Advances in the Psychopathology of "Fear"

Introduction: Postmodern Concerns for Feariatry

It has long been my interest to study the large field of "pathology" from a systems perspective. That means, there are ways to identify "pathologies" within systems across the spectrum of complexity of evolution and development. In this sense, I have always been interested in a meta-theory of pathology.

But for now, in this blog I want to keep this short and somewhat uncomplicated with some basic ideas about "Fear" and how it has to be brought into the scope of Feariatry [1] and a general (meta-)theory of psychopathology, for example. I will mention before I make my key points, that "pathology" and "psychopathology" in general, although not particular contentious say 60 to 100 years ago, these terms no long enjoy such a stable status. There have been many attacks on their meaning and who gets to construct the meaning of "pathology" and make the judgments about it. This has huge implications to philosophy and psychology and all aspects of our societies and policies of health and so on. I won't be discussing that all here, but to say it is important to bring into our work on Feariatry especially, and less so Fearanalysis. The postmodern period since WWII and the philosophical turn to postmodernist thought (e.g., deconstructionism) is a big part of the contention and critique of theories and applications of the concepts of "pathology" and "psychopathology" especially. [Note: a topic for another time, is what I see as "fear of postmodernism" itself preventing a progressive Feariatry and 'Fear' Studies overall]

Problem of Pathologizing Fear to Naturalizing Fear

Okay, now to my main point. First, most writing on "fear" today is attempting to make it more "positive" in attributions than in prior eras, especially in the W. world. I think it is fair to move along this axis of re-adjustment of an overly "negative" attribution and pathologizing of the term and phenomena of "fear"--again, the problem becomes how do we define fear and then ought we attribute it to positive or negative evaluations, and on what philosophical, theoretical and empirical grounds do we make such assessments. This is a contested and complicated territory once one removes "fear" from being only an "emotion or feeling." This has been the direction of my work (and a few others). We are continually expanding the conceptualization of "fear" (see my last posting of a Photo of the 5 steps towards a critical literacy of Fear and Fearlessness on the FM ning).

I don't want to fall into the old discourses of pathologizing "fear" either, and so I and the philosophy of fearism work has attempted to keep Fear as a much more positive concept and phenomenon--and, much of this has led to valuation that says "fear is natural" and thus we really ought not get down on fear and pathologize it in all cases, or even most cases of its interplay with humans or animals etc. Fine, as that is to a point, there are strong arguments against naturalizing "fear" as a counter-balance to overly pathologizing "fear." I won't go into all that argumentation, as it is technical and beyond a brief blog on psychopathology of fear.

So, let's be clear of what a systems view of pathology of fear is (and, thus, how psychopathology fits). I see a system of pathology as potential in all living systems. This includes physiological (biological) pathologies, and on to emotional and psychological pathologies, to sociocultural pathologies over time and history. These pathological systems are totally interconnected, interrelated, and co-evolving. Basically, I am saying pathologies at one level --e.g., physiological can influence pathologies all the way up to the most complex sociocultural dimensions and visa versa. Everything affects everything, is the assumption in systems (holistic and integral) theory.

Anthropocene Pathologies Re-Calibrated: Analogy of CO2 and Fear Levels (toxicity)

I think historically, in the W. world at least, it is fair to say, in general there has been a movement from pathologizing fear to naturalizing fear, and now, my own work and others is beginning to critique that movement, and asking for another 21st century re-calibration and a return to more pathologizing of fear (e.g., fearism-t).

The key issue I have raised in the last year or two, is what happens when a positive valuation of "fear" as natural begins to weaken under criticism that conditions are changing so dramatically on planet earth and its systems, that there is some point (a turning point, or point of departure), perhaps, where "fear" is virtually engulfed in a pathological system and/or set of systems cascading into a pathological destructive cycling? The analogy, and metaphor, is that carbon dioxide (CO2) used to also be only seen as natural and thus positively valued in the living cycles of life and the planet (including temperature regulation of the atmosphere). Then, a turning point came in the Anthropocene era [2] when "CO2" was being constructed as a "pollutant" (toxin) to the atmosphere and was causing excessive warming of the earth and massively changing the earth's living viability. This was a crisis. It still is as many argue today under the banner of human-caused (anthropogenic) CO2 excess production, mainly from agricultural practices and especially from fossil fuel burning. In that geo-historical and physiological layer of Gaia (or earth system), indeed it is potentially useful to label CO2 levels as pathological.

The same can now be said, from a turning point, that "fear" is now a pollutant, a psychopathology (see fearism-t concept [3], a toxin, and is exacerbating major crises in living systems on the planet (and even non-living systems). All of the "fear" in excess due to human activity (thus, anthropogenic). Big problem. I have called this, in part, the Fear Problem (with capitals, as a "wicked problem" we have to figure out how to solve in the 21st century or likely it will destroy life as we know it on a massive global scale).

Now, the question becomes, how do we even talk about "fear" anymore, in a meaningful way, in the Anthropocene, that is, after this point of departure when "fear" is no longer safely represented as "natural" or "normal" because in it is argued it has become pathological? How should fear management/education on the planet adjust to this macro-shift in our very paradigm of thinking about and talking about "fear"? This, my friends, is exactly where my research is going and why we need a serious investigation ongoing into the psychopathology of fear, on a meta-theoretical axis.


1. Feariatry has been conceptualized as one of the pillars of a philosophy of fearism (a la Subba and Fisher)... and, there are several photos and blogs on the FM ning over the past year or so that you can learn more about this and/or just contact me if you are particularly interested. Also see the book, Fisher, R. M., and Subba, D. (2016). Philosophy of Fearism: A First East-West Dialogue. Australia: Xlibris.

2. A good definition of Anthropocene Era is found on wikipedia

3. Fearism-t - (toxic form of fearism) is defined by Fisher and Subba (2016), p. 157.

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