Journal of Philosophy of Life

An international peer-reviewed open access journal dedicated to the philosophy of life, death, and nature, supported by the Project of Philosophy and Contemporary Society, Advanced Research Center for Human Sciences, Waseda University


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Pessimism, Political Critique, and the Contingently Bad Life

Patrick O’Donnell

Journal of Philosophy of Life Vol.12, No.1 (November 2022):77-100




It is widely believed that philosophical pessimism is committed to fatalism about the sufferings that characterize the human condition, and that it encourages resignation and withdrawal from the political realm in response. This paper offers an explanation for and argument against this perception by distinguishing two functions that pessimism can serve. Pessimism’s skeptical mode suggests that fundamental cross-cultural constraints on the human condition bar us from the good life (however defined). These constraints are often represented as immune to political amelioration, leading to the perception that pessimism is intrinsically fatalistic and resigned. Yet pessimism’s critical function emphasizes the political, economic, and cultural contingency of many sources of suffering and crisis while exhorting us to reject and reimagine the social forces that actively harm our capacity to flourish. It also offers an internal critique of skeptical pessimism’s tendency to naturalize and depoliticize the sources of our sufferings. These sometimes contradictory skeptical and critical tendencies should both be grouped under the pessimist banner, and we should see pessimism’s critical mode as especially valuable to political critique.

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