On the concept of anxiety: A reconsideration

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless; 
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement.

–T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets


First a detour through the Dia Trip (good pun fun) for a visual inquiry into tranquility, the opposite of anxiety. In case you missed it, Morning Glory, here’s the story. In the first photo, you can just make out the friendly bees which, as it happens, were just about everywhere.

Exhibit A: Attention to blooming nature.

“Home of the Busybodies”

“Homebuddies,” I replied. “Homebuzzies?”

Exhibit B: Attention to burlap windows.

“Amor Mundi, Burlap Woods: A Still Life”

“Oh Cloudforest, just another day at work,” I thought. “Good old philosophical life.”


My thesis consists of two parts. First of all, I seek to show that the concept of anxiety is obfuscatory. The ‘diagnosis’ or ‘explanation’ it seeks to provide of a certain set of lived experiences lacks sufficient explanatory power. Second of all, I set out a better philosophical approach–one informed by a more poetic understanding–for understanding and examining our lives. Throughout, I imply that talk of anxiety does human beings a grave disservice by ‘treating’ a wide range of wondrous, if trying, life experiences as if they could be subsumed under the category of ‘illness,’ of ‘having a condition,’ and so on.

A precis of the argument. To begin with, I provide a survey and analysis of the concept of anxiety. From this, I seek to offer the most basic definition of anxiety. I conclude that this definition, despite its being ‘the most basic,’ actually covers a disparate set of lived experiences. We’d do well, I suggest, to start our inquiry anew: with simpler words, more vivid experiences, and more particular understandings and local theories; most of all, with good practices.


By my lights, the concept of anxiety has always been fuzzy. Freud seemed to gather this when he sought to distinguish Angst (anxiety) from fear. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, which he wrote in 1920, he insists that fear is associated with a determinate object (say, the dog with its bloody bark) whereas anxiety is an expectation of danger from an indeterminate object or a preparation for danger from a source unknown. I am reminded of Harold Pinter’s plays which are said to evoke a general, pervasive sense of menace. To the characters and to the audience, there is something dark and foreboding but what exactly remains offstage, out of sight, sensed but never grasped.

What Freud’s definition appears to capture, indeed builds into itself, is the all-encompassing dimness of the uneasiness. The person said to be anxious does not know exactly where the anxiety comes from but may sense it more in some quarters of his life and less in others, more at some times and less at others.

Still, I can’t make out why indeterminacy isn’t anything other a pre-philosophical stance toward oneself, a stance summoning us to further inquiry whose immediate aim would be to transform indeterminacy into determinacy, dimness and vagueness into clarity and distinctness. And I can’t understand how Freud’s definition could help us distinguish between, e.g., some especially surprising and serendipitous experience from one of menace or anxiety. For if the object is, according to Freud, indeterminate, then how would we determine whether X would likely bring about joy or suffering? Would there not be something about my relation to particular objects, as yet not well understood, or about my relation to the world more generally that may be calling, urging, enjoining me to inquire?

So far, anxiety is (i) fear together with indeterminacy. Now, let’s turn to other candidate definitions:

(ii) The Stoics. Anxiety, they claim, arises from the belief that what we deem valuable will soon perish or what we care most about will never come to pass. (I used this definition in my post on Hurricane Irene. As will become clear shortly, I have come to regret using the term.)

The phenomena this definition “saves,” so to speak, are those like a parent saying that he is anxious about his child (the thought that a valuable entity might perish) or the job candidate who is anxious about getting a good job (the thought that it will never come her way).

The trouble with the definition is that the panic some feel, intuitively a case of anxiety, is neither about losing something valuable or, only tangentially, about the incapacity of gaining something valuable. She may, quite simply, feel existentially alone, the idea of absence near crippling.

(iii) Pop Psychology. “Anxious people,” Lisa Miller writes in New York Magazine, “dwell on potential negative outcomes and assume (irrational and disproportionate) responsibility for fixing the disasters they imagine will occur” (“Listening to Xanax,”  New York Magazine, March 18, 2012).

On this definition, which certainly has a few things going for it, it is impossible to distinguish between a meditation on worst case scenarios, the goal of which is to bring us to a state of tranquility, and the preoccupations with negative outcomes. It could be said that one exercise is undertaken for the sake of reminding us of our powers while the other, the “dwelling on” kind, is done for the sake of returning us, over and over again, to what ails us, and that would be true. However, it begs off the question of what kind of thinking would train us in the former and remove us from the latter. How, simply by observing these two activities, do we distinguish one from the other?

The trouble is that only philosophical training can do the former, teaching us to reason logically, sequentially, and moving us, like following steps on a path, toward clarity and insight. Yet this author, Lisa Miller, chillingly concludes that she would prefer foolishness to genuine truth. She writes in the final line, “Because the truth is, and I’ll speak for myself here, I want tranquillity once in a while. But I don’t want a tranquil life.”

That is horrible. For the pre-philosophical, nothing much can be said or done.

(iv) Diagnostic and Stastistical Manual (DSM-IV). We read,

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is an anxiety disorder that is characterized by excessive, uncontrollable and often irrational worry about everyday things that is disproportionate to the actual source of worry. This excessive worry often interferes with daily functioning, as individuals suffering GAD typically anticipate disaster, and are overly concerned about everyday matters such as health issues, money, death, family problems, friend problems, relationship problems or work difficulties. Individuals often exhibit a variety of physical symptoms, including fatigue, fidgeting, headaches, nausea, numbness in hands and feet, muscle tension, muscle aches, difficulty swallowing, bouts of difficulty breathing, difficulty concentrating, trembling, twitching, irritability, agitation, sweating, restlessness, insomnia, hot flashes, and rashes and inability to fully control the anxiety.

To its credit, DSM does put its finger on the thought that anxiety is concerned with “worry” and that worry is associated with fairly run of the mill, “everyday things.” I take it the reference to “everyday things” is intended to distinguish anxiety from catastrophic fear, fear of really, really bad and large things happening. The problem is that this worry is so spread out over so many different kinds of examples, experiences, and scenarios as to be virtually meaningless. And notice the range of everyday matters DSM mentions–virtually the whole gamut of our lives–plus the exceptional number of ways that anxiety ‘manifests’ itself in ‘physical symptoms.’

Quite apart from the philosophical question of what anxiety is, the great danger here is that most pre-philosophical people living in the developed world could be diagnosed with anxiety.

(There is a rider about the person’s having experienced these symptoms, together with these thoughts, for 6 months or so, but I can’t see that that rider does much good, in terms of our understanding. A life may not go well for a while or for a shorter period of time. The length of time may only indicate that the person has yet to learn how to examine his life.)

(v) Existentialists. Anxiety, Kierkegaard wrote, is the “dizziness of freedom.” But the dizziness of freedom, spinning in the abyss, just is the fear of death. I suppose it could be the crippling or dizzying or paralyzing fear of my death or of those I care ownmost about. In “Kierkegaard, Danish Doctor of Dread” (New York Times, March 17, 2012),”  the academic philosopher Gordon Marino expounds on this Kierkegaardian line of thought concerning the abyss of freedom:

It is in our anxiety that we come to understand feelingly that we are free, that the possibilities are endless, we can do what we want — jump off the cliff or, in my case, perhaps one day go into the class I teach and, like Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, say absolutely nothing.

The existentialist conception seems especially fruitful as a way of understanding one kind of anxiety–namely, the idea of panic, the metaphysical sense of utter aloneness–but one is hard-pressed to see how it applies to other, more garden variety experiences such as those mentioned in DSM or by the pop psychologists or Stoics.

In sum, the concept of anxiety appears to apply to the most mundane and the most existentially primitive, the most indeterminate to the most determinate (e.g., money), the most intense (spinning or falling in the void) to the least so (shaking hands before an important presentation).

Before I conclude that we are far better off not thinking of our lives in terms of anxiety, I want to offer a simpler definition that will, I hope, gather together many (or most) of the elements in play in the definitions above.


I propose the following conjunctive definition of anxiety:

Anxiety is (1) the fear of not having (enough) of what is good; and/or (2) the fear of not being (here, around, alive, or entwined with another); and/or (3) the fear of not knowing the general layout of the social or natural world.

Consider (1). The thought is that I may not have enough of what is good speaks to our basic human needs and desires. Let’s call this “lived human anthropology,” where anthropology is concerned with the question, as Kant put it later in his life, “What is Man?” The child who is ‘anxious’ about not having enough of what is good (love, food, etc.) is growing up with a deep sense of this insufficiency, this idea of scarcity.

Consider (2). The thought is that I may be afraid of someone’s not being around: a beloved, myself, etc. Perhaps it could be stated even more simply: it is a fear of absence in a very deep and primitive sense. On this understanding, ‘anxiety’ points to our human vulnerabilities, our carings or lacks. Let’s call this “lived sociality,” following Aristotle’s first principle that human beings are, and cannot otherwise be, social animals.

Consider (3). The thought here is that I am in the midst of epistemic doubt bordering on epistemic nihilism. It seems as though I can’t really know others, that I can’t know the everyday world of experience. Let’s call this “lived epistemology,” on the understanding that I am living with a sense of doubt about my standing and place in the world.

And what do we notice about 1-3? We notice, it seems to me, that they are concerned with different experiences and would therefore invite different kinds of considerations, different sorts of inquiries. But if that’s the case, then what good would this definition of anxiety do when what we’re after is understanding, say, why the idea of insufficiency is on our minds, or what reasons we have for believing that our beloveds might leave us, or what grounds we can give for thinking that others are “opaque” to us.

My provisional conclusion is that this is not one river, so to speak, with three different tributaries, but three different rivers entirely. In which case, we’d do well to follow the river in question toward its logical end.


The assumption in much of the ‘therapeutic understanding’ above, one that I am challenging root and branch, is that our lives should be ‘analyzed’ in parts. For example, the cognitive behavioral therapist (CBT), one of the most common in the US and UK today, presupposes that there is this single bit over here that is amenable to ‘analysis’ on its own.

I admit that conceptual analysis can be useful, when the time comes and our conceptions get hazy, but I submit that our lives must be understood in holistic terms. I remember working with a woman–beautiful, intelligent, brave–who told me, during our second or third conversation, that she was an ‘introvert.’ I smiled to myself (we were talking over the phone). It seemed as if the label ‘introvert’ was helping her explain the kind of person she was, but in reality the label functioned as a way of ending an inquiry about herself. Through a lengthy and stirring Socratic dialogue, we concluded that she was not, after all, an ‘introvert’ but neither was she an ‘extrovert’. She was subtracted, as it were, from these psychological categories, from all of them.

We arrived, together, at the place of not-knowing what or how she was, and from here we have since inquiried further. With time, our conversations have only gotten better, more vibrant, more loving.

There are three important points to make. The first is that we have inherited a set of psychological and psychotherapeutic categories that do not enhance understanding but rather close off further inquiry. “Ah, well, so-and-so just is a narcissist.” Bump. End. Stop. The second is that we have inherited the assumption that we really understand a person when we can provide that person with such a label. To say that I’m feeling very sad seems, at first blush, to say something insufficient. But when I say that I am “clinically depressed” or “moderately depressed,” then I feel as if I’ve gotten to the bottom of something. I think I understand something deep about myself, but I don’t. I’ve simply re-described myself in different terms, once again shutting off further inquiry. And the third is that I think something’s going awry (you see I’m even trying, ever so hard, to avoid the use of the word ‘problem’) should be ‘treated’ in analytical terms, as if it could be ‘cordoned off’ and contained in one small sector of my life. “Really, I think, the problem has to do with family.” Nonsense. Whatever is awry, I’ve learned, is not a this or that, not one thing or another, but a way of being in the world, a whole form of life.

(We want to be like cherry blossoms, beautiful, graceful, and light.)

The last point reminds me of a conversation I had with one dear conversation partner. I was telling her that one could, in principle, learn about the whole of a person’s way of life by inquiring about the most mundane of experiences. If someone says that she is shy or that she is always late, then assuredly, like a thread of a sweater, all this needs is a gentle philosophical pull and the sweater will rather nicely come unraveled.

Lives also unravel. Through practice, the good ones come together, flourish, harmonize. And so begins a philosophical inquiry into the nature and possibility of a radiant life.


In this final section, I want to provide a very short sketch of what a philosophical inquiry might entail. I’m afraid, it’s a very short sketch indeed, but at least it provides an intimation, a glimmer, a vision of what examining our lives together actually involves.

The first thing we’d want to do would be to “bracket” the concept of anxiety (etc.) in order to undertake a phenomenological inquiry into the qualia (the individual feel) of the lived experience. Supposing you couldn’t avail yourself of anxiety (etc.), let’s look further into what this experience is like. Let’s provide thick descriptions, let’s write a poem, let’s get some metaphors and analogies in front of us. How about a picture? An image? An image and an explication? Recently, one intelligent woman said that the experience of ‘anxiety’ was rather like having your thoughts ‘captured’ by a glass cube attached to her forehead, with the glass cube spinning around and around with those thoughts.

The second thing we’d want to do would be to build a “local theory” of what’s going on. We’d want to build a framework that would be unique to this person’s experience but also general enough to be communicable to other philosophical souls, other kindred spirits. A local theory would provide the necessary conceptual scaffolding, showing how this experience hangs together with other experiences, how she sees her life ‘fitting’ into a broader scheme of things.

What needs to be emphasized, though, is that a local theory is not a Procrustean Bed. It is not, that is, some General Theory that I have ready to hand and into which every new conversation partner’s experience must then be jammed. The General Theory approach does a grave disservice to the range, diversity, and irreducible complexity of the human adventure.

The third thing we’d want to do would be to develop good practices. To lead a radiant life is to practice well, over and over again among kindred souls, the way of living well. It is here that philosophical friendships, good neighbors, and caring others provide us with ongoing exercises the imminent end of which is living flourishingly. On this understanding, learning to be tranquil and calm is like learning to see the world, time and again but also for the first time, as if it were a cherry blossom in spring, a window becoming a burlap tapestry. By means of practice, we learn to attend.

Further Reading

Supposing I haven’t exhausted your patience and attention already, I want to add that during the next year or so I’ll be trying to show that many so called ‘psychologistic’ and ‘therapeutic’ understandings and problems are actually failures of philosophical self-understanding. One post where I began to discuss this shortcoming, on CBT, can be read here.

In this endeavor, one of my influences was the science fiction writer Ursula Guin, who, in her short story “She Unnames Them,” invites us to examine what life would be like without certain taxonomies. Though I knew it only inchoately at the time, I had begun this line of inquiry here, which led, like a lovely river, to the post above.