The Subject and Anguish

February 5, 2012 at 19:23 | Posted in Everything | 2 Comments

What is it that causes the subject to act? What causes the human being to escape determinism and choose to act against impulse? What allows the human to be “free” in the sense that he is free to choose?

Let’s define a couple of terms before we start. Fear is being afraid of something outside of the self, while anguish is being afraid of something coming from myself. Either can be present simultaneously, or alone.

Imagine a man looking down a flight of stairs that is littered with clothing. Two feelings will arise. Fear produces a feeling of fate in the man, a feeling that universal determinism will cause him to produce the effect of, say, falling down the flight of stairs after tripping over a shoe. So he becomes a passive object in relation to these other objects.

However, this fear will produce, in man, the fundamental choice of how to proceed. Options will be weighed:  do I hold onto the rail, do I slowly descend, do I crawl on hands and knees? Then the man posits that he has a certain control over the situation. But then he realizes a horror:  his possibilities of action are not deterministic, i.e., they may not work.

Anguish is produced at the thought of choosing a possibility that would lead to one’s own future demise. Thus man transfers fate from the outside into his own organism. It is now up to the man to act, and to determine his own fate.

Thus the subject remains free and is conscious of this freedom through anguish. This is how Jean-Paul Sartre transfers the power of determinism from the outside reality into that of the human reality.



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  1. That example is perfect. Realistic and makes sense. I never really thought about choices, at least, not the “why” part of our choices, Only the “what.” (What makes an action a choice, and what are choices and the like)

    But never “why”. I’ve been content with understanding that our separation between ourselves and our tribal animal pasts and other creatures, is our gift of foresight, our ability to choose. Real Choices, not calculations. Calculations mean there’s a right answer. Real choices don’t have a right answer. Relating to AKH’s post a awhile back, it requires Divergent thinking. Our frantic love obsession over Concrete thinking is really just a better way of saying Instinct. While there’s nothing wrong with this, it is limiting to what potential we all hold as human beings. Instinct in some cases is a Calculated “Choice.” There’s a predator after you? run. You don’t want to die, and pain is shitty. Best not to get caught. This is not a choice, this is an illusion of choice. Mind you I’m not saying that this sort of thinking is wrong, of course you want to run, no one needs to die to prove an already obvious point. (What if I choose to not run? Fair enough, have fun dying. And even if you wanted to die. Then you wouldn’t be running anyways. You already made your choice, the calculated choice at that time is just predetermined instinct)

    Perhaps I need to refine this a bit, so bare with me here.

  2. Absolutely. Concrete thinking IS good in basic situations like you described (I guess being chased by a wild predator now is rare, but still), so that we don’t get fucked over by our “reason.” And yep, the difference between the animals and our own species is that we have this unique ability to choose: either it would have fucked us over badly, or made us into the most successful species to walk the planet.

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