One thing that marks almost all existential thought is the acknowledgement of a ‘dark side’ to human existence. Now, this has nothing to do with psychology. You won’t find any reference in this series of articles to notions of a Freudian ‘death drive,’ an unconscious teeming with all manner of nasties looking to cause mischief, or experiments that show how easily people who aren’t normally cruel or mean can become so in certain situations (c.f. The Milgram and Stanford Prison experiments). The ‘dark side’ existential thought concerns itself with is not about behaviour, personality, or character; rather, it is the recognition that in exactly the same way that the light of the sun always and inevitably brings with it the dark of shadows, i.e. absence of light, the ‘light’ of human existence also inevitably comes with certain ‘dark’ patches, that, although we usually think of them as negative and things to be avoided, diminished, or overcome are just what it is to exist as human beings. To investigate this, this series of articles (I anticipate three) will look at some of these ‘shadow’ features of human existence through five key philosophers before wrapping up with a short section bringing their thoughts together.
In Soren Kierkegaard’s 1844 book The Concept of Anxiety, the Danish philosopher outlined… well, a concept of anxiety that went well beyond our typical thoughts about this emotion. Although Kierkegaard explicated anxiety in relation to the beginning of a human being’s life (when one becomes a self) and the Christian notion of hereditary sin, we don’t need to get into those weeds to understand how anxiety applies to human existence. Let’s get a definition up on the board and go from there. This is what Kierkegaard has to say on the matter: “anxiety is freedom’s actuality as the possibility of possibility.” We’d better unpack this a little.
Perhaps we should start with the difference between anxiety and fear. Fear is always a fear of something, that is to say, some-thing; i.e. a definite object or event. This places fear squarely in the world, in the here and now, and makes the thing about which we feel fear a specific object. You can’t fear something you don’t know, or be afraid of something you can’t describe. Anxiety, on the other hand, is always about nothing; that is no-thing, no specific, concrete, well-defined object. What could this possibly mean? Nothing is nothing, right? Why would I be anxious about that? If a thing is a specific, concrete, well-defined object, then there is one ‘thing’ that we experience all the time, but which can’t properly be classified as a thing; possibility. Possibility, as a future situation which is not yet, but may be, has absolutely no claim to concrete, actual existence. Furthermore, since there are an infinite number of possibilities, possibility lacks any concrete expression, and is actually nothing, that is to say, no-thing. So, anxiety, being always about nothing, is always about possibility.
Since genuine possibility only arises in freedom, we can now make sense of that earlier definition. Anxiety is freedom’s actuality (the actual, concrete arising of freedom in an individual human being) as, not just the possible, but the possibility of possibility; i.e. the opening up of a space in which the infinity of possibilities themselves become possible. In other words, freedom is not just a possibility amongst other possibilities; rather, it is the very thing that brings possibility into the world, that makes possibility itself possible. Our fundamental relation to this infinity of possibilities is precisely anxiety.
But why anxiety? Isn’t it true that we can be excited about the future? Yes, but eagerly anticipating a specific future event tells us nothing about our fundamental relation to possibility itself. It’s a little like the difference between your opinions about the latest model Ferrari and your opinions about vehicular transport in general, which could involve a much broader range of topics, such as global warming, safety, convenience, traffic congestion, etc. Fine, but you might still think the infinite number of possibilities ahead of you is exhilarating, not anxiety-producing. I agree that we absolutely can relate to our possibilities with exhilaration, but I also think this is a mature position formulated after, and therefore on top of, a more fundamental relation. To understand our original relation to freedom, consider this analogy. Imagine life in the womb; warm, safe, quiet, calm. Sure, nothing particularly interesting happens, but that wouldn’t bother you because you have no concept of ‘something interesting.’ This is something you will only later come to appreciate. Then one day, while you were minding your own business sipping on a little amniotic fluid while chilling after a hard day’s work growing those digits, a sudden disturbance erupts in your world. You feel this strange sensation of ‘pressure’ that seems to be forcing you to a fissure that has suddenly opened in your previously self-contained universe. After much life and death struggling, you find yourself blinded by light and surrounded by alien shapes, sounds assail your virginal ears, and your limbs are manhandled in ways you could have never imagined possible. Perhaps worst of all, there’s a bizarre tightness in your chest that you don’t know how to alleviate. It requires some remedy, an expansion and contraction of an organ you didn’t know you possessed, but how you can you breathe when you’ve never done it before? This is the torment of childbirth. Of course, as adults reflecting on this event we don’t actually remember, from the comfort of our living room couch, we realise our own birth, as traumatic as it must have been, was worth that trauma many times over. However, this doesn’t eliminate the trauma. It justifies it. Our inauguration into this world was an existential terror on a level we (thankfully) aren’t fully able to appreciate.
The difference between our birth and our freedom (well, one of the differences – it is only an analogy) is that freedom and possibility, rather than being one-off events, are permanent features of human reality. Imagine if waking up every morning was like being born again. Would this constitute the ultimate torture? At first, surely yes. However, I am quite sure you would eventually become used to it; probably so much so that it wouldn’t even appear to you as a trial anymore, you might even grow to like it, to look forward to it. You might actually come to see it as exhilarating and scoff when some joker on the Internet claims our original relation to birth is “existential terror.” And yet this exhilaration would be a modification of this original relation, no less genuine or real for that, but a modification nonetheless. The event of being born, considered in itself, is still existentially terrifying. This is Kierkegaard’s claim about our relation to freedom. We might actually, i.e. not just in a self-delusional way, come to relate to the infinite possibilities freedom opens up before us with a feeling of exhilaration, recognising that without them, life wouldn’t even be worth living, but this doesn’t eliminate our original relation of anxiety, of which our exhilaration is a modification. Indeed, Kierkegaard also calls anxiety the “dizziness of freedom,” and it is certainly that, even if, in your subsequent exhilaration, you have forgotten it. The trick to understanding this is to realise that Kierkegaard is trying to go beneath your individual, contingent response to freedom, which will depend on the vagaries of personality, character, genetics, upbringing, culture, and a million other variables, to understand human existence itself. The human condition, in freedom, is to be exposed to the uncertainty of an infinite array of possibilities and to have to choose from among them. No matter how you subsequently come to see this situation, I think Kierkegaard is right that this situation itself, freedom’s actuality as the possibility of possibility, is anxiety.
This brings me to another key point about anxiety. When you feel happy, there are clear physiological and mental changes. Likewise if you feel sad, or nervous, or angry. This isn’t the case with anxiety though, and this is what makes it existential. We don’t typically experience anxiety as an emotion the way we experience other emotions. Heidegger, picking up on Kierkegaard’s notion, tried to explain in Being and Time how anxiety, rather than an emotion, is an “attunement;” a manner of relating, being disposed, or being oriented, towards the world. In other words, anxiety is actually a structural feature of human existence; that is to say, it is deeper than an emotion. You don’t feel anxious about your freedom through an elevated heart rate, sweaty palms, or any other typical physiological response. It is more like a low-level, background condition you don’t ordinarily ‘feel’ precisely because you live from out of it. An analogy that comes to mind here is the cosmic microwave background radiation. We don’t normally notice this background state of the universe because it makes up the very structure of the universe. We can, of course, detect it with instruments, but only if we pay close attention. The same holds for anxiety. You don’t normally ‘feel’ it precisely because it is the condition for any and all feelings. Nevertheless, a little unbiased, careful introspection reveals, I think, the true dizzying nature of freedom. This is the insight behind Sartre’s claim that we are “condemned to freedom,” and Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov when he argues (against Jesus actually) that the Catholic Church has done more for humanity than Jesus because, in taking away peoples’ freedom, it has given them happiness.
The last thing I want to say about anxiety is that, given that it is structural (existential), it is therefore a permanent feature of human reality. Human existence is characterised by (among other things, for sure, but particularly) freedom; that opening up of an infinite array of possibilities from which we must choose (even not choosing is a choice). You cannot be a human being and not be free. To be free is to stand on the precipice before those possibilities, uncertainty and ambiguity as far as the eye can see. This experience, in its original purity and by its very nature, is anxiety. Thus, anxiety is a fundamental, unavoidable part of human reality. It can be covered over, modified, forgotten, but it cannot be eliminated.
For Kierkegaard the Christian, the only solution to anxiety is faith, but even faith can’t eliminate anxiety; instead, it continually avoids it by giving us a vision beyond the finite, a divine target to move towards. Personally, I don’t think we need to resort to supernatural myths here. It seems to me that we naturally circumvent anxiety, the dizziness of freedom, in our everyday lives, just through living them, getting on with the business of life. This ‘strategy’ or ‘method’ certainly doesn’t rise above the level of an avoidance or distraction, but even Kierkegaard acknowledges that that is the best we can hope for here. The real thing we ought to avoid in all of this is neither anxiety itself (because this is impossible) nor its avoidance (which is necessary to live a happy, fulfilled life), but the denial of anxiety or the forgetfulness that arises when we reflect too shallowly on our existence.
In the mid-20th century, Lithuanian-born, Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas produced a remarkably original existential philosophy which centred itself around the relation to the Other, but instead of grounding this in conflict (like his contemporary Sartre), managed to not only paint the Other in a positive light but derive almost everything of value from it. For our purposes today, however, the Other is an “also starring…”, ceding the title role to separation.
Levinas’ central text is called Totality and Infinity, and these terms are actually a precise summation of his philosophy. The way we tend to think about human existence subsumes everything into a totalised whole. For example, we understand objects by relating them to ourselves (how they look for me, what I use them for, what my past experiences are with them, etc.), and in doing so, reduce them to one pole of a totality that has me as the other pole. In addition to using the word ‘totality,’ Levinas also calls this the same. The other term in the pair that make up the title of Levinas’ book; infinity, arises through the Other (Levinas’ word for other people, although it ultimately cashes out as God in a way he never fully develops in T&I). Other people, unlike the world, resist this totalising intention of ours and resist it absolutely. As consciousnesses in their own right, they stand completely outside our world; indeed, they have their own world, their own totality. We might try to define an Other with a character description or by reducing them to behaviours we have witnessed, but just by virtue of his or her nature as a conscious being, they constantly elude such attempts to grasp them and pin them down, as it were. How does this connect to ‘infinity’? Well, for one, the Other is separated from us by an untraversable (infinite) distance, but more importantly, I think, the Other him or herself always surpasses the idea we have of them. No matter how completely we try to know them, there is always more. We can never exhaust the Other; they are, as Levinas says, not just other, but absolutely so. The other is an absolute alterity.
This, in itself, wouldn’t have been tremendously novel, and usually leads to a conflict-based model of human relations, but what makes Levinas interesting is the way he turns this Otherness, this absolute alterity, into a positive. The Other, precisely because they are a complete transcendence (not in a mystical sense, but in the sense that they are forever outside our world), appears before us as the source of… well, virtually everything. Consider objectivity. What makes a thing objective; that is to say, what gives a thing meaning independent of any reference to me, can only come from a point outside my world. Everything in my world, by the fact that it is in my world, is relative to me, is a part of a totality defined by me. The Other, by providing a reference point outside, transcendent to, my world, makes possible for the first time a meaning independent of me and my interests; that is, objectivity. This is just one example of many of the positivity Levinas derives from the Other, but the underlying point is that we actually need the Other. It is only through the Other that our lives rise above an arbitrary, meaningless existence. Although I don’t remember Levinas actually using the word, we could call what the Other makes possible for us, an authentic existence.
This all sounds pretty positive. Where is the ‘shadow side’ I promised you? Well, long before the Other can appear to rescue us from our arbitrariness, we have to appear as an individual who can be rescued in the first place. Originally, before you, before me, before conscious beings, there was just existence itself. Levinas calls this the there is, and there isn’t a heck of a lot we can say about it because it isn’t actually any thing; that is, it isn’t a particular existent. Kant called it the noumena, Schopenhauer called it the will, Spinoza called it Nature, non-dogmatic religious believers call it God (what I’m calling ‘dogmatic’ believers tend to think of God as an existent). The there is is, thus, pure metaphysics, and quite interesting in its own right, but not only tangentially related to the topic of this article. At some point, in some way, actual, individual existents emerged from this primordial existence without existents. After a few billion years of evolution, some of these existents came to have the capacity to reflect on themselves and their situation. This marked the emergence of the “I,” or the cogito. This event, the arising of the “I” from the there is, Levinas calls the psychism, and defines it as an act of absolute separation. Separation from what? From the there is, from that undifferentiated, primordial pure existence that pervades (or perhaps ‘constitutes’ is a better word here) reality. A part of the there is has ‘broken away,’ separated itself, from the whole, bringing itself about in that very act of separation. Where there had been only pure existence, now there is a clearly delineated, singular existent; a cogito. In addition to the psychism, Levinas, in line with his Jewish faith, calls this atheism.
What is interesting about defining the word ‘atheism’ metaphysically in this way, is that it is no longer a simple belief that attaches to an already existing being, the way we usually understand this word; rather, it is the mode in which a being becomes an existing being in the first place. Thus, separation is an ontological characteristic (although Levinas would balk at my use of the word ‘ontological’ here), or a structural feature, of human existence. In other words, to be a human being at all requires an act of absolute separation from the there is. A human being, whether you believe in God or not, is atheist. Although Levinas certainly doesn’t see life as a separated being amounting to a miserable existence in which we are constantly pining for a return to completeness, an overcoming of the separation – on the contrary, he describes it using words like enjoyment and happiness – ‘separation’ and ‘atheism’ are words which are literally negative, in the sense that I define myself in opposition to, or against, some other.
But we can go further. This separated existence, despite being lived out of happiness, is arbitrary, meaningless, and unjustified. It is (to again use a word Levinas doesn’t) inauthentic. As we’ve seen, authenticity is only achievable through the encounter with the Other (the infamous face-to-face). But, of course, authenticity is only possible for an individual, an individual is always a separated, atheistic individual, and separation/atheism is literally negative. Thus, authenticity is only possible through, and, in fact, depends on, a prior negative, inauthentic existence. Thus, the latter (separation or inauthenticity (atheism)) is necessary for the former (authenticity (salvation)). This all means that, although separation is literally negative, we shouldn’t cast it in normative terms. After all, if it is a necessary, unavoidable part of what I am calling authenticity, then it can’t be wholly ‘bad.’ There is no route to authenticity that doesn’t go through inauthenticity, no path to the light that doesn’t pass through the dark.
It gets worse though. Not only is the price of authenticity paid for with inauthenticity, the former never eliminates the latter. You never stop living inauthentically. You never cast aside your atheism. How could you? It is what it is to be an individual human being. Overcoming the separation that is your atheism would amount to ceasing to be human. I might be able to justify my life and find meaning through the encounter with the Other, but this will never rid me of the separation that defines me because, whatever authenticity I extract from life, to even be an “I” capable of living authentically, I must first exist as separated. In the terms Levinas himself adopts, salvation is only possible for the enduring atheist.
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This is where I will conclude this first article. In the next, we will take a phenomenological turn with German Martin Heidegger and his (slightly) younger French counterpart Jean-Paul Sartre.