Although Levy’s claim rightly highlights the role of anxiety in the process of questioning one’s beliefs, I believe that it does not do enough to explain how anxiety as an affective state generates the cascade of mental events that is characteristic of Sylvia’s case, or whether the questionings motivated by anxiety are always irrational. Moreover, as I will show, I believe that the causal relation Levy posits between imaginings and anxiety is mistaken. In Sect. 3, I will introduce my model and explain how it involves an important revision of Levy’s claim regarding the chain of mental events that concur to bring about Sylvia’s worries.
For starters, Levy’s view calls for an explanation as to how an emotion like anxiety might be fit to bring about the mental states that Sylvia is experiencing. What type of affective state is anxiety? And how does anxiety relate to threatening possible states of affairs? Recent theories in the psychology and in the philosophy of anxiety concord to define anxiety as an emotion through which we appraise our current situation as involving a possible and uncertain threat (Miceli & Castelfranchi, 2005)Footnote 4 or a problematic uncertainty (Kurth, 2018a). The uncertainty is evaluated by the emotion as “problematic” in the sense that an actual error would lead to negative outcomes and be costly to the subject. An uncertainty or epistemic gap is appraised as problematic when it is connected with a subjective utility; when there are important pragmatic interests at stake for us. An uncertainty that is “problematic” in this manner is thus one that merits the subject’s attention.
In other words, anxiety is an affective evaluative experience that one’s lack of certainty about the occurrence of a possible state of affairs puts some of our goals at risk of being thwarted. Which form this affective evaluation takes—whether it is a type of perception, of judgement, or a sui generis attitude—is a matter of great debate in the philosophy of emotion (Deonna & Teroni, 2015; Solomon, 2007; Tappolet, 2016). For our present purpose, it is sufficient to say that philosophers commonly agree on the idea that emotions are experiences of value (De Sousa, 1987; Goldie, 2002; Deonna & Teroni, 2012). In this sense, feeling anxiety towards an upcoming exam is experiencing the exam as involving a potential threat, or a problematic uncertainty.Footnote 5
The two dimensions that are thus essential to the elicitation of anxiety are that a context of potential threat or goal thwarting has been detected, and that this threat is uncertain: one is not in a position to know whether it will in fact occur, or whether one will get affected by it.Footnote 6 A necessary element for the elicitation of anxiety is that one is currently unable to predict whether the threat will occur. Recalling Robert Gordon’s proposed dichotomy between “knowledge-requiring” and “knowledge-precluding” emotions (1969), this classifies anxiety in the latter category; the category of emotions which are incompatible with knowing that p.Footnote 7 For example, that I am anxious about failing the exam precludes that I know whether or not I will fail it.
Given this definition of anxiety as an emotion that detects uncertainty in our cognitive states regarding the occurrence of a possible threat, it makes sense for Levy to claim that persistent worries and questionings such as Sylvia’s would be brought about by this emotion. However, it seems that, in light of recent insights into the nature of anxiety in the philosophy of emotion (Kurth, 2018a, 2018b), we can be more precise in formulating this claim, and therefore make more accurate predictions about Sylvia’s reactions. Indeed, as we will now see, we have reasons to believe that “anxiety” is not a single emotion but rather refers to a set of distinct emotions. That is, existing philosophical and empirical work shows us not only that there are different types of anxiety, but that these have distinct functional profiles that generate importantly different patterns of thought and behavior.
Because problematic uncertainties can occur in different domains of relevance for us, it has indeed been suggested that anxiety be viewed as a family of emotions,Footnote 8 each playing distinct functional roles. These emotions are thought to share a common core (the detection of “problematic uncertainties”) but to be elicited in response to different kinds of threat, and prompt correspondingly different patterns of behavioral responses (Endler & Kocovski, 2001). This family of emotions is thought to include environmental anxiety, an anxiety that helps us respond efficiently to uncertain threats pertaining to our physical integrity; social anxiety, an anxiety which functions to warn us of possible negative social evaluation; and practical anxiety, which is thought to alert us of misguided decision-making (Kurth, 2018a).Footnote 9 Charlie Kurth has proposed that each kind of anxiety relies on a metacognitive mechanism which monitors degrees of uncertainty pertaining to these specific kinds of problems (Kurth, 2018b). In response to a high uncertainty detected, anxiety (be it social, environmental, or practical) triggers feelings of unease that alarm us, and motivational tendencies that prepare us to face and protect ourselves from the given type of threat.
Using this research to illuminate Sylvia’s behavior allows us to make more accurate predictions about the kind of actions, thoughts, and feelings that Sylvia’s anxiety will cause. As I will argue, because Levy is working with a generic account of anxiety, he is unable to predict that Sylvia will generate thoughts and actions which are importantly distinct from someone experiencing a bout of, say, social anxiety. Although social anxiety is likely to trigger some form of “rumination” and “worrying” as well, these will have a different content and consequently different behavioral outputs than the anxious thinking experienced by Sylvia. By contrast, on my account, cases like Sylvia’s involve an as of yet unappreciated form of anxiety—epistemic anxiety. As we will now see, looking at anxiety as a family of emotions, including a specifically epistemic kind of anxiety, provides us with a much more informative and precise account of Sylvia’s mental state.
“Epistemic anxiety” is a psychological mechanism which has been discussed in the epistemological literature, and which I believe is particularly relevant to understanding Sylvia’s case. It has been conceived as a motivational tendency to gather additional evidence and postpone closure of inquiry when high practical interests are at stake in one correctly believing p (Nagel, 2010). In short, it has been proposed that epistemic anxiety is the psychological mechanism responsible for our inclination to invest more cognitive resources in epistemic tasks on which important goals depend. It is therefore an adaptive affective mechanism which plays a crucial role in regulating our epistemic activities, so that we invest more cognitive efforts on matters that are relevant to our goals, concerns, and interests. Christopher Hookway (1998, 2008) has famously proposed that our disposition to feel the emotion of epistemic anxiety is central to our ability to doubt reasonably, because it is the state which first signals that our belief should not be relied upon, and that we are in an “epistemically unsafe” position.
I here propose to connect this literature to contemporary literature in the philosophy of anxiety, thereby providing an understanding of this phenomenon that is in-line with current theories of anxiety.Footnote 10 Accordingly, I suggest that we treat “epistemic anxiety” as a member of the anxiety family, more particularly, as a kind of anxiety which alerts us of the risk of holding false beliefs in certain instances. This framework provides a useful way of understanding the psychological nature of epistemic anxiety, and of explaining how it can play the epistemic functions that Hookway and Nagel have attributed to this mechanism.
Viewed within this framework, epistemic anxiety functions similarly to the other kinds of anxiety, but it distinctively tracks problematic epistemic uncertainties—uncertainties about the accuracy of our beliefs—and distinctively functions to promote acquiring and maintaining epistemic accuracy in our mental states (rather than social approval, or physical integrity, for instance). As Kurth has highlighted (2018a, 2018b) all types of anxiety consist in both a monitoring of uncertainty, a signal that uncertainty should be addressed, and a motivational mechanism. For instance, practical anxiety both monitors and controls for high levels of uncertainty regarding the possibility of a bad practical decision, and social anxiety both monitors and controls for high levels of uncertainty regarding the possibility of negative social evaluation. Accordingly, epistemic anxiety can be conceived as monitoring and controlling for high levels of uncertainty regarding the possibility of an epistemic error in our cognitive operations. Epistemic anxiety, I suggest, functions by monitoring the degree of epistemic uncertainty in our cognitive operations; signaling that a certain threshold of uncertainty has been met by triggering feelings of unease; and motivating behaviors aimed at resolving the epistemic uncertainty.
While every kind of anxiety consists in a mechanism with monitoring and control functions, what distinguishes these emotions is that they each deploy these functions according to distinct normative criteria (Kurth, 2018b). For instance, practical anxiety deploys those functions towards good decision-making, and social anxiety deploys those functions towards positive social evaluation. Given the role it has been argued to play in the regulation of our epistemic activities (Hookway, 2008; Nagel, 2010), I suggest that epistemic anxiety monitors and controls our cognitive activities towards accurate representations or true beliefs.Footnote 11 Although each kind of anxiety signals uncertainty, and therefore typically triggers investigative behaviors, when one experiences epistemic anxiety, the norms guiding one’s inquiry are epistemic norms; the type of accuracy that is sought is epistemic accuracy. The type of reasons relevant to one’s inquiry are epistemic reasons; reasons that concern the type of evidence one possesses, and the methods one has used in forming one’s belief. By contrast, when one undergoes an episode of practical anxiety, one is concerned with one’s decision aligning with relevant practical and moral norms. As one is trying to figure out how one should act in a given instance, the reasons one will consider are practical and moral reasons.
The functional role of epistemic anxiety can then be summarized in the following way: epistemic anxiety is a kind of anxiety which monitors and controls our cognitive activities towards acquiring and maintaining accurate representations (or true beliefs) in high-stakes contexts. Epistemic anxiety is a signal that there is a high degree of uncertainty as to whether one accurately believes that p (that one’s passport is in one’s bag, for example), and it functions to make us feel that this level of uncertainty about the truth value of such a proposition is problematic given the subjective utility attached to it. It is thus an emotion that is both sensitive to epistemic uncertainty in our cognitive operations, and to the goal-relevance of the context in which those cognitive operations unfold. If this characterization of the phenomenon of epistemic anxiety is valid, then we have reasons to believe that our ability to experience epistemic anxiety plays a role in enabling us to remain sensitive to the importance of properly settling the matter of whether p in a way which is proportionate to how costly a mistake would be for one.Footnote 12
While Levy argues that the state motivating Sylvia’s worries is anxiety, I argue that different kinds of anxiety motivate different questions, and that Sylvia’s questions are distinctly epistemic. Because anxiety is an emotion that tracks uncertainty, Levy’s intuition that it is well placed to trigger questioning and doubt is correct. However, I argue that because epistemic anxiety is a kind of anxiety that tracks epistemic uncertainty—or so I claim—it is best placed to raise the kind of questions Sylvia has in mind: questions that concern the epistemic quality of her beliefs. Given the characterization of epistemic anxiety provided above, we have reasons to believe that the specific kinds of worries that Sylvia is experiencing have their root in epistemic anxiety.
Epistemic anxiety is a mechanism which triggers an inquiry that is aimed at answering the question: “do I correctly (dis)believe that p?” and investigative behaviors that are characteristically guided by epistemic norms. Accordingly, Sylvia is focused on questioning herself about what she knows, what she remembers, and whether and to what extent she is justified in believing that a certain state of affairs (the stove if off) obtains. She is ruminating about such questions as: “did I get distracted while the coffee was on the stove?”, “did I smell some burning as I was walking out?”, and the final aim of her inquiry is to figure out whether or not she has left the stove on. Positing the role of epistemic anxiety in the case of Sylvia allows us to understand why she finds herself endlessly introspecting her memories and belief-forming mechanisms (rather than her surroundings or her decision-making process, etc.), unable to move on.
We might be tempted to think that Sylvia’s anxiety is an environmental kind of anxiety directed at the prospect of her house burning. However, Sylvia is not ruminating and worrying about whether her house will burn down; she is ruminating and worrying about whether she correctly believes that she has turned off the stove. That this question is the content of her worries is manifest in Sylvia’s actions: what she does while sitting in her car is consider the evidence she possesses, revisit her memories of the morning, assess their reliability, etc. By contrast, having the question “will my house burn down?” as the content of one’s worries would rather lead one to consider the probability, given that one knows that one has left the stove on, of this danger (the house burning) actually occurring, and the magnitude of its possible consequences. If Sylvia were experiencing environmental anxiety, she would be questioning herself, not about the epistemic accuracy of her epistemic states, but about the probability that her house would burn, and the possible consequences involved.
To make the functional roles of the different kinds of anxiety clearer, consider the following sequence of events. Imagine that Sylvia were to actually form the judgement that she has left her stove on. Having firmly settled on this belief, she might then start worrying about whether her house could burn down as a consequence of her having left the stove on. This would qualify as environmental anxiety. Now suppose that, later in the day, Sylvia were to actually find out that her house has in fact burnt down. She would then be faced with the decision to report that she had left the stove on that morning, or not. Upon filing the report with the insurance company, she will likely experience practical anxiety: the anxiety about whether one is making the right choice, given one’s conflicting moral or prudential attitudes. If she then were to actually take the decision not to report it, this might in turn render Sylvia socially anxious: will her community judge her negatively if they find out about the fraud? Each of these episodes qualify as episodes of anxiety, but they each target distinct kinds of uncertainties (social, epistemic, practical, environmental), and our understanding of the distinct mental states and activities they involve is furthered by specifying the type of anxiety at play.
If her inquiry about whether she correctly believes that she has turned off the stove were to lead Sylvia to the conclusion that she did leave her stove on this morning, then the awareness of this possible danger would trigger environmental anxiety, shifting her focus on the corresponding questions: (1) will the danger actually occur? (2) how will it affect me?/what will the consequences be for me? However, since the question of whether her house will burn down directly depends on whether she has left the stove on in the first place, until she has not reached an answer to the question “did I turn the stove off?”, this is what she is primarily going to keep trying to figure out. In order for Sylvia to even start considering how likely it is that her house would burn, and what the consequences would be, she has to suppose (take or regard as true) that the stove is on. Unless she accepts “the stove is on” as a necessary premise in her reasoning, she has no reason to start envisaging that her house could burn today.Footnote 13
We could perhaps take this to mean that epistemic anxiety is not a separate emotion, but rather a preliminary step or a constitutive part of other kinds of anxiety: when we are unsure about the justification of our epistemic position, and we apprehend potential danger, we start off by worrying about the validity of our epistemic states. However, it is only in those cases in which the inquiry prompted by epistemic anxiety leads one to conclude that there is indeed a risk of danger, that other kinds of anxiety might be elicited. In those cases in which we conclude that the envisaged danger is inexistent (I have turned the stove off), then epistemic anxiety is the only kind of anxiety that will be experienced.Footnote 14 Epistemic anxiety is thus not a constitutive part of some other kind of anxiety: it is a kind of anxiety in its own right.
Another indication that practical and epistemic anxiety do not only refer to a conceptual distinction, but to two distinct mechanisms can be found in research on Obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD). Indeed, distinct recognized sub-types of OCD may be viewed as manifesting specifically dysfunctions of these two mechanisms. “Scrupulosity” is a sub-type of OCD which involves recurring and persistent uncertainty concerning the rightness of one’s actions, or whether one’s actions are coherent with relevant rules and norms (Abramowitz, 2008). An example of a manifestation of scrupulosity is a patient repeatedly seeking reassurance about whether swallowing one’s own saliva amounts to breaking the Ramadan. We may understand the excessive concern for the concordance of one’s actions with the relevant rules as resulting from a dysfunction of practical anxiety.
Another sub-type of OCD specifically involves the incapacity to achieve a sufficient level of subjective confidence regarding questions such as “whether the front door is locked”. The so-called “checking” sub-type of OCD is characterized by repeated and time-consuming checking activities resulting in an inability to pursue other goals (Colas, 1999; Neal et al., 2017). In this case, the patient seems to chronically find themselves in a state of constant doubt regarding the adequacy between their own beliefs and the actual state of the world. The uncertainty in this case does not concern the adequacy between one’s actions and the relevant rules and norms, it concerns the adequacy between the propositions one believes in and truth. Accordingly, I have elsewhere suggested to understand this sub-type of OCD as resulting from a chronic dysfunction of epistemic anxiety (Vazard, 2019).
One might still object: as she questions whether the stove is off, what Sylvia is concerned about is the possibility of her house burning down. It is crucial here to point out an important distinction between the cause of an emotion (the reasons why one is having an emotion) and its object (what the emotion is about). For instance, social anxiety is partly caused by the fact that we care about maintaining our social status. In this sense, the reason why we worry about making a good impression is that we wish to keep our job, get the promotion, impress the in-laws, etc. We have goals (safety, success, etc.) and these goals are manifest in our different affective reactions. However, while the goal of keeping my job is a precondition for my feeling social anxiety (it is necessary that I care about my job in order for me to feel socially anxious at the meeting), what my social anxiety is about is the possibility of being judged negatively during the meeting, not the possibility of losing my job. In the same manner, it is true that Sylvia’s worry about the truth value of her belief regarding the stove is partly caused by her desire the preserve her home. A more technical way of expressing this distinction is to say that the desire to preserve her home features in the cognitive base or in the psychological preconditions to her anxious response. In this sense this desire is presupposed by her anxious response, but it is not the intentional object of her response; it is not what her episode of anxiety is about.
In the same way as our aversion to social errors can be understood as stemming from a general concern for maintaining the goods and opportunities that we enjoy, our aversion for epistemic errors can be understood as originating from the same concerns. We have an aversion for social costs (being judged negatively) in part because we have learned to associate social judgement with a risk of losing opportunities, chances, and rewards of all sorts. The same applies to our aversion to epistemic errors. However, these background concerns manifest through occurrent mental states of different nature (epistemic or social anxiety), depending on the nature of the possible error that is being apprehended. The different kinds of anxiety each constitute forms of aversion to distinct kinds of errors. Ultimately, the reason why we have a disposition to be averse to these specific errors is that we wish to preserve the goods and opportunities we enjoy. But this does not change the fact that we approach distinct kinds of errors with distinct mental states and reactions, depending on whether the possible errors are of an epistemic, social, or moral nature.
The ability to distinguish types of anxiety, with their specific objects, allows us to be more precise when analyzing cases such as Sylvia’s. Viewing anxiety as a family of distinct emotions, I have argued, allows us to understand the specific normative concerns that drive Sylvia’s worries, and the distinct types of thought patterns and behaviors she is likely to engage in. I have argued that epistemic anxiety is, within the anxiety family, best placed to trigger the kind of questionings that Sylvia is undergoing, because Sylvia’s ruminations and worries are aimed at figuring out whether she correctly believes that the stove in her house is off, or whether she might be misremembering or falsely believing it. While this is already a substantive refinement of Levy’s view, in the next section I want to go further and propose a model of how epistemic anxiety generates the chain of mental events that is characteristic of Sylvia’s state of mind.