Søren Kierkegaard – The Concept of Anxiety

Anxiety is neither a category of necessity nor a category of freedom; it is entangled freedom, where freedom is not free in itself but entangled, not by necessity, but in itself” (145 Kierkegaard The Concept of Anxiety).

For Kierkegaard, “Anxiety is freedom’s possibility” (153). Acknowledging one’s self as a free being in a state of infinite possibility brings a sense of dread – within each moment of subjective action there is occupation in a dual realm of temporal and eternal existence. “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom, the awareness of the possibility of being able” (138). Engaging with possibility is to engage with our ability to perceive the finitudes of subjective existence within an infinite eternal contained in the moment. “Anxiety is freedom’s actuality as the possibility of possibility” (139).

The individual is composed of a synthesis of psychical and the physical, and the two are united by a third, which is spirit. The third accompanies the individual in existence. The presence of the third relates itself to the individual as a sort of dreaming, never fully actualized. The third is an ambiguous power – constantly changing its effect and meaning. The third constantly disturbs the relation between soul and body, yet it also constitutes the relation between soul and body  – “what, then, is man’s relation to this ambiguous power? How does spirit relate itself to itself and to its conditionality? It relates itself as anxiety. Do away with itself, the spirit cannot; lay ahold of itself, it cannot, as long as it has itself outside of itself” (140).

Even in innocence, with no knowledge of preconception of notions of Good or Evil, anxiety has a grasp on the individual. One may still be aware of the anxious possibility of being able, which creates an innocent anxiety that inevitably ends in guilt. Anxiety has a grasp even on the innocent and ignorant. Kierkegaard references original sin, and describes anxiety as the presupposition for hereditary sin. When Adam received direction from God not to eat from the tree of knowledge or good and evil, Adam didn’t understand a distinction of Good and Evil, but he became aware of the possibility of being able to eat from the tree, which awakens freedom’s possibility. “In this way innocence is brought to its uttermost. In anxiety it is related to the forbidden and to the punishment. Innocence is not guilty, yet there is anxiety as though it were lost” (141).

Kierkegaard creates an intensity around a concept of “the moment”. Just as the individual is a synthesis of physical and psychical, he is also a synthesis of the temporal and the eternal. There is a multiplied doubling of the individual, constantly being met by a third.  The moment is the third of temporal and eternal existence. The moment is not the same as the present in relation to the past and future, rather, “the moment becomes the category of transition” (148). For Kierkegaard, “transition” is a state of being within freedom.

“In the further development of the contradictions, it appears that the present vacillates between meaning the present, the eternal, and the moment. This “now” lies between “was” and “will become”, and naturally “the one” cannot in passing from the past to the future, bypass this “now”. It comes to a halt in the now, does not become older but is older…abstraction culminates in pure being, but pure being is the most abstract expression for eternity, and again as “nothing” it is precisely the moment. Here again the importance of the moment becomes apparent, because only with this category is it possible to give eternity its proper significance, for eternity and the moment become extreme opposites, whereas dialectical sorcery, on the other hand, makes eternity and the moment signify the same thing” (149).

Each moment is a process; it is a “passing by”. So, because no moment is a present, there is accordingly no past, present, or future in time. Existence in time is determined by its “passing by”. For Kierkegaard, in this realm of abstract thinking, the moment becomes spatialized. Time and space essentially become the same thing. Each moment is able to exist as empty because it is the state of being for the moment to pass into another moment. The moment is the bipolar opposite of eternity in that it is able to encapsulate nothing, yet remains full as eternity is.Contrary to the moment being spatialized, and the past, present and future being erased from time, “The eternal, on the contrary, is the present” (150). Time is the infinite succession of moments that passes by. The eternal is the elusive fullness that is unattainable, though felt like a dream in anxiety.  Existence in time has no present, because the present is in a constant transition and always becoming the eternal. The moment is the point where time and eternity touch each other. So it seems, after the dialectic, that the moment is within time, but time is not within the moment. Expression in language, or a sigh, is able to relieve one of the pressures of the moment, because when a burden is expressed it becomes something of the past. “A blink is therefore a designation of time, but mark well, of time in the fateful conflict when it is touched by eternity…as soon as the spirit is posited, the moment is present.” (151).

In dialectical thinking, it becomes easier to imagine how time and space can become the same thing abstractly. In order to have any thought at all, one must first pass through a series of dialectics, one thought must necessarily be misunderstood or met with contradiction before then moving on to a more full understanding, until after a duration the thought reaches either a new or still unresolved resting point. The internal dialectic is often repetitive, the influence of parents or masters, the awareness of context, etc, but in moments of intensity the repetition is sometimes overcome or broken and found to become something different. This thought process can be envisioned as covering distance spatially, or traveling through moments temporally. Thinking demands duration, and duration attaches itself equally well to either time or space. The moment is a mark of intensity within infinite duration. Anxiety is an awareness of the intensity contained within a moment, carried out through correlative duration and a set of possibilities. This is all traversed both spatially and temporally, as well as eternally. Space and time are met by a third, which is infinity.

“In possibility, all things are equally possible, and whoever has truly been brought up by possibility has grasped the terrible as well as the joyful. So when such a person graduates from the school of possibility, and he knows that he can demand absolutely nothing of life and that the terrible, perdition, and annihilation live next door to every man, and when he has thoroughly learned that every anxiety about which he was anxious came upon him in the next moment – he will give actuality another explanation, he will praise actuality, and even when it rests heavily upon him, he will remember that it nevertheless is far, far lighter than possibility was….

When the discoveries of possibility are honestly administered, possibility will discover all the finitudes, but it will idealize them in the form of infinity and in anxiety overwhelm the individual until he again overcomes them in the anticipation of faith” (155 Kierkegaard The Concept of Anxiety)


Kierkegaard, Søren, Howard V. Hong, and Edna H. Hong. The Essential Kierkegaard. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2000. Print.

About Michael Johnson

michaeljohnson.studio thewindandthestones.com viewfromaburrow.com

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