- The Concept of Anxiety by Kierkegaard


Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855) lived during the first half of the 19th. century, an Age in which the Industrial Revolution was affecting all daily lives in Europe. In particular it raised two philosophical issues: the relationship between humans and their machines and the accumulation of vast wealth in the hands of a minority.

The Aristotelian concept of man as a 'rational animal' now had a new context. Machines operate logically and can produce what humans used to create by hand. So what is the difference between the human and the machine? What is the new definition of being human?

The other, related, question was that of alienation. The increase in wealth of the few meant that class divisions became more pronunced, as Marx and Dickens documented. Workers' lives had suddenly changed, too, from an agrarian timetable of saints' day festivals (holy days) and an average of six hours work, to seven day shifts of 12 hours. To be human in this context was another question with new answers.

Kierkegaard's reply to these questions was based on his theological background. He focused on human experience, emotions and personal authenticity. Christian thought underlines the importance of the individual in the person of Christ. 

Kierkegaard states that “Existence precedes essence” because the intrinsic value of a human being is more than what they can produce. The human being is the incomparable and unique subject, not an object.

"Man is different from other creatures simply by his awareness not only of what he is, but also of what he may become."

Kierkegaard insists that existence is much more than logic and ideas and, like Nietzsche's overman, he thought of humans as transcendent. Atheistic thinkers like Nietzsche, Camus and Sartre view humans as transcending into masters of their own values. Theists, like Kierkegaard, thought of existence as transcending towards God. Nietzsche criticised his contemporaries for not taking the death of God seriously; Kierkegaard lamented that his generation did not take God seriously. 

Kierkegaard was also a radical critic of Hegel. He was a theologian, not a philosopher, and rejected the hegelian attempt to systematise life into coordinated philosophical truths such as thesis-antithesis-synthesis. The Danish author criticised systematisation because it generated a fenced-off world in unified truths. For Kierkegaard existence is quite the opposite of the closed system. It is discontinuity and disruption.

Another criticism he had of hegelian theory was its abstraction. He argued that abstract thinking isolated concepts in hierarchies, ones determining others promoting process. Instead he proposed concrete thought and personal experience as means of analyses. In a metaphoric attack Kierkegaard declared that abstract thinkers are imaginary beings who live in great palaces of deep ideas, whereas they actually inhabit cottages with no life or depth.

Abstraction also contained an historical error, according to Kirkegaard. Hegel's dialectics were to be finally resolved in God. For the theologian this proposition was unacceptable. Hegel's philosophy understands Christianity through concepts, but Kierkegaard views his faith as an infinite experience of suffering. Hegelianism seeks objective thought; Kierkegaard believes in personal existence as the prime reference.

The dividing factor between the two is which is nearer the truth. Hegel considered religion the ultimate form of awareness, but that it should be superceded because it is confused by feelings. Kierkegaard thought that faith involved the passion to hold onto something which surpassed understanding. Their conflict was between the two paradigms of reasoned truth and personal truthfulness.

Another facet of their conflict had its origin in the strong traditional influence of hegelian rationalism, prevalent in the previous Age. Romanticism blossomed as a revolutionary counter ideology at the beginning of the 19th. century. Rational theories began to appear as alienated, abstract and unreal to the Romantics. These embraced irrationality and the emotions, placing the individual, the concrete and the immediate at the centre of their philosophy.

Kierkegaard, in consonance with the Romantic tradition, insists that individuals live a personal existence and are focused on emotion. People live an emotional intensity that reason cannot reflect because concepts falsify sentient existence. 

"For to think that for an instant one can break off and bring to a halt the course of the personal life, is a delusion" 

The move from rational, abstract, thinking to Romanticism and its passionate adherence to the immediate and concrete, is a natural transition in philosophy. Hegel's rational ideology created its own antithesis in Romanticism. Rationalism creates a mechanical system; Romanticism underlines the subjective emotional and spiritual level rather than objectivity. However, in fact they are complementary aspects of the human condition.


The Concept of Anxiety: Simple Psychologically Orienting Deliberation on the Dogmatic Issue of Hereditary Sin was published in 1844. The author used the pseudonym Vigilius Haufniensis which in Latin means "The Watchman of Copenhagen".

In his book Kierkegaard explains the relationship between existential problems and anxiety as a response to the absurd.




Chapter I. Dread as the presupposition of original sin and as explaining it retrogressively by going back to its origin

1.Historical indications relative to the concept of original sin

2.The concept of the first sin

3.The concept of innocence

4.The concept of the Fall

5.The concept of dread

6.Dread as the presupposition of original sin and as explaining original sin retrogressively in the direction of its origin.

Chapter II. Dread as original sin progressively

1.Objective dread

2.Subjective dread

Chapter III. Dread as the consequence of that sin which is the default of the consciousness of sin

1.Dread owing to the default of spirit

2.Dread dialectically determined in view of fate

3.Dread dialectically defined in view of guilt

Chapter IV. The dread in sin, or dread as the consequenceof sin in the particular individual

1.Dread of the evil

Chapter V

Dread as a Saving Experience by Means of Faith.

For the narrator of The Concept of Anxiety, Vigilius Haufniensis, anxiety/dread/angst is vague fear. He gives the example of someone standing at the edge of a cliff from which he can see all the prospects of life. He is standing at a crossroads of decision with the freedom to choose. This provokes in the individual a feeling of dread which the narrator calls the "dizziness of freedom".

For the author, original sin is the origin of anxiety and he begins his exposition with the Genesis story of Adam and Eve. When God ordered Adam not to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil this left him with a choice. Adam was ignorant of the difference between good and evil because that could only come from the fruit. This situation of decision to obey God, or not, was the birth of anxiety because, argues Kierkegaard, the ignorance of anxiety is an ignorance of nothing. The anxiety of the person on the edge of the precipice is the leap into a void of which he knows nothing.

People experience anxiety in every choice they have to make. This means that the more choices, instead of being better, augment our level of anxiety.

However, for Kirkegaard the theologian, to despair when faced with anxiety would be sinful. The solution is to embrace God and find a purpose in life. The choice is: slavery to anxiety, or freedom and salvation through the teachings of God:

"Whoever has learned to be anxious in the right way has learned the ultimate. … Anxiety is freedom’s possibility, and only such anxiety is through faith absolutely educative, because it consumes all finite ends and discovers all their deceptiveness."

In the second chapter the narrator clears any doubts by defining dread as original sin. 

"Sin enters by dread but sin brings dread with it." 

The title includes psychology as part of the book's analysis and his method is psychogical in that it is intuitive. Indeed it may be a window on his own psychology since dread is the mental process of someone with a deep, possibly pathological, sense of guilt. 

However, for Kierkegaard the dread he analyses in his book is not pathological but part of our being-in-the -world. It originates in Adam and all humans participate in it.

This inheritance is, in itself, paradoxical because humans have the freedom to choose only because the choice was already made and humanity inherited it from Adam. This means that human existence has its roots in guilt, represented by the original sin in the Adam myth. What was lost in original sin was innocence. Humans, for Kierkegaard, are guilty of not being innocent. It is, paradoxically, a forced guilt and lost innocence, but nevertheless real.


Individualism and freedom

The individual is central to Kierkegaard's philosophy:

". . . the human being is individuum and, as such, at one and the same time itself and the whole human race, so that the whole race participates in the individual and the individual in the whole race."

However, the individual person has an intrinsic relationship to the wider world. Anxiety arises as this interpersonal relationship experiences tension.

Contrary to Hegel, Kierkegaard asserted that humans are free to choose whether or not they accept the system. Indeed individuals can make their own choices of ethics and do not have to conform to authority. For him our decisions affect our identity.

At the same time as Marx, Kierkegaard concluded that humans are in a state of alienation from their own nature. Both philosophers also agreed that philosophy and life must aim to improve the world. However, Marx thought the economy drove history; Kierkegaard saw free will as the dynamics of history. Marx blamed capitalism for human alienation; Kierkegaard declared that humans are the cause of their own alienation.

Freedom was an important concept for Kant and Hegel but Kierkegaard criticised the emptiness of previous philosophers' ideas on the subject. He realised that freedom was not only personal expression but a way of being-in-the-world.

Freedom to choose is at the core of existing, according to Kierkegaard, and thus implies commitment. He follows Socrates in rejecting routine answers and declares that we should all take individual responsibility for assertions about knowledge and ethics.

The traditional epistemological problem was objective truth. Kirkegaard turns this updide down by claiming that the essential task in life is to be more conscious of our own subjectivity. He asserts that the search for objectivity is an attempt to hide from ourselves. Self-direction and not crowd following is how to arrive at truth which can only come from our decisions and experiences. Truth is subjectivity.

"The truth is a trap: you cannot get it without it getting you; you cannot get the truth by capturing it, only by its capturing you."

For the author subjective refers 'to a subject' who perceives, decides and acts. He does not reject the notion of objectivity but insists that facts only become truth when related to an individual's actions and decisions and so acquire meaning. Subjective facts are what you care about and are part of your conscious existence. Living your beliefs, not obeying a system, was his message.

It can also be argued that Kierkegaard's views on subjectivity are heavily influenced by the emerging romantic tradition of his time. 


For Kierkegaard despair is sin. Despair is giving up the will to be oneself. This entails making excuses for your actions and pretending to be a victim when you are not. 

Another sinful state is willing to be despairing. That means not making the effort to improve or reform when, knowingly, we are less than ideal. It's a form of accepted hopelessness.

"And this is one of the most crucial definitions for the whole of Christianity; that the opposite of sin is not virtue but faith."

Kierkegaard, through his narrator Vigilius, rejects the traditional Christian interpretation of the Genesis 2 account. The original sin is not the first sin but the first leap from innocent ignorance into sin. This innocence is lived in a state of anxiety which allows for freedom and thus the leap into sin. The Adam myth portrays the couple, prototypes of humanity, and how humans sin by moving from innocence to guilt through rejecting a relationship with God.


Kierkegaard was profoundly Christian but not an apologist of religion. He openly recognised that his faith is paradoxical and irrational. Though he believes in the incarnation, he accepts that it is absurd. He asserts that the main problem with religion is that people formulate it in doctrines but it cannot be intellectualised:

"Faith constitutes a sphere all by itself, and every misunderstanding of Christianity may at once be recognized by its transforming it into a doctrine, transferring it to the sphere of the intellectual."

The author's disinterest in objectivity lay in his belief in the subjective and personal. Faith was rationally unjustifiable, but personally acceptable. He thought that people needed to take responsibility for their beliefs since believing involves options. Choice, for him, is the core of existence and it is an integral part of freedom.

“Faith is precisely the contradiction between the infinite passion of the individual’s inwardness and the objective uncertainty. If I am capable of grasping God objectively, I do not believe, but precisely because I cannot do this I must believe” 

Kierkegaard quotes the biblical episode of God calling Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac, in order to prove his faith. The father's faith in God is inexplicable and irrational but it is subjective, only comprehensible between Abraham and his God. This is the hallmark of faith: it is personal.

The Absurd

For the author the absurd is a state which cannot be rationally explained. Two of the central experiences of human existence, according to him, are the finite and infinite. Knowledge of death tells us that we have a limited time on earth and this is the experience of finiteness. The infinite is experienced in the apparently illimited possibilities we have in this limited time. The dialectics between the two experiences can provoke anxiety. Kierkegaard called this “the dizziness of freedom”, an absurd situation in which we are so free that we are rendered incapable of choosing and tend to follow trends instead of thinking for ourselves.

The author,  as theologian, recognises that God is beyond human reason and totally inexplicable. This is his absurd God which he presents as positive since it means we have ceased to try understanding the divinity. Believing and acting on the basis of this unknowable God is the author's description of the meaning of faith.

“It takes a purely human courage to renounce the whole temporal realm in order to gain eternity, but this I do gain and in all eternity can never renounce—it is a self-contradiction. But it takes a paradoxical and humble courage to grasp the whole temporal realm now by virtue of the absurd, and this is the courage of faith.”

When referring to the absurdity of the Incarnation Kierkegaard was focusing on the mystery, the supra-rational meaning. It was absurd, for him, to try to rationalise the divine becoming human and eternity entering time. Logic could not help in understanding this mystery, but faith could. Unlike the absurd of 20th. century existentialists, like Beckett whose characters saw no future, Kierkegaard involves the individual and invites them to believe in a future life.


Kierkergaard argued for a deconstruction of reason from a Christian viewpoint and used paradox as his tool for thinking through the process. 

"One must not think slightingly of the paradoxical…for the paradox is the source of the thinker’s passion, and the thinker without a paradox is like a lover without feeling: a paltry mediocrity."

Reason conceives humans as reasoning animals but this requires mind and spirit but God cannot be reasoned. The author's existential anthropology rejected the rationalisation of the infinite Spirit by finite beings. Thus implies that reason can say nothing about God since it has no experience of infiniteness. In the Incarnation the infinite became finite. This is the paradox that reason cannot solve.

It also involves the deconstruction of reason since it aspires to universal absolutes while building from a finite mindset. Kierkegaard argues that the only way to achieve a universal view is through faith, which is a leap away from the rational method of step by step.


The existential anthropology developed by Kierkegaard consisted of several core concepts:

Life is defined by freedom of choice. This may lead to anxiety because of the overwhelming options. However, choosing is the way we develop our existence. It defines our identity and the narratives we live by.

Election is inevitable, including that of not action. This, too, is a choice. However, whatever we choose we will usually doubt that other options would have been better. Thus may lead to despair if we don't have enough faith in God.

"People settle for a level of despair they can tolerate and call it happiness."

Freedom to choose implies morality, the possibility to choose good over bad, justice over pleasure. Adam was the biblical prototype of the wrong choice which all humans are exposed to. This is sin.

Being able to choose freely may involve an existential vertigo leaving us on the brink of emptiness. Without a grounding in faith uncertainty can overwhelm us.

Choice is the responsibility of each individual, not of our inheritances, nor of others nor of the context. 

"Subjectivity is truth."

This subjective stance has been criticised as not taking into account that we are social beings living in history and with a cultural baggage.

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