dylan trigg

Marie Curie Fellow















Marie Curie International Outgoing Fellowship, 2014-2017

University of Memphis/University College Dublin

Research project: “Toward a Phenomenology of the Anxious Body.” With Shaun Gallagher and Dermot Moran. FP7-PEOPLE-2013-IOF 624968


Toward a Phenomenology of the Anxious Body (TPAB) is a study of anxiety, which employs an interdisciplinary methodology involving philosophy, cognitive science, and psychoanalysis. While the concept of anxiety has assumed a central role in the history of philosophy since the time of Kierkegaard up to Heidegger, a sustained and rigorous study of anxiety and the bodily self remains incomplete. The TPAB project attends to this oversight. To achieve this, the project uses an original and novel methodology that combines a first-person perspective with theories of psychoanalysis as well as recent empirical work.  

At present, anxiety is the most common form of mental illness in the US and UK, affecting 18% of the population in the US and 13% in the UK. Moreover, according to a recent WHO study, “40% of disability worldwide is due to depression and anxiety.” In the US, anxiety disorders cost “$42 billion a year, almost one-third of the country's $148 billion total mental health bill.” Many of these costs are allocated to medications to help diminish the symptoms associated with anxiety. Despite its relevance and enduring presence, a sustained and rigorous analysis of anxiety at both an experiential and conceptual level remains overlooked. The TPAB project responds to this oversight.

Despite its prevalence in both an intellectual history and in our daily life, anxiety continues to elude us. Even within a canonical textbook such as Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), anxiety is considered largely in terms of a series of symptoms such as fatigue, tension, insomnia, and heart palpitations, which then form the basis of diagnosing what particular variant of anxiety is at stake (panic disorder, PTSD, generalized anxiety disorder, etc.). In fact it was only in DSM III (1980), that anxiety became a classification in its own right, having so far being treated merely as a counterpart of depression. Following the recent publication of DSM V (2013), the value of this model is the topic of especially visceral debate especially where the issue of normative foundations for human experience and the stigmatization of mental illness are concerned (cf. Frances 2013). There is much we can learn from an intellectual history of anxiety, principally:

Anxiety is an invariant feature of being human.

Anxiety is culturally mediated by historical and social interpretations.

Anxiety is construed as a disorder to be treated rather than tolerated.

Yet if these historical accounts have assigned anxiety a central place in human behavior, then what they have nevertheless tended to overlook the first person phenomenological experience of anxiety as it is lived, in favour of a third-person or positivistic perspective. Thus, while psychiatry has made significant inroads in the prevention of anxiety by explaining how anxiety emerges, a gap exists in terms of exploring the broader meaning of anxiety. By contrast, the mood is treated as an illness in the same way a physical illness can be understood in naturalistic terms. Such an approach is necessary, and without it the prevention of anxiety would not be possible. But alongside the psychiatric model, a phenomenological approach can be of complimentary value in terms of revealing the broader meaning of anxiety beyond its objective properties.

Phenomenology builds on a rich history in philosophy, especially where the issue of embodied subjectivity is concerned. The relation between the body and the self is central in defining the history of philosophy, such that much of contemporary philosophy remains committed to responding to questions raised by Descartes. Such questions include what is the nature of the self? What is the nature of the body? How do mind and body interact? Phenomenology provides us with a set of insights and conceptual tools to explore these questions in great depth.

These insights are developed in large from Husserl (1988), Merleau-Ponty (2012), and Heidegger (1996). In methodological terms, phenomenology asks that we put to one side our presuppositions by advocating a descriptive analysis of how things appear for us, so that we can gain a richer understanding of their value. In this way, phenomenology provides a counterpart to the objectifying tendencies in naturalistic methodologies, which treat anxiety in a non-specific way, as Husserl himself states, “phenomenology demands a direct personal production of the pertinent phenomenon” (Husserl 1975, 61). By employing a phenomenology that calls upon the specificity of a lived experience, we gain a much richer account of anxiety than would otherwise be available in a naturalistic setting. Far from a localized interruption that makes us feel momentarily uncomfortable, anxiety obligates us to ask larger questions concerning the meaning we ascribe to the world (Heidegger 1996). Such a move means recognizing two sides to anxiety. Alongside being an experience of suffering to be understood in psychiatric terms, anxiety is also a phenomenon that can give us a broader understanding of important issues pertaining to ourselves and the world itself.

To understand the meaning of anxiety as it plays a role in our theoretical and experiential account of being a bodily subject, more than one disciplinary perspective is required. Anxiety’s complexity exceeds the confines of any given method, and therefore implicates an interdisciplinary methodology involving philosophy, cognitive science, and psychoanalysis by necessity. While maintaining phenomenology as a foundation, the justification for incorporating other approaches is to establish a mutually edifying and complementary dialogue, which can allow us to gain a broader perspective of anxiety than would be available from one perspective alone. Employing this framework, the project sets out to achieve the following aims:

  1.        To investigate the relation between anxiety and bodily subjectivity by focusing on key issues such as bodily ownership, bodily identification, and the materiality of the self. To ascertain to what extent anxiety challenges existing ideas of subjectivity.

  2.        To investigate the role other people play in contributing to the anxious person’s sense of self. Moreover, to suggest that intersubjectivity is fundamentally an issue of intercorporeality (i.e., that the relation between self and other is founded in the body).

  3.        To explore how the anxious person’s bodily experience is manifest in their relation with spatiality. In particular, to argue that spatiality, far from a homogenous backdrop to experience, is co-constituted between body and world via the idea of mood.

  4.        To explore the issue of anxiety within notions of wellbeing and normativity. To achieve this by placing phenomenology and psychoanalysis in dialogue with one another. In doing so, to make an original contribution to the treatment and understanding of anxiety from both a theoretical and applied context.



All materials © Dylan Trigg 2015  

Photo: Village Saint Paul, Paris, 2014.

Funded by European Commission, Marie Curie Actions, FP7 - TPAB, Project Reference: 624968