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In the "Is the glass half empty or half full?" paradox, the pessimistic approach would be to pick half empty.

Pessimism, from the Latin pessimus (worst), is a state of mind which negatively colors the perception of life, especially with regard to future events. Value judgments may vary dramatically between individuals, even when judgments of fact are undisputed. The most common example of this phenomenon is the "Is the glass half empty or half full?" situation. The degree in which situations like these are evaluated as something good or something bad can be described in terms of one's optimism or pessimism respectively. Throughout history, the pessimistic disposition has had effects on all major areas of thinking.[1]

Psychology of pessimismEdit

The study of pessimism has parallels with the study of depression. Psychologists trace pessimistic attitudes to emotional pain or even biology. Aaron Beck argues that depression is due to unrealistic negative views about the world. Beck starts treatment by engaging in conversation with clients about their negative thoughts. Pessimists, however, are often able to provide arguments that suggest that their understanding of reality is justified; as in Depressive realism or (pessimistic realism).[1] Optimism is at least as arbitrary as pessimism, optimists just don't like to think about that.


Philosophical pessimism is the similar but not identical idea that life has a negative value, or that this world is as bad as it could possibly be. It has also been noted by many philosophers that pessimism is not a disposition as the term commonly connotes. Instead, it is a cogent philosophy that directly challenges the notion of progress and what may be considered the faith-based claims of optimism.

Prominent philosophers of pessimism Edit

Arthur SchopenhauerEdit

Arthur Schopenhauer's pessimism comes from his elevating of Will above reason as the mainspring of human thought and behavior. Schopenhauer pointed to motivators such as hunger, sexuality, the need to care for children, and the need for shelter and personal security as the real sources of human motivation. Reason, compared to these factors, is mere window-dressing for human thoughts; it is the clothes our naked hungers put on when they go out in public. Schopenhauer sees reason as weak and insignificant compared to Will; in one metaphor, Schopenhauer compares the human intellect to a lame man who can see, but who rides on the shoulder of the blind giant of Will.[2]

Likening human life to the life of other animals, he saw the reproductive cycle as indeed a cyclical process that continues pointlessly and indefinitely, unless the chain is broken by too limited resources to make continued life possible, in which case it is terminated by extinction. The prognosis of either pointlessly continuing the cycle of life or facing extinction is one major leg of Schopenhauer's pessimism.[2]

Schopenhauer moreover considers the desires of the will to entail suffering: because these selfish desires create constant conflict in the world. The business of biological life is a war of all against all. Reason only compounds our suffering by allowing us to realize that biology's agenda is not something we would have chosen had we been given a choice, but it is ultimately helpless to prevent us from serving it or to free us from the sting of its goad.[2]

Schopenhauer's proofEdit

Instead of asserting a personal opinion or viewpoint about the appearance of this world being the worst possible, such as a glass being half full or half empty, Schopenhauer attempted to logically prove it by analyzing the concept of pessimism.

But against the palpably sophistical proofs of Leibniz that this is the best of all possible worlds, we may even oppose seriously and honestly the proof that it is the worst of all possible worlds. For possible means not what we may picture in our imagination, but what can actually exist and last. Now this world is arranged as it had to be if it were to be capable of continuing with great difficulty to exist; if it were a little worse, it would be no longer capable of continuing to exist. Consequently, since a worse world could not continue to exist, it is absolutely impossible; and so this world itself is the worst of all possible worlds.

Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, Vol. II, Ch. 46.

He claimed that a slight worsening of conditions, such as a small alteration of the planet's orbit, a small increase in global warming, loss of the use of a limb for an animal, and so on, would result in destruction. The world is essentially bad and "ought not to be".[3] These are disputable assertions, considering that the planet's orbit is not wholly consistent to begin with, global temperature fluctuates over time, and animals can still live after losing a limb. However, taking into respect the fact that major fluctuations in global temperature have typically resulted in mass extinctions in the past and an animal that loses a limb will only rarely survive long in the wild, they may appear reasonable.
Thus throughout, for the continuance of the whole as well as for that of every individual being, the conditions are sparingly and scantily given, and nothing beyond these. Therefore the individual life is a ceaseless struggle for existence itself, while at every step it is threatened with destruction. Just because this threat is so often carried out, provision had to be made, by the incredibly great surplus of seed, that the destruction of individuals should not bring about that of the races, since about these alone is nature seriously concerned. Consequently, the world is as bad as it can possibly be, if it is to exist at all. Q.E.D.


Pessimism by subjectEdit

Moral pessimismEdit

Narratives of decline can be identified in morality: Friedrich Nietzsche's amorality, Freud’s description of co-operation as sublimation, Stanley Milgram shock experiments, the continued presence of war and genocide despite global interconnectedness, and the perceived exploitation of market fundamentalism.

Intellectual pessimismEdit

In ~400 BCE, pre-socratic philosopher Gorgias argued in a lost work, On Nature or the Non-Existent:

  1. Nothing exists;
  2. Even if something exists, nothing can be known about it; and
  3. Even if something can be known about it, knowledge about it can't be communicated to others.

Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi (1743 – 1819), characterized rationalism, and in particular Immanuel Kant's "critical" philosophy in order to carry out a reductio ad absurdum according to which all rationalism (philosophy as criticism) reduces to nihilism, and thus it should be avoided and replaced with a return to some type of faith and revelation.

Richard Rorty, Kierkegaard, and Wittgenstein challenge the sense of questioning whether our particular concepts are related to the world in an appropriate way, whether we can justify our ways of describing the world as compared with other ways. In general,these philosophers argue that truth was not about getting it right or representing reality, but was part of a social practice and language was what served our purposes in a particular time; to this end Poststructuralism rejects any definitions that claim to have discovered absolute 'truths' or facts about the world.

Political pessimismEdit

It is not a trait of any political party to be pessimistic in of itself. Conservative thinkers, especially social conservatives, often perceive politics in a generally pessimistic way. William F. Buckley famously remarked that he was "standing athwart history yelling 'stop!'" and Whittaker Chambers was convinced that capitalism was bound to fall to communism, though he was himself violently anti-communist. Social conservatives often see the West as a decadent and nihilistic civilization which has abandoned its roots in Christianity and/or Greek philosophy, leaving it doomed to fall into moral and political decay. Robert Bork's Slouching Toward Gommorah and Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind are famous expressions of this point of view.

Many economic conservatives and libertarians believe that the expansion of the state and the role of government in society is inevitable, and they are at best fighting a holding action against it. They hold that the natural tendency of people is to be ruled and that freedom is an exceptional state of affairs which is now being abandoned in favor of social and economic security provided by the welfare state.

Environmental pessimismEdit

Some environmentalists believe that the ecology of the Earth has already been irretrievably damaged, and even an unrealistic shift in politics would not be enough to save it. According to this view, the mere existence of billions of humans overstresses the ecology of the planet, eventually leading to a Malthusian collapse. The collapse will reduce the ability of Earth to support large number of humans for a long time into the future.[citation needed]

Cultural pessimismEdit

Main article: Cultural pessimism

Cultural pessimists feel the Golden age is in the past, and the current generation is fit only for dumbing down and cultural careerism. Intellectuals like Oliver James correlate economic progress with economic inequality, the stimulation of artificial needs, and affluenza. Anti-consumerists identify rising trends of conspicuous consumption and self-interested, image-conscious behaviour in culture. Post-modernists like Jean Baudrillard have even argued that culture (and therefore our lives) now have no basis in reality whatsoever.[1]

Some significant formulations have gone beyond this, proposing a universally-applicable cyclic model of history — notably in the writings of Giambattista Vico.

Criticism of pessimismEdit

As a self-fulfilling prophecy Edit

Pessimism is sometimes understood to be a self fulfilling prophecy; that if an individual feels that something is bad, it is more likely to get worse.[4]

Pragmatic criticism Edit

Through history, some have concluded that a pessimistic attitude, although justified, must be avoided in order to endure. Optimistic attitudes are favored and of emotional consideration.[5] Al-Ghazali and William James have rejected their pessimism after suffering psychological , or even psychosomatic illness. Criticisms of this sort however assume that pessimism leads inevitably to a mood of darkness and utter depression. Many philosophers would disagree, claiming that the term "pessimism" is being abused. The link between pessimism and nihilism is present, but the former does not necessarily lead to the latter, as philosophers such as Albert Camus believed. Happiness is not inextriably linked to optimism, nor is pessimism inextricably linked to unhappiness. One could easily imagine an unhappy optimist, and a happy pessimist. Accusations of pessimism may be used to silence legitimate criticism. The economist Nouriel Roubini was largely dismissed as a pessimist, for his dire but accurate predictions of a coming global financial crisis, in 2006.

As decayEdit

Nietzsche believed that the ancient Greeks created tragedy as a result of their pessimism. "Is pessimism necessarily a sign of decline, decay, degeneration, weary and weak instincts ... Is there a pessimism of strength? An intellectual predilection for the hard, gruesome, evil, problematic aspect of existence, prompted by well-being, by overflowing health, by the fullness of existence?"[6]

Nietzsche's response to pessimism was the opposite of Schopenhauer's. " 'That which bestows on everything tragic, its peculiar elevating force' " – he (Schopenhauer) says in The World as Will and Representation, Volume II, P. 495 – " 'is the discovery that the world, that life, can never give real satisfaction and hence is not worthy of our affection: this constitutes the tragic spirit – it leads to resignation.' " How differently Dionysus spoke to me! How far removed I was from all this resignationism!"[7]

See also Edit

External linksEdit


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Bennett, Oliver. Cultural pessimism. Edinburgh university press. 2001.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Schopenhauer, Arthur (2007). Studies in Pessimism, Cosimo, Inc..
  3. Template:CathEncy
  4. Optimism/Pessimism. John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Research Network on Socioeconomic Status and Health.
  5. Michael R. Michau. “Doing, Suffering, and Creating”: William James and Depression.
  6. Nietzsche, Friedrich, The Birth of Tragedy Or: Hellenism and Pessimism, "Attempt at a Self-Criticism," §1
  7. Nietzsche, Friedrich, The Birth of Tragedy Or: Hellenism and Pessimism, "Attempt at a Self-Criticism," §6

References Edit

  • Dienstag, Joshua Foa, Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit, Princeton University Press, 2006, ISBN 0-691-12552-X
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