Kierkegaard, Heidegger & Anxiety


In this essay we will be discussing the role of anxiety in Heidegger’s philosophy, in particular its role in individuation. In the first section we will briefly introduce some of Søren Kierkegaard’s ideas from The Concept of Anxiety. In the second section we will turn our gaze to Heidegger’s work Being and Time. It is important that we briefly address Kierkegaard’s theory of anxiety beforehand as Heidegger’s view on anxiety can be seen as a direct continuation of Kierkegaard’s theory of anxiety (minus the theological aspect).

§1 – The Concept of Anxiety

Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Anxiety was published in 1844. In this text, Kierkegaard discusses anxiety and its relation to sin (as an act) and hereditary sin (that we are born sinners due to our descendancy from Adam, the first sinner). We will here worry less about the theological aspects of Kierkegaard’s theory and focus more the parts which clearly influenced Heidegger’s work.

Kierkegaard was the first theorist of anxiety to distinguish fear from anxiety. Kierkegaard writes that:

“The concept of anxiety is hardly ever seen treated in psychology, so I must point out that it differs altogether from fear and similar concepts that refer to something definite; whereas anxiety is freedom’s actuality as the possibility of possibility.” 1

Fear is something we are completely conscious of; it is fear of something that is before us. If someone is out for a walk in the bush and they come upon a snake, its teeth bared as it hisses at them, what they feel is not anxiety but fear. For Kierkegaard, anxiety is something much more complex. Anxiety is innocence, anxiety is possibility, anxiety is freedom. What does Kierkegaard mean by this?

In the story of the Garden of Eden, we are told that Adam committed the first sin by eating from the apple tree after being prohibited by God, and because of Adam’s action, and as we are directly descended from Adam, we have inherited this first sin – or at least this is the common belief. Kierkegaard disputes this reading of Adam being a sinner for eating from the tree, and argues against the idea of hereditary sin. For Kierkegaard, Adam could not have sinned for sin was not an existing category prior to Adam eating from the tree, nor did the concepts of Good and Evil exist (nor death). For Kierkegaard, Adam was innocent. As Gordon D Marino writes in the Cambridge Companion to Kierkegaard:

“When God prohibits Adam to eat from the tree or else surely die, Adam cannot, in a sense, understand Him, for he knows neither good and evil nor death.” 2

Gordon then quotes Kierkegaard:

“Because Adam has not understood what was spoken, there is nothing but the ambiguity of anxiety. The infinite possibility of being able that was awakened by the prohibition now draws closer, because this possibility points to a possibility as its sequence.” 3

This is a vital quote. Adam is in a state of anxiety because he does not comprehend right and wrong, he does not comprehend the consequence of eating from the tree, these concepts are completely foreign. It is not fear that Adam feels because he is not fearful of something definite. Good and evil, right and wrong, death, these are all indefinite to Adam. Adam has been prohibited from eating from the tree, yet in prohibiting Adam God has created categories which are new and undefined. Therefore, it is anxiety that Adam feels.

How can Adam have sinned if the term ‘sin’ is something new and ambiguous, something which could not exist until it has actually been done? To this day new laws are being made to prohibit actions which have not existed until these actions have been committed, such as the creation of laws to prohibit cybercrimes in the last few decades. When people first started hacking into other computers there is an awareness that what is being done seems morally wrong, but when there is no law to it and no set punishment there is an ambiguity to what is happening (depending on what is being done, the hacker could be harmlessly scrolling through family photos, or they could be stealing bank details – this again introduces some ambiguity, is it morally wrong to look at someone’s family photos? If you are in a family home as a guest, they will be displayed in photo frames. Should the guest avert their eyes or ask permission to look? And how long can I stare at a photo before it becomes ‘creepy’?).

Before moving on we must here highlight one more aspect of Kierkegaard’s theory, something which may seem obvious from the above discussion about Adam. For Kierkegaard, anxiety has a temporal dimension. We can only be anxious of the present and future. It is impossible to be anxious about the past, the past is always something definite (something we are aware of), something that is set in stone. Say that you have committed some illegal action in the past, and you are worried about it catching up to you. You do not feel anxiety about getting caught for your indiscretion, you feel fear of being caught. (Though one could counter argue that you are not definitely aware that you could be caught, you could be anxious about the possibility of being caught or not. You could say that you would be anxious about the possibility of losing your freedom). This is why Kierkegaard argues that anxiety and possibility are interconnected, we are anxious about future possibilities. Kierkegaard even goes so far to argue that “anxiety is virtually synonymous with possibility, or more specifically with the possibility of freedom.”4

To summarise what we have stated so far, anxiety is about something indefinite; it is orientated towards the future; it is synonymous with possibility, and the possibility of freedom. Bear in mind these qualities from Kierkegaard’s concept of anxiety as we move forward into the next section.

§2 – Heidegger and Anxiety

In a footnote in Being and Time, Heidegger writes: “The man who has gone furthest in analysing the phenomenon of anxiety […] is Soren Kierkegaard.”5 And it is clear that Heidegger paid very close attention to Kierkegaard’s writing when developing his own views on anxiety.

The major difference between Kierkegaard and Heidegger is that Heidegger strips the theological elements of Kierkegaard’s theory (such as sin, hereditary sin and such). Ideas such as the differentiation between fear and anxiety, anxiety and freedom and the temporal dimension of anxiety remain. These elements all play a crucial role in the topic at hand: The question of the role of anxiety in individuation. Before getting to this, we must briefly introduce a three of Heidegger’s concepts before we can explain anxiety’s role in individuation. Authenticity, inauthenticity and the They are three concepts which we need to address to understand anxiety.

These concepts can be explained quite easily. To be authentic is to act in accordance with your true Self; to be inauthentic is to act in accordance with the others around you, to follow the culture, the morality, way of speaking and communicating of the society in which you dwell. It is important to stress that Heidegger is not making a value judgement when he speaks of the authentic and inauthentic Self. (Throughout Being and Time Heidegger consistently reminds us that the terms he introduces do not hold negative connotations. He is simply explaining our existence as it is.) We are inauthentic when we are absorbed in the world of the They. The They is the public world which we are absorbed (or Fall) into when we are around others. It is the society in which we dwell. In the world of the They “Everyone is other, and no one is himself.”6 Heidegger writes further on “The Self of everyday Dasein is the they-self, which we distinguish from the authentic Self …” 7 Here we see that inauthenticity correlates with the They. We slip into a way of being that allows to coexist with the people around us, to fit-in as it were. (Before continuing, the reader should be reminded that this way of being is not lesser to authentic-being, there is nothing negative about inauthenticity. We can live happy and fulfilling lives in inauthenticity.) Authenticity, on the other hand, correlates with anxiety. Anxiety acts upon Dasein in a severe way, it renders the world around us ‘uncanny.’ It could be said that it separates Dasein from the world itself, giving us a view of existence, which brings into question reality. Anxiety creates a fracture between Dasein and the world. This is how anxiety individualizes Dasein. Heidegger writes that “Anxiety individualizes Dasein and thus discloses it as ‘solus ipse’ [I alone]. [In] an extreme sense what it does is precisely to bring Dasein face to face with its world as world, and thus brings it face to face with itself as Being-in-the-world.”8

To put into simpler words, what Heidegger is conveying to us is that the experience of anxiety occurs only within the individual (it is not a group phenomenon). The individual is in a state of anxiety about something indistinct which, as the individual is unclear of what the cause is (if the cause were to be clear then the individual would be in a state of fear and not anxiety), it is unable to convey to others the experience the individual is having. This experience renders the world uncanny to the individual (when one cannot explain to others what is occurring, what is causing their anxious state, the experience of existence itself is bound to be overwhelmingly uncanny). The ironic twist to this experience is, however, that the individual is disconnected from the world and can now experience the world as a perceiver (the world can be viewed by the individual as, to use a Heideggerian neologism, present-at-hand. This is what Heidegger means when he says that only in anxiety can the structures of Being-in-the-world become visible). As this entire experience only occurs for the individual, as it only experienced by the individual, the state of anxiety individualises Dasein. In this moment Dasein is drawn out of the world of the They:

“This individualization brings Dasein back from its falling [from the world of the They], and makes manifest to it that authenticity and inauthenticity are possibilities of its Being.”9

Because Dasein is outside the world of the They it is by definition individualised, it is separated from Others. Dasein is now overwhelmed by possibilities, it is now free to decide whether to choose itself (to make free decisions) or to fall back into the world of the They. As Béatrice Han-Pile writes:

“The section [in Being and Time] on anxiety plays a genetic part in the emancipation process by allowing Dasein to see for the first time that it is both ontologically free and ontically unfree. By breaking down its involvement with the world, anxiety enables Dasein to become pre-reflectively aware of its self-interpretive nature, and faces it with an ultimatum: Dasein has to choose to choose itself, or not. In the first case, it will become existentially free; but either way, it will be irreversibly transformed.” 10

Thus, Dasein is left with an ultimatum: To decide for oneself (individualism), or to fall back into the community. To be alone or to belong.


We began this essay by introducing Kierkegaard’s Concept of Anxiety to give the reader an understanding of where Heidegger’s concept of anxiety originates from. While we could not give a thorough explanation of Kierkegaard’s text, we managed to introduce some of the key ideas which Heidegger brought forward into his own work, such as how anxiety is distinguished from fear, and how anxiety introduces to the individual the possibility of freedom. As we moved into the second section on Heidegger, we showed how Heidegger continued this line of reasoning and adapted it into his own. For Heidegger, anxiety is also distinguished from fear, and brings with it the possibility of freedom. Heidegger takes this further, however, and argues that anxiety individualises Dasein through its uncanniness, and also reveals to Dasein the structure of Being-in-the-world. Anxiety does this by altering the individual’s perspective, taking them outside of the world and showing Dasein the world as present-at-hand. From this perspective the individual can now decide either to re-enter the world (to fall back into the world of the They), or to choose individuality. Dasein becomes free to decide.


1. Søren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Anxiety (USA: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2014), 51.

2. Gordon D Marino, ‘Anxiety in The Concept of Anxiety’, in Gordon D Marino’s (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Kierkegaard (UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 316.

3. ibid.

4. ibid., 317.

5. Martin Heidegger, Being and Time (USA: Harper Perennial, 2008),492.

6. ibid., 165.

7. ibid., 167.

8. ibid., 223.

9. ibid., 225.

10. Béatrice Han-Pile, ‘Freedom and the “Choice to Choose Oneself” in Being and Time’, in Dr. Mark A. Wrathall’s (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Heidegger’s Being and Time (UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 294.


Han-Pile, Béatrice, ‘Freedom and the “Choice to Choose Oneself” in Being and Time’, in Dr. Mark A. Wrathall’s (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Heidegger’s Being and Time (UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013)

Heidegger, Martin, Being and Time (USA: Harper Perennial, 2008).

Kierkegaard, Søren, The Concept of Anxiety (USA: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2014)

Marino, Gordon D, ‘Anxiety in The Concept of Anxiety’, in Gordon D Marino’s (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Kierkegaard (UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

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