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Fear: A conceptual analysis and philosophical therapy

Starkstein, Sergio (2016) Fear: A conceptual analysis and philosophical therapy. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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Fear is a critical emotion in everyday life as it permeates many of our minor and major decisions. Explicitly or implicitly, fear is one of the emotions that most strongly shape human life. In this thesis fear and its philosophical remedies will be analysed through the work of western philosophers and thinkers selected based on their overall contributions in conceptualizing fear and suggesting therapies for reducing its more damaging effects.

The study will show how Epicurus, Cicero and Seneca considered fear as the main obstacle in achieving peace of mind, and their ethical systems were primarily focused on dealing with this emotion by proposing eclectic philosophical therapies. Montaigne presented a humanist therapy of fear instrumented as a critical self-analysis.

In contrast, a reductionist trend in thinking about fear emerged during the 17th century with the growth of materialistic philosophy. Thomas Hobbes reduced fear into a necessary tool for social control, whereas René Descartes demoted fear to a secondary emotion enacted by a dualist mechanism. This trend continued with William James’s conception of fear as a sensory-somatic reflex, and with Sigmund Freud’s hypothesis of a neurotic fear resulting from universal unconscious laws.

I will also discuss how current neuroscience has reduced fear to decontextualized neural changes, and how the dominant trend in psychiatry has reified anxiety into arbitrary nomenclatures of unclear validity. On a completely different tack Ludwig Wittgenstein provided a broad ‘perspicuous presentation’ of fear, but his nuanced analysis has been largely ignored in philosophical studies.

Overall it can be seen that, in keeping with the scientific revolution, the influential perspectives throughout the philosophical history of fear change from understandings that philosophy itself and reason are the best therapies for fear towards the medicalization of fear that is dominant today. By following these specific and diverse historical convergences, however, their criss-crossing insights and oversights, the thesis aims to enhance the conceptual understanding of fear and the variety of perspectives and therapies available for accommodating its enduring influence in our lives.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): School of Arts
Supervisor(s): Bowden, Peta
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