Edgar Degas, Eugene Manet

Philosophical Pessimism

Instructor: Michael Stevenson
The Workmen’s Circle
247 West 37th St, 5th Floor
New York, NY 10018

Why should we be hopeful? “Above all, to be American is to be an optimist.” Or so proclaims the animatronic version of our country’s current Chief Executive at Walt Disney World’s Hall of Presidents. Indeed, it seems to be one of the few sentiments that is shared widely across mainstream politics, media, and popular culture. Where does this optimism come from, and how did it become so essential? For most, the idea that pessimism would be a good attitude to hold in the face of crisis or troubling developments seems almost nonsensical. Even if it is difficult to be optimistic, many would insist that it’s really the only option, the only attitude to strive for. When we “fall” into pessimism, do we admit defeat? Is it simply giving up?

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 these issues 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 philosophical 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 be drawn widely from the history of philosophy, and will include Plato, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Camus, and Adorno, among others.

Course Schedule

Wednesday, 6:30-9:30pm
June 06 — June 27, 2018
4 weeks


Registration Closed

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