The Concept of Anxiety  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Begrebet Angest (The Concept of Anxiety) is a philosophical work written by Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard in 1844. The 1981 translation of this work into English translates the title as The Concept of Anxiety. The original 1946 English translation of the book (now out of print) had the title The Concept of Dread.

For Kierkegaard (writing as a pseudonymous author, Vigilius Haufniensis), anxiety/dread/angst is unfocused fear. Kierkegaard uses the example of a man standing on the edge of a tall building or cliff. When the man looks over the edge, he experiences a focused fear of falling, but at the same time, the man feels a terrifying impulse to throw himself intentionally off the edge. That experience is anxiety or dread because of our complete freedom to choose to either throw oneself off or to stay put. The mere fact that one has the possibility and freedom to do something, even the most terrifying of possibilities, triggers immense feelings of dread. Kierkegaard called this our "dizziness of freedom."

Kierkegaard focuses on the first anxiety experienced by man: Adam's choice to eat from God's forbidden tree of knowledge or not. Since the concepts of good and evil did not come into existence before Adam ate the fruit, which is now dubbed original sin, Adam had no concept of good and evil, and did not know that eating from the tree was "evil." What he did know was that God told him not to eat from the tree. The anxiety comes from the fact that God's prohibition itself implies that Adam is free and that he could choose to obey God or not. After Adam ate from the tree, sin was born. So, according to Kierkegaard, anxiety precedes sin, and it is anxiety that leads Adam to sin. Kierkegaard mentions that anxiety is the presupposition for hereditary sin.

However, Kierkegaard mentions that anxiety is a way for humanity to be saved as well. Anxiety informs us of our choices, our self-awareness and personal responsibility, and brings us from a state of un-self-conscious immediacy to self-conscious reflection. (Jean-Paul Sartre calls these terms pre-reflective consciousness and reflective consciousness.) An individual becomes truly aware of their potential through the experience of anxiety. So, anxiety may be a possibility for sin, but anxiety can also be a recognition or realization of one's true identity and freedoms.


  • "Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom"—Søren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Anxiety
  • "No Grand Inquisitor has in readiness such terrible tortures as has anxiety."—Søren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Anxiety
  • "Whoever has learned to be anxious in the right way has learned the ultimate."—Søren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Anxiety

See also

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