CultureLab
02/04/2024
Pessimism: Problematising the Value of Life
Call for abstracts

International Conference ‘Pessimism: Problematising the Value of Life’
NOVA University Lisbon
November 25-27, 2024


According to Frederik Beiser, ‘pessimism is the thesis that life is not worth living, that nothingness is better than being, or that it is worse to be than not to be’ (Weltschmerz: Pessimism in German Philosophy, 1860-1900, Oxford, Oxford University Press, p. 4). Although pessimism may be considered as a typically modern phenomenon, one with a very significant expression in late nineteenth-century Germany, its powerful effect has been felt in human culture since antiquity, as the famous lines from Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus testify: ‘Not to be born comes first by every reckoning; and once one has appeared, to go back to where one came from as soon as possible is the next best thing.’ (1224-7)


The purpose of this international conference is to explore the various pessimistic threads that manifested themselves throughout human history, both in Western and non-Western traditions. Rather than focusing solely on a specific school of thought, our aim is to understand pessimism as a fundamental experience and diagnosis of life from which different theoretical and practical attitudes may arise. While pessimism tends to be associated with a negative view of life, such a characterisation is overly simplistic. Construed more broadly, pessimism may be conceived as stemming from the encounter with evil, pervasive suffering, and the perceived lack of meaning in human existence. This may lead either to the radical view that life is not worth living or to a more critical attitude towards life that problematises its value and tries to ascertain its meaning, whether it is worth living at all, and whether there are possible ways out of this condition, both ethically and/or politically.


Many recent historical events and contemporary challenges – such as the pandemic, climate change, the rise of the far right, the growth of social inequality, the spreading of misinformation through social media, and the potential misuse of artificial intelligence and technology in general – have revealed to us that pessimism is not merely a relic from the past, but rather a feeling that remains very much alive and needs to be readdressed. This call is open to anyone interested in historical and contemporary approaches to pessimism, particularly within the fields of philosophy (e.g. Schopenhauer, von Hartmann, Mainländer, Nietzsche, Unamuno, Sartre, Cioran), literature (e.g. Sophocles, Shakespeare, Baudelaire, Leopardi, Lovecraft, Pessoa, Ligotti, Bernhard), cinema (e.g. Michelangelo Antonioni, Chantal Akerman, Béla Tarr, Lars von Trier, Michael Haneke, Naomi Kawase, Tsai Ming-liang), and ecology (e.g. Lucretius, Malthus, Marx, Adorno and Horkheimer, Heidegger, Arendt, Anders, Morton).


The proposals may address, but are not restricted to, the following questions:


  • Can the value of life be assessed?
  • What is the criterion of value by which life can be assessed?
  • Does existence contain a prevalence of pain over pleasure?
  • What is the link between pessimism and nihilism?
  • What is the link between pessimism and politics?
  • What role does art play in a pessimistic worldview?
  • What is the link between art and ethics or moral philosophy?
  • Is there a specific pessimistic ethics?
  • What are the differences between Western and non-Western, ancient and modern, philosophical and non-philosophical (e.g. artistic or religious) forms of pessimism?
  • Has the awareness of climate catastrophe created a new form of pessimism?
  • What is the relation between technology and ecological pessimism?
  • Has humanity discovered its own extinction in the Anthropocene?

We invite proposals for presentations on any of the topics mentioned above. Interdisciplinary approaches are welcome.


Abstract proposals should be 200-300 words and are to be submitted by 30 June 2024 to lisbonpessimismconference2024@gmail.com with the subject LPC 2024. Decisions will be announced by 15 July 2024.


Researchers whose papers are accepted will have 20 minutes to present them at the conference.


The conference fee is €50. Payment must be made by 30 July after the proposal has been accepted, by filling in the form that will be sent with the confirmation email.


Confirmed keynote speakers:


  • João Constâncio (NOVA University Lisbon)
  • Patrick Hassan (Cardiff University)
  • Maria Filomena Molder (NOVA University Lisbon)
  • Thomas Moynihan (Cambridge University’s Centre for the Study of Existential Risk)
  • Jaime Pena (Filmoteca de Galicia)
  • Jan Wilm (writer and lecturer, Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf)

Organising Committee:
Luís Aguiar de Sousa, Paulo Lima, Paolo Stellino


Scientific Committee:
Ana Falcato, Nuno Fonseca, Bartholomew Ryan, Susana Viegas