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Absurdity as the source of existential anxiety : a critique of terror management theory Proulx, Travis

Abstract

Pyszczynski, Solomon and Greenberg's 'Terror Management Theory' presents itself as an empirically grounded psychological framework that satisfactorily explains existentially anxiety. More than this, Terror Management theory claims to account for all cultural constructs, all meaning oriented behaviour, and all related affect, as deriving from existential anxiety. According to TM, a human being's desire for meaning essentially reduces to existential anxiety. This is to say, all human beings are fundamentally anxious about their mortality, and meaning, all manner of meaning, is our means of quelling this anxiety. We both construct and adhere to meaning frameworks as a means of dealing with our largely unconscious, lingering awareness that someday, we are going to die. This is a rather ambitious claim, and the evaluation of this claim will form the central thrust of this thesis. Is TM correct in asserting that every meaning framework, the world over, is constructed and adhered to insofar as it eases our existential anxiety, where existential anxiety itself reduces to bur fear of death? Or is it the case that our meaning frameworks are constructed independently of the fear of death, where the fear of death may itself reduce to a thwarted need for meaning? It will be the aim of this thesis to not only challenge TM's chain of reductions, but to propose our own, less ambitious series of reductions, whereby our fear of death can be seen as a manifestation of existential anxiety, which itself reduces to anxiety in the face of meaninglessness, or what Camus terms 'the absurd'. We will attempt to outline a line of thinking whereby our need for meaning exits, super-ordinate to any need to avoid mortal thoughts, and where this need for meaning, if not met, can provoke its own anxiety. Ultimately, we will suggest that much of the anxiety associated with the fear of death is actually the anxiety produced when death thwarts our need for meaning.

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