Kierkegaard on anxiety and despair: An analysis of "The Concept of Anxiety" and "The Sickness Unto Death"

Gregory R. Beabout, Marquette University

Abstract

The concepts of anxiety and despair together are central to Kierkegaard's conception of the self. He discusses these concepts principally in two works, The Concept of Anxiety and The Sickness Unto Death. Anxiety and despair each have a complex structure and are closely interrelated to one another. This thematic interconnection between anxiety and despair is doubled and made more difficult by the textual relationship between the two works and the fact that they have different pseudonymous "authors." Further, both these works are very dense and bristle with problems of meaning and interpretation. Therefore, the dissertation is a careful articulation of the structure and relation between anxiety and despair through a close textual analysis of The Concept of Anxiety and The Sickness Unto Death. Kierkegaard understands anxiety (angest) to be both the attraction to and the repulsion from the nothingness of future possibilities. Thus, anxiety is not simply a psychological state, mood or feeling, but is an ontological structure essential to human being and is the mark of human freedom. Anxiety is that which psychology refers to in seeking an explanation to free human choices. Further, anxiety is an explanation of choice only in the sense that it explains the possibility of choice; it does not and can not explain the cause of this or that particular choice. Kierkegaard understands despair (fortvivlelse) to be a not-willing-to-be-oneself. Like anxiety, despair is not simply a psychological state. Instead, it is the structure of one's being who has wrongfully used freedom. Since the self is capable of relating itself (or misrelating itself) to itself in multiple ways, and since despair is the misrelation of oneself to oneself, despair has a multitude of forms. I argue that in Kierkegaard's writings, anxiety and despair are surely not different terms for the same mood or psychological state. Rather, anxiety is the mark of human freedom and the condition for the possibility of despair. Despair is the wrongful use of freedom through the failure to choose to be oneself. Finally, a cure for despair must include anxiety, that is, freedom's possibility.

Recommended Citation

Gregory R. Beabout, "Kierkegaard on anxiety and despair: An analysis of "The Concept of Anxiety" and "The Sickness Unto Death"" (January 1, 1988). Dissertations (1962 - 2010) Access via Proquest Digital Dissertations. Paper AAI8904252.
http://epublications.marquette.edu/dissertations/AAI8904252

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