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A Philosopher Writes in Praise of Anxiety

It is part of the ability to think about life in a human way

Yes, you read that right. Samir Chopra (pictured) thinks that anxiety is not a pathology but part of the ability to think about life in a human way. Chopra, author with Laurence White of A Legal Theory for Autonomous Artificial Agents (2011), writes,

Humans are philosophising animals precisely because we are the anxious animal: not a creature of the present, but regretful about the past and fearful of the future. We philosophise to understand our past, to make our future more comprehensible. The unknown produces a distinctive unease; enquiry and the material and psychic tools it yields provide relief. Where anxiety underwrites enquiry, we claim that the success of the enquiry removes anxiety and is pleasurably anticipated. Enquiry comes to an end when we’re not anxious, but rather sated and blissful. There is no more to be asked, answered or understood; understanding and enlightenment have been achieved. Philosophy is the path that we hope gets us there. Anxiety is our dogged, unpleasant and indispensable companion.

Samir Chopra, “Anxiety isn’t a pathology. It drives us to push back the unknown” at Psyche

If he is right, efforts to eliminate anxiety from our lives miss a fundamental point: If we have human consciousness, we cannot avoid most of the anxieties we respond to. Guilt about the past requires not only memory of the past but a moral sense and anxiety about the future requires that we are aware of possible futures that exist only as abstractions in the present.

Managing anxiety is, of course, a different thing from eliminating it. Here are some useful thoughts on the topic:

Worrying is carrying tomorrow’s load with today’s strength– carrying two days at once. It is moving into tomorrow ahead of time. Worrying doesn’t empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it empties today of its strength. – Holocaust rescuer Corrie Ten Boom (1892–1983)

To venture causes anxiety, but not to venture is to lose one’s self… And to venture in the highest is precisely to be conscious of one’s self. – philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855)

How does one kill fear, I wonder? How do you shoot a spectre through the heart, slash off its spectral head, take it by its spectral throat? Novelist Joseph Conrad (1857–1924), Lord Jim

and lastly, some humor:

People with anxiety don’t have a train of thought. We have 7 trains on 4 tracks that narrowly avoid each other when paths cross, and all the conductors are screaming. – Author unknown

Anxiety is a natural outcome of human-level thinking abilities but when the noise inside our heads is louder than the world outside, we need to stop and remember that most of what we fear will probably never happen. All the damage it inflicts is precisely in the act of thinking about it.


You may also enjoy: The real reason why only human beings speak. Language is a tool for abstract thinking—a necessary tool for abstraction—and humans are the only animals who think abstractly


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A Philosopher Writes in Praise of Anxiety