About my lecture On Fear

Since 2014 I organise philosophical meetings (in Dutch) regularly. Both moderated debates and philosophical walks. My aim with these activities is, in the first place, to encourage people to exchange their ideas with others in a philosophical way, seen from their own life experiences.
I have no academic background. Just passionate about philosophy. Practical Philosophy in particular.

In November last year I gave a lecture about Fear.

I started with the question: “Why philosophize about a theme like Fear?”
Fear and anxiety are both basically natural emotional reactions on life situations. They can have both, positive and negative effects on our daily lives, and I think we should approach them with curiosity and openness.
In view of current events, the theme of fear is not only a topic that philosophers think about. Anthropologists, psychologists, neurologists and other disciplines also investigate the phenomenon of fear/anxiety. In addition to the academic world there are, among others, politicians, media, managers and the like who are also concerned with fear. Consciously or unconsciously, motivated by the fact that they themselves are afraid, or because they want to take advantage of using the effects of the social/societal effect of fear.

According to many authors, we are in the "Century of Fear". We are confronted with it daily, our own (existential) fear, social fear... despite the fact that the world, and not least the Western World, today is safer than it has ever been in known history. Fear does not just happen to us, it is also used, or misused, to influence us. Reason enough to learn to understand the phenomenon of fear/anxiety and to learn how to deal with it. The omnipresence, rightly or wrongly, of fear makes this, I think, necessary. We also do this with other social phenomena ... eg. mobility and traffic is such a topic about which a constant social debate is taking place, primarily because it affects all of us ... so why not have a debate about fear.

Further on I talked about the evolutionary origin of fear. About fear that comes mainly from our perception. From the way we imagine reality. And especially how we deal with it.
About fear as an emotion, I referred to psychologist and neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett, who explores in her book "How emotions are made" the important question whether rational thinking influences our emotions. Even when fear concerns an intentional object, that does not always mean that it is a real object. An example of what is meant by this: many of us will have been afraid as a child there was a monster under our bed. I myself included. I remember several times, after gathering all my courage, I went to look under my bed to make sure no monster was there. The monster was exactly the object of which I imagined that it really existed, and it was hiding under beds.

Furthermore I also referred to the Jewish-German philosopher Ernst Cassirer. He typified man as an animal symbolicum, a being that defies meaning. We people can be afraid of most things. Our fear has a much greater range than what any other animal can feel, precisely because we are an animal symbolicum.

Another aspect of fear is the fear of the unknown. As Elias Canetti put it in his book "Mass and power": "there is nothing that a person fears more than to be affected by something unknown”. One wants to be able to see what comes out of things for oneself, to identify oneself or at least to place things in their context. In our current context, I referred to the fear of refugees coming to our regions. Or fear of an unknown faith like Islam. Such a fear of the unknown is therefore not objectless. The object of this fear is undetermined here. But at least it remains a fear of something. It is a fear that something uncomfortable or frightening could happen.

A number of emotions are supposed to tell us something about a reality. Fear is such an emotion. It is then regarded as an instrument of perception, the way we experience things. However, all these instruments can function both adequately and inadequately. To explain this further, I went back to what psychologist and neuroscientist Lisa Feldmann Barrett says about this in her book "How emotions are made". Her research shows that emotions are formed by constructions made from different parts of our brains. Our reaction eg. something that arouses fear is not determined by the event itself but by what we make of it ourselves. Things that we experience during our lives, experiences from the past play a major role in this. We may all remember a situation that evoked an anxiety reaction and, if we thought about it later, we realized that an earlier situation was actually the reason for that fear. Eg. someone whose child was once bitten by a dog, who now becomes very anxious whenever a dog comes close.

Further on I used the following passage from Lars Svendsens book "A Philosophy of Fear":
“The fact that we are not affected by a particular accident is no guarantee that we will maintain a correct attitude”. Fear tells us very little about the object of that fear. The fact that a person or a society does certain things to protect themselves against a danger says little about the nature of that danger. Our fear probably says more about us than about what we fear. That we are afraid of something does not mean we have to fear it. But because something is feared, the authorities have a tendency to introduce measures that often affect our freedom - and that without any more security as a result. The fact that someone is afraid of a risk is not in itself sufficient reason for the authorities to reduce that risk. If the risk is unimportant, the authorities should limit themselves to inform that person exactly. Similarly, the authorities should intervene if there is a serious risk, even if the majority of the population is completely unconcerned about it.

There will always be fear but the object changes. In the post-war years, until 1989, the threat of communism came. That was replaced by the threat of environmental degradation, and in recent years terrorism has consistently reached the main lines of the news. The object of fear is changing, but it would be an illusion to believe that we could live in a world without fear. However, we must realize that our fear is not an objective reflection of reality, and there are strong interests that govern the direction of our fear. Fear is one of the most important power factors that exists, and he who can regulate the direction in society acquires considerable power over that society. Perhaps we can say, together with the philosopher Giorgio Agamben, that today we are living in a permanent state of emergency, where the reference to serious dangers works almost like a trump card - and that card surpasses our democratic rights.”

At the end of my lecture I told how during my search for various sources and different insights about the phenomenon "Fear" I came across the book "Philosophy of Fearism, A First East-West Dialogue.” of R. Michael Fisher and Desh Subba. And via this book found out about the Fearlessness Movement. I am particularly interested in how we can "promote" fearlessness with correct arguments to a world, in order to create a society that is much less or no longer controlled by fear. This is particularly important when we talk about the fear that leads us to make wrong decisions in our personal lives and socially, fear being the worst counselor according to me. This idea suits me well in my search for what is needed to have a good life.

I’m here, at the Fearlessness Movement ning, eager to learn. To learn more about the insights on Fear, Fearlessness, Fearology. I will go on, inviting people to discuss, exchange ideas about these topics.


Hugo Janssens




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  • Hugo,

    You started your lecture with asking: “Why philosophize about a theme like Fear?”

    I think that is a deep question as well as a pragmatic one. From a fearist perspective, Subba and I have asked (more or less), "Why has philosophy not taken on the Fear theme systematically and extensively over time?" (i.e., if "life is conducted, directed and controlled by the fear" as Subba's 2014 book sub-title suggests)

  • By the way, Hugo lives with his wife (who helped with the English trans. of this blog here) in Belgium and gave his talk there Nov. 2017, if I remember correctly. This is a delicious first course meal, thank you Hugo! Let's all sit down and eat and have a drink... talk and talk and learn and learn... and talk some more, even challenge each other and our thoughts... and, yes, take action each in our own ways... but with a thread of some universal pursuit of sanity in an Age of Terror(ism) (aka Fearism-t = toxic form). I look forward to this...  

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