Axial Philosophies

I have a theory about worldviews. Most of us, when we hear someone referred to as an optimist, we assume they’re one of those super-positive types, with an idealistic outlook that borders on naivete. If someone calls themselves a cynic, however, we assume they’re a world-weary pessimist, always seeing things in a negative light. In short, most people consider optimism to be synonymous with idealism, and pessimism as synonymous with cynicism. I know I’m painting with broad exaggerations right now, but bear with me.

I would argue that these things are not synonymous. Rather, I think that they’re two separate philosophical axes, and are thus not mutually exclusive. Picture if you will a graph plot, like the ones you may have blocked out from high school math due to some freak number-pun incident. This plot would normally have axes labeled as X and Y, or horizontal and vertical, respectively. Now, picture Optimism/Pessimism being one axis, and Idealism/Cynicism being the other. In this situation, you get four different quadrants: Idealistic Optimism, Cynical Optimism, Idealistic Pessimism, and Cynical Pessimism. Each of these worldviews, while related, it each distinct.

Idealistic Optimism is the classic “everything is awesome and the world is a good and just place” worldview we normally associate with optimism. Things will work out for the best in the end, and people are inherently good to each other. If you feel like you’re getting mind-diabetes thinking this way, then I’m sorry; but you are starting to get the gist of what this feels like.

Cynical Pessimists see the world as a cruel place, where the inherent goodness of other people is not a given. This does not have to be a negative cruelty, however. Maybe people are simply looking out for themselves above all others, or the world is simply uncaring and random. Not much is taken as a given, or at face value. This is the antithesis of Idealistic Optimism.

I’ll admit, I’m not sure how to describe Idealistic Pessimism, as the juxtaposition seems especially foreign to me. Maybe “the world is a good place, but it just sucks to be me?” Something like Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh? I don’t know. Let’s leave this category as an exercise to the reader; I’m open to suggestions.

The last category, Cynical Optimist, is what I would consider myself. The world may be an uncaring place, but things will work out for the best in the end. While I often tend towards the idealistic side of things, I’ve experienced enough in my life that my sense of idealism is at least cracked, if not quite shattered. Going to grad school and coming out with crushing debt and no luck finding a job in your field can do that to a person. But for better or worse, I still believe that people are inherently good. This can set me up for some… interesting interactions, as for example, when a hypothetical boss turns out to not care about a hypothetical employee’s needs and availability.

Maybe this model is still incomplete. Maybe there needs to be a third axis: Positive/Negative. I’m not sure. But the whole thing is an interesting idea, and one that I’ve been tossing around my head for a while. It might be interesting to try and go further in-depth into the various categories, but now does not seem to be the time.