Hegel, Sense-Certainty, and Anxiety


To Al, Courtney, Tim, and Cara.

I hope you are all doing well. I am here in Sydney, sitting on the floor of my office, typing on this old 1970s Adler Gabriele 2000 I restored myself. The escapement was an absolute nightmare to get back into proper working order, but I got there :-)

Anyway I wanted to write you all a letter about a very strong emotion that I feel a great deal of the time. That emotion is anxiety. I feel it when I am criticised, I feel it when I have forgotten to do something important at work, and I feel it most strongly of all when I have made a mistake, no matter how trivial. I wanted to know more about this incredibly unpleasant emotion. It commands so much of my energy and cognitive capacity that I really think I have to rid myself of it. Surely you feel the same. Anxiety hangs around our work and our social interactions so closely that it seems we just are our anxiety. It is as if we have no control over our emotions, they just possess us and take control of us, and push us into a dark spiral of self loathing and nervous energy. I know this is how I feel so much of the time.

So what is anxiety, and how can we get rid of it?

I spoke to someone very wise that I trust, and this is what he had to say:

I think anxiety is like inner doubt for Descartes, it is the core epistemic nub from which we move outwards in comporting ourselves to the world, and from which basis we only merely deduce and infer the reality of other objects of experience, which anxiety always underlies.

Anxiety, along with other neuroses, is in fact one of the key things engendered by real live thinking. Often I have had the curious experience, especially upon returning to a text to re-read it, that certain elements of my interpretation are different, that the hermeneutic surface of perfection is a shifting sand liable to be swayed by passion and fortune. The fact of anxiety is like the one constant, despite its contributiong to the shifting of that sand. It is like the speed of light, perfectly fixed, where light itself is of course variable in the shapes and manner in which it befalls a scene.

I liked some of what my friend was saying, but I felt like there was something moral to be evaluated about anxiety. My friend was merely describing what anxiety was, but not really evaluating why anxiety troubles humans so much, why anxiety is rampant and seemingly an ever-present thing to suffer through.

At this point I remembered that dialectics has something to say about anxiety. My comrade, Simon, put the phenomenology of anxiety very well as we were both discussing how aimless and immediate anxiety comes on to us at work.

He said:

I first feel anxious, and then I go and look for some explanation.

And I think this is exactly how anxiety functions at the level of experience. It is a completely immediate possession of the ego. It is an inseparable quality of what Hegel calls “this-ness”. The phenomenon of anxiety is perfectly characterised by Hegel in Chapter One, Section One of the Phenomenology of Spirit. Hegel is course talking about the beginnings of experience in this section, but because anxiety shows up in our thoughts exactly the same way empirically, I think we are permitted to borrow from Hegel in this way.

Hegel says of sense-certainty, which we can transpose as “anxiety”:

I, this particular I, am certain of this particular thing, not because I qua (read: as) consciousness, in knowing it have developed myself or thought about it in various ways; and also not because the thing of which I am certain, in virtue of a host of distinct qualities, would be in its own self a rich complex of connections, or related in various ways to other things. … (The) thing is, and it is, merely because it is.

Hegel always manages to give a moral characterisation of some object at the same time as he is describing it. In this exposition of the immediacy of anxiety we can see already how anxiety develops into its dialectical negation–what Hegel calls “Perception”, or what I will call “relief”. Anxiety is the immediate possession of some, at the time, indefatigable “knowledge”. But the closer we look at this controlling or seemingly irrefutable feeling, we can see it has no context. It has no rich connections to anything else in experience – and for this reason it is “false” in comparison to relief: relief is a better representation of the true state of affairs that you are situated in in the real world. So Hegel gives us the clue to relieving our anxiety: you can take control of your own agency and emotions by developing your thoughts beyond “I am feeling this emotion, or having this knowledge/experience, and I am sure of it”. Developing richer and more complex connections between your thoughts and the outside world purely and completely dispels anxiety always.

You can cast away anxiety by asking more questions, surrounding yourself with people who will care for you, and provide you with more feedback about your behaviour and those of others. Generally speaking, the more data you have about your place in the world, the better you will be prepared to dal more with your anxiety.

And when I say “data”, I don’t mea little atomic pieces of empirical evidence, I mean a broad web of complex, rich dialetical connections. The wider the variety of dialectical connections you are able to develop about yourself, and the environment, and other people, the more comfortable you should feel.

I hope this letter finds you well, comrades.

I miss you all desperately, an I hope that one day we will all be together again soon.


Yours for the revolution,