The Philosophy of Fear

26 December 2011


One of the distinctive developments of twentieth century philosophy was a cultivation of the awareness of impure philosophical motives — that is to say, the discovery of extra-philosophical motives for philosophical claims. This had much to do with the “masters of suspicion” — Paul Ricouer’s collective name for Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud — but even Anglo-American analytical philosophers got into the act. Bertrand Russell wrote an essay titled, “Philosophy’s Ulterior Motives.”

While this would seem to be a healthy development, and a movement in the direction of greater honesty, the trend was inevitably hijacked, and there were subsequently a great many ideologically-inspired readings of philosophy that attributed impure motives to philosophers that had little or nothing to do with their work. Controversial public figures like Russell were often the target of such tendentious criticisms, and more recently Foucault noted that he had been criticized from almost every imaginable point of view, politically speaking:

“There have been Marxists who said I was a danger to Western democracy — that has been written; there was a socialist who wrote that the thinker who resembled me most closely was Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf. I have been considered by liberals as a technocrat, an agent of the Gaullist government; I have been considered by people on the right, Gaullists or otherwise, as a dangerous left-wing anarchist; there was an American professor who asked why a crypto-Marxist like me, manifestly a KGB agent, was invited to American universities; and so on.”

Michel Foucault, The Foucault Reader, “Politics and Ethics: An Interview,” p. 376

Among the non-philosophical motives for philosophical claims, I think that there has been an insufficient recognition of fear. Throughout history fear has been a strong motive for dissimulation. There is an obvious explanation in evolutionary psychology for this: the ability to deceive others (i.e., not to be honest with them) is often crucial to survival and reproduction. When one’s ability to survive and reproduce is threatened, one feels fear. One response to this fear is to employ dissimulation to survive and reproduce. In civilized contexts, this fear for survival and response by way of dissimulation can become so sublimated that it can take the form of manipulating the most subtle concepts of metaphysics.

Let’s take the low-hanging fruit first. What classic philosopher could be more classic than Descartes? Descartes is remembered for his method of utterly radical doubt — the attempt to doubt absolutely anything that can be doubted — and his response to this doubt, which was proving his own existence by the incantation, Cogito, ergo sum. In his famous Discourse on Method (Part Two), Descartes lays down four precepts of his philosophical activity, the first of which is:

“…never to accept anything for true which I did not clearly know to be such; that is to say, carefully to avoid precipitancy and prejudice, and to comprise nothing more in my judgement than what was presented to my mind so clearly and distinctly as to exclude all ground of doubt.”

These four precepts are well known. Less well known are Descartes’ follow up to his four precepts in Part Three of the Discourse on Method. Descartes here very reasonably observes that:

“…it is not enough, before commencing to rebuild the house in which we live, that it be pulled down, and materials and builders provided, or that we engage in the work ourselves, according to a plan which we have beforehand carefully drawn out, but as it is likewise necessary that we be furnished with some other house in which we may live commodiously during the operations…”

And to this end he then lays down four moral precepts for himself, starting out with this:

“The first was to obey the laws and customs of my country, adhering firmly to the faith in which, by the grace of God, I had been educated from my childhood and regulating my conduct in every other matter according to the most moderate opinions, and the farthest removed from extremes, which should happen to be adopted in practice with general consent of the most judicious of those among whom I might be living.”

Is it even possible to expose everything in one’s experience to radical doubt while clinging to one’s childhood religious beliefs? Like I said, this is low-hanging fruit. Later, things get much more sophisticated and subtle, and therefore much more difficult and elusive to discover.

Freud, one of Ricouer’s “masters of suspicion” wrote of the motivations of philosophers who say such things:

“Where questions of religion are concerned, people are guilty of every possible sort of dishonesty and intellectual misdemeanor. Philosophers stretch the meaning of words until they retain scarcely anything of their original sense. They give the name of ‘God’ to some vague abstraction which they have created for themselves; having done so they can pose before all the world as deists, as believers in God, and they can even boast that they have recognized a higher, purer concept of God, notwithstanding that their God is now nothing more than an insubstantial shadow and no longer the mighty personality of religious doctrines.”

Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion, section VI

And again in another book:

“…if some of the great men of the past acted in the same way, no appeal can be made to their example: we know why they were obliged to.”

Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, section II

I have always thought these remarks of Freud to be inadequate, because they fail to distinguish between those who are consciously fearful and acting to protect themselves, those who are only unconsciously fearful and therefore unconsciously protecting themselves, and those who have gone so far into self-deception that they truly believe themselves to be acting in their own (intellectual) interest even while they are expressing how compromised their thinking is. A longish essay might be written by unraveling all the strands implicit in this tripartite distinction.

Of course, it was not only in religious matters that philosophers let their fear triumph over their philosophical reason. During the Cold War, Eastern Europe was dominated by political regimes that employed heavy-handed ideological coercion, and philosophy was perhaps the most compromised of all intellectual enterprises, since philosophy inevitably overlaps with any sphere of thought subject to ideological control.

In his famous essay, “The Power of the Powerless,” Vaclav Havel described this ideological control by appeal to the example of a green grocer:

The manager of a fruit-and-vegetable shop places in his window, among the onions and carrots, the slogan: “Workers of the world, unite!” Why does he do it? What is he trying to communicate to the world? Is he genuinely enthusiastic about the idea of unity among the workers of the world? Is his enthusiasm so great that he feels an irrepressible impulse to acquaint the public with his ideals? Has he really given more than a moment’s thought to how such a unification might occur and what it would mean?

Obviously the greengrocer is indifferent to the semantic content of the slogan on exhibit; he does not put the slogan in his window from any personal desire to acquaint the public with the ideal it expresses. This, of course, does not mean that his action has no motive or significance at all, or that the slogan communicates nothing to anyone. The slogan is really a sign, and as such it contains a subliminal but very definite message. Verbally, it might be expressed this way: “I, the greengrocer X, live here and I know what I must do. I behave in the manner expected of me. I can be depended upon and am beyond reproach. I am obedient and therefore I have the right to be left in peace.” This message, of course, has an addressee: it is directed above, to the greengrocer’s superior, and at the same time it is a shield that protects the greengrocer from potential informers. The slogan’s real meaning, therefore, is rooted firmly in the greengrocer’s existence. It reflects his vital interests. But what are those vital interests?

Let us take note: if the greengrocer had been instructed to display the slogan “I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient;” he would not be nearly as indifferent to its semantics, even though the statement would reflect the truth. The greengrocer would be embarrassed and ashamed to put such an unequivocal statement of his own degradation in the shop window, and quite naturally so, for he is a human being and thus has a sense of his own dignity. To overcome this complication, his expression of loyalty must take the form of a sign which, at least on its textual surface, indicates a level of disinterested conviction. It must allow the greengrocer to say, “What’s wrong with the workers of the world uniting?” Thus the sign helps the greengrocer to conceal from himself the low foundations of his obedience, at the same time concealing the low foundations of power. It hides them behind the facade of something high. And that something is ideology.

What Havel here expresses in terms of green grocers is no less true for philosophers. On the contrary, it is more true for philosophers. In other words, philosophy is far more compromised by ideology than the green grocer business.

The philosophy of fear is a deeply compromised philosophy. Today, when the vast majority of philosophy is the product of institutionalized scholars, the fear is every bit as existential as it was for Soviet Bloc philosophers during the Cold War. While non-conforming philosophers are not sent to gulags, they do lose their position within institutionalized philosophy, and when this happens one must earn one’s bread by some other method. In other words, one must go to work. In other words again, one is sentenced to hard labor. One’s labor may not be confined to an actual labor camp (i.e., a gulag) but it is a difference in degree rather than a difference in kind.

Institutions are organized along ideological lines, and ideologies, when “successful,” foster institutions that seek to put the ideology in question into practice. In other words, ideologies imply institutions and institutions imply ideologies. And, as Havel has said, “Ideology is a specious way of relating to the world. It offers human beings the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality while making it easier for them to part with them.”

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Grand Strategy Annex

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7 Responses to “The Philosophy of Fear”

  1. This is a great post that seems to point to something that should be obvious to all. Our own desire for survival leads to both honest and dishonest acts that facilitate that survival. This need not be, and as you clearly articulate is often not, done consciously.

    I think fear is the grand motivator of most action. Even love may be distilled to fear. The need to leave progeny through procreation could be a way to avoid the finality o death. But why do this if not as a result of fear?

    Interesting points to ponder.

    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear Mr. Lawson,

      I’m very pleased that you found this to be of interest, and glad to know that I have not lost you as a reader.

      If I recall correctly, you frequently referenced Hobbes in the past. Well, Hobbes above all would have agreed with you that, “fear is the grand motivator of most action.” And Hobbes humorously said of himself, “Fear and I were born twins,” since his mother reputedly gave birth when she heard of the approach of the Spanish Armada.

      I ought to rewrite this post in greater depth and detail taking account of Hobbes’ position on fear. Also, I would like to incorporate more examples, bring in a Marxist perspective on labor, and maybe develop my tripartite distinction in relation to Freud. The more I think about it, I could turn this post into a short book.

      Why leave progeny to avoid the finality of death except for fear or death? Because we are driven to leave progeny as the central fact of our evolutionary history. If we lacked this drive, we would have disappeared. Those with the strongest drive to leave progeny bequeathed this drive to the self-same progeny.

      This suggests a naturalistic way to apprehend the time-honored questions of “Why are we born to suffer and die?” and, “Why is the human condition so miserable?” There is no survival or reproductive penalty for experiencing fear and unhappiness, whereas a lack of fear might well prove fatal and happiness might well produce an unrealistic outlook on life that was counter-productive to survival.

      I think that it could be meaningfully argued that there is a small survival benefit to happiness also, but this is completely outweighed by the overwhelming survival value of fear, which is often not conducive to happiness.

      Best wishes,


  2. Thank you for the response. You may want to read David P. Goldman’s (the psuedonymous “Spengler”) Why Civilizations Die. Its core message is about self imposed population declines due to a lack of desire for progeny and a decay at the core of civilizations themselves. A compelling read that corresponds somewhat to this post though its religious implications are a bit distinct. Although I suspect one could find religious longing a psychological response to fear, especially “Fear and Trembliing” in a Kierkegaardian sense.

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  4. Sam said

    I have often said more violently totalitarian systems take you out and shoot you but the contemporary Western ones just let you starve.

    • geopolicraticus said

      Suppose a nation-state made available to its citizens all the necessities of life, so that no one starved, but did nothing for their well being beyond bare necessity. While this would be preferable to being starved or otherwise neglected, could we really call this an admirable system of government? Given the low standards to which nation-states are held, perhaps it is acceptable, but we need to raise the bar, and living in fear of one’s life and limb is not the only fear; individuals also fear for their mental health, their moral well being, their livelihood, their dignity, their hopes for the future, and so on.

      Best wishes,


      • Sam said

        One time I was in an online discussion and I had pointed out the impact of the Enlightenment and this individual, rather than taking the statement in context had decided that it would be most appropriate to question which Enlightenment I was referring to. I didn’t reply to that point but rather pointed out the lack of context in the response.

        I completely concur that a higher bar must be set for these grand organizations that facilities not only the fulfillment of our most base needs but also pushes us to fulfill our potential, whatever that may be. A system that cajoles people into a subsistence life, whether it be mental, physical, or whatever else one judges these things by, is not a system worth maintaining or propagating.

        Best wishes,


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