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Pessimism:
Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit
Joshua Foa Dienstag

Winner of the 2006 Award for Best Professional/Scholarly Book in Philosophy, Association of American Publishers

Paperback | 2009 | $31.95 / £21.95 | ISBN: 9780691141121
320 pp. | 6 x 9
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eBook | ISBN: 9781400827480 |
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Pessimism claims an impressive following--from Rousseau, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche, to Freud, Camus, and Foucault. Yet "pessimist" remains a term of abuse--an accusation of a bad attitude--or the diagnosis of an unhappy psychological state. Pessimism is thought of as an exclusively negative stance that inevitably leads to resignation or despair. Even when pessimism looks like utter truth, we are told that it makes the worst of a bad situation. Bad for the individual, worse for the species--who would actually counsel pessimism?

Joshua Foa Dienstag does. In Pessimism, he challenges the received wisdom about pessimism, arguing that there is an unrecognized yet coherent and vibrant pessimistic philosophical tradition. More than that, he argues that pessimistic thought may provide a critically needed alternative to the increasingly untenable progressivist ideas that have dominated thinking about politics throughout the modern period. Laying out powerful grounds for pessimism's claim that progress is not an enduring feature of human history, Dienstag argues that political theory must begin from this predicament. He persuasively shows that pessimism has been--and can again be--an energizing and even liberating philosophy, an ethic of radical possibility and not just a criticism of faith. The goal--of both the pessimistic spirit and of this fascinating account of pessimism--is not to depress us, but to edify us about our condition and to fortify us for life in a disordered and disenchanted universe.

Review:

"Mr. Dienstag aims to rescue pessimism from the philosophical sidelines, where it has been shunted by optimists of all ideologies. The book is seductive, because pessimists are generally more engaging and entertaining than optimists, and because, as the author notes, 'the world keeps delivering bad news.' It is almost tempting to throw up one's hands and sign on with Schopenhauer."--Adam Cohen, The New York Times

"The pessimism that Joshua Foa Dienstag seeks to celebrate in his engaging book can be joyful. . . . Philosophical pessimism is an ethic that offers practices to tackle a mistaken belief in human progress. . . . His version of pessimism is of the best sort because it leads to activity."--Mark Vernon, Times Literary Supplement

"[An] absorbing study. . . . Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit examines the pessimistic tradition in all its variants--cultural, metaphysical and existential--and analyzes the works of some of its chief practitioners. . . . When at his best in making his case for the vitality and pertinence of pessimism, Mr. Dienstag may well cause readers to wonder whether they should take up pessimism as their own philosophy."--Joseph Epstein, Wall Street Journal

"A necessary corrective to the unfettered optimism or faith in progress seen in recent world history. . . . [C]omprehensive, readable, and thought provoking."--Library Journal

"Joshua Foa Dienstag's rich and subtle book blows away . . . facile and narrow-minded understandings of pessimism, which invariably reduce it to little more than a mood or a character trait. Dienstag . . . holds that pessimism is a serious and coherent philosophical perspective. . . . Pessimistm: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit is a work of exact scholarship. . . . [T]he value of the book comes from its brilliant nuances."--Scott McLemee, Newsday

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Table of Contents:

PREFACE ix
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS xv
ABBREVIATIONS xvii

PART I

CHAPTER ONE: The Anatomy of Pessimism 3

PART II

CHAPTER TWO: "A Philosophy That Is Grievous but True": Cultural Pessimism in Rousseau and Leopardi 49
CHAPTER THREE: "The Evils of the World Honestly Admitted": Metaphysical Pessimism in Schopenhauer and Freud 84
CHAPTER FOUR "Consciousness Is a Disease": Existential Pessimism in Camus, Unamuno, and Cioran 118

PART III

CHAPTER FIVE: Nietzsche's Dionysian Pessimism 161
CHAPTER SIX: Cervantes as Educator: Don Quixote and the Practice of Pessimism 201
CHAPTER SEVEN: Aphorisms and Pessimisms 226
CHAPTER EIGHT: Pessimism and Freedom (The Pessimist Speaks) 244

AFTERWORD 265
BIBLIOGRAPHY 273
INDEX 283

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