With an initial understanding of anxiety and its (potential) value in hand, we turn to discuss four central themes in philosophical work on anxiety and related emotions, which structure the eleven contributions to the Worry and Wellbeing collection.
Anxiety’s epistemic value
Recently, an affective revolution has taken place in epistemology, as philosophers now recognize the importance of emotions for reasoning, inquiry, and belief formation. Indeed, it has recently been argued that emotions can be a valuable aid to our everyday questioning and investigation, as well as in scientific inquiry (Hookway, 2002, 2003; Thagard, 2002, Brun et al., 2008, de Sousa 2009). Thagard (2002), for example, provides a comprehensive typology of the role of emotions in scientific research. More generally, it is now widely acknowledged that many important cognitive functions could not be performed successfully without relying on the emotions (e.g. de Sousa 1987; Lazarus, 1991; Frijda et al., 2000). Certain emotions in particular are thought to play a distinct role in our attempts to acquire beliefs that we have reasons to form, or reassess beliefs we have reasons to doubt. These emotions or feelings, sometimes referred to as “epistemic emotions,” constitute a controversial and diverse category. Whether there really are specifically epistemic emotions, and what emotions this category includes, are questions still being debated today.
Within these debates, the emotions which have most often taken center stage are typically positive emotions – emotions such as curiosity, surprise, wonder, and interest. Curiosity is a state that has attracted the interest of both philosophers of emotion and epistemologists (Whitcomb, 2010; Williamson, 2002, p. 31; Inan 2013; Kvanvig, 2012), who have investigated its psychological nature and its role in our motivation to inquire and ultimately gain valuable information. More recently, psychologists and philosophers have started to consider the role of negative emotions – such as confusion or frustration – in our ability to acquire knowledge (Silva, 2010; Vazard & Audrin 2021). Nonetheless, it is clear that anxiety, by triggering a state of vigilance and caution, gears up our attention, reasoning, and inference-making so as to help us anticipate threats and their consequences. Anxiety is thus associated with a general orientation of our attention, motivation, and thought patterns; and, of course, the specific way in which anxiety drives all of these facets of cognition in turn impacts our epistemic aims and activities.
Several of the essays in this volume are specifically focused on investigating how an emotional disposition to feel anxiety might contribute to a subject’s ability to acquire knowledge. If anxiety helps us stay vigilant and alert to potential epistemic threats, how might we conceive of anxiety’s epistemic value? Is there such a thing as “epistemic anxiety”? If so, should we view it as (or part of) an epistemic virtue? And what does this state inform us of, exactly? In the intellectual domain, anxiety (understood either as a character trait or as a disposition), can be equated with what Robert Roberts and W. Jay Wood (2007) call “intellectual caution” (p. 219) and, as with moral virtue, anxiety so understood is an important trait of the epistemically virtuous, one that contributes to intellectual virtues such as vigilance, care, and conscientiousness (Montmarquet, 1992; Zagzebski, 2005).
Like all human activities, intellectual practices (such as research, investigation, inquiry, etc.) involve significant threats: one might be careless in one’s reasoning and belief-forming processes, or in focusing one’s attention on non-relevant sets of information. If so, then there seems to be many ways in which a disposition to experience anxiety could be of great help to the virtuous intellectual. For instance, a state of vigilance and caution, applied to the context of inquiry, might ensure that the agent both remains sensitive to epistemic threats (such as false beliefs) and motivated to guard against them (Roberts & Wood, 2007). Additionally, being able to distinguish real from perceived epistemic threats, and to manage the resulting fear and anxiety, is constitutive of the epistemically virtuous individual.
Recent literature in both the philosophy of emotion and epistemology indeed suggests that anxiety is an epistemically valuable emotion: it positively contributes to the success of many of our epistemic endeavors. On this front, Hookway (1998) turned philosophers’ attention to the role of the affective signal of anxiety in our ability to immediately detect “unsafe” beliefs – beliefs which we should not rely on but instead reassess. To this, Nagel (2010) adds that “epistemic anxiety” is a psychological phenomenon which allows us to better calibrate the cognitive resources we invest in forming beliefs based on the stakes in play. Juliette Vazard (2021) has hypothesized that if epistemic anxiety is responsible for our adaptive inclinations to doubt and gather further evidence on high-stakes matters, then an excess of epistemic anxiety might be involved in certain forms of dysfunctional doubting or epistemic over-cautiousness – what we see, for instance, in patients with obsessive–compulsive disorder.
The phenomenon of “epistemic anxiety” has also attracted the attention of several philosophers contributing to this volume. In “Epistemic Anxiety and Epistemic Risk”, Lilith Jane Newton formulates an account of “epistemic anxiety” in terms of epistemic risk: the risk of believing in error. In an attempt to illuminate the relationship between anxiety and risk, Newton asks: how should risk be conceived if it is to be the kind of thing that can elicit anxiety as an emotional response? Proposing a refinement to existing accounts (specifically, Nagel 2010 and Vazard, 2021), Newton considers three accounts of risk: normic (in which risk is determined by the most normal worlds in which a negative event obtains), probabilistic risk (determined by the likelihood of its obtaining), and modal (determined by the closeness of worlds in which a negative event obtains). She argues that epistemic anxiety is a response to epistemic risk triggered by normic and probabilistic, but not modal risk.
In her own contribution, Juliette Vazard looks at the phenomenon of “Everyday Anxious Doubt” and examines the role of anxiety in our everyday tendencies to question our beliefs. Although the relation between anxiety and doubt has already been highlighted (Hookway, 1998, 2008), there has been little effort to elaborate on the psychological mechanisms through which an affective state like anxiety generates a motivation to reassess our beliefs. Elaborating on Neil Levy’s account of the epistemic effects of “Everyday Anxiety” (2016), Vazard provides a model of the kind of emotion-cognition interactions at play in our everyday anxious doubts. Additionally, she shows how clarifying the role of anxiety in these phenomena helps us revise a common assumption about the interactions between anxiety and higher-level cognitive processes, such as the ones involved in representing hypothetical threatening scenarios through mental imagery.
Moving towards virtue epistemology, Frank Cabrera proposes that developing a virtuous disposition to feel the appropriate amount of epistemic anxiety works to promote epistemic success and so contributes to intellectually virtuous inquiry. In “Is Epistemic Anxiety an Intellectual Virtue?”, Cabrera asks whether epistemic anxiety counts as an epistemic virtue in the sense familiar to reliabilist epistemologists. In developing an affirmative answer to this question, Cabrera argues that central aspects of inference to the best explanation reasoning – in particular, our ability to recognize that some fact requires an explanation and to be motivated to employ this form of inference – are both facilitated by feelings of epistemic anxiety. As Cabrera sees it, recognizing that a fact requires an explanation is a species of practical knowledge; as such, securing such knowledge requires the agent to develop the virtuous disposition to feel the appropriate amount of epistemic anxiety.
As the contribution of anxiety to our epistemic endeavors is slowly being uncovered, another area of study concerns the value of experiencing an affective state like anxiety in the context of our moral and prudential goals.
Anxiety’s practical value
The thought that anxiety might have practical value is often met with skepticism – and there’s good reason for this. For one, anxiety seems to be an emotion that undermines thought and action. So, for instance, we see Kant counseled against strong negative emotions on the grounds that they make reflection “impossible or more difficult” (1797/1996: 535). Ask skepticism of this sort can also be found in the Stoics’ assessment of emotions (especially negative ones ) as problematic (Kurth, 2018a, c). Work in psychology brings some empirical support to these worries. For instance, a recent review of research investigating the effects of anxiety in evaluative settings notes that it’s “predominantly harmful to task performance” (Zeidner & Matthews, 2005: 147). At a more familiar level, we have the tales of anxiety-driven disasters in popular audience books and biographies. Consider, for instance, what we find in Scott Stossel’s memoir My Age of Anxiety (2013). Stossel gets anxious whenever he needs to speak before a large group. While such public speaking anxiety is a fitting response given the risk of negative social judgment that such settings bear, Stossel’s anxiety brings such intense cycles of dread, nausea and sweating that he must resort to Xanax and vodka to prevent himself from running out on the talk he’s supposed to give. Hardly a picture of anxiety contributing to health and wellbeing.
But this familiar picture is not the whole of anxiety’s story. For every Stossel-like anxiety disaster, we can point to a case where anxiety brings a valuable attunement and responsiveness to the various threats pending on our cherished goods. Consider, for instance, the suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton. In her autobiography (1898/1993), Stanton recounts the anxiety that she felt about getting married. While her father vehemently opposed her marriage because her fiancé was an abolitionist, Stanton found herself captivated by her husband-to-be’s principles and the impassioned anti-slavery speeches she’d seen him give. Still, the anxiety Stanton felt about this conflict was intense and, at one point, it even led her to call off her engagement. But those worries also prompted her to seek advice from her sister about what she ought to do. Not only did those anxiety-driven reflections help Stanton see that she should renew her plan to get married, but they also revealed why she should do it and what she valued. For instance, shortly after she renewed her marriage plans, Stanton protested her minister’s suggestion to include a traditional vow of obedience in the ceremony. As she explained, a vow to obey was fundamentally at odds with the equal union she was entering into with her soon to be husband.
Similarly, Nelson Mandela often remarked on the unease that the demands of being both a father and a freedom fighter brought. In fact, these anxieties led him to reflect on “whether one was ever justified in neglecting the welfare of one’s own family to fight for the welfare of others” (1994, p. 212). As with Stanton, Mandela’s anxiety reveals his sensitivity to holding important, but sometimes clashing, values. Were he not anxious about how to reconcile his competing obligations to his family and the anti-apartheid movement, our admiration of him as a moral exemplar would diminish. Moreover, Mandela’s anxiety also helped him clarify his thinking. He came to see that his commitments – to both family and the fight for freedom – were equally important and deeply intertwined. Fighting for freedom was, in some way, fighting for his family (Kurth, 2020; Lacewing, 2005).
But, of course, you don’t need to be a suffragist or freedom fighter from the history books to benefit from anxiety. A moderate twinge of helpful anxiety is a common feature of everyday life. The pinch of unease felt when talking to a new acquaintance signals that you may have said something offensive; this discomfort then brings an increased deference that can help you get your conversation back on track.
But the result of these observations is a mess. We don’t have a clear understanding of whether (or when) an emotion like anxiety has practical value. In thinking about this issue, philosophers have tended to focus on a pair of questions: When is anxiety a fitting or rational response? And how does the value of one’s fitting anxiety trade-off against one’s overall wellbeing and prudential interests?Footnote 3 Two papers in the collection take up these issues.
First, in his article, “Fitting Anxiety and Prudent Anxiety,” James Fritz highlights a tension between the conditions in which it is fitting to experience anxiety, and the conditions in which it is prudent to experience anxiety. While the norms for fitting anxiety are concerned with whether a situation merits feeling the emotion, the norms of prudence are concerned with whether feeling an instance of anxiety will promote our wellbeing. As Fritz argues, anxiety provides perhaps the clearest case study on the tension between norms of fittingness and prudence. An enormous array of possible outcomes are both threatening and uncertain. While it might be fitting to feel anxiety in all these situations, it is plausibly deeply imprudent to demand that we actually do that. Thus, when it comes to anxiety, Fritz concludes that fittingness norms seem to stand in an inescapable conflict with the norms of prudence.
In contrast to Fritz, Heidi Maibom’s paper, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy?” defends a more optimistic answer to questions about our ability to be fittingly anxious without undermining other things we care about – like our own wellbeing. As she shows, the issue here is delicate. On the one hand, a failure to effectively regulate anxiety leads to things like less happiness, less success, and worse health. But, on the other hand, anxiety is increasingly recognized as a morally relevant response to others’ suffering. But this suggests that using emotion regulation to maximize aspects of happiness might reduce one’s moral goodness. In an effort to alleviate this tension, Maibom argues that the apparent conflict between cultivating anxiety and cultivating happiness can be resolved. But seeing how this can be done requires us to consider anxiety in its context, and in relation to the other affective states which arise alongside it, as well as the significance of the overall experience to the agent.
Regulating and calibrating anxiety
Implicit in the above discussions of anxiety’s epistemic and practical value is the idea that whether an instance of anxiety is valuable or not turns on whether it is felt at the right time and in the right way. This in turn raises questions about what, if anything, we can do to regulate – or cultivate – emotions like anxiety.
Here it might be useful to say a little about how we can distinguish emotion cultivation from emotion regulation. Briefly, emotion cultivation is a term that is more common in philosophy (especially in the context of work on virtue in the Aristotelian tradition). It refers to our intentional efforts to bring lasting changes to when and how we experience a particular emotion so as to promote certain values (prudential, moral, epistemic, etc.).Footnote 4 By contrast, talk of emotion regulation is more prevalent in psychology. It typically refers to our unconscious efforts to affect short-term changes in when and how we experience an emotion in a given situation for hedonic reasons (e.g., to perpetuate the good feeling of positive emotions and curtail the bad experience of negative ones).Footnote 5
Looking more closely at emotion cultivation, we find philosophical discussions of it going back to the ancients, and the central issues taken up then continue to shape current debates. This includes questions like: Can we shape our emotions for the better? If so, should that be a goal of our educational practices and efforts to promote moral development? What cognitive capacities are central to emotion cultivation and what can we do to develop them? Is emotion cultivation best understood as an individualistic process or a more social/institutional one?
In the context of anxiety, fear, and similar phenomena, clinical psychology and emotion science licenses modest optimism about our ability to cultivate these emotions. For instance, cognitive-behavioral therapy and the use of “fear appeals” show promise as methods that can help correct false-positives (feeling anxious when one shouldn’t) and false-negatives (not feeling anxious when one should) (Hofmann & Smits, 2008; Abramowitz, 2001; Keller, 1999; Lewis et al., 2007). In a similar vein, reappraisal techniques have proven effective moderating the appropriate, but excessive anxiety experiences when, say, taking a test (Jamieson, Mendes, et al., 2010; Hanin, 2007; Hatzigeorgiadis & Biddle, 2001). That said, there is still much work we to do in order to better understand the theoretical and normative questions that underlie these empirical findings.
On this front, several essays in the collection can be seen as contributing to our understanding of how we might effectively regulate and cultivate complex emotions like anxiety. For instance, Ditte Marie Munch-Jurisic argues in, “Lost for Words: Anxiety, Well-being, and the Costs of Conceptual Deprivation,” that while negative affective states such as distress, discomfort, and anxiety can indeed be morally and epistemically valuable, whether an individual will be able to realize these benefits depends on her capacity to correctly and constructively interpret her own affective states. Particularly, Munch-Jurisic points out that an agent’s socio-economic and cultural context may prevent her from developing the hermeneutic equipment (words, concepts, etc.) necessary to make sense of the negative affective states she is experiencing in these contexts, thereby depriving her of a tool that might be essential to improving her wellbeing and mental health.
In a similar vein, Heidi Maibom’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy?” asks how we can cultivate morally valuable forms of anxiety and do so in ways that do not undermine our happiness. Her answer is that we’re likely to do better in cultivating emotions like anxiety to the extent that we focus less on the particular instances of the emotion and more on how our anxious experiences evolve over time and interact with other affective experiences (empathy, hope, etc.) and our perceptions of our situations.
In contrast to the focus on an individual’s anxious experiences that we see in the papers from Munch-Jurisic and Maibom, several other contributors argue that attaining a richer understanding of anxiety requires us to move beyond an individualistic perspective on emotions. For instance, in “The Relational Calibration of Fear,” Ami Harbin considers fear from an interpersonal perspective. How does fear shape an agent’s relationships in times of crises and how, in turn, is an agent’s fear shaped by those relationships? Integrating results from empirical psychology, Harbin provides an account of the role of interpersonal relationships in emotional processes of fear. How do other agents – both those we trust and those we don’t – impact our responses to danger in the context of a collective crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic?
Focusing on a specific kind of interpersonal relationships, Troy Jollimore’s, “Anxious Feelings, Anxious Friends: On Anxiety and Friendship,” examines the phenomenon of proxy anxiety – that is, the anxiety that friends feel on our behalf. Moving beyond first-personal cases of anxiety, or how one’s emotions impact one’s own wellbeing, Jollimore examines several ways in which our friends’ reactions of anxiety might benefit our own affective functioning and wellbeing. How might the emotions that my friends experience contribute positively to my own wellbeing? In short, our friends’ distinctive relationships with us leave them well-positioned to help us regulate our ill-calibrated anxieties.
Finally, Charlie Kurth’s contribution, “Inappropriate Emotions, Marginalization, and Feeling Better,” examines an objection – namely, that calls to cultivate or correct “inappropriate” emotions like anxiety, anger, and shame can lead to further marginalization of the already marginalized. Not only do these emotions tend to be experienced more often by women, minorities, and other marginalized members of our communities, but the emotion norms that dictate who can feel what and when too often work to entrench power relations that benefit dominant group members. Drawing on research in cognitive science examining how we acquire and deploy the norms that shape our behavior, the paper sketches a proposal for how we might cultivate emotions in ways that can help us avoid marginalizing the already marginalized.
The experience of anxious states and what this explains
A final important question concerns the broader nature of anxious states and what it is like to experience them. The affective life of an individual is made up of a variety of phenomena, which may manifest themselves in the form of experienced episodes, or of dispositions to experience such episodes. Anxious states thus comprise not only the emotion of anxiety (i.e., a short-lived episode directed at a specific state of affairs), but also anxious moods. In fact, in the philosophical literature, it is the mood state of anxiety that philosophers have historically been most interested in (Kierkegaard, 1844/2006; Heidegger et al., 1962). Moods, like emotions, are associated with bodily sensations and feelings (they have a specific phenomenology), but they typically last for longer. Moreover, although this is a controversial idea, it is often argued that, while emotions have intentional objects, moods do not seem to target specific objects (Lormand, 1985; Kurth, 2022: Chap. 3). Thus, while emotions often call for reasons and can be considered correct or incorrect, we do not tend to think of moods as justified (or correct) or unjustified (or incorrect). How does anxiety manifest when it takes the form of a mood? And how does anxiety as a mood relate to anxiety as an emotion? Finally, does anxious mood have a specific value or contribution to our wellbeing in any way?
One author of this volume addresses these questions and provides an original account of the relation between anxious mood and anxious emotion, as well as a view of the psychological benefits of such an interaction between the different anxious states. In “Affective Shifts: Mood, Emotion and Well-being,” Jonathan Mitchell provides a detailed philosophical account of affective shifts – when our moods “crystalize” into emotions, and our emotions “diffuse” into moods – applied to anxiety. Anxiety can manifest in the form of a short-lived emotional episode that is intentionally directed at a specific event or situation, but also in the form of an anxious mood whose intentionality is less focused and more diffuse. Mitchell proposes that these two states are often connected, and that the way in which moods ‘develop’ into emotions can, in certain cases at least, allow for a kind of ‘release from affect’, which may be important for maintaining proper affective functioning.
Finally, we turn to a further dimension of the felt experience of anxiety and its impact on wellbeing – namely, its relevance to understanding symptoms of psychopathology. Just 40 years ago, anxiety did not exist as a clinical category in its own right. In 1927, according to the Psychological Abstracts list, only three scientific papers on anxiety were published, and by 1950 there were only 37. It wasn’t until 1980 – after new medications designed to treat anxiety were developed and brought to market – that anxiety disorders were finally introduced into the third edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III), replacing the Freudian neuroses to which anxiety had previously belonged. It is thus now recognized that anxiety can take different pathological forms, and manifest in ways that significantly impair a subject’s functioning. Anxiety and its associated disorders is indeed now thought to represent the most common form of officially listed mental illness in the United States (Simpson et al., 2010; Kessler et al., 2005) and the European Union (Wittchen et al., 2011).
Clinical, chronic anxiety is distinct from the occasional episodes of anxiety that are part of the life of healthy individuals. Not only do these anxious episodes manifest with an incredibly excessive intensity, but they also target inappropriate objects by arising in situations – on ordinary days, doing ordinary things – which present no apparent menace. While we have seen that anxiety often promotes individual functioning, pathological anxiety (as well as non-pathological but severe anxiety) can lock a subject into rigid and paralyzing cycles of rumination and worries, and leave them in a constant state of hypervigilance to threats. One author of this volume addresses the nature and phenomenology of rumination for patients with depression and pathological anxiety. In “Stuck on Repeat: Why do we Continue to Ruminate?” Jodie Louise Russell examines the phenomenon of rumination and asks: How does rumination develop for patients with depression or pathological anxiety? And how can we account for the phenomenological features of these repetitive kinds of thought? Building on Lisa Feldman Barrettt’s theory of emotion categorization as sense-making, and on Merleau-Ponty’s work, Russell develops an integrated model of rumination that takes into account both underlying bodily processes and the lived experience of the ruminator.