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The Uses of Pessimism: And the Danger of False Hope Hardcover – Oct 15 2010

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press (Oct. 15 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0199747539
  • ISBN-13: 978-0199747535
  • Product Dimensions: 21.1 x 2 x 14.7 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 386 g
  • Average Customer Review: Be the first to review this item
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #391,453 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Product Description


"Scruton has approached his project with incisiveness, breath of knowledge, and clarity of expression. The Uses of Pessimism is worth arguing over." --Politics & Ideas

"While some of Scruton's conclusions may be controversial... he does present an intriguing case for using pessimism as a way to examine issues that affect current society. His clear and accessible writing will appeal to those familiar with the author's past works and also those with an interest in philosophy." --Library Journal

"Scruton has approached his project with incisiveness, breadth of knowledge, and clarity of expression. The Uses of Pessimism is worth arguing over."
-- Peter Lopatin, Commentary

"Score one for pessimism." --Peter Monaghan, The Chronicle of Higher Education

About the Author

Roger Scruton is Resident Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and Visiting Professor of Philosophy at Oxford University. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Beauty and Death-Devoted Heart.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.4 out of 5 stars 19 reviews
65 of 66 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The ethical costs of optimism Oct. 18 2010
By Paul Adams - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Roger Scruton's concern in this wonderful essay is with the dangers of false hope (his subtitle) and the particular fallacies that make such "unscrupulous optimism"--the term he takes from Schopenhauer to distinguish it from a scrupulous and constrained optimism--so powerful and impervious to reason. The fallacies he considers include among others the Best Case Fallacy (i.e., the failure to consider scrupulously worst case scenarios), the Planning Fallacy, the Utopian Fallacy, and the Zero-Sum Fallacy (I fail because you succeed).

In the abstract, these are useful cautions that no-one sensibly could dismiss out of hand. But Scruton has a more important and more polemical purpose. He aims to show how these fallacies pervade a larger social and political vision that has been ascendant since the Enlightenment and especially the deadly triumph of "Reason" in the French Revolution. That vision of Reason rests on an unscrupulous optimism that sweeps away the collective problem-solving of generations codified through customs, traditions, and laws built from the bottom up, like English and American common law or Swiss political arrangements. It replaces that common, inherited wisdom with the will of the radical and enlightened few. The utopian or planning elite sweep aside all previous traditions and practices, along with the wishes of ordinary people, who have to be led to a higher level of wisdom by the progressive, forward-looking vanguard.

The force of Scruton's argument lies in the detail and concreteness with which he specifies these dangers in every aspect of life, not only in totalitarian regimes like Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, but also as destructive forces in the democratic West.

He describes in chilling and vivid detail the bizarre grip of the EU bureaucracy on the once democratic and sovereign nations within its orbit. He shows how hundreds of thousands of regulations are issued at an accelerating rate by an unaccountable bureaucracy whose many mistakes cannot be rectified through democratic processes. Once adopted, those measures cannot be repealed by the nations involved. By the founding treaties of the EU, measures that centralize control in the EU cannot be reversed without constitutional change or leaving the Union altogether. When the Irish electorate rejected the Lisbon Treaty, the bureaucracy merely said that citizens should vote again. Scruton shows how brutally the bureaucrats sweep away the customs and traditions of centuries, in the process destroying, for example, family farming and the countryside of Romania. He describes how a European directive requiring the presence of a qualified veterinarian at every abattoir led to the closing of most local abattoirs in England, requiring that cattle be taken much greater distances to be slaughtered, so that when disease did break out it spread across the country instead of being localized.

Scruton is particularly scathing in his account of modern architecture, with its contempt both for history and tradition and for the wishes of the people who were to live in and around its brutal structures. Le Corbusier, a key modern architect whose megalomaniac plans are still studied reverently in architecture schools, comes in for particular scorn.

Another twist to Scruton's anti-utopian argument is that the self-image of the progressive elite as more advanced than the masses whose lives they want to manage, is itself illusory. An important aspect of the book is the effort to explain these fallacies' resistance to reason or evidence. They are, he argues, residues of an earlier stage of human development, one that still holds value in emergencies, but is destructive in times or conditions of peace. There is an implied analogy here to the fight-flight response--once essential for daily survival, but now often dysfunctional as a pattern of intensified arousal in conditions that do not require it.

The tabula rasa vision of the human being--found in notions of constructing a new "socialist man" or a new human type or, in its weirdest manifestation yet, in a transhuman type that is seen as replacing humans with cyborgs or a new genetically engineered post-human species--casts aside those compromises and constraints that previously shaped us.

In Scruton's view, then, the fallacies he describes are rooted in the material needs of hunter-gatherer bands, where everything depends on the will and decisiveness of the chieftain--the leader's collective `I' is at the same time the `we' of the community. One reason that the fallacies are so impervious to refutation is that they are "not new additions to the repertoire of human madness but the residues of our forefathers' honest attempts to get things right...thought processes that were selected in the life and death struggles from which settled societies eventually emerged" (p.203). Liberal, optimistic, progressive thinking is not, from this perspective, an advance on the ways and customs of the unenlightened masses, but a regression to more primitive ways of thinking. Scruton's purpose is to defend the world of compromise and half measures, love, friendship, irony, and forgiveness from the Pleistocene mindset of the enlightened that would sweep them all away.

Scruton is an erudite, witty curmudgeon, always a delight to read. At times, his manner is reminiscent of a father who provokes his liberal and idealistic children by making provocative remarks he knows the young people will find outrageous. He knows there is nothing he can say that will persuade the younger persons to re-examine their views or look at them with a measure of irony. The elder will not be intimidated or silenced by the usual conversation-stopping insults (right wing, racist, sexist, bourgeois, hegemonic, etc.) but thinks it pointless to defend himself against them. However seriously misguided he thinks the young are, and however disappointed in their failure to take seriously the fruits of his knowledge, experience, and wisdom, he consoles himself by getting a rise out of them and a chuckle from the other grown-ups.
23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent book which will never reach those who need it most. Dec 15 2010
By Flap Jack - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
According to Scruton, the world is harmed not by pessimists (though he does not tolerate unbridled pessimism) but rather by unbridled optimists, people who believe in their fallacious ideas so fervently that nothing can dissuade them. True believers. Scruton, realizing that those folks would not hear his argument even if they read it, makes the case so that those of us who are prudent pessimists can recognize the optimists' tactics and understand better the importance of our pessimism.

At just over 230 pages, this is a quick read and the language is not lofty, so potential readers shouldn't be too nervous about picking up the book. I think the book is so important that I may well buy several copies for friends and family.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The wise pessimists are the true optimists Feb. 5 2011
By Sirin - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Scruton turns the traditional pessimists are old farts v optimists are shiny believers in a better future debate on its head in this elegantly written polemic. It is wise pessimists who emerge the true optimists as they believe human life is not so bad as it is. It is the deep rooted ties and modes of social organisation that make for harmonious human living. The rationalist optimists who uproot these traditions, sacrificing them on the altar of a better future are the most negative and destructive people as they don't trust small scale human organisation as it is.

This fallacy has been repeated throughout history, most notably in the French and Russian revolutions, both rationalist crusades. And its menace can be seen in the arts, with 'shock' and 'originality' - witness the notorious Tracy Emin's unmade bed replacing respect for forms and techniques of old. In architecture the egocentric 'I' schemes of Norman Foster and his colleagues have replaced the understated yet commonly held belief that buildings should be modest in scale and respectful of their surroundings. The EU holds no respect for individual communities, riding roughshod over local needs with its gargantuan bureaucracy. And in education, at least two generations of schoolchildren have been ruined by a child centred version of teaching which dismisses the traditional stricutres of a knowledge based curriculum on the grounds that children should be free to express themselves before they have actually acquired anything worth knowing.

Scruton's polemic is a wry and elegant treatise on the conservative beliefs he has developed throughout his life. It is a welcome addition to the literature on conservative philosophy.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great book Sept. 19 2011
By Markku Ojanen - Published on
Format: Hardcover
This book was completed in May 2009. The problems of EU were much less than present, but Scruton could predict they will get worse and worse. EU is a product of unscrupulous optimism. I voted for it in Finland, but would not vote to-day. Having participated in various kinds of planning for 40 years, I am now a sceptic. Most of these plans are now in the basement archives, but some "succeeded". With good and bad results. One never knows what the result finally is. Thus I agree with the description of the planning fallacy.

The aggregation fallacy is so true. All kinds of good aims and values are described, but nobody cares that many of them can not be obtained at the same time. I noticed this 1970's when the principles of therapeutic community were popular in Finland and in many other countries. Actually the principles were not possible to join together. If one emphasizes freedom, that makes it difficult to obtain common aims.

I find myself constantly critisizing United States and especially its rebublican party presidents. I am for welfare state and high enough taxation. Thus I am a liberal in these matters, but it is true that this critique is often too harsh. I think we expect more from U.S. than it is able to deliver. We have been giving up with undemocratic countries, though we should give them much more rouhgher time than to U.S.

There are, of course, ideas in this book which are a bit hard to take, but Scruton always makes one think and evaluate one's opinions. I doubt that the old English school was that good though PISA shows that the new school is not very good either. The idea of public schools for aristocrats has always been questionnable in my eyes. I want to see my kids every day and could not send them to this kind of schools.

Total solutions are always dangerous. It seems to me, that each state cabinet has at least one or two ministers who want total change. Something really new and much better than the old system. They think that this is the way they can show how clever the are. Often they make things much worse than they were.

I appreciate the beautiful way Scruton talks about forgiveness. Without it modern life would be hopeless.

These are just a very small sample of the notes I made of this book. I recommend this book especially for those who still entertain optimistically great plans sithout any reservations.
13 of 17 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The uses (and missuses) of fallacies Feb. 3 2011
By Juan-Pablo Caceres - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Roger Scruton is a well-known conservative, and has a reputation as a "darling" of the right. His defenses of conservatism are powerful and thoughtful, with very interesting philosophical arguments. The book goes on exploring a number of fallacies that, in Scruton's opinion, explains why radical shifts from tradition are damaging for civil society.

The basic thesis and rhetorical element of the book are the 'I' versus the 'we' forms of behavior and its relation with freedom. This thesis, taken from Hegel and other philosophers, says basically that what makes human beings free are his interactions with the constrains of social institutions (government, religion, tradition, civility). He dismisses Rousseau's "mythe du bon sauvage" and argues that hunter gatherers were not really free men. This tribes were in a permanent state of war were compromise and dialogue didn't exist (the 'I' state). With the advent of the city-states men learn to compromise and all the constrains previously described slowly take place for the benefit of all (the 'we'). This is an interesting theses specially when explained in modern time when war requires a shift from the 'we' of bottom-up legislation and accountability to an 'I' of following the leader and top-bottom command as in our tribal past (Lincoln's suppression of Habeas corpus is an example).

The problem of the book lies in how the fallacies are applied. Some examples are obvious candidates; The Utopian Fallacy and the Soviet Union and the Third Reich (you can guess how this one works), or the Aggregation Fallacy and the Terror of the French Revolution, which says that it's impossible to aggregate liberté, égalité and fraternité (all good concepts that don't work together).

When the argument turns to gay marriage, Scruton falls in his own tramp. He accuses that gay marriage advocates use the onus shifting arguments: I want to change tradition and YOU have to prove that tradition is right. However, I clearly see here the Zero Sum Fallacy at work: gay marriage will "take away" something from traditional heterosexual marriage, he thinks.

In other instances, he just throws an opinion without really explaining it. Keynes is dismissed for his "in the long term, we are all dead" as a Best Case Fallacy. He mentions in a footnote that the state injection of money is only in emergency cases, but then fails to explain why the Keynessian theories are a case of this fallacy (to his favor, he talks about the indefinite borrowing, but I don't think this is really what Keynes theories teach). This goes on with a defense of completely unregulated markets where information on prices is organic. Any regulation will kill this "information database" (the Planning Fallacy). Of course he doesn't discuss monopolies or international corporation and how those, left unregulated, completely distort the market that he defends.

Another fallacious argumentation are his attacks on American intellectuals (Chomsky at al.) for exactly the same reasons that he defends the American system. America, he says, is a free society were dissent is part of the system and helps improve it from "below". But then, he attacks Chomsky exactly for that reason, he is critical of the system and policies in the US. Isn't that suppose to improve it, in Scruton's opinion? There are many other instances that can be found in the book (divorce, abortion, single moms families, equality in schools , etc).

In any case, the book is well written and has some very interesting insights on the mechanisms of civil society, but it's important to have in mind his political agenda (he dismissed second hand smoking throughout the book, just do some research on his relation with the tobacco industry).

The lack of index is very frustrating.