The Concept of Anxiety

The Concept of Anxiety: A Simple Psychologically Orienting Deliberation on the Dogmatic Issue of Hereditary Sin is often considered Kierkegaard’s most difficult work.  The work is ‘psychological’ in that psychology is in the best position to describe anxiety.  Anxiety itself however gives way only to a dogmatic (religious) orientation; psychology is required but can only go so far.

The following may not make any sense (as I am trying to sort this out myself) but I thought I would try and unpack a few key quotes in Kierkegaard’s concept.

He writes,

Innocence is ignorance.  In ignorance, man is not qualified as spirit but is psychically qualified in immediate unity with his natural condition. . . . In this state there is peace and repose, but there is simultaneously something else that is not contention and strife, for there is indeed nothing against which to strive.  What, then, is it?  Nothing.  But what effect does nothing have?  It begets anxiety.  This is the profound secret of innocence, that it is at the same time anxiety.

. . .

Anxiety is a qualification of dreaming spirit, and as such it has its place in psychology.  Awake, the difference between myself and my other is posited; sleeping, it is suspended; dreaming it is an intimated nothing.  The actuality of the spirit constantly shows itself as a form that tempts its possibility but disappears as soon as it seeks to grasp for it, and it is a nothing that can only bring anxiety. . . . I must point out that it [anxiety] is altogether different from fear and similar concepts that refer to something definite, whereas anxiety is freedom’s actuality as the possibility of possibility. (42-43; emphasis mine)

Another important section.

Just as the relation of anxiety to its object, to something that is nothing, . . . is altogether ambiguous, so also the transition that is to be made from innocence to guilt will be so dialectical that it can be seen that the explanation is what it must be, psychological.  The qualitative leap stands outside of all ambuguity.  But he who becomes guilty through anxiety is indeed innocent, for it was not he himself but anxiety, a foreign power, that laid hold of him, a power that he did not love but about which he was anxious.  And yet he is guilty, for he sank in anxiety, which he nevertheless loved even as he feared it.  There is nothing in the world more ambiguous; therefore this is the only psychological explanation.  But, to repeat once more, it could never occur to the explanation that it should explain the qualitative leap.  Every notion that suggests that the prohibition tempted him, or that the seducer deceived him, has sufficient ambiguity only for a superficial observation, but it perverts ethics, introduces a quantitative determination, and will by the help of psychology pay man a compliment at the sacrifice of the ethical, a compliment that everyone who is ethically developed must reject as a new and more profound seduction.

That anxiety makes its appearance is the pivot upon which everything turns.  Man is a synthesis of the psychical and the physical; however, a synthesis is unthinkable if the two are not united in a third.  This third is spirit. (43)

If you are still following I will point out that what I think is important here is that only psychology can observe what is happening at the first sin because ethics cannot be established until there already is sin.  So there must be an account of how sin entered the world.  Kierkegaard insists that Genesis is the only correct view in that “sin came into the world by a sin” (32).  Anxiety begins in innocence but spirit also exists (though dreaming ).  And so anxiety emerges (the presence of spirit) though anxiety is over nothing and the person is still innocent but the person is also guilty because he is anxious (a state also not fully compatible with innocence).  Anxiety is the pivot because anxiety is freedom’s actuality as the possibility of possibility.  Anxiety brings one to the edge of the leap; of qualitative change.  This is from innocence to guilt (and so everyone stands in the same relation to sin as Adam) and from guilt to atonement.  One without anxiety has not overcome anxiety but instead is spiritless.  The one who gains salvation is the one who understands how anxiety can have its direction changed leading one to the abyss of salvation.  One adventure that Kierkegaard acknowledges that we must go through is,

to learn to be anxious in order that he may not perish either by never having been in anxiety or by succumbing in anxiety.  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 their deceptiveness.  . . .  Whoever is educated by anxiety is educated by possibility, and only he who is educated by possibility is educated according to his infinitude.  Therefore possibility is the weightiest of all categories. . . . [W]hoever has truly learned how to be anxious will dance when the anxieties of finitude strike up the music and when the apprentices of finitude lose their minds and courage. (155-156, 161-162)


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