Matt Barnard - Two Concepts of Anxiety: Heidegger and Sartre on Freedom

This is one of the papers from our 2017 Annual Conference, the Future of Phenomenology. Information and the full conference booklet can be found at


In this paper, I wish to argue that the difference between Heidegger and Sartre’s interpretation of the concept of anxiety lead to two different concepts of existential freedom. These differences have their basis in their distinct understanding of the nature of existence and the self, leading Sartre into an absolute negative conception freedom and Heidegger into a limited and difficult to obtain positive conception of freedom. For Sartre, in L'Être et le néant, anxiety reveals the nothingness that stands between me and what I can do. Nothing, not even my own being, is an obstacle to freedom. Indeed, every time I adequately perceive my own being, I negate it, and am condemned to be able to overcome it. Anxiety is an experience of our capacity: the fact of negative freedom.

For Heidegger, in Sein und Zeit, anxiety reveals nothingness as the consequence, not manifestation, of freedom. Rather than an absence of an obstacle in front of us, anxiety reveals the wake of lost opportunities behind us, things we could have and should have done. Anxiety therefore reveals the charge from our authentic self: “Guilty!”. For Heidegger, anxiety expresses our existential responsibility, not to overcome our self, but to make "the choice to choose oneself”. For Sartre, anxiety reveals the potency of the will to negate the self. For Heidegger, it calls us back to our self. This disagreement provides a case study in the different phenomenological priorities of two highly
influential thinkers. In explaining why they are able to disagree so fundamentally about the same phenomenon, I wish to lend weight to Heidegger's claim that phenomenology is not a set of theoretical discoveries, but a practice.

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