Monday, January 25, 2016

Optimism, Pessimism and Philosophy by James Mark Baldwin 1911


OPTIMISM, PESSIMISM and Philosophy by James Mark Baldwin 1911

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 These are opposite correlative terms applied to the valuation of experience, life, and the world. Optimism is the view that the world is thoroughly good; or, that it is the best possible world. Pessimism is the view that the world is thoroughly bad; or, that it is the worst possible world. The problem is that of the relation of the world as a physical, or metaphysical, existence to its interpretation in ethical terms.

Plato, in the Timaeus, was the first to formulate the conception of optimism. His problem is the relation of the world as created to the demiurge, its architect. He made it, although sensible and changeable, after the pattern of the eternal and ideal; “he desired that all things should be good, and nothing bad, so far as this was attainable,” and so the world, being like the fairest and most perfect of intelligible beings, is a 'blessed god', and a ‘sensible god, the greatest and best, the fairest, the most perfect possible, the image of its maker'. None the less, as created, as sensible, the world implies non-being, and hence evil. There is a limit set; the world is to be good, so far as that is attainable.’ And in other of his writings he dwells in a somewhat gloomy spirit upon the evils thrust into the life of man by his connection with the sensible world and the material body, so that the good is reached by withdrawal from the created world (so in Phaedo, Phaedrus, parts of Gorgias, and the tenth book of the Republic). In this conception of the element of non-being in the world of experience, limiting the eternal good, Plato is the logical father of pessimism as well as of optimism. In him the Greek spirit was so strong that upon the whole the sensuous is looked upon as the plastic embodiment of the ideal, and hence as fair and good. But the elements are in unstable equilibrium, and it needs only to have the emphasis fall upon the negative limit to have a pessimistic result. The Stoics and Neo-Platonists continued the optimistic tradition of Plato, and so did the great Scholastics, following, however, in mode of statement, the Aristotelian teleology, rather than the Platonic tradition. The Epicurean and Sceptical schools were empirical rather than philosophical pessimists: they dwelt upon the actual bulk of pain and evil in the world, as confutation of the Stoic ethics.

Leibnitz repeats, in amplified form, a teleological optimism in his Théodicée. The world must be the best of all possible worlds, for it is the work of God. God through his wisdom knew all possibilities, and through his goodness chose the best of these possibilities, and through his power created it. Evil is of three forms: metaphysical, the expression of the necessary finitude of the world; physical, which serves to teach us law by punishing its infractions; and moral, which is a necessary phase of freedom. This optimism made its way through Wolff and others into the popular philosophy of the rationalistic enlightenment, and is seen, for example, in Pope. Like the optimism of the Stoics, it was met on empirical rather than philosophic grounds; notably by Voltaire's Candide, which, in its ironical treatment of Leibnitz, comes perilously near the doctrine that life is not worth living. In his Phil. ignor. Voltaire catalogues all the sources of woe in the world. Kant, in his early period, repeats the optimism of Leibnitz (Versuch einiger Betrachtungen iber den Optimismus, 1759). In his critical period Kant holds that there is a radical evil in man's nature in his tendency to make self-love — the particularistic, sensuous principle — the motive of his actions. The good principle is that of humanity, which is rational and universal.

Rousseau had already raised the question of good and evil in the historic and social life of man, in his assertion that the primitive, natural man was thoroughly good, and was rendered thoroughly evil by institutions and culture. Kant took up this problem, in connection with his notion of the twofold structure of man just referred to; he held that in the state of nature the natural propensities are good, since adapted to their end. Physically there is ‘Paradise,' morally a state of complete innocence. But man becomes conscious of himself, has a will, departs from the natural law implanted in his instincts, and evil arises—the ‘Fall.' Conscious desires lead to work, to the arts, to property, to civil relations, to culture. Through culture man's life ceases to be something produced by nature, and is self-produced. The conflict of nature and culture produces unhappiness, but is an ethical necessity incident to the recognition of rational law. The end of history is not the happiness of the individual, but the perfection of the whole of humanity. Conflict and suffering lead towards the latter. In short, Kant is a pessimist regarding man in his natural actuality, an optimist regarding him in his moral possibility.

Hegel seizes upon the three factors implied in the history now resumed: (1) the relation of the negative factor in creation to the Creator (where he utilizes Fichte's idea), (2) the relation of the particular and universal in man, and (3) the function of conflict and suffering in history; and attempts to make a synthesis of pessimism and optimism. Since the absolute is not a static fact or content, but a process, it involves negation, particularization, and consequent conflict and suffering within itself. But this conflict through differentiation is the dynamic of progress, and so functions for good. In a static cross-section the world is evil; in its movement (which Hegel calls ‘actuality') it is good.

The French Revolution introduced the positive side of the negative teaching of Rousseau. It held that a reform of economic and political conditions was all that was necessary to initiate a tendency towards the infinite perfectibility of man. Malthus's doctrine of population was purposely intended to refute this conception. As generalized and applied by Darwin, it has carried over the question of optimism and pessimism into the biological sphere. One school points to the universality of the struggle of existence as teaching the lesson of pessimism; another, the contribution made by this struggle to development as indicating an optimistic conclusion. Spencer has used the evolutionary conception to argue to the self-destructive, and hence transitional, character of evil.

Schopenhauer is the pessimistic pendant of Hegel's optimism. Will, not thought, or reason, is the absolute—the true thing-in-itself. This will is irrational, hence objectless; there is no progress or development, but only the restless play of purposeless will. Hence the will is essentially unhappy. Since the objective world is only a picture of this will, it must be a world of suffering. This metaphysical reasoning is reinforced by psychological considerations; desire is essentially painful, and its satisfaction, pleasure, is only the removal of pain. Hence pain must preponderate in life. All experience and observation confirm this result. Von Hartmann attempts what he regards as a synthesis of Hegel and Schopenhauer. There is a logical factor and an alogical one, both attributes of the unconscious. While the will-factor makes it better that the world should not exist than exist, yet the world is the best of all possible worlds, and continually evolving to higher intensities of consciousness. Its teleology is optimistic, although from the standpoint of satisfaction the world is evil.

Current popular thought phrases the problem in the question of whether life is worth living. Interest has shifted from the theological problem to the question of intrinsic value of life.

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