Edvard Munch, Melancholy (1894)

Hope and Despair in Philosophy

Instructor: Michael Stevenson
Goethe-Institut New York
30 Irving Place
New York, NY 10003

How should we be feeling? Is it naïve to be hopeful?  When should we despair?  Does it make more sense to be optimistic or pessimistic?  Recent political developments the world over have made many apprehensive about the future, instilling a sense of foreboding and unease.  And yet many public officials, journalists, and academics have also expressed a firm hopefulness in the midst of these developments.  Many, in fact, have even declared that they are “more hopeful than ever before.”  For many, if not most, the idea that pessimism would be a good attitude to hold seems almost nonsensical.  Even if it is difficult to be optimistic at times, it’s clear to some that it’s really the only option, the only attitude to strive for.  To “fall” into pessimism is to admit defeat, to give up and give in, which would involve a kind of moral failure.  Yet Frankfurt School critical theorist Max Horkheimer once quipped in a wonderfully paradoxical way that “the hope of Reason lies in emancipation from our own fear of despair.”  He argued that optimism—in his words, the “self-imposed obligation to arrive at a cheerful conclusion”—was in fact self-defeating.   The reasonable response is to take seriously the likelihood that things will in fact not end well for us. 

In this class, we will attempt to find psychological, moral and political orientation about hope and despair via an exploration of the philosophical traditions of optimism and pessimism.  We will explore the roots of optimism in its Christian guise as Providence and in its secular Enlightenment manifestation in the form of a belief in necessary Progress.  We will then explore the tradition of pessimism in an attempt to reassess the common-sense evaluation of it as a kind of untenable intellectual and political resignation and nihilism.  Readings will draw on the work of Plato, Kant, Hegel, Mill, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Horkheimer, and Camus.

Course Schedule

Monday, 6:30-9:30pm
July 10 — July 31, 2017
4 weeks


Registration Open

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