Dread or Angst as a philosophical term originated primarily through the work of the nineteenth century Danish existential philosopher and theologian Soren Kierkegaard. The term, which is often interpreted as “anxiety,” refers to the spiritual anxiety one experiences in the face of one’s own freedom. It is often contrasted with “fear.” Fear is an emotional response that humans experience when confronted with some potentially harmful or dangerous object or situation. For example, one might experience fear when facing a wild animal or when confronted by peers in a potentially embarrassing situation, such as public speaking. These psychological experiences of fear are marked precisely by the fact that the object or cause of the fear is known. One fears the wolf or the ridicule of others. But what distinguishes the philosophical notion of dread is that there is no “object.”
In dread one does not fear some thing, but rather experiences the anxiety of the existential nothingness (or no-thing-ness) of our human condition. Although Kierkegaard was the first to analyze in detail the concept of dread, the idea became prominent in the philosophy and literature of the twentieth-century existential movement.
In his work, The Concept of Dread, (1844) Kierkegaard analyzes the notion in terms of our freedom and the anxiety of choice. He uses the example of a man who when standing on the edge of a cliff realizes that he could hurl himself over the edge at any moment. In this way, the man recognizes his own intrinsic freedom and the possibility of deciding his own destiny. This recognition triggers a kind of “dizziness of freedom” in which the man becomes aware also of his own responsibility. Kierkegaard connects these ideas back to the story of Adam and original sin. Prior to original sin Adam did not know good or evil, and so he did not know that eating the fruit was “evil.” When God commanded him not to eat, however, Adam became aware of his own freedom and power to choose. Adam experienced the dread, then, as the possibility of either obeying God or dissenting from Him. Dread, therefore, was the precondition of original sin. At the same time, however, for Kierkegaard dread is not an entirely “bad” thing. For the experience of dread also opens us to the move from immediacy to reflection—that is, we achieve a greater degree of self-awareness and our basic human condition of sin. This awareness offers us the possibility of repentance, which through grace can lead us back to the Absolute Good or God.
The twentieth century French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre took Kierkegaard’s notion of dread and interpreted it in an atheistic manner. Like Kierkegaard, Sartre distinguished dread from fear and related the idea to our intrinsic freedom and the necessity of choice. For Sartre, though, because there is no God, there is no human nature or ethical, universal norms or laws by which to guide our human actions. The anxiety of our freedom, then, is the awareness that we ourselves have to decide the ultimate meaning and destiny of our lives. Rather than “repent” we must accept the responsibility of choosing our own actions, which is what decides who and what we become. Sartre uses the term “bad faith” to explain the flight we take in avoiding this anxiety of our existential condition. In contrast, he argues for an “authenticity” which does not flee the anxiety but accepts responsibility for our own choices.
The German philosopher Martin Heidegger took Kierkegaard’s notion of anxiety and interpreted it in a more ontological manner. Traditionally ontology refers to the study of being, and it was the question of being which concerned Heidegger more than ethical questions. Nonetheless, he thought the question of being could only be answered by that being “for whom being was an issue.” That being is of course human being or what Heidegger called “Dasein.” Heidegger reinterpreted human being in a radically temporal way in terms of the finitude of our human existence. For Heidegger the recognition of the finitude of our existence comes through the angst or anxiety of our “being-toward-death.” That is, in our recognition that our future has an end we experience the temporal character of our being. Here too angst is associated with freedom. Heidegger, like Kierkegaard, speaks of the dizziness of possibility. Authenticity, is the acceptance of this angst which leads to the recognition of “ownmost possibilities,” that is, the possibilities which are open concretely to us. Authenticity is contrasted with an inauthenticity which forgets the temporal character of our being and instead falls into the everydayness of the 'they'.
The existential movement of the twentieth century emerged not only in philosophy but in the arts and literature as well. Sartre, for example, wrote novels and plays along with his philosophical essays. In these literary works (such as Nausea) he examines the notion of dread through dramatic portrayals of individuals caught in existential situations and who experience the anxiety of their own freedom. The German writer Franz Kafka is perhaps the greatest existential writer of this period. In many of his short stories and novels (in particular The Trial) Kafka examines the angst of the human condition with tremendous lucidity and even humor. In the United States, as well, the theme of existential angst was often depicted in literary form. Many of Saul Bellow’s characters are ridden with this angst and J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is considered a classic of the 'angst genre', particularly as experienced in youth.
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