Angst Graphics courtesy of HealioOpens in new window

Angst is a German word meaning “fear” or “anxiety.” In English, it is used to mean intense anxiety or distress. In both psychology and existential philosophy, fear and anxiety are distinguished.

Angst is much more closer in meaning to anxiety than to fear.

Existential philosophers discussed angst, creating unique descriptions and speculations about its origins. The 19th-century Danish philosopher Soren KierkegaardOpens in new window, in The Origins of Dread, published in 1844, used the term to describe extreme despair and uncertainty in people caused by their state of freedom to choose. Whereas animals are driven by instinct, humans are not, and along with freedom and consciousness comes responsibility.

According to KierkegaardOpens in new window, this responsibility is to engage with the world. Engaging with the world means that one is not playing safe, simply doing what is socially acceptable and comfortable.

Engagement is uncomfortable, creating uncertainty and anxietyOpens in new window. But this engagement is necessary for a meaningful life, and thus angst itself is typically a sign that an individual is living authentically.

Kierkegaard discussed the connection between angst and being a good Christian. A good Christian is with God, possessing Godly values and attitudes. This means that the good Christian is not with the worldly and thus can experience a great deal of friction and conflict with fellow humans, creating angst.

The 20th-century German philosopher Martin HeideggerOpens in new window has a different view of the concept of angstOpens in new window.

Unlike Kierkegard, Heidegger turned away from religion, and to HeideggerOpens in new window, angst did not signify spiritual responsibility in the same way that it did for Kierkegaard. For Heidegger, angst was a feeling more related to existence because it is fear of nonexistence and of nothingness.

Since, in angst, the fear is not directed toward a particular object, when asked what one fears, he will truthfully respond “I don’t know” or “nothing.” At the same time, he will feel anxiety and dread.

To better understand what Heidegger meant by angst, one has to understand what he meant by nothing or nothingness. Rather than meaning the negation of objects or existence, a feeling of nothingness is more a feeling that objects are alien and uncanny. Feeling angst is similar to feeling fear in the dark, Heidegger said.

Angst occurs in the presence of objects, of the world, but the person experiencing angst feels as if everything is drawing away from him; he feels as if the world, but the person experiencing angst feels as if everything is drawing away from him; he feels as if the world has become alien and indifferent. Heidegger wrote about angst in his 1927 book Being and Time and elaborated on the concept in a 1929 lecture titled “What Is Metaphysics?”

See also:
  1. Panza, C., & Gale, G. (2009). Existentialism for dummies. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley.
  2. Heidegger, M. (1929). What is metaphysics? Lecture given at University of Freiburg, Germany.
  3. Heidegger, M. (1953). Being and time. Albany: State University of New York Press. (Original work published 1927)
  4. Kierkegaard, M. (1944). The concept of dread. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1844).