June/July 2011

Bruce: Pessimism: Philosophy - Ethic - Spirit

A review of Pessimism: Philosophy-Ethic-Spirit by Michael Bruce

With a title and theme like Pessimism, not everyone is going to jump at this book. This is unfortunate, since they will be missing a very unique and engaging narrative that discerns a conceptual history of the ominous worldview entitled pessimism. Professor Dienstag clearly delineates pessimism as a specific stance in relation to time. Opposed to optimism and its confidant progress, pessimism is the position that things may not improve as time passes. It is not that humanity is doomed or even in decline; pessimism holds that progress is an illusion and the human condition is getting worse or at least not better. Dienstag is forthright in making this a technical definition, and acknowledges that pessimism is usually perceived as a disposition rather than a philosophical school of thought. The book wants to show that in the discourse of many dominant figures, from Rousseau, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche, to Freud, Camus, and Foucault and others, there is a strand of reasoning that has been pushed aside and its authors written off as stylish cranks. Dienstag argues that there is a positive philosophy, a rich and nuanced position that can be revealed through the "family resemblances" of philosophers since the early modern period.

Pessimism is set apart from cynicism, skepticism, and nihilism by its relation to time and progress. "Pessimism is a substitute for progress" (5). Pessimism and optimism are both seen in light of linear time, and the author addresses the evolution of various time matrices. Dienstag notes that optimism is often assimilated with progress, with the only remaining choice (incorrectly) being stasis. Pessimism is equally borne out of the modern time consciousness; however, while pessimism maintains a linear account of time and history, it finds no evidence that reason will lead to the melioration of the human condition.

Pessimism is made up of three parts, eight chapters and an afterword. Dienstag begins with "The Anatomy of Pessimism," an introduction and outline/genealogy of his sources. The second part of the books is divided between three modes of pessimism and the writers who express them: "A Philosophy That is Grievous but True": Cultural Pessimism in Rousseau and Leopardi; "The Evils of the World Honestly Admitted": Metaphysical Pessimism in Schopenhauer and Freud; and "Consciousness Is a Disease": Existential Pessimism in Camus, Unamuno, and Cioran. Part three may be the most exciting section of the book, as it covers "Nietzsche's Dionysian Pessimism" and "Cervantes as Educator: Don Quixote and the Practice of Pessimism." The third part ends with a thought provoking look at the role of aphorisms in the pessimistic worldview, followed by the concluding chapter "Pessimism and Freedom (The Pessimist Speaks)" where Dienstag himself employs the use of aphorisms to convey what he believe to be a distinctive mode of pessimistic freedom.

The author gives an informed and balance presentation of Nietzsche's affirmative philosophy. Dienzag's affinity for Nietzsche comes through to the reader, and the chapter dealing with him ("Dionysian Pessimism") maybe the books finest and most academic. Dienzag's writing style is smooth, accessible, and carries the narrative along with ease. With the exception of the chapter on Nietzsche, references are kept to a minimum, which is a double edged sword--general readers are able to move through the book quickly, though scholars may desire more citations.

There were two issues that hung over my head while reading this text: the definition of 'pessimism' and the difference between philosophy and political thought. Although the author spells out his definition of pessimism throughout the book, I can't help but feel like the marriage of pessimism with linear time misses the normal meaning and use of the term. There is a sense in which this is a new concept, and thus explains, at least partially, why this problematic has been in the shadows since the enlightenment. A more straight forward approach would seem to begin by understanding what we mean when we say 'pessimism'-- and we do generally understand it as a mood or disposition-- and then move on from there. The second issue is that the author, who is a political science professor, has essentially written a very compelling account of philosophy, but insists on referring to it as "political thought." This struck me as odd each time I encounter it, since the issues are metaphysical (space and time) and existential (absurdity, ennui) par excellence.

'Political philosophy' would have been a closer, though still lacking description. Dienstag goes on to use his political language to frame his account of freedom. In sum, the author argues that pessimism reveals a unique sense of freedom. Where as the optimist will suffer innumerable blows when life fails to improve, become easier, happier, or more intelligent, and therefore always postponing and projecting an idealized conception of life into the future, the pessimism is able to enjoy the present moment as such, a life affirming orientation to life rooted in spontaneity. On one hand the pessimist accepts the world on its own terms, and on the other hand, the optimist seems to devalue the present while fixating on the progress the future will bring. As Dienstag puts it, "Optimism makes up perpetual enemies of those future moments that do not meet our expectations, which means all future moments. It is when we expect nothing from the future that we are free to experience it as it will be, rather than as a disappointment" (247).

Pessimism was a very enjoyable read and I would recommend it to anyone who is remotely interested in the theme. The author's use of aphorisms at the end of the book was especially stirring, as it was clear that the author was enjoying his subject. Dienstag's work is creative and learned, and even with the critical remarks above, is well argued and will hopefully open up a space where more research into this marginalized tradition will arise