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David Livingstone Smith pens articles on metaphysical horror

Fear versus horror

October 31, 2019

Smith explains the difference between fear and horror
Smith explains the difference between fear and horror

It is the Halloween season, a time for all things scary. Recently David Livingstone Smith, Ph.D., professor of philosophy, delved into what really makes us scared.

In articles written for iai news, an online magazine of big ideas, and PHILOSO?HY Talk, the website of a talk radio program, Smith explains the difference between fear and horror.

He writes, “Fear is a primitive emotional response, an instinctive reaction to perceived danger that we share with other mammals. Horror is a uniquely human state of mind that depends on sophisticated cognitive capacities of a sort that only human beings possess.”

Smith says fear morphs into horror only when it is supplemented by an element that he calls "metaphysical threat."

“The threats posed by physically dangerous things can, at least in principle, be managed,” he writes. “But metaphysically threatening things endanger our entire conception of the structure of reality.”

According to Smith, “Metaphysically threatening things leave us with a deep, nightmarish sense of disorientation, driving home the unsettling idea that we can’t rely on the ordinary framework of assumptions that give us a sense of security.”

Smith is the author of the award-winning book Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others. His forthcoming book, On Inhumanity: Dehumanization and How to Resist It, is now available for pre-order.


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