Angst and Fear in Being and Time: A Summary

On November 18th at 4:00pm, I will present a paper about terror. (Click here for the abstract and the location).

The paper draws on some elements of Heidegger’s accounts of anxiety (Angst) and fear in Being and Time. If you are not familiar with the book, here is a very short overview of how these concepts figure in the text.

What is our most fundamental layer of experience? Is it the “I think therefore I am” of Descartes? Is it the “primary sense impressions” of empiricism? Of course, on a scientific level it makes sense that we perceive “green” before we cognize “lettuce,” but how did we get to this scientific level? Isn’t the apparent simplicity of perception based on an elaborate set of deductions?
 Heidegger asserts that before we know about sense data or ourselves, we get to know things first by using them. I unreflectively open the door, walk on the grass, adjust my glasses, and so on. I don’t ask myself “what is this door?” I just use it. This ground-level experience is called In-der-Welt-sein (variously translated as “worldliness” or “being in the world”).

So how do I get to the kind of “theoretical” thinking that asks questions like, “what is a door?” For Heidegger, the answer comes about when a thing doesn’t work—the door gets stuck, or the door is gone, etc. This defied expectation jars me into pondering the door’s existence.

My life, then, is an unending series of interactions with things and people—that is, with possibilities. However, we must all die. What is death? It is the “possibility” of no more possibilities—death is the always future limit of my life and the possibilities in it. Epicurus said that he did not fear death because he wouldn’t be able to experience it. Heidegger agrees with the second part, but he says we do fear the end of possibilities. More specifically, we have anxiety or Angst. For the most part, this Angst is under the surface, not disturbing us, but it manifests as fear. When I feel afraid while standing on a ledge, for example, my fear is motivated by our awareness that a fall could end me.

Fear is directed at particular threats, but at times the underlying Angst comes to the surface and I am suddenly struck by the chasm separating myself and everything else. In other words, the object of Angst is nothing in particular while also being everything there is. Of course, the experience of Angst is anything but the calm resignation that we are not long for this world—it is more a sense of profound unease and unsettledness. We all know we must die, but we rarely feel in our bones the full weight of the idea. Angst is that feeling of emptiness, purposelessness, helplessness.

It is only by facing Angst rather than running from it that it can open up my own, most authentic possibilities. We normally deal with Angst by evading it and letting ourselves be absorbed in what Heidegger calls Das Man, everyday opinions and concerns that are never connected to my own life–things like getting a “good” job, wearing the right clothes, etc. When I let Angst become my concern–or rather, when Angst forces itself into the forefront of my attention–I can more authentically realize what I want and am capable of doing. That is, although initially Angst pulls me away from the world, it ultimately frees me up to engage the world more authentically and even, in a personal sense, heroically. A fitting comparison is Breaking Bad‘s Walter White, who allows himself to become the drug kingpin Heisenberg only by wrestling with his own imminent death by cancer.

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