Friday, October 23, 2009

Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will

I often get questions about the slogan on my homepage:

Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will.

Some recognize that it's a quote from Antonio Gramsci and mistakenly think it means I'm a Marxist.

In fact, the meaning of the slogan is quite simple.

Pessimism of the Intellect means, simply, be a scientist: see the world as it really is, not as you might like it to be. Try to identify and, if necessary, overcome hidden biases or prior assumptions. Always ask yourself: What assumption am I making? What if it is incorrect? How do I know what I know?

In many cases, the correct answer is: I don't know. Never be afraid to admit you don't know.

Optimism of the Will means, have the courage to attempt difficult things. Sometimes, Will can overcome the odds.
If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry. --- A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway

I'll fight them, I'll fight them until I die. --- The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway

10 comments:

Bee said...

See the world as it really is? Isn't that realism rather than pessimism?

Steve Hsu said...

"Isn't that realism rather than pessimism?"

Yes, but I like "pessimism" not because I am naturally pessimistic -- I am an optimist -- but because it reminds that you sometimes must make a conscious effort to correct for biases or wishful thinking.

David said...

I think 'pessimism' is actually good in this context. I almost said, "You need ..." but what I will say is that it is dogmatically useful to take the dimmest view of what you 'know' and start from there in a thoughtful exploration.

quercus said...

I prefer the phrases "master of suspicion" (Nietzsche?) and Kant's "Sapere aude" [dare to know], but I admit they lack Gramsci's parallelism.

callowman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
callowman said...

It's a little troubling that your go-to optimism guy shot himself in the head. I was hoping for a tad less qualified version of "optimism".

Steve Hsu said...

Another aspect of "Pessimism of the Intellect" is not fooling yourself about how it's going to end :-/

ThomasinaPaine said...

Gramsci based his quote on William James; look him up; you may be even more comfortable with James' Pragmatism than with Gramsci (tho I like both of them). But I also like your interpretation, especially as I am about to re-enter academia.

Patrick Bogue said...

From time to time I re-read this post, it inspires me to read and write critically as a scientist.

Critical_Reading said...

Gramsci died of ill-health caused by years spent in Mussolini's jails. He did not kill himself.

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