AskDefine | Define pessimistic

Dictionary Definition

pessimistic adj : expecting the worst in this worst of all possible worlds [ant: optimistic]

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. Marked by pessimism and little hopefulness.
  2. Always expecting the worst.



marked by pessimism and little hopefulness
always expecting the worst

Extensive Definition

Pessimism, from the Latin pessimus (worst), is the decision to evaluate, perceive and view life in a generally negative light. Value judgments may vary dramatically between individuals, even when judgments of fact are undisputed. The most common example of this phenomenon is the "Is the glass half empty or half full?" situation. The degree in which situations like these are evaluated as something good or something bad can be described in terms of one's optimism or pessimism respectively. Throughout history, the pessimistic disposition has had effects on all major areas of thinking.
Philosophical pessimism is the similar but not identical idea that life has a negative value, or that this world is as bad as it could possibly be.

Historical account of pessimism

The first idea of an apocalypse has been traced back to 1400 BC. Because the First World War was followed by another, our collective ability to learn moral lessons from history begins to seem suspect. Operating on the premise that morality is empty rhetoric, game theory and its political complement political realism appear as a model for understanding and prescribing behavior. The post war fifties saw the rise of dystopian literature. Books such as T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, Kafka's The Trial, Huxley's Brave New World, George Orwell's 1984, and plays such as Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot expressed a deep pessimism during this time. The Utopian promises of communism revealed themselves as false or unlikely during the collapse of communism. Reason itself, which once held on unquestioned status of perfect objectivity, as humanity is access to the truth, and it's understanding of progress, so widespread and unprecedented criticism in post-modernism and post structuralism. Likewise, nature, whose power and purity could at one time not be denied, is now the victim of problematic population growth and environmental decline. Upon broad analysis of history, some have determined that things in general are bad, and seemed to be in decline.

Pessimism by individual

Arthur Schopenhauer

Arthur Schopenhauer's pessimism comes from his elevating of Will above reason as the mainspring of human thought and behavior. 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 the human intellect to a gay man who can see, but who rides the ass of the blind giant of Will.

Schopenhauer's Proof

Instead of asserting a personal opinion or viewpoint about the appearance of this world being the worst possible, such as a glass being half full or half empty, Schopenhauer attempted to logically prove it by analyzing the concept of pessimism.
He claimed that a slight worsening of conditions, such as a small alteration of the planet's orbit, a small increase in global warming, loss of the use of a limb for an animal, and so on, would result in destruction. The world is essentially bad and "ought not to be". These are disputable assertions, considering that the planet's orbit is not wholly consistent to begin with, global temperature fluctuates over time, and animals can still live after losing a limb. However, taking into respect the fact that major fluctuations in global temperature have typically resulted in mass extinctions in the past and an animal that loses a limb will only rarely survive long in the wild, they may appear reasonable.


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 Civilization 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?

Oswald Spengler

The source for this is Spengler's The Decline of the West (1918 - 1923), often cited in the years following its publication. Oswald Spengler once declared, "Optimism is cowardice." His description of the western civilization is where the populace constantly strives for the unattainable—making the western man a proud but tragic figure, for while he strives and creates he secretly knows the actual goal will never be reached. Arnold J. Toynbee: Toynbee wrote a similar comparative study of the rise and decline of civilizations, A Study of History, somewhat concurrently with Spengler, which was released much later, around the conclusion of World War II.


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 philosophy.
Some works of popular literature may also exhibit pessimism, such as Stephen King's Pet Cemetery. King later expressed his reservations about the work: "It seems to be saying nothing works and nothing is worth it, and I don't really believe that" (Bare Bones 144-5).

Pessimism by subject

Moral pessimism

Narratives of decline can be identified in morality. Friedrich Nietzsche's amorality, Freud’s description of co-operation as sublimation, Stanley Milgram shock experiments. The continued presence of war and genocide despite global interconnectedness. the inherent exploitation of market fundamentalism The continual rise of political apathy.

Intellectual pessimism

In ~400bc, pre-socratic philosopher Gorgias argued in a lost work, On Nature or the Non-Existent: 1. Nothing exists; 2. Even if something exists, nothing can be known about it; and 3. Even if something can be known about it, knowledge about it can't be communicated to others.
Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi (1743 – 1819), characterized rationalism, and in particular Immanuel Kant's "critical" philosophy in order to carry out a reductio ad absurdum according to which all rationalism (philosophy as criticism) reduces to nihilism, and thus it should be avoided and replaced with a return to some type of faith and revelation.
Richard Rorty, Kierkegaard, and Wittgenstein challenge the sense of questioning whether our particular concepts are related to the world in an appropriate way, whether we can justify our ways of describing the world as compared with other ways. In general,these philosophers argue that truth was not about getting it right or representing reality, but was part of a social practice and language was what served our purposes in a particular time; to this end Poststructuralism rejects any definitions that claim to have discovered absolute 'truths' or facts about the world.

Political pessimism

Political realists assert that states always have and always will be amoral wealth-seekers. With the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and the shifting balance of power, we may be entering the most dangerous political times ever encountered.
Anti-globalization activists understand economic development as the expansion of markets for the interests of ruling elites. These unprecedented large-scale changes have been characterised as 'turbo-capitalism' (Edward Luttwak), 'market fundamentalism' (George Soros), 'casino-capitalism' (Richard Longworth), 'cancer-stage capitalism' (John McMurtry), and 'McWorld' (Benjamin Barber). The idea that pessimism itself causes a bad state of affairs is argued for in the 2006 film The Secret.

Pragmatic criticism

Through history, some have concluded that a pessimistic attitude, although justified, must be avoided in order to endure. Optimistic attitudes are favored and of emotional consideration. Al-Ghazali and William James have rejected their pessimism after suffering psychological , or even psychosomatic illness.

As decay

Nietzsche believed that the ancient Greeks (c. 500 B.C.) created Tragedy as a result of their pessimism. "Is pessimism necessarily a sign of decline, decay, degeneration, weary and weak instincts ... Is there a pessimism of strength? An intellectual predilection for the hard, gruesome, evil, problematic aspect of existence, prompted by well-being, by overflowing health, by the fullness of existence?"
Nietzsche's response to pessimism was the opposite of Schopenhauer's. " 'That which bestows on everything tragic, its peculiar elevating force' " – he (Schopenhauer) says in The World as Will and Representation, Volume II, P. 495 – " 'is the discovery that the world, that life, can never give real satisfaction and hence is not worthy of our affection: this constitutes the tragic spirit – it leads to resignation.' " How differently Dionysus spoke to me! How far removed I was from all this resignationism!"



  • Dienstag, Joshua Foa, Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit, Princeton University Press, 2006, ISBN 0-691-12552-X
  • Nietzsche, Friedrich, The Birth of Tragedy and The Case of Wagner, New York: Vintage Books, 1967, ISBN 0-394-70369-3
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