Nietzsche & the Philosophy of Pessimism

A Study of Nietzsche's Relation to the Pessimistic
Tradition: Schopenhauer, Hartmann, Leopardi

Uppsala Studies in History of Ideas, No. 35

By Tobias Dahlkvist
November 2007
Uppsala University                                                                          
Distributed by Coronet Books Inc.
ISBN: 9789155469634                                                                  
301 pages, 6 1/2 x 9 1/2"
$67.50 Paper Original


This dissertation is a study of the predominantly German pessimistic tradition in the philosophy of the late nineteenth century, and of Nietzsche’s complex relation to that tradition. The aim of the dissertation is firstly to analyse how pessimism came to be established as a philosophical concept by Schopenhauer and a later generation of pessimistic thinkers, and secondly to investigate how Nietzsche understood pessimism.

In the first part of the dissertation, I argue that although the term pessimism was coined in 1759, and although it was used in a philosophical context by Schopenhauer in the 1840’s, it was not until Eugen Dühring and Eduard von Hartmann defined it in terms of the value of life in the late 1860’s that a clear conceptual content was attributed to pessimism. After Dühring and Hartmann, philosophical pessimism was generally understood as the notion that the value of life is negative, which means that non-existence is necessarily preferable to existence. This notion of pessimism was shared, I demonstrate, by their contemporaries, regardless of whether they considered pessimism a metaphysical truth or a mental illness.

In the second part of the dissertation I argue that pessimism became a problem for Nietzsche when he read Hartmann’s Philosophie des Unbewussten in 1869. He was, however, no pessimist: I argue that he in Die Geburt der Tragödie and the Unzeitgemäße Betrachtungen sought to develop a philosophy of art that can help us overcome the pessimistic truth that non-existence is preferable to existence.

In the third part of the dissertation I demonstrate that a number of important themes in Nietzsche’s later phase are rooted in his early reception of philosophical pessimism. I argue that his discussions of nihilism, of the poetry and character of Giacomo Leopardi, of Hamlet, and of the eternal recurrence are best understood in relation to pessimism.


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