Existential Anxiety is Contagious

As a teacher of philosophy, the worst reaction I ever had to one of my lessons made me think twice about whether I wanted to deliver any more philosophy lessons.

It happened a decade ago, when I was studying for my PhD at Cambridge University. I was volunteering on the ‘Kings College Access Scheme’. Basically, we were trying to convince clever pupils from state schools to apply to Cambridge. My role was to present some introductory seminars on philosophy to visiting pupils who had expressed an interest in the subject.

On the day in question, I was assigned a group of sixteen-year-olds from Sunderland. They were a good-natured bunch, bright and enthusiastic; it was a privilege to have their attention. Alas, however, I think I may have conveyed to them the fundamentals of philosophy rather too successfully. 


My strategy in the lesson was to try to demonstrate to the pupils that there is a problematic relationship between the human mind and the universe. The problem, I explained, is that the mind and the universe don’t belong together. They are too different to belong together, I insisted; they oppose each other.

On the one hand, consider how the human mind opposes the universe. From the perspective of the mind, the very existence of the universe is doubtful. This point was famously made by Rene Descartes. He taught us that every single one of our beliefs might be false. Even our own bodies might not exist. The whole of our experience might be an illusion conjured up by an ‘evil demon’. As far as the mind goes, you can’t get there from here. You can’t get there (you can’t prove the existence of the universe) from here (from the uncertainty which is inherent to your mind).

On the other hand, consider how the universe opposes the human mind. As far as the universe goes, the mind is an inexplicable anomaly – so inexplicable, indeed, that the very existence of the mind is questionable. A mind comprises a perspective – a private, unique viewpoint that only one individual can ever access; in contrast, other objects in the universe can be viewed by anyone. A mind is free – it is governed, at least partly, by the decisions of its owner; in contrast, other objects in the universe are governed by the impersonal laws of physics. And a mind has ‘qualitative’ experiences – people see colours, feel feelings, smell smells and hear sounds; in contrast, other objects in the universe are comprised of colourless, painless, odourless and soundless tiny particles – or so physics tells us. As far as the universe goes, you can’t get here from there. You can’t get here (you can’t generate the mind’s perspective, freedom and qualitative consciousness) from there (from the perspectiveless, lawful, quantitative universe described by science). And nor, for that matter, can you get here via the human brain. The brain is a hunk of matter, like anything else in the universe. People who study the human brain typically conclude that the mind doesn’t exist. At best, they say, the mind is an illusion conjured up by the brain.

Your mind and the universe oppose each other; therefore you don’t belong in the universe. Such, in essence, was my message to my young charges on that fateful day in Cambridge. Little wonder, then, that one of my pupils found my lesson somewhat uninspiring. Looking up at me, his face contorted in anxiety, he exclaimed:

“But that’s dismal!”


Dismal! He was right. And to this day I hope I didn’t ruin his life. I hope he worked out for himself that there was something else I should have told him and his peers – not to mention the many other students I’ve introduced philosophy to over the years. If it’s not too late, here’s what else I should have told them all.

I should have told them that the relationship between the human mind and the universe can be thought of as a solution instead of a problem. After all, the whole basis of the so-called problematic relationship between the mind and the universe is that you can’t get from one to the other. But note: you can only describe this as an actual problem (as opposed to a hypothetical problem) if you know that here and there both exist. In other words, you already know that the mind and the universe both exist in precisely the mutually opposing form in which you encounter them. The mind and the universe do belong together – otherwise it wouldn’t be possible to propose that they don’t.

That’s an arresting thought. If I’m right, you’ve got two options; you can unnecessarily make a problem out of your existence, or you can decline to do so. In declining to do so, you simply conclude that the relationship between your mind and the universe is inherently paradoxical; that is to say, your brain is a paradoxical object; your mind and your brain are unified and in mutual opposition. And what a felicitous paradox it is – it is the very stuff of your life!

Why do people make a problem out of the paradox of their existence? Why do people feel like they don’t belong in the universe? I think they are afraid of their existence; they suffer from existential anxiety. Throughout history, many philosophers have noted that their philosophising originated in a pervasive sense of fear, or, at least, in a sense that something isn’t quite right with existence. Socrates, for instance, declared that philosophy begins with a sense of ‘astonishment’. Søren Kierkegaard went further, arguing that philosophy starts in ‘fear and trembling’. And Arthur Schopenhauer agreed, insisting: “Life is a sorry business; I have resolved to spend it reflecting upon it.”

For what it’s worth, my own journey into philosophy began with anxiety. At the age of sixteen, I was mugged by a gang on a train one evening. The very next morning, I was astonished to see the muggers stroll through the canteen of my college. They were mature students, it turned out. I told the police, and the case went to court, but my college refused to expel the muggers, on the basis that they were innocent until proven guilty. The legal proceedings dragged on for two years. In the end, I was awarded damages. But during those two years I felt paranoid wherever I went. The last thing the ringleader of the muggers had said to me during the attack was: “if I ever see you again, I’ll kill you”. Amid the stress of it all, I cut my hair off and dyed it blonde, in an attempt to disguise myself. I bunked a lot my lessons in college because I was scared I would bump into the muggers. I screwed up my exams. I started having panic attacks, great swirling storms of anxiety that knocked me off my feet, leaving me groping at thin air to calm myself down.

It was around this time that I became obsessed with philosophy. Under the influence of the philosophy books I was reading, my stress about my personal circumstances expanded into a grim sense that my whole existence was a problem. I felt that I needed to escape from being here now. I dabbled in philosophical theories and isms that promised to show me that my existence was something other than what it appeared to be. Materialism told me that I didn’t really exist. Idealism told me that the universe didn’t really exist. Dualism told me that I exist and the universe exists, but in completely separate realms. Theology told me that neither myself nor the universe really exists; there is a third realm, a realm of salvation. Postmodernism told me that the only thing that exists is society.

But the only thing I wasn’t told by any philosopher was the obvious truth: I am here now. And that’s alright. I belong in the universe.   

existential anxiety

I owe a debt of gratitude to that lad from Sunderland, who alerted me to how “dismal” my worldview had become. He jolted me into wondering whether I was philosophising – and teaching philosophy – in the wrong way. Colloquially, the word ‘philosophical’ is supposed to mean something like: “I’m aware of the situation I’m in; I’m facing up to it; and I’m dealing with it”. I think philosophers should live up to the colloquial meaning of their vocation; they should face up to the truth of ‘I am here now’, rather than making a problem out of their existence. In turn, they should try to persuade other people to face up to existence. Philosophers definitely shouldn’t seek to inflict existential anxiety upon other people.

I am not saying that philosophers should deny that the mind and the universe oppose each other. Far from it: I am saying that philosophers should emphasise that the opposition of the mind and the universe is the fundamental fact of human existence; the mind and the universe belong together precisely insofar as they are opposites. By accepting, and teaching, this fact, philosophers will be embracing their existence rather than trying to escape from it; they will be declining to hide in theories and isms that promise, impossibly, to turn human existence into something other than what it is.

And here’s the most important thing: when you teach people the idea that their existence is comprised of, on the one hand, a critical perspective and a capacity to make choices, and, on the other hand, a real universe that transcends the human mind and operates by its own impersonal laws, you will imbue those people with a sense of responsibility. Being responsible means being self-aware – aware of your capacity to reflect and decide, and to act accordingly – while also being aware that all choices and actions have real consequences. Responsible people don’t hide from themselves or from reality. We should be encouraging young people to be responsible. 

Ben Irvine is the author of Mindfulness and the Big Questions: Philosophy for Now, published by Leaping Hare Press this month, RRP £12.99. Available from all good bookshops and online.


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