How should we be feeling? Is hope hopelessly naïve? When should we despair? Should we be pessimistic or optimistic? 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 kind of sublime 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 is clear to some that it is 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 orientations 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.
Instructor: Michael Stevenson
Michael Stevenson teaches philosophy at Columbia University. He earned a BA from the University of Pennsylvania and an MPhil and a PhD from Columbia University. He specializes in the German philosophical tradition, especially Kant, post-Kantian Idealism, and 20th-century phenomenology.