Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Pessimism, generally, describes a belief that things are bad, and tend to become worse; or that looks to the eventual triumph of evil over good; it contrasts with optimism, the contrary belief in the goodness and betterment of things generally. Philosophical pessimism describes a tendency to believe that the life has a negative value, or that this world is as bad as it could possibly be. In particular, it most famously describes the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer.
Schopenhauer's pessimism comes from his elevating of Will above reason as the mainspring of human thought and behaviour. 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 reason to a lame man who can see, who rides on the shoulders 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 they are desires; because their objects are always limited resources; because other living things must be excluded from those resources. The business of biological life is a war of all against all. Reason makes us suffer all the more, in that reason makes us realize that biology's agenda is something we would not have chosen if we had a choice, but is helpless to prevent us from serving it, or allow us to escape the sting of its goad (compare this to the role of desire in Buddhism).
Sigmund Freud could also be described as a pessimist and he shared many of Schopenhauer's ideas. He saw human existence as being under constant attack from both within the self, from the forces of nature and from relations with others. The following quote, from "Civilisation and its Discontents", is perhaps the best example of his pessimism:
We can cite many such benefits that we owe to the much despised era of scientific and technical advances. At this point, however, the voice of pessimistic criticism makes itself heard, reminding us that most of these pleasures follow the pattern of the "cheap pleasure" recommended in a certain joke, a pleasure that one can enjoy by sticking a bare leg out from under the covers on a cold winter's night, then pulling it back in..... What good is a long life to us if it is hard, joyless and so full of suffering that we can only welcome death as a deliverer?"
The term has also been used to describe the position of the Norwegian philosopher Peter Wessel Zapffe, although he clearly states in his philosophical treatise Om det tragiske that pessimism is a term which cannot describe his biosophy.
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