The Anxiety of Loss and the Anxiety of Meaning: Part One



This is a two part series. Part Two, “Rationality and the Anxiety of Meaning”, posts tomorrow.

Part One: Anxiety and Loss

It is of our very nature as rational animals to reflect on our life. We do not only pursue ends, but also ask whether our ends are good and whether our life as a whole is going well. We might say that our rational practical capacity, the capacity to question and justify our ends, allows us an ethical life. By virtue of our reason we may amend our ways and also live with the knowledge that our life and the ends we pursue are as they should be. However, along with the ethical light bestowed by reason come worries unique to rational beings like us. Being able to question our ends opens the possibility of doubt and skepticism about the worth of those ends and the worth of our life as a whole. And with our comprehension of the possibility of change comes the worry that we may lose that which is of worth. In following the light of reason we are haunted by the shadows of anxiety.


Human reflection on anxiety has always accompanied the rational reflection on the good life (ethics). However, it sometimes appears that unlike the rational contemplation of human life (ethics) that has given rise to systems of thought, the shadowy realm of anxiety is formless and particular; subject matter for the human imagination and artistic creation, rather than for rational systematic philosophy. But since anxiety comes with practical rationality, it is forever marked by the contour of reason. Though anxiety may lack the internal rational articulation of ethics, it bears eternal witness to the rational anatomy of ethics. In what comes next I propose that from our nature as rational animals, i.e., beings with both desires and reason, follows two essential kinds of anxieties: the anxiety of meaning and the anxiety of loss. The anxiety of meaning concerns the apprehension that our life and ends are meaningless and worthless. The anxiety of loss concerns the dread that whatever is of worth, may—and eventually will—change and degenerate.


But before I show in what sense these two anxieties are essential and follow from our rational nature, an important distinction is in order. Anxiety is not identical to fear and has a different relation to our rationality. In attempting to distinguish between ‘fear’ and ‘anxiety’ it is often said that fear has an object (say, a menacing stray dog), and anxiety does not; fear is a response to a real threat, whereas anxiety isn’t. In other words, while fear is infused with reasons (“the stray dog is about to attack me, this is why I’m afraid!”), anxiety isn’t. This distinction provides a negative understanding of anxiety; namely, through its not being in the space of reasons, i.e. its being non-rational. However, it is less often noted that anxiety is entirely tied with reason, and while it has no object (or content) of its own, it arises from the form of our practical reason. What do I mean by the form of practical reason? I mean that which pertains to practical reason regardless of any specific ends (contents). Thus, regardless of what one’s pursuits in life are, as an agent one must have pursuits, must have ends; must have desires. Bereft of desires one has no reasons to act at all (consider clinical depression). Accordingly, having desires, we may say, is a formal characteristic of creatures like us. Another formal characteristic comes from our rationality. As noted earlier, as rational agents, we also reflect on our ends, both to see whether they are attainable (and how) and to see whether they are worthy. Accordingly, the capacity to rationally assess and evaluate one’s end and the means to one’s ends is a formal characteristic of our practical being. We see then that these two aspects of human agency, desire and reason, are formal aspects in the sense that they hold regardless of one’s actual objects of desires. Whether one desires to be a lawyer, a priest, spend time with one’s family or watch football, qua rational agent one has desires and reason – both capacities constitute the form of human agency. In light of this, we see that anxiety, unlike fear, transpires from the very form of human agency. The anxiety of loss transpires from having objects of desire (ends), the anxiety of meaning from being able to rationally consider our ends.


I now turn to elaborate on the two essential anxieties. Desiring, for finite creatures like us, comes with the perennial risk of loss. As conscious beings, we are conscious of this risk as internal to our human condition. We are aware of it as a formal characteristic of our life. As such, rather than being a mere unfortunate fact of human psychology, the anxiety of loss is bound with the form of human life; even the happy life. Part of human happiness consists of desires, most importantly, of care and love, for people, ideas and projects. For instance, family, friends, community and vocation, constitute such central objects of care and love, and in their absence we consider life deficient. These are some of the core objects of human desire (ends) and few would voluntarily opt for life bereft of them (though this is perhaps not at all a matter of choice). But along with having these ends comes the realization that we can lose them. Traditionally, the figure of Job poignantly symbolizes the fragility of human life—how a good life, a life rich with family, friends, and possessions, can always fall into pieces. Being finite beings we always stand in danger of losing that which is precious to us and so, a painful shadow lurks even in the happiest life. The consciousness of our fragility and constant risk of losing (or never getting) what is good in our lives is the anxiety of loss.


Amichai Amit is PhD student in philosophy at the University of Chicago. His research concerns the foundations of ethics and normativity. He also has strong interests in the history of philosophy (ancient and German idealism) and existentialism. He previously received an MA in Philosophy from Tel-Aviv University.


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