Thursday, 7 March 2013

Philosophy of pessimism re-balanced

The philosophy of pessimism is wrongly categorised and I  have an improvement.  The usual classification of types of pessimism are cultural (Rousseau to Foucault), metaphysical/theological (Schopenhauer, Buddhism)  and post-metaphysical (Nietzsche, existentialism).    My classification addresses four issues.

First, pessimism is really a critical attitude towards something.  Before addressing the what, I'd like to point out that it is better to talk about philosophies which exist along the optimism-pessimism scale, rather than just concentrating on progressivist/optimistic and pessimistic as if they were inhabiting different worlds.  The act of criticism, to some philosophers, leads to the possibility of a better situation, and for others, merely an understanding of some kind of the situation we address.  This aprogressivist set of philosophies can range widely over this optimistic-pessimistic scale from Panglossian to Schopenhaurian.  In summary, the first dimension of a re-balanced philosophy of pessimism is how the thinker evaluates the possibility that things could get better, either through the critique he provides or through some other mechanism. This is a measure of the impotence of the critique.

Second I make a primary distinction between ontological and phenomenological pessimism, sine I think 'post-metaphysical' is backward-looking and, dare I say it, negative. Depending on what you consider your ontology to be you might find Schopenhauer's Will in here, or a theory of the fundamental nature of mankind, or God.

Third the critical thinker may (or may not) see a connection or implication between his initial critical target (the ontological or the phenomenological) and its correspondent subject - that is to say some kind of implication from ontological to phenomenological may exist for him Schopenhauer), or some kind of implication from phenomenological to ontological may exist for him (Stoics), or no implication whatsoever may exist for him (Nietzsche).

Fourth the primary critical target of the phenomenological critical thinkers is often exclusively either individuals or supra-individual constructs.  Critics of individuals may additionally posit supra-individual solutions to the primary problem - Plato's Republic, Hobbes's Leviathan, Machiavelli's Prince, Mill's Liberal society, Comte's positive science/religion, Marx's dictatorship of the proletariat.  Critics of individuals may not posit any such remedial supra-individual fix-up (L Rochefoucauld, Montaigne, Kahneman). Critics of the supra-individual tend to want to deconstruct the offending edifice - Rousseau, Foucault, neo-classical economists, public choice theorists, anarchists of all persuasions, Nietzsche, the later Wittgenstein, Derrida.

Philosophies of pessimism, particularly those which are revolutionary, are unbalanced.  Their critique is neither best directed exclusively at human nature, nor at cultural institutions, but at both.  Ontological stances where the thinker makes a leap from ontological to phenomenological ought still to be considered, provided that the phenomenological conclusions drawn are socially useful.  Ontological stances which say nothing about phenomenological realm in a sense turn their backs on the possibility of social improvement and ought to be of only interest to historians of ideas.  Cultural institutions can and do change, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.  A balanced philosophy should recognise that.  It should also address both the individual and the supra-individual/cultural as more or less equally valid subjects of criticism (and praise).  To give primacy to one over the other is a form of extremism.