Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Define Optimism

optimism, n.

Etymology:[< French optimisme (1737 in sense 1a (see note below); 1788 in sense 3) < classical Latin optimus best (see OPTIMUM n.) + French -isme -ISM. With sense 3 cf. earlier OPTIMIST n. 1.
Leibniz, in his Théodicée (1710), uses optimum as a technical term, on the model of maximum and minimum. Hence the Mémoires de Trévoux, in the issue for Feb. 1737, gives the name optimisme to his doctrine:
1737 Mém. de Trévoux (Fév.) 207 En termes de l'art, il l'appelle la raison du meilleur ou plus savamment encore, et Theologiquement autant que Géométriquement, le systême de l'Optimum, ou l'Optimisme.
It owes its general diffusion to the satirical attack upon the doctrine by Voltaire in Candide ou l'Optimisme (1759).]

1. Contrasted with PESSIMISM n. 3.

a. Philos. The doctrine propounded by Leibniz (1710) that the actual world is the best of all possible worlds. Also: any of various similar philosophical doctrines of earlier or later thinkers.

b. A view or belief which assumes the ultimate predominance of good over evil in the universe...

3. Hopefulness and confidence about the future or the successful outcome of something; a tendency to take a favourable or hopeful view. Contrasted with PESSIMISM n. 2.

The brainy brains+philosophy+science+tech+intellectual site Edge.org recently posted 160 responses to its third "annual question" for 2007: What are you optimistic about? It's worth reading, although it's not nearly perfect.

First, you may want to skim a bit. I don't know exactly what kind of editorial process John Brockman goes through with these questions, but halfway through you might wish that he had put a shorter cap on either the number of contributors or the word count. 100 short paragraphs would be easier to scan, and might even (egad!) whet your appetite to find out more. And way too many of the contributors' answers just seem to be whatever project it is that they're working on or have just completed. "I'm totally optimistic about the subject of my new book." Please.

Another criticism I have in general about Edge, particularly with respect to this question, is that a general intellectual salon, even one celebrating the "third culture" of empirical scientists/philosophers, would be served well by more disciplinary diversity. Brockman makes it clear in his 1991 statement of Edge's raison d'etre that his editorial impetus comes from an attack on the traditional, or in his phrase, the "literary" intellectual -- but why not include political scientists, economists, or more than one historian or novelist? (I'm counting Cory
Doctorow, although I doubt he would have been included if he weren't an editor at Boing Boing) Not only is it misleading to bill your contributors as "THE WORLD"S LEADING THINKERS," but if you really want to change intellectual culture, these are the kinds of conversations you need the other intellectuals to be getting in on.

My last beef is about the loose parameters of the question and the definition of optimism. My own opinion is that the question "What are you optimistic about? Why? Surprise Us!" is not just an invitation to make a prediction, or to point out something that you feel pretty good about. It's really somewhere in between. What I would be interested in identifying, and the category of things I'd tag with the phrase "I'm optimistic about _______," are things that satisfy these conditions:

1) They must have already happened or are currently happening now;
2) they don't necessarily look like they have turned or will turn out very well;
and 3) we have some good reasons to be hopeful about them in the near future regardless.

To take it a little further, things that I'm optimistic about can't just be good but uncertain: there should be some uncertainty about their goodness, too -- or at the very least, their efficacy. A good example a genuinely optimistic statement might be "I'm optimistic about democracy in the Middle East." This is a statement that's at least debatable -- not just that democracy will spread, but that it will be a positive good for people in the region in the near future. Some people have argued that the results of democratic elections in Palestine, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Iraq have ultimately created too much chaos and tilted towards hardliners and groups with ties to terrorism, etc. Then I would have to back my optimism up with some data: say, transformations in electoral politics in Iran, Palestine, or Egypt. But ideally, I would have to build in some concession to the notion that things might not go well at all.

Another excellent example of this kind of cautioned optimistic thinking could be found in David Denby's terrific and thorough look at the current and impending technological transformations in cinema in this week's New Yorker, "Hollywood Looks For A Future." Denby looks at changes in home screens and media, theater culture and projection technologies, and Hollywood's new business and marketing models, and seems to find something to be optimistic and something to be pessimistic about in every sphere. Very few opinion articles about the film industry feel this thoughtful and well-reported. It's another long article, but very much worth the read.

I don't want to just rag on the Edge respondents, because there are some good examples of this kind of optimistic statement in the Edge poll, too. Walter Isaacson defends the continued value, relevance and technology genius of print; Howard Rheingold nicely defends the positive possibilities of the fact that "the tools for cultural production and distribution are in the pockets of 14 year olds" ; and Brian Goodwin nicely frames his optimism about the development of new energy technologies in the context of the impending crisis (or as Goodwin calls it, "the challenge") of peak oil.

But my larger point is that there's a wider range of things that we can be optimistic about than the impending triumph of science over religion (I hope the intellectual conversation of 2007 will be less dominated by this old saw) or the immanent triumph of someone's pet project (however beneficial success might be). A genuine salon would offer a wide-open exploration of this kind of optimism. And with good luck, we might see that kind of salon come together sooner than we think.

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