Optimism and Pessimism
Our June meeting is on the topic of optimism and pessimism.
1. From one perspective optimism and pessimism are simply a matter of a person's basic psychological disposition and there is dispute about how far an optimistic frame of mind is something we can consciously choose to cultivate. Are we just born congenitally optimistic or pessimistic? Some research suggests that the optimistic person tends to experience more luck in their life and that their physical health is better.
2. The psychologist Martin Seligman, who founded the 'Positive Psychology' movement, describes optimism-pessimism in terms of 'explanatory style'. The optimistic person, when confronted with a setback in life, tends to attribute it to an external cause, consider it as only temporary and does not generalise to the whole of life from the single experience. The pessimist on the other hand tends always to attribute failures to themselves (internal causes), to see setbacks as permanent features of life and to believe they permeate the whole of their life. Seligman argues that many people are brought up with a 'learned helplessness', always viewing difficulties in this light, but that this can be counteracted by certain forms of psychotherapy. We might think of this type of optimism as a 'psychological strategy'.
3. But optismism can also be a 'pragmatic strategy'. Winston Churchill is reported to have once said "I am an optimist. It does not seem too much use being anything else." This is a kind of no-lose strategy as a pessimistic attitude in war will certainly lead to defeat but an optimistic view might well lead to success. You therefore have nothing to lose in being an optimist as it 'optimises' your outcome. On the other hand it has been argued that the Bush-Blair pact in going to war with Iraq was too optimistic leading to over-confidence and a failure to properly estimate the difficulties. So can optimism sometimes be a bad attitude to adopt?
4. There is also optimism-pessimism as 'rational judgement'. For instance, experts in deep-water rescue may discuss after a few days of fruitlessly trying to save a crashed submarine crew the likelihood of the crew still being alive. The facts will be relevant but one may make an optimistic judgement and another a pessimistic judgement. Their personal psychology may play some part but their expert estimation of the risks will constitute the main basis of their judgement.
5. While an individual may be optimistic in their personal life and have an upbeat frame of mind, they may be pessimistic when it comes to their estimation of human history and culture. The Victorians were great believers in the inevitable March of Progress in human affairs, a view that, after two world wars in the twentieth century, it is hard to sustain now. The threat of global warming and the possible total destruction of the Earth's biosphere, or at least of us humans, is the pessimistic prophesy of experts like James Lovelock. However, in this Youtube clip, Larry Brilliant gives a catalogue of reasons to be optimistic about the future.
Optimism and pessimism are always future-directed. You can only talk about hoping or fearing outcomes that are located in the future and are to some extent currently unknown. It would make no sense to talk about feeling pessimistic about the past as we already know the outcome.
So what is your highest hope for what will happen in the future? What is your worst fear? What is your best bet for what will actually happen?
Can we meaningfully take an optimistic or pessimistic stance viz-a-viz life as a whole? What kinds of argument or evidence can we adduce to persuade others of our belief?
6. Some philosophers, such as Schopenhauer, have taken a pessimistic view of the human condition as such. They consider that humans are so constituted that happiness and fulfilment are impossible for humans. This is philosophical pessimism. But it does not necessarily lead to unhappiness. We can well imagine a happy pessimist (the philosopher Camus is said to be a case in point) and an unhappy optimist. How far optimism- pessimism are correlated with happiness-misery will be a topic we can tackle in the discussion.
- Learned Helplessness – Martin Seligman
- Learned Optimism – Martin Seligman
- The Positive Power of Negative Thinking – Julie Norem
- The Human Use of Human Beings:Cybernetics & Society – Norbert Weiner
- Evil in Modern Thought – Susan Neiman
- The Uses of Pessmism – Roger Scruton
- The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves – Matt Ridley
- Seligman's Definition of Optimism (2 mins)
- Freud - Civilization and Its Discontents (5 mins)
- Kant & The Gap Between the Is & the Ought (5 mins)
- Larry Brilliant The case for informed optimism
- Leibniz & The Best of All Possible Worlds (3 mins)
- Roger Scruton - The Uses of Pessimism and the Danger of False Hope (26 mins)