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When Negativity Don’t Pull You Through: Asides 2

By Richard Marshall.

[Art: Anselm Kiefer]

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Frederick Beiser has written a brilliant overview of the ‘pessimismus’ controversy in Germany that raged in the last two thirds of the nineteenth century as part of an overview of everything that German philosophy was doing at that time. What was it doing? Well, German philosophy was the most well known and the best philosophy in the world back then and philosophy itself was a major cultural force in a way hard to imagine these days. Schopenhauer, who set out the case for pessimism, became at this time the most famous philosopher in the world even though he was a very old guy by the time things started getting interesting. And the controversy he inaugurated was also something really really influential way beyond just philosophy itself. The whole of society engaged with it. Beiser notes how strange this now seems to us. Pessimism is not a live philosophical controversy today and German philosophy in last two thirds of the nineteenth century is not really drawing the crowds. It has not interested many philosophers, even those looking to its history. Beiser remarks that Hegel is largely to blame for this. Hegel taught that he was the culmination of philosophy and philosophers seem to have taken him at his word. But post-Hegelian German philosophy generally was a very lively affair and Beiser’s book looks at all of it. One strand of this general liveliness is the pessimismus controversy, which is what the following sketches out.

So what was all the fuss about? Well, basically, Schopenhauer argued rather starkly that we’d all have been better off if we’d not been born. His pessimism stands as a challenge to anyone who attempts to justify the value of life. As indicated above, his case for pessimism was for a couple of decades as controversial an issue as Darwinism. A few quotes give the detonating flavour of his thesis:

‘We will not have to seek hell below the earth because we already are living it here and now.’ (Schopenhauer ‘The World As Will and Representation’ II, 744, P580.)  ‘The world is hell, and we humans are its tormented souls and its devils.’ (ibid V, 354) ‘The essential meaning of the world famous monologue in Hamlet is this: that our life is so miserable that complete non-existence would be preferable to it.’ (ibid I, 445, P 324).  ‘The purpose of our existence is indeed to declare nothing more than the knowledge that it is better we never existed.’ (ibid II, 775, P 605).

Schopenhauer’s appraisal of life is mainly measured in terms of happiness, and he calculates the pleasures against the pains as in a double entry accountancy book. Pains outweigh the pleasures. Life is like a debt calculated on empirical evidence and a priori reasoning. Stoic and Epicurean arguments supported his claims. For them, happiness consists of tranquility and equanimity, attained through virtue, self-discipline and withdrawal from the world. However Schopenhauer thinks these  earlier responses  merely fend off pessimism rather than defeat it. Desire is a problem – for it is forever unappeasable.  We are perpetually frustrated.  Relief is but for a moment. Boredom makes things worse: boredom is a restlessness and excess of inactivity leading to desperation. Lives oscillate between desire and boredom. Any positive feeling gained is just a removed deprivation rather than an achieved good in itself. It is a negative pleasure, merely an absence of pain. And whereas pains add up, pleasures, being negative, remain at zero.

And new desires add to the problem. (ibid Ch 40, II, 735, P 575). New needs grow in intensity and become harder and harder to satisfy. There is no natural limit to growing new desires so no limit to the desires we have. Each fulfilled desire requires a new desire to be fulfilled: a little recognition leads to a desire to be famous and so on. Discontent is limitless because desires are. The sex drive is his famous example. In Vol 2 of ‘The World As Will and Representation’ he argues that sex is the strongest drive, more so even than self-preservation. It is blind and ruinous. We flee the bedroom the morning after, disillusioned. Sadly the desire regenerates and the folly persists. It is evolutionary nature ‘willing’ life that creates the sex drive: it cares nothing for happiness of the individuals who serve it. Sex is pointless for the individual, a mere trap the weak can’t resist. Love is it’s lying cover –story, a mere post-hoc justification. So we long for the very things that trap us. We are, says Schopenhauer, ‘ lying on the revolving wheel of Ixion… and drawing water from the sieve of the Daniads.’ (ibid  I, 280, P 196.)

Schopenhauer was answered by neo-Kantians, Dühring and the materialists, most prominently by Nietzsche. Neo-Kantians  such as Kuno Fischer, Otto Liebmann, Jurgen Bona Mayer, Friedrich Paulsen, Rudolf Haym, Alois Riehl, Johannes Volkelt, Hermann Cohen and Wilhelm Windelband had several reasons why they were so agitated. Kantians shouldn’t be eudemonic. Morality rather than happiness should be the guiding principle for life. Suffering is fine so long as one is good. But they also disliked the quietism, the conclusion that if everything is pointless and hellish then there’s no point in struggling to make life worth living. Renouncing rather than changing the world was Schopenhauer’s recommended Buddhist-like option. Neo-Kantians were disturbed more by Schopenhauer’s quietistic tendencies than his eudemonic turn.

They argued that the position was unscientific and unphilosophical. There was no proof that life was hell , for example. Nor were there a priori arguments for that position. It was a question of value, and so people needed to evaluate there own lives and not accept someone else’s evaluation. The argument confused fact and value and committed the fallacy of trying to draw an ought from an is. They argued further that knowing the purpose of any life is impossible because it required a metaphysics that wasn’t available.  Some, like Paulsen and Meyer, further argued that there needed to be a hedonistic calculus for the argument to work, and there wasn’t one. They also argued that Schopenhauer’s theory of desire and pleasure was faulty. It assumed pleasure was extrinsic to action – a reward for action say – whereas many pleasures were intrinsic, such as sexual gratification. Assuming the active pursuit of pleasure is painful is therefore a mistake: it can be pleasurable itself.

They also argued that pleasure is not just a negative pleasure ie the removal of pain, the removal of unfulfilled desire etc. They argued that there were often positive satisfactions. Liebmann, Meyer and Riehl criticised his notion of the will, wondering whether it was coherent for will to be without an end or motive, as Schopenhauer argued. They pointed out that some acting is just thinking, not willing, and the theory mixed up willing with instinct. They also disliked the idea that the will was a grand metaphysical structure, the inner nature of all things both animate and inanimate: ‘never have the basic limits of speculation been treated with more nonchalance’ wrote Liebmann. Further they argued that if the intellect is merely a servant of the will, how was it possible to be liberated from it through an act of pure intellectual insight? And if the will is the power of infinite striving, how could it negate itself?

Another line against pessimism was taken by Dühring,  the founder of logical positivism and spiritual grandfather of Schlick, Carnap, Neurath and Reichenbach. Positivism is about ‘factuality’, the claim that facts of life were the ultimate reality, the sole form of existence. Positivist redemption has to be found in this life, nowhere else. Dühring refuses to ignore the dark side of life but looks at reality full on and seeks to make it work because there is nothing else but fantasy, hocus pocus and illusions. This meant that the problem was political in the end: desire is not the problem. The problem is capitalism’s system of ownership and production. The solution is reform not revolution because revolution is utopian and unreal. Reform takes existing political reality and strives to change it piece by piece.

For Dühring the error of Metaphysics is that it assumes the reality of unconditional things, in contrast with conditional things. This is a mistake analogous to assuming that an infinite series actually exist, rather than understanding the infinite as a rule allowing one to always add to whatever is actual. Anything supposed to exist beyond experience is an illusion caused by hypostasis of a rule of explanation. Just because we must provide a unified explanation of something doesn’t imply there is a something that unifies everything. The idea of Being is a result of poor logical inference. Similarly, the pessimism of Schopenhauer that sees existence as a riddle is based on bad thinking that reifies a rule of thinking. But if ‘human existence is a complete and sufficient reality in itself’ (‘Werth des Lebens’ (p 61)) then there is no other world than this one. Value has to be found living it, not elsewhere. Dühring is an ethical empiricist claiming that feelings and sensations are the source of our values, not reason. And his theory of difference states that we get value from ‘The multiplicity of risings and fallings of feelings ‘ and that these are ‘the indispensable requirement for a valuable existence.’ (30) Value then is not just the reward of action but the activity and striving that we go through: ‘the evaluation of life has to proceed from the principle that the natural resistance to the enjoyment of life is not an evil but a necessity, without which an enjoyable life is impossible.’ (Cursus der Philosophie, p 365) Struggle necessitates that we should strive to enjoy certain experiences and sensations only once to avoid repeating them and gaining easy facility. Death is justified as a means to avoid repetition.

This position refutes classicism. Passion replaces happiness. Distress and dissatisfaction replace equanimity and peace of mind (so it is anti-Epicurean and anti-Stoic). The intrinsic value of striving and the gap between desire and fulfilment are the sine qua non for a valuable existence. Social not physical pleasures give greatest meaning to existence. Humiliation and dishonour are worse than physical pain, Dühring claims. Honour and love are prime values of the social. Honour claims the self for justice, self worth and the need to achieve and is ‘a motive of moral action that cannot be prized enough.’ (83) Love is not chiefly about pain save as ‘the soft draft of a slight unease’ and erotic love is pleasure itself, not a means to an end. He anticipates Nietzsche here in making passion the key to refuting Schopenhauer.

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Hartmann, a leading defender of pessimism, responded to the neo Kantians but with some reservations. He mixed the pessimism with some optimism, saying that ‘… that this is the best of all possible worlds; but it is worse than none at all.’ He argued that life brings more suffering than pleasure so nothingness is preferable to it. He makes 6 points:

Pain hits harder than pleasure

Repeating pleasures diminish, pains increase

Many great goods are just the removal of pain not pleasure

Satisfying desire lasts less than their continual frustration

Chief desires – hunger and sex – cause more misery than satisfaction

Desires are inexhaustible, so frustration never ends

But despite this he doesn’t think pessimism is the last word. For him the quietism is a problem and he thought social and political programs should strive to improve the human condition. He was a Hegelian – he believed in progress in world history, the growth of reason and self-consciousness whereby desire would eventually be limited and reason and consciousness prevail. Oddly in his ‘Philosophie des Unbewussten’ he has a Nietzschean ‘affirmation of the will to life’ (675) which is less an ascetic world position and more a Dionysian one.

But if we can’t achieve happiness, why bother striving for a better world? Why not settle for  quietism? Hartmann argued that by eroding happiness principles, pessimism erodes selfishness and egoism and out of that morality comes that which in turn promotes moral action. In this calculation, the price we pay for morality is diminished happiness. Eudemonic pessimism is the necessary presupposition of morality, just as Kant said, and Hartmann stressed this in his fight with Kantians. For him Kant was the father of pessimism not Schopenhauer, and neo-Kantians should get on message.

Pessimism survived the assault of those denying its ground, which was that life is terrible. (Nietzsche agreed with that). Hartmann argued that work was an evil and took up a great deal of our lives. Agnes Taubert – his wife and a political conservative – found this position amenable too. She argued that no one likes work for its own sake. It removes evils like boredom and brings about money and friendships for pleasure, but work itself is horrible. Johannes Volkelt disagreed with the response but not the diagnosis saying that the response to evil work was socialism not pessimism. Taubert agreed with him that the modern economy had increased standards of living but she pointed out that it had also increased needs and expectations beyond reality. For that reason she thought pessimism the honest answer.

Can nature and beauty bring us joys? Yes – as Schiller, Goethe, Herder and the romantics attest. Culture divides, but nature restores, agrees Taubert.  But nature destroys as well. Nature’s beauties are merely illusions useful for making the terrible life bearable, but ‘laughing meadows’ conceal as much torment as ‘ the torment of the cities.’ Natural beauty is merely a cultural construction, a modern conceit produced by the Romantics and Rousseau. And besides, we only run to nature and make up these fantasies because our normal existence is so sorrowful and full of suffering she argued.  ‘The existence of beauty in the world, and the sense for it, is the guarantee of all pleasure that exists, and it is an indisputable original phenomenon of pleasure… which flows in streams through the veins of the earth’ argued the neo Kantian Haym. But Taubert argued that this position was confused, mixing up aesthetic pleasure with happiness. Even if beauty is everywhere we can’t conclude that the world is a happy place.  Taubert didn’t accept Nietzsche’s idea of ‘… an aesthetic redemption of the world ie an overcoming of suffering through beauty’ either(Nietzsche ‘ Die Geburt der Tragodie aus dem Geiste der Musik 1872). As she pointed out most people are too ignorant or too poor to appreciate beauty.

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This raised the educational question back then and does so now for us: if it could work to alleviate meaningless suffering, why not educate people to appreciate art? Neo Kantian Haym wrote: ‘Happiness is in truth an ethical-artistic task.’ (p276) He argued that through education we can create beauty by making our lives works of art. Instead of treating beauty and happiness as givens we can add value to our lives by  making them. Taubert hated this idea because she feared the impoverished masses. She misread the proposal as a case for a happiness ethic! It wasn’t.

Olga Plumacher, another brilliant but politically conservative woman philosopher who, for Fred Beiser, wrote the best summary of the pessimismus controversy at the time and which remains unsurpassed, (‘Pessimismus in Vergangenheit und Gegenwart’ ) wrote that she didn’t think that aesthetic pleasures could balance out the pleasures of life against the pessimists (p 233-37). Aesthetic pleasure was too weak, fragile and uncommon to do the heavy lifting required to overthrow pessimism. A toothache defeats any appreciation of Mona Lisa, and life on balance is one long horrendous toothache. Nietzsche agreed that life is terrible, but didn’t agree that life’s terrors could defeat an aesthetic life.

Nietzsche makes much of the origins of art in the sexual instinct, and Schopenhauer sees the sex instinct as the most powerful drive so discussions of sex by pessimistic philosophers are important. Hartmann’s instinct theory of love began by asking whether love could do the trick and overcome pessimism. Schopenhauer had argued that love is rooted in sex and sex in mere procreation. Love therefore is the illusion covering up Darwinian sex drives. Hartmann agrees, adding in his ‘Philosophie des Unbewussen’ that love is completely absurd – it is a matter of sexual satisfaction and once satisfied the love dies. Love is just an instinct to mate. It is only mysterious because we are unconscious of its goals. So love is sex, sex is momentary and weighed up against its downsides (pre-sex frustrations, disillusion and disappointment after-sex, sadness lasts longer than the joys, pain of childbirth for women, unhappy marriages, renewed desires forever frustrated, the briefness of orgasm etc) it can’t outweigh reasons for pessimism.  Castration is the only answer! (Or maybe free love, promiscuity and prostitution as neo-Kantians Gustav Knauer (1873) and Ludwig Weis  (1873) argued. They thought Schopenhauer/Hartmann’s arguments went down well because they aroused pornographic interests, especially in women. They were morally repulsed and by dint of that rejected the pessimist ideas.) Taubert pushed back saying quite reasonably that the truth isn’t harnessed by morals. Whether  morally repulsive or attractive , the view was true. However she herself didn’t think love all bad on the eudemonic scale.  It countered loneliness and gave ‘a dream of happiness’ to get people ‘through the night of life.’ And others, such as Weygoldt, argued that the miseries of love were not of love but of social mores and that dealing with these would help alleviate frustrations. So, for example, earlier marriages would prevent sexual frustrations.

Paul Christ said that unhappiness wasn’t caused by love but a lack of morality and reason. Illusions of love just needed to be kept under control. He thought that Hartmann’s views undermined other satisfactions of marriage and reduced the institution to being all about sex. He also argued that the Hartmann stress on racial improvement invited euthanasia for imperfections. Johannes Volkelt agreed. He argued for a new socialist order that would answer the downsides of the social conditions causing misery. Divorce needed to be easier, love marriages should be encouraged more, and the labour market should be further opened up to women so that prostitution was no longer required. He also argued against standing armies because standing armies used prostitutes more than any other group.

Interestingly, the pessimists Schopenhauer and Hartmann didn’t have just one theory of love, the Darwinian evolutionary sexual instinct one. Hartmann had a mystical theory of love as well, the sort perhaps found in Plato’s ‘Symposium’. The theory stated that each individual is essentially one with others, and only realises herself fully when forfeiting individuality in the other. Schopenhauer laid great stress on this in Book IV. Hartmann writes about love having ‘mystical roots’ coming from longing to merge with another. ‘All love is in its deepest root longing, and all longing is the longing for unification.’(86)  ‘Whoever has not felt the longing for self-annihilation in the loved person does not know what love is.’ (87)

It’s a challenge to see how this can be reconciled with the instinct theory. There were many responses. Johannes Volkelt said it couldn’t. Bona Meyer saw the mystical as superegoism rather than negation of egoism because the individual is looking for self-redemption. Hugo Somner argued that the mystical theory involved a logical mistake: it assumed there is an essential identity of all beings and that this is important in any explanation of love. But Somner argued that the notion of an essential identity has nothing to do with love because love arises despite this fact, not because of it. Love requires individuals to take interest in each other and that pleasure is based on the differences between people and not their being identical.

The most well known response to Schopenhauer’s pessimism was Nietzsche’s. It seems clear that without understanding this controversy there’s no way we can understand what Nietzsche was up to. Beiser doesn’t cover him in his book because he is so well known and he wanted to reintroduce philosophers who have fallen into relative obscurity. So I’ve left him out of this too.  He’ll be a final aside. But reading Beiser it does seem weird that this isn’t a live philosophical issue because it sure seems to discuss stuff everyone outside of philosophy is endlessly thinking about.

Part 1 here.


Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

Buy his new book here or his first book here to keep him biding!

End Times Series: the first 302

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, December 14th, 2018.