This NYT piece by Adam Cohen starts with the observation that Americans are feeling pessimistic about the war in Iraq, Hurricane Katrina and so on, then jumps to a recent work on philosophical pessimism by Joshua Dienstag, whose basic argument is summarised in this sample chapter. As Cohen says, pessimism in this sense is not a gloomy disposition, but a worldview that “simply doubts the most basic liberal principle: that applying human reasoning to the worldâ€™s problems will have a positive effect.’ Cohen concludes “Part of Mr. Bushâ€™s legacy may well be that he robbed America of its optimism “.
But if optimism holds that applying reasoned analysis will have a positive effect, the experience of the Bush Administration merely illustrates the point that the converse is also true.
The most plausible basis for pessimism (at least as it concerns historical progress rather than the human condition) is that humans are simply incapable of collectively applying the reasoned analysis necessary to avoid destroying ourselves with the power we now wield.
The experience of the last half of the 20th century seemed on the whole to support an optimistic account. The threat of nuclear annihilation that was ever-present for much of the century receded with the end of the Cold War, and we managed a positive response to environmental problems that would have been catastrophic if we had continued with ‘business as usual’.
The 21st century so far has given support to the pessimistic view, with war, nuclear proliferation and unchecked global warming. But the only conclusion to be drawn is that we need more reasoned analysis and a willingness to act on it.