality. Living as if you are completely determined or completely free, you are in both cases living what Sartre calls bad faith, or in what Kierkegaard calls despair.
The Philotoric: Do we actually need to think about these ideas as problems today?
PS: I do. I think a lot of the things that Kierkegaard described never stopped being legitimate human problems. But he was talking to a society who thought you can do a bit of philosophy and you’re done with that question. Kierkegaard was trying to get them to slow down – These are problems that remain problems your entire life. These aren’t just intellectual problems that you can knock off in an afternoon and then move on to the next problem. These are the existential problems that remain existential problems – they are yours just in so that you are a finite human being and you’re stuck with them.
Also see his New Philosopher magazine articles online.
And thanks to Existential Comics for the Jean-Paul Sartre ‘radical freedom’ excerpt.