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The Smiling Pessimist

by on February 23, 2011

            Throughout the history of modern philosophy continuing through the branch of positive psychology, it seems that we have been indoctrinated to simply accept optimism; be it by means of the Enlightenment’s goal of pursuing reason, or the aforementioned branch of psychology encouraging the focusing on the positive instead of the negative. The phrasing of the question concerning that famous glass continues to structure our view of the world and our place in it and the answer supposedly says a lot. Many people attempt to disregard this question in hopes of arguing in favor of a more ‘realistic’ and ‘pragmatic’ approach to their world view- but this results in nothing substantial being said in any of the three blaring choices. The 20th century analytic philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once said that ‘a depressed man lives in a depressed world,’ further elucidating the notion that we in fact shape the world in the temperament we wish to see it in. Such emotions/world views consisting in depression, pessimism, and even melancholy get an electroshock of treatment; filled with warnings of everything from physical illness to neurosis or even psychosis. The pharmaceutical companies have made a fortune shoving every type of behavioral modifying drug down our throats to make us ‘happier,’ more ‘productive,’ more ‘content,’ or simply to make us less morbid and weird. It seems that from the extensive material found in philosophy- such as the notion of continual progress, this world being the best of all possible worlds, and our reason’s ability to in fact create some sort of utopia- the morbidity of a more solemn realism is discouraged; the fault lies inherent in the world view and the ‘patient’ who espouses such views is in some way or another ‘wrong.’

            First off, a serious question needs to be considered: Why is the belief that things will go well any more rational than the belief that things will turn out badly? With a long world history at one’s fingertips, one’s own history serving as a track record it would seem that both hypotheses seem equally rational. Pessimism in the history of philosophy includes such figures as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Arthur Schopenhauer, and the Existentialists. Today, post-modernists and cultural theorists are labeled as ‘depressing’ as if that in any way discredits their arguments. Albert Camus once wrote that ‘the idea that a pessimistic philosophy is necessarily one of discouragement is a puerile idea, but one that needs too long a refutation,’ and this is what I am attempting to argue. As Joshua Foa Dienstag points out in his wonderfully written and critically acclaimed ‘Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit’ (2006):

‘Since pessimism is perceived more as a disposition than as a theory, pessimists are seen primarily as dissenters from whatever the prevailing consensus of their time happens to be, rather than as constituting a continuous alternative. The result is that each seems disconnected from the mainstream of the history of political thought. They appear as voices in the wilderness, to put it politely- or to put it less politely, as cranks.’ (pg. 3)

            This is encapsulating some sort of defeatist attitude found in a pessimistic world view as opposed to the supposedly celebrated ‘goal-oriented’ attitude found in optimism. However in an article written by Ian Ravenscroft (Associate Professor of Philosophy at Flinders University in South Australia) in ‘Philosophy Now’ (Issue 81), it is pointed out that throughout the history of philosophy, the trend of being anti-conformist and anti-authority can be found in figures ranging from Socrates all the way through Bertrand Russell. So it would seem that in this culture of unfettered optimism, soma spread breakfast toast, and discouragement of negativity-as-worldview; that the role of a philosopher in a way is to undercut the sophistry of illusory progress. The most famous example of this pessimistic philosophy can be found in the western world following World War 1 in which we find the writings of the existentialists, the school of art found in Dadaism, the writings of Ernest Hemingway, and other figures who led the charge of ‘violent eruptions of the irrational in this century.’ As William J. Barrett explains in ‘Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy’ (1958), the correlations in all aesthetic and intellectual pursuits following a short and continual history of optimism speaks for itself:

‘The subjectivity that is generally present in modern art is psychological compensation for, sometimes a violent revolt against, the gigantic of life externalization of life within modern society. The world pictured by the modern artist is, like the world meditated upon by the existentialist philosopher, a world where man is a stranger.’ (pg. 49)

            One must point out that shortly after the greatest revival and emphasis on reason and logic (Enlightenment) , the world experienced some of the worst atrocities in the history of the world (WW1, WW2, Holocaust, Stalin’s Gulags, etc.), and it is this paradox that philosophical pessimism rightfully places itself for combat.  The writings attacking the bourgeoisie culture found in Nietzsche and Kierkegaard can be correlated to that infamous moustache placed right above Mona Lisa’s lip. It is calls to not only end the complacency of comfort that results solely from the externalization of reality, but to see the world as it really is. The externalization of reality that William J. Barrett focuses on concerns that our happiness is found outside of us- faster technology, convenience, trends, fads, everything being ‘better’ thus enabling us to be ‘happier.’ To take just one example from the list, as Dienstag elucidates the problem of fashion articulated in Giacomo Leopardi’s “Operette Morali” (‘The Moral Essays’) (1827):

‘(…) Fashion replaces a preexistent society of rough vital individuality with an artificial society that is polished but oppressive in its commonality and phony in its intensity.’

            I am proud to claim myself as a philosophical pessimist in the vein of a Nietzsche and a Kierkegaard, and I find it more representing of the world than all the happiness one feels is really out there. It is the knowledge of our mortality, our subjectivity, our freedom by consciousness, the anxiety of realizing our inability to not choose, and Kierkegaard’s advocacy to live as an existential ironist that contributes to the merit of philosophical pessimism.

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