Friday, May 15, 2009

Optimism and Pessimism- Skepticism and Cynicism

This is hopefully the start of a series that I have been rolling around in my brain for the past six months. I am curious, what is the difference between skepticism and cynicism using the framework of optimism and pessimism? I think we can all agree that on one end of the spectrum is optimism and on the other end of the spectrum is pessimism. Using this as our basis, where do the various mental view points fall? More to come.

In this entry, I would like to talk about skepticism and cynicism. Here is what Wikipedia has to say about each:

"In ordinary usage, skepticism or scepticism (Greek: 'σκέπτομαι' skeptomai, to look about, to consider; see also spelling differences) refers to:
  • (a) an attitude of doubt or a disposition to incredulity either in general or toward a particular object;
  • (b) the doctrine that true knowledge or knowledge in a particular area is uncertain; or
  • (c) the method of suspended judgment, systematic doubt, or criticism that is characteristic of skeptics (Merriam–Webster)."
Cynicism (Greek: Kυνισμός) originally comprised the various philosophies of a group of ancient Greeks called the Cynics, founded by Antisthenes in about the 4th century BC. The Cynics rejected all conventions, whether of religion, manners, housing, dress, or decency, advocating the pursuit of virtue in a simple and unmaterialistic lifestyle.

By the 19th century, emphasis on the negative aspects of Cynic philosophy led to a new and very different understanding of cynicism to mean an attitude of jaded negativity, and a general distrust of the integrity or professed motives of other people. Modern cynicism, as a product of mass society, is a distrust toward ethical and social values, especially when there are high expectations concerning society, institutions and authorities which are unfulfilled. Cynicism can manifest itself by frustration, disillusionment and distrust in regard to organizations, authorities and other aspects of society, and can result from a negative evaluation of past experiences."

As I read it, skepticism is similar to the classical definition of cynicism, but the modern definition of cynicism has a negative slant to its description. It seems that the skeptic doesn't care about positive/negative viewpoints, but rather is concerned with the truth, and believes that the truth may very well be unattainable. It does not seem to me that the skeptic falls on either side of the optimistic/pessimistic midpoint, but rather skeptics straddle that line with a doubtful eye on all knowledge.

The strange thing is that the cynic was originally framed to be similar to skeptic, except for perhaps being more extreme and throwing away all beliefs in everything. Today it seems that the cynic is a jaded version of the skeptic. I feel that the cynic is skeptical that anything is good or positive, especially with reguard to people and society. I would say that a cynic is a skeptical pessimist. They aren't ready to always throw a negative slant on everything without appropriate consideration, but generally their consideration leads them to a negative viewpoint.

I bring all of this up because I hear people throw all of these words around interchanably and I wanted to know what these viewpoints actually mean. Also, I have learned that I do not want to be cynic. I am (I think) a skeptic, and nothing more.

1 comment:

Matt Fate said...

To me it seems the connotation of skepticism is one of having insufficient evidence to make a rational decision, and therefore electing not to proceed on faith or unproven conjecture. The wait until the data is in, seeing-is-believing mindframe. A skeptic perspective might be rooted in the present, without enough info from the past to accept - and therefore expect - a proposed future outcome.

The cynic perspective in this framework would be far less rooted in the present; instead it would be more of a retrospective view of the future, basing predictions of potential outcomes on negative results from the past.

I think that to a certain degree, both philosophies have roots in pessimism. An archetypal optimist might be willing to believe without data or act on hope, and might also be more likely to focus on positive results from the past to infer future outcomes.

The true skeptic lives in the present, discarding both optimism and pessimism, while the cynic lives in the shadows of the past.

I'd say you are a skeptical optimist, based on your desire to get sufficient data before making a prediction, combined with general hope for a positive outcome.