Philosophical answers to anxiety
Freud emphasised the importance of external factors in the genesis of anxiety while Heidegger says we are anxious because we care, says philosopher DR PETER BANKI, who will be speaking at Clear Spot Club's anxiety event on May 4.
How long have philosophers been thinking about anxiety for?
It’s hard to know really exactly. It’s possible that it was thought under other names. Anxiety as a modern concept probably dates from the birth of psychology as a science in the 19th Century. The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard wrote a famous philosophical treatise on the concept of anxiety (Angest) in the nineteenth century.
Which philosophers do you think are particularly engaged with it?
The two which are most important for me are Sigmund Freud and Martin Heidegger. Both of whom see anxiety at the very centre of our emotional lives.
In terms of the ancients, who wrote about it?
I believe Hippocrates identified symptoms in some patients that we might today associate with anxiety and phobia. Cicero and Seneca also wrote about worry and anxiety and made the link between physical and mental illnesses.
Whey does Freud interest you? What did he say about it?
Freud emphasised the importance of external factors in the genesis of anxiety, which from my point of view is very important. Primary anxiety is typified by a traumatic situation in which the individual is over-whelmed by helplessness in face of mass stimulation, and secondary anxiety is a signal actively produced by the ego as a warning that a traumatic situation threatens to occur.
Freud also saw anxiety as part of the ego’s mechanism of defence following a traumatic incident.
The implications of Freud's formulation for a predominantly cultural or environmental approach are obvious and bear important relations to many current controversies within the realms of dynamic psychology.
And Heidegger too. What did he say?
For Heidegger, we have a constitutive anxiety which is to do with our being not at home in the world and because our fundamental comportment in the world is one of care. Because we care, we are anxious. Anxiety for Heidegger is not simply negative. He trans-valuates anxiety as that which motivates us to act for the sake of something or someone we care about.
If we weren’t anxious, it would mean we didn’t care. Heidegger also gives emphasis to the concept of the Unheimliche, which was also very important for Freud: the double-sided experience of at once feeling-at-home and not-at-home in the world. Inasmuch as we are at home in the world, we are also not at home, and visa-versa. But he says that the more primordial experience is the strangeness of being not-at-home.
Why is anxiety commonly seen through a medical lens these days?
Probably because we don’t want to look at the wider political and philosophical questions that it raises. We see it simply as an illness of the individual, which we can address with psycho-therapy or drugs. I think a philosophical and socio-political analysis can be extremely beneficial to the individual to help them to deal with anxiety, to manage it.
How would you like to see it framed?
I’d like to put anxiety in dialogue with a thinking about justice and love. Not simply romantic love, but also love in a more general sense, what the ancients would have called Eros. I think love has the capacity at once to soothe anxiety, to settle it for a while, so one can rest, but also in a positive way to create and sustain anxiety in the sense of motivating us to act in inventive ways for the sake of who and what we truly care about.
I think if there is a poverty of love, anxiety will only be destructive. When there is love, anxiety is not necessarily negative. I also think humour has a very important role in helping us to manage our anxiety.
DR BANKI will be speaking alongside sociologist MICHAEL PUSEY and social work lecturer EMMA TSERIS on May 4. BOOK NOW!