The Philosophy of Pessimism

This is the title of a book by Stuart Sim, reviewed by Charlotte Morris, in The Times Literary Supplement, November 25. Here is an excerpt:

For Sim, pessimism is not just a symptom of our current cultural woes. Nor is it an abnormal state. It is a considered response to human nature and its full range of traits. Sim’s working definition of pessimism focuses on “seeing the worst aspects of situations as the most likely to occur,” but the Oxford English Dictionary’s second definition would seem to be relevant too: “the attitude or habit of taking a negative view of circumstances, the future, etc.”

Sim makes a connection between pessimism and scepticism in its philosophical sense – scepticism could be said to encourage pessimism because it promotes an attitude of doubt about what we can know, he says – but he is careful to differentiate it from fatalism. Pessimism, crucially, “involves a striving against the odds.”

The core of Sim’s argument is that since pessimists pay more attention to the darker side of human nature than optimists do, and tend to focus more on the mistakes we make and the many things over which we have little or no control, they are better placed to identify, predict and avoid problems.

(At one point, Sim quotes from Tom Stoppard’s play, Jumpers, which offers what could be read as a beautifully sarcastic elaboration of the glass half full:
“Hell’s bells and all’s well – half the world is at peace with itself, and so is the other half; vast areas are unpolluted; millions of children grow up without suffering deprivation, and millions, while deprived, grow up without suffering cruelties, and millions, while deprived and cruelly treated, none the less grow up.”)

At pains to convey pessimism’s “long pedigree,” Sim provides an assured history of it, noting its role, for example, in Calvinist theology (vividly illustrated by the writings of John Bunyan), millenarianism and related schools of thought, and the ecology movement. He discusses chaos theory and complexity theory, both areas of scholarship, he points out, that demonstrate the limits of human power.
Sim’s account of pessimism in philosophy takes in Thomas Hobbes’s description of human life as “nasty, brutish, and short”; Plato, and his belief in maintaining public order through a strictly hierarchical society; and, naturally, Schopenhauer. Then there is Nietzsche and his writings on the death of God, the loss of moral clarity this results in, and the slipperiness of “the truth”; and Theodor W. Adorno, whom Sim casts as a grumpy old man, dismissive not only of Western democracy (among other political systems) but also of the West’s mass culture.

Sim deftly characterizes the philosophies of Martin Heidegger, Jacques Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard, Michel Foucault and Richard Rorty, too – and also that of Jean-Paul Sartre: allied to the kind of “positive pessimism” Sim is championing is existentialism. “His fate belongs to him,” writes Albert Camus in his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus.” “The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

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2 responses to “The Philosophy of Pessimism

  1. Would it also be plausible to suggest that the attitude, or mindset of pessimism/scepticism can at least partially be accounted for by a realization of the fragility and limits to human rationality, by the known unknowability of ‘unknowns’, by the unintended consequences of one’s actions and, in economic terms, by the annoying, yet unavoidable presence of so-called ‘perverse effects’? Assuming ‘the kind of positive pessimism’ attitude implies the way to prevail in ‘the struggle’ without, as can be expected, prescribing how. That, presumably, ‘rests on one’s own shoulders’.

  2. David Schatzky

    Whether one is optimistic or pessimistic about the outcome of things matters
    not as much as how one responds to and copes with reality. For example is
    the inevitablity of death tragic or a relief?

    There’s the famous story of the two shoe salesmen sent to a remote primitive region. One sends a message to his boss: Situation hopeless. Nobody wears shoes here. The other’s message: Fabulous opportunity: there’s an unlimited market for shoes here.