It occurred to me some time ago that fear is the result of a lack of control, and try as I might I cannot conceive fear existing without this vacancy. Looked at from the other direction, in a situation where you feel completely in control is it possible to still be afraid?

Furthermore, a lack of control is not always accompanied by fear. Fear appears to be a secondary, distinct response that may or may not occur as a result of a lack of control. We must be able to say this because there are a great many situations where people experience a lack of control but do not exhibit a fear response.

Lastly remains what one does when one loses control. Quite logically, most of us try to remedy it by gaining control, whether through fleeing the situation ("flight") or action ("fight"). I suppose no response (completely breaking down in fear) is also a possibility. I thus propose the following model of fear:

lack of control → desire for control [+/- fear] → action

I haven't really taken this model to any depth yet, though. Which philosopher's have written about fear? Where would be a good start to read about the philosophy of fear?


It seems to me that the concept of fear is intimately connected with the concept of causal determinism. Lack of control is caused by uncertainty, and uncertainty comes when you are concerned that things may not go the way you want them to.

I have been trying to think of other ways fear might come about in an organism, but no despite my efforts they all seem to boil down to uncertainty about the future.

A King Cobra is 3 feet from me. I am afraid. Why? Because I may or may not survive the next few moments of my life. In other words, my future is uncertain.

I am doing my first solo parachute dive. I am slightly anxious (anxiousness is categorically the same as fear in psychology; in general usage, "to be anxious" is just to be "slightly fearful"). Why am I anxious? Because maybe this one time my parachute will not open properly and I'll fall to my death. My future, thus, is uncertain.

It is not merely a coincidence that you often here the saying "Mankind has always feared what it does not understand". Not understanding something is uncertainty; when that uncertainty potentially could have a negative impact on your future, that can lead to fear. Note that I said "can lead to fear", and not "always leads to fear". It is, as I mentioned, possible to not be afraid when you encounter an uncertain future. But it does not seem possible to me that—when you actually are afraid—your fear is being caused by anything else than an uncertain future (feel free to try and think of a working counter-example!).

Since—in a causal system—the future is very much determined, theoretically it is foreknowledge which grants feelings of security. That is, people who aren't afraid are either:

  1. certain that their future will go the way they want (or falsely certain)
  2. somehow have psychologically overcome their need to exhibit a fear response
    • i.e. through not placing any "superficial" ("special") value on their existence
    • and other techniques (See Buddhism, Stoicism, REBT)

These ideas I bring up here, they are very much philosophical, but for a relatively in-depth look at the neurobiology behind it, Edit my post and look into the HTML comment I placed their originally. I left it out of my post because it's not useful at this level of investigation, but some people might be curious.

  • Yea, philosophy won't give you a complete understanding of fear. Fear is an ancient, biological/psychological mechanism. If you understand that mechanism, you understand fear.
    – Cdn_Dev
    Commented May 25, 2015 at 16:12
  • Have you looked at Loveheim's Cube of Emotion: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/L%C3%B6vheim_cube_of_emotion . It's still a theory, not fully accepted, but it suggests that "fear" is well modeled by the relationship of three neurotransmitters. I bring it up because it may suggest that your philosophical model of fear may need to include many things that are not considered "fear" today because they don't involve those neurotransmitters. Another question is whether fear is a fundamental part of the universe, or just an animal tool to deal with something more fundamental.
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Jan 3, 2016 at 17:01
  • @stoicfury how does psychology only ask about neurological and biological explanations (of fear)?
    – user6917
    Commented Jan 3, 2016 at 19:22
  • i sympathise on wanting to read a philosopher write on some emotion or aspect of life, but pretty sure i've had very similar questions closed - except that i wasn't also pushing my own explanation (?) of it
    – user6917
    Commented Jan 3, 2016 at 19:33
  • anyway, i don't think it's helpful to collapse fear into uncertainty... i can be scared by (or at least because) something that has already happened, or fear pain knowing how much it will hurt. ofc these are extreme examples, and i could imagine that uncertainty might enhance the experience of fear, at least as an aspect of some trait like sensation seeking
    – user6917
    Commented Jan 3, 2016 at 20:25

8 Answers 8


You may find in recent philosophical letters (e.g., Collapse, in particular vol. 4) a pronounced focus on horror, to the point sometimes where it is even presented as a kind of ontological principle. Many of the works which I might identify as participating in this turn will offer readings of "Weird" literature, like Lovecraft or Mieville.

In terms of philosophers to investigate, I might suggest a few potential jumping-off points.

Reza Negarestani may merit some attention with respect to this problem. The work I would point you to would be Cyclonopedia. To my mind he most directly answers to the terms of your question.

Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling may be of some interest in this context as well.

More broadly, I might suggest that Deleuze and Guattari, as well as philosophers like Nietzsche and Spinoza, might have a lot to offer here given their concern with psychology and emotions.

In passing, note that Freud has a lot to say about fear and anxiety, but the presentation is decidedly more 'enclosed' than those of the aforementioned writers.


I think that it is possible to refine things a bit more.

First: fear is not always related to uncertainty-- if I jump out of an airplane without a parachute, I will likely be afraid on the way down, and quite certain that I am going to die.

This brings us back to "lack of control", which I would argue is epiphenomenal to the situation. The key factor in fear, it seems to me, is the belief that something negative will happen. Obviously, if we can control the situation we can ensure that the negative thing does not happen, but this is secondary.

What is primary, (it seems to me) is that for there to be fear, there must be a belief (warranted or otherwise; but we are not afraid of things we don't believe will occur) that something negative (necessarily negative; we aren't afraid of good things) may occur (in the unfolding present or future; we are not afraid of the past) to us (directly, or to someone/somethings we care about).

  • After some thought, I think your main point is correct, and I would do well to clarify that in my post. I wrote a lot about uncertainty as the cause of fear, but I should remind readers as you point out that it is not merely uncertainty, but uncertainty about something negative that might occur. This is what I was referring to when I wrote "uncertainty comes when you are concerned that things may not go the way you want them to.", but I somewhat lost sight of that as I progressed further. I'll update my post to reflect this point. Thanks! :)
    – stoicfury
    Commented Nov 18, 2011 at 17:37
  • @stoicfury: Happy to help. I'm still not convinced that uncertainty is a necessary condition of fear; let us take the case of someone who is afraid of the dentist. They visit the dentist, who begins to drill a tooth, and then pauses before drilling again. Can we rule out the possibility that they would be afraid at this point, even though they are certain of exactly what is to come, having experienced it only moments earlier? If not, where is the uncertainty in this case? Commented Nov 18, 2011 at 20:38
  • Uncertainty still allows for a very strong probability that some event will occur in the future (say, a 99.99% chance), but the future is never certain so that's why I feel the need to stick with this notion. People have survived falls from aircraft before and with the dentist, well maybe the power will go out because of a storm, forcing them to postpone the appointment. Nothing is certain! :) I think it might be possible to experience fear without uncertainty, but in experience they always come paired.
    – stoicfury
    Commented Nov 20, 2011 at 2:46
  • It's not clear we can know for sure either way though. Perhaps if one's future was totally certain, completely written in stone, we wouldn't fear it, because it'd be inevitable, unavoidable, so no reason to struggle against it. We will probably never be able to answer such a question because we will always be biased in not knowing the future for certain. But I think maybe what could be at the root of fear is the comparison of what good thing could happen (possibility of surviving and living on) vs. what bad thing that could happen (death, pain, etc.), and that is what causes the fear.
    – stoicfury
    Commented Nov 20, 2011 at 2:49
  • i think that your 2nd and 4th terms say the same thing. it's arguable that the 1st and 3rd do too. i also think that belief isn't necessary for fear, cos i'm afraid of loud noises without believing loud noises are dangerous. which just collapses fear into -ve value, but then some people like feeling afraid so...
    – user6917
    Commented Jan 3, 2016 at 20:31

I don't have the rep to comment yet, but I'd like to point out that Fear is by no means predicated solely on a lack of control (though that's definitely a large part of it); it's also closely related to a negative perception of future events. This is the root of anxiety (low-level, sustained expectation of negative events).

Furthermore, "What really is the fear response based on?" is essentially the same question as "What are the neurological/biological underpinnings of a fear response?. The problem is that we're still working on understanding the mind-body connection, so this question may not even have an answer...

  • "a negative perception of future events" - to me that's exactly a lack of control. When you are uncertain about the future, you do not feel in control. E.G. When you are in an airplane in heavy turbulence you don't feel in control, but that's not because of how strong the turbulence is or how sudden the gusts are, but because you are uncertain of the future. If you were in an uncrashable plane that was piloted by the best pilot in the world, the same turbulence wouldn't phase you at all because you know your future is safe. Foreknowledge is control; uncertainty is lack of control.
    – stoicfury
    Commented Nov 8, 2011 at 18:35
  • The two questions in your final paragraph are very distinct since one is philosophical in nature. My theory of a lack of control is wholly different than the biological underpinnings. You could easily test my theory in an experiment (put people in situations where they have no control) and see if it generates fear, without having to look at the biological underpinnings at all. It's a completely different level of explanation. Just like there are physics explanations which explain the atomic interactions, then chemistry explanations which explain the neurotransmitter and hormonal reactions, etc
    – stoicfury
    Commented Nov 8, 2011 at 18:41
  • An expectation of events occuring (certainty about the future) elicits a potentially-instinctual value/outcome judgement; many factors go in to this, including past experience, current environment, and level of personal control over the subsequent events (i.e. the future). So I agree with your model, but I also think you're stopping a little short in terms of completeness. (no judgement or maliciousness meant! just talking... :) )
    – ZeeKay
    Commented Nov 8, 2011 at 19:28
  • I guess I don't see the difference in the wording between the two questions, and that's my fault, sorry. In what sense are you asking "What really is the fear response based on?", if you do not desire an answer predicated on physiology?
    – ZeeKay
    Commented Nov 8, 2011 at 19:29
  • @stoicfury. Compare these two sentences: "Just like there are physics explanations which explain the atomic interactions..." and "...uncertainty is lack of control." If the latter statement is true, then particle physicists don't have control of their experiments or explanations [?]. The "testability" of your theory seems quite open to interpretations, and depending on the interpretations, it could be said the entire experiment begs the question (which really would be a result of the subjective nature of your premises--as in they're one-dimensional).
    – Jon
    Commented Nov 8, 2011 at 20:37

I don't really understand what you are trying to do in the question. It reads like you want to define fear, or perhaps offer a critical explanation of fear not tied to any psychological school.

On the first account you might try the phenomenology of fear. There is e.g. an article on agoraphobia, drawing on Merleau-Ponty, available here, a 1979 book, etc.

On the second you might want to read about the Frankfurt school's analysis of fear, which will mostly be in terms of social control. Taken quite at random from a hit on Hockenheimer:

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You could even take a more positive approach and read Bloch on hope.

I don't think I follow the question

What really is the fear response based on?

it will vary depending on what your research MO is (conditioning, psychoanalytic, biological, evolutionary, etc.). Incidentally a psychology based on one's understanding of "fear" sounds horrible.

If you just want to know how "fear" has been written about in the history of philosophy then you have:

  • A Philosophy of Fear By Lars Svendsen
  • 2
    I guess you were referring to Max Horkheimer instead of 'Hockenheimer'. A reference with book title and page would be appreciated. ;)
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Jan 4, 2016 at 1:15

There is no absolute fear, fear is always of something. The thing you Fear is never an actuality (not in active present), it's something that might happen in the future (fact of insecurity, uncertainity, impermanence) because you have a negative thought about it, when the thing you fear is actual, fear cease. You don't fear death, you never came in contact with death, you fear dying in pain, loneliness, losing the known etc, not the fact but the idea, the thought, the word etc. and if you have a good thought about death say you'll go to heaven and marry 70 virgins as an example you'll be happy and not afaid with death like suicide bombers.

Fear result from not accepting/not able to handle impermenance/insecurity/uncertainity of life, which is a fact, make the mind confused, not knowing what to do if It happens.

for latest development in the field of neuroscience and studying fear, search for neuroscientist joseph LeDoux. good articles .. rethinking the emotional brain and comming to terms with fear. Neuroscientists use “fear” to explain the empirical relation between two events: for example, rats freeze when they see a light previously associated with electric shock. Psychiatrists, psychologists, and most citizens, on the other hand, use…“fear” to name a conscious experience of those who dislike driving over high bridges or encountering large spiders. People confuse the conscious feeling of fear from the global defensive responses( new term for fear conditioning which is a misnomer which was used by neuroscientests). Response to threat, danger with arousal & attention is not the conscious feeling of fear. Fear is not needed to respond to danger.


I don't know how this answer will be received because it's primarily scientific, but I don't see any other way to rationally answer the question.

Living beings need to behave in certain ways to survive. This means avoiding threats to our existence, whether real or perceived. Fear then, is an evolved mechanism to recognize some type of threat to our survival, experience anxiety over that threat, and act in a way to avoid that threat (fight or flight).

This mechanism is present in almost every animal: fear is directly related to living things being mortal. There is no eliminating it, or overcoming it, it's just a part of being alive.

Going back to your example of being concerned over the future, that's another way of describing what I've just explained. If we were all knowing and knew with 100% certainty a clear path to a healthy, happy life, we would not need to experience fear. However, that is not the case, we are uncertain about how events will unfold, so we have developed an inherent mechanism of caution over forthcoming events.


I'm just addressing the headline question, not the text.

Fear played an explicit role in the works of Hobbes. He claimed to have been born prematurely due to to his mother's dread of the approaching Spanish Armada. Thus "Fear and I were born twins," as he put it.

Aside from this charming anecdote, he did incorporate "fear" as a negative force into his geometric philosophy, where it acts as the axiomatic basis of human equality and the social contract. Each individual fears a violent death and all individuals are equally capable of inflicting it upon others, by strength or stealth.

This was an important modern development. Rather than seek positive justice or the summum bonum, Hobbes based his principle on negation, the summum malum. While this would evolve into "psychology," in Hobbes it remained rationalistic, Euclidean, and universal.

Concerning fear as "loss of control," this might be redefined as dislocation from a secure or "controllable" space, as in the various modern "anxiety" or Unheimlich syndromes, which have a vast critical literature. Interestingly, "agoraphobia" actually has an ancient origin, and I believe the dread of being in the "agora" or public space is taken up by Aristotle, though I can't remember the source.


Fear is not quite a lack of control, but more a lack of knowledge. be it the knowledge of kung-fu, diplomacy or law.

fear is based on lack of knowledge.

We never fear things or concepts, but rather we fear the potential outcomes that may occur.

But if we have enough knowledge (be it the knowledge of kung-fu, diplomacy or law) of how to turn the situation to our advantage, we do not fear

The reason it is possible to not be afraid when we are not in control, is because we have the knowledge to trust the circumstances, animal(s) or person(s) who is/are in control.

Further more, uncertainty is cause by lack of knowledge of the variables in a situation.

  • 2
    I disagree. I can have a lack of knowledge and not have fear. I see why you might think knowledge is the key but it only cuts at the surface of the issue. To me the root issue is still control.
    – stoicfury
    Commented Apr 17, 2013 at 15:45
  • While I do not agree with Kane Moonen, I do not see how one can possibly separate "knowledge" and "control." We usually divide knowledge into "know-how" and "know-what." It would seem to me to be almost a definition of "fear" to have the latter without the former. As in Poe, we "know-what" may happen but do not "know-how" to respond. Because "science" collapses the two forms of knowledge into statistical standards of prediction, I'm not sure there can be a truly scientific definition of fear. Too many variables. Commented Jan 4, 2016 at 0:59

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