Pessimism as Philosophy: A Jaundiced Selected Annotated Bibliography

By Ralph Dumain

NOTE: This bibliography does not cover pessimism as a psychological disposition or as a mere assessment of the human condition, its present state, or prospects. The concern here is with pessimism as a foundational philosophical perspective, a metaphysic. Historically, philosophical pessimism has an elective affinity with political reaction, directly or by way of irrationalism. When not reactionary, philosophical pessimism is likely to be associated with ahistorical, overly abstract, underdeveloped world views, reflecting an historical and ideological impasse. It is significant as a moment in a historical process, and within a broader perspective. Also, there are numerous precedents of disillusioned conservatives writing as penetrating satirists and social critics. But there may also be novel uses of pessimism worth exploring. Optimism and pessimism taken as metaphysical standpoints reflect a characteristic dichotomy in bourgeois ideology (and its outposts in Stalinism). The logic of all uses of philosophical pessimism needs to be explored.

Bloch, Ernst. Experimentum Mundi. Frankfurt am Main, 1975.

Dienstag, Joshua Foa. Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006.

The author makes intelligent distinctions and is not simple-minded about the topic. Pessimism is taken as a philosophical position, not to be equated with nihilism or cynicism, and not to be equated with a personal psychological disposition. The author makes some important observations about time and anxiety. This is probably the best current book on the subject in English. (There are many bad books.) I don't think “pessimism” per se is a viable basis for an intellectual tradition. I view this at best as historical philosophical raw material for a larger perspective in the history of ideas.

Hampton, Christopher. “Blake's Witness: Keeping the Divine Vision in Time of Trouble”, in The Ideology of the Text (Milton Keynes, England; Philadelphia: Open University Press, 1990), chapter 5, pp. 55-67. See commentary and excerpts: Christopher Hampton's Radical Blake.

A counter to the philosophy of pessimism, with explanation of why William Blake could not be beaten in the face of crushing adversity.

Hughes, J. Problems of Transhumanism: Belief in Progress vs. Rational Uncertainty, Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, March 1, 2010.

Transhumanism is another bourgeois illusion. One can see in this article the struggle between the opposite poles of bourgeois ideology as it marches blindly to the abyss. My interest in this subject matter is focused on the first four decades of the 20th century, before this term existed.

Kuznetsov, B. G. Philosophy of Optimism: Current Problems; translated from the Russian by Ye. D. Khakina and V. L. Sulima. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1977.

There is no PDF file, but see the link to raw text on the left-hand side. This is the sort of official optimism in the Soviet bloc against which contemporaneous Eastern European pessimism should be measured.

Montag, Warren. The Unthinkable Swift: The Spontaneous Philosophy of a Church of England Man. London; New York: Verso, 1994.

Montag aims to explain how Swift’s politics have been so difficult for some to pinpoint and how it is that a such a reactionary could have been the effective satirist he was.

Mosse, George L. The Crisis of German Ideology: Intellectual Origins of the Third Reich. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1964.

A classic. Germany is the paradigm case of cultural pessimism morphing into fascism.

Ringer, Fritz K. The Decline of the German Mandarins: The German Academic Community, 1890-1933. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1969. (Reprint: Hanover: University Press of New England, 1990.)

Yet another classic.

Sogomonov, Y. [I'U'rii' Vaganovich]; Landesman, P. [Petr Abramovich] Nihilism Today; translated from the Russian by David Skvirsky. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1977.

Another Soviet work.

Stern, Fritz. The Politics of Cultural Despair: A Study in the Rise of the Germanic Ideology. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1961 (1974). Contents.

Another classic on the German catastrophe.

Tallis, Raymond. Enemies of Hope: A Critique of Contemporary Pessimism. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997. Publisher description. Table of contents.

Most of the contemporary books I see on pessimism are unmitigated trash. I had some hopes for this book, especially since the author goes after postmodernism, but his author’s ineptitude and gross misunderstanding of Marx, classifying him with the Romantic Counter-Enlightenment, completely disqualifies his perspective. In its affirmation of hope, bourgeois ideology continues to careen unawares to its doom.

Timpanaro, Sebastiano. Leopardi and the Italian Left of the ’70s, from Antileopardini e neomoderati nella sinistra italiana (Parma, ETS, 1985), translated by Mitch Abidor.

__________________. On Materialism, translated by Lawrence Garner. London: NLB, 1975.

Timpanaro distinguishes Leopardi’s “materialist pessimism” from all the reactionary pessimisms of the time. Timpanaro places this in the larger context of rescuing philosophical materialism, and specifically Engels, from a bad rap in “Western Marxism”. See compilation of extracts:

Sebastiano Timpanaro on Giacomo Leopardi & Materialist Pessimism

See also:

Novack, George. “Sebastiano Timpanaro’s Defense of Materialism” (1977), in Polemics in Marxist Philosophy (New York: Monad Press, 1978), pp. 175-190. On Leopardi: 187-190.

While largely supporting Timpanaro’s materialism, Novack has some quibbles, among them, with Timpanaro’s deployment of pessimism and Leopardi. Novack’s futurology is dogmatically optimistic, from his orthodox Trotskyist perspective.

Vyverberg, Henry. Historical Pessimism in the French Enlightenment. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958.

Review of Henry Vyverberg, Historical Pessimism in the French Enlightenment, French Studies 14 (1960), 167–70.

Vyverberg's book shatters the myth that the French Enlighteners were unequivocal prophets of progress and optimism. The reviewer finds shortcomings in Vyberberg's treatment but still finds his contribution worthwhile.

Case Studies of Metaphysical Pessimism
(Mostly in/on the 1940s)

Adorno, Theodor W. “On Kierkegaard’s Doctrine of Love,” Zeitschrift fur Sozialforschung / Studies in Philosophy and Social Science, vol. 8, no. 3, 1939, pp. 413-429.

Baggesen, R. M. P. and Søren. Utopian and Dystopian Pessimism: Le Guin’s “The Word for World Is Forest” and Tiptree’s “We Who Stole the Dream” (Les pessimismes utopique et “dystopique” dans “Le nom dumonde est forêt” de Le Guin et dans “We Who Stole the Dreams” de Tiptree), Science Fiction Studies, vol. 14, no. 1, March 1987, pp. 34-43.

Cotkin, George. Existential America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.

See chapters 3 & 4. Note the reactionary role of the Kierkegaard boom in the USA in the 1930s-1940s. This could give a clue to C.L.R. James’s later denunciation of Christian Humanism.

Hook, Sidney. "The New Failure of Nerve," in The Quest For Being, and Other Studies in Naturalism and Humanism (New York: St. Martin's Press; London: Macmillan & Co Ltd, 1961), pp. 73-94. Originally in Partisan Review, vol. 10, no. 1, January-February 1943, pp. 2-23.

See also related articles in book.

Lewis, John. “The Marxist Answer to the Challenge of Our Time,” in Marxism and the Open Mind (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1957), pp. 132-143.

Schmidt, James. “The “New Failure of Nerve,” The Eclipse of Reason, and the Critique of Enlightenment in New York and Los Angeles, 1940-1947. Center for Advanced Studies, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, Munich, May 2011.

See also blog post: James Schmidt on Max Horkheimer & Dialectic of Enlightenment.

State Capitalism And World Revolution, by C.L.R. James in collaboration with Raya Dunayevskaya & Grace Lee, with a new introduction by Paul Buhle. Chicago: Charles H. Kerr Publishing Company, 1986.

See chapter Philosophy & State Capitalism, for comments on Christian Humanism et al. See also specific quote from this chapter: C.L.R. James on the (Post)Modern Intellectual & the Division of Labor (1950) (p. 128).

Weldon, Stephen. "In Defense of Science: Secular Intellectuals and the Failure of Nerve Thesis," Religious Humanism, vol. 30, nos. 1 & 2, winter/spring 1996, p. 30-39.

See also my blog entry, Failure of Nerve.

C.L.R. James on Self-Centered Despair

C.L.R. James on What They Do

Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways: The Acid Test by Ralph Dumain

C.L.R. James, Intellectuals, Non-Identity, & the Division of Labor by Ralph Dumain

I did not point out in my two pieces what is fundamentally wrong in James’s perspective. For our purposes, note that in the specific passage quoted (first link), James indiscrimately lumps together people with incompatible perspectives. Erich Fromm does not belong in the same category with T. S. Eliot. The label “self-centered despair” is quite apt, however, for a number of both public and private individuals.

C.L.R. James on West Indian Writers vs. T.S. Eliot & Jean-Paul Sartre: The New World & the Old

James wryly ridicules the intellectual culture of meaninglessness and despair.

Quotations from Theodor W. Adorno

T.W. Adorno on Spengler, Heidegger, and the Intellectual's Capitulation to Power

Adorno on Truth, Survival, Consolation & Freedom of Thought

“Resignation” (Excerpts)

Philosophical Pessimism & Nihilism in Popular Culture

"Collateral or, The Philosophical Hit Man", film review by R. Dumain

Not an important film, but I make a point about the nihilism of the hit man.

The Sunset Limited (HBO film, 2011). See also Wikipedia.

I find this film/play a mixed bag. There are some penetrating moments, but Cormac McCarthy drops the ball at key points. The racial dimension is not offensive as I suspected it might be, but the fact that Black is a black, uneducated, lumpen Christian, and White is a jaded, nihilistic, allegedly rationalist, white humanities professor, holds a certain dichotomy in place instead of unpacking it. Reviews are also a mixed bag. Count on superficiality from the New York Times at all times. Actually, this play, whatever the author's intentions, is not just a confrontation between belief and unbelief. This confrontation is tangled up in another confrontation between nihilism and an affirmative conception of life in a way that confuses the issues. And I regard existentialism as something for lonely teenagers. John Preston’s review unwittingly targets what I dislike about the play. David DiSalvo is an incredibly gullible reviewer: he finds the way White turns the tables on Black convincing while I find it diversionary and dishonest, derailing the climactic moment of the play.

Finally, I found Daniel Wood’s intelligent review. But there's more to be said about the play. The conflict between two BS philosophies, if that’s all there were, would make this play completely dismissable. What is actually interesting about the confrontation between the two characters is something else, obscured by their philosophies. And whether McCarthy knows it or not, real life is like this, too. Jason Haskins detests the play, for good reasons, though not as good as mine.

Bibliographies & Reference Sources

Futurology, Science Fiction, Utopia, and Alienation in the Work of Imre Madách, György Lukács, and Other Hungarian Writers: Select Bibliography

Sándor Szathmári (1897-1974): Bibliografio & Retgvidilo / Bibliography & Web Guide

Madách and Szathmári are important test cases, not only in the history of Hungarian (and Esperanto) literature, but also in the ideological battles in which optimism and pessimism are entangled in the modern world.

Optimism and Pessimism - New World Encyclopedia


Irony, Humor, & Cynicism Study Guide

Positivism vs Life Philosophy (Lebensphilosophie) Study Guide

Ideology Study Guide

100 Years of C.L.R. James

Theodor W. Adorno & Critical Theory Study Guide

Salvaging Soviet Philosophy (1)

Marx and Marxism Web Guide


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Uploaded 29 June 2012
Last update 30 August 2016
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