Is the glass half empty or half full? The pessimist would pick half empty, while the optimist would choose half full. Pessimism, from the Latin a state of mind in which one perceives life negatively. 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.
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.
Arthur Schopenhauer 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.
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.
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.
Moral 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 or statism.
Intellectual In ~400 BCE, pre-socratic philosopher Gorgias argued in a lost work, On Nature or the Non-Existent:
Nothing exists; Even if something exists, nothing can be known about it; and 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 It is not a trait of any political party to be pessimistic in and 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 right-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. Political pessimism has sometimes found expression in dystopian novels such as George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Political pessimism about one’s country often correlates with a desire to emigrate.
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 numbers of humans for a long time into the future.
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 has no basis in reality whatsoever.
Some significant formulations have gone beyond this, proposing a universally-applicable cyclic model of history — notably in the writings of Giambattista Vico.
Legal Bibas writes that some criminal defense attorneys prefer to err on the side of pessimism: “Optimistic forecasts risk being proven disastrously wrong at trial, an embarrassing result that makes clients angry. On the other hand, if clients plead based on their lawyers’ overly pessimistic advice, the cases do not go to trial and the clients are none the wiser.”
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). The pessimism item on the Beck Depression Inventory has been judged useful in predicting suicides. The Beck Hopelessness Scale has also been described as a measurement of pessimism.
Wender and Klein point out that pessimism can be useful in some circumstances: “If one is subject to a series of defeats, it pays to adopt a conservative game plan of sitting back and waiting and letting others take the risks. Such waiting would be fostered by a pessimistic outlook. Similarly if one is raking in the chips of life, it pays to adopt an expansive risk taking approach, and thus maximize access to scarce resources.”
Self-fulfilling prophecy 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.
Pragmatic criticism 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. 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 li…