Dread and Angst: Themes and Ideas in Existentialist Thought

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Existential dread or angst is often used to refer to the realization of human existence. Sebastian Kopp / EyeEm / Getty Images

The words 'angst' and 'dread' are used often by existentialist thinkers. Interpretations vary, though there is a broad definition for "existential dread." It refers to the anxiety we feel when we realize the true nature of human existence and the reality of the choices we must make.

Angst in Existentialist Thought

As a general principle, existentialist philosophers have emphasized the importance of psychologically critical moments in which basic truths about human nature and existence come crashing down upon us. These can upset our preconceptions and shock us into a new awareness about life. These “existential moments” of crisis then lead to more generalized feelings of dread, anxiety, or fear.

This fear or dread is usually not regarded by existentialists as being necessarily directed at any specific object. It’s just there, a consequence of the meaninglessness of human existence or the emptiness of the universe. However it is conceived, it is treated as a universal condition of human existence, underlying everything about us.

Angst is a German word which means simply anxiety or fear. In existential philosophy, it has acquired the more specific sense of having anxiety or fear as a result of the paradoxical implications of human freedom.

We face an uncertain future and we must fill our lives with our own choices. The dual problems of constant choices and the responsibility for those choices can produce angst in us.

Viewpoints on Angst and Human Nature

Søren Kierkegaard used the term “dread” to describe the general apprehension and anxiety in human life. He believed that dread is built into us as a means for God to call us to make a commitment to a moral and spiritual way of life despite the void of meaninglessness before us. He interpreted this void in terms of original sin, but other existentialists used different categories.

Martin Heidegger used the term “angst” as a reference point for the individual’s confrontation with the impossibility of finding meaning in a meaningless universe. He also referred to finding a rational justification for subjective choices about irrational issues. This was never a question about sin for him, but he did address similar issues.

Jean-Paul Sartre seemed to prefer the word “nausea.” He used it to describe a person’s realization that the universe is not neatly ordered and rational but is instead highly contingent and unpredictable. He also used the word “anguish” to describe the realization that we humans have total freedom of choice in terms of what we can do. In this, there are no real constraints on us except those we choose to impose.

Rational Fear and Reality

In all of these cases the dread, anxiety, angst, anguish, and nausea are products of the recognition that what we thought we knew about our existence isn’t really the case after all. We are taught to expect certain things about life. For the most part, we are able to go about our lives as if those expectations were valid.

At some point, however, the rationalized categories we rely upon will somehow fail us. We’ll understand that the universe just isn’t the way we assumed. This produces an existential crisis which forces us to reevaluate everything we believed. There are no easy, universal answers to what’s going on in our lives and no magic bullets to solve our problems.

The only way things will get done and the only way we will have meaning or value is through our own choices and actions. That is if we are willing to make them and to take responsibility for them. This is what makes us uniquely human, what makes us stand out from the rest of existence around us.

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Cline, Austin. "Dread and Angst: Themes and Ideas in Existentialist Thought." Learn Religions, Sep. 16, 2021, learnreligions.com/angst-dread-anxiety-and-anguish-249954. Cline, Austin. (2021, September 16). Dread and Angst: Themes and Ideas in Existentialist Thought. Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/angst-dread-anxiety-and-anguish-249954 Cline, Austin. "Dread and Angst: Themes and Ideas in Existentialist Thought." Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/angst-dread-anxiety-and-anguish-249954 (accessed June 2, 2023).