A Philosophy of Fear

December 18, 2008

We live in an age of fear. We are confronted daily with headlines proclaiming the dangers of modern life, ranging from paedophilia to natural disasters, terrorism to disease. Lars Svendsen's short polemical work on fear responds to this increased hype of the fearful, which, he claims, has become so widespread that we are now living in a "low-intensity fear ... that surrounds us and forms a backdrop of our experiences and interpretations".

Svendsen does not content himself with merely indulging in a scholarly rant. His focus is the political and social message that fear "robs us of our freedom", that our all-too-prevalent sense of danger - from within and without our community - leads us to yield increasing amounts of privacy and freedom.

His tonic lies in exposing the negative effects that this culture of fear entails. In being aware of the ways in which fear curtails freedom, we shall (hopefully) transcend its effects in our day-to-day life.

After briefly introducing his concerns about the effects of this pervading "culture of fear" in the first chapter, Svendsen provides an engaging tour through philosophical treatments of emotion in the second. The topic moves through the James-Lang theory, to neuroscience and to phenomenology to explore the nature of emotions and their connections to feelings, all the time through the lens of "fear". While the overview holds no surprises for those familiar with the area, it provides a helpful and clear review for non-philosophers and those needing a reminder.

Chapter three turns to a consideration of fear and its place in our "risk culture". Svendsen focuses in particular on the relatively recent hype surrounding "risk" and its connection to our anticipation and perception of danger. Considering risk as something that assails us with every choice, he fleshes out his claim that fear is something we live through and which thus shapes our actions and the ways we think about them.

Following from this, the fourth chapter deals with the more positive roles of fear as motivator, moving on to investigate the fascination fear often holds over us. Svendsen turns to the ethics and aesthetics of Kant and his contemporaries to examine the relation between fear and the sublime, exploring the link between terror and beauty.

The last three chapters return to more immediate social concerns, focusing on the ramifications of living in a habitual background of fear - in particular, providing an appraisal of fear's effect on trust, on political governance, and in questioning whether we can ever live without fear. Svendsen raises concern for the ways that enculturation of fear has effected an erosion of basic trust of others, especially strangers, which stems from, and simultaneously feeds into, a yielding of basic freedom to systems of governance.

Drawing heavily on the political philosophy of Hobbes and Machiavelli and using the George W. Bush Administration as illustration, he shows how a felt need to be, and remain, protected from external dangers arises from the harnessing of fear in political governance. Given this focus on the fear of strangers, and those "outside" the community, it is surprising that Svendsen mentions neither Freud nor feminist philosopher Julia Kristeva, who would have provided resources to contribute to the positive aim of the book.

Despite this omission, Svendsen offers an enjoyable, well-written and compelling tour of philosophical treatments of fear harnessed to an emphasis on the social consequences of living against a background state of fear. Scholarly yet accessible, this book offers subtle philosophical exploration alongside examples from novels, films and other popular media, while avoiding preachiness or doom-mongering.

His rigorous approach, combined with accessible supporting evidence, gives the book appeal to the professional in or the student of philosophy as well as to the interested layperson.

A Philosophy of Fear

By Lars Svendsen
Reaktion Books
ISBN 9781861894045
Published 29 September 2008

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