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Adrienne Martin begins her book How We Hope: A Moral Psychology with a poem from Yehuda Amichai who writes, "hope needs to be like barbed wire to keep out despair, hope must be a mine field." I was expecting Martin to develop the implications of Amichai's profound insights further but her book lacks the existential and psychological insights that would have developed what hope actually is.
The focus on the book is on how we hope and not on what hope is. This method puts the proverbial cart before the horse. First we need to understand what hope actually is before we can analyze how it is that we hope. In terms of what has been accomplished by the analysis a better title might have been, The Perils of Analytic Philosophy Analyzing an Existential Concept. I do not think that analytic philosophy has the tools to understand what hope really is.
Martin states, "The tradition I work in "analytic" philosophy has been oddly reticent about hope, and this book aims to rectify that situation." I am not sure what the scare quotes around analytic aim to accomplish? The obvious response to Martin's surprise is to state clearly that the reason analytic philosophy "has been oddly reticent about hope" is because it is ill-equipped to actually think what hope means. Using analytic philosophy to examine hope is like using a screwdriver to mix cement. Sure something is accomplished but the result is not stellar. Hope is existential, not analytic and certainly not "analytic". Using the insights of analytic philosophy to analyze hope is much like giving a person a fishing rod in the middle of the desert and then expecting miraculous results.
Of course, the chorus of support from other analytic thinkers on the back cover of the book is illuminating. Nussbaum writes that Martin engages seriously " with Kant, Hume and other historical thinkers" as if these serious engagements with historical thinkers who actually have little to say about hope is helpful. Sugarman believes that Martin "advances our understanding of an elusive piece of human experience that thinkers have reflected upon for centuries." Calhoun argues that the books "is the most sophisticated analysis of hope available." Chignell points out that the book, "makes an important contribution to the literature on the under discussed notion of hope." Again, I think that discussing hope by using the tools of the analytic tradition, namely, "theories of mind" is a dead-end.
Hope has been explained by the Continental tradition. Kant uses hope as a guiding question to his philosophy. The phenomenological tradition has shown us that hope is indispensable. Strangely enough, the most extensive analysis of hope comes from the Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch who shows that hope is about possibility rather than the empirical analysis expanded by Martin. Moltmann's Theology of Hope emerges through his confrontation with Bloch's work. Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Camus, Marcel and Scheler have given profound expositions on hope. Richard Rorty wrote extensively about hope. Within the Christian tradition hope is a virtue along with love and faith. Joseph Pieper a leading 20th Catholic philosopher was one of the first thinkers to extensively analyze the idea of hope. Even Francis Bacon with his line, "hope is a good breakfast but a bad supper" is more analytical than anything the American school of analytic philosophy has produced on the topic. Martin's book does not examine any of these rich traditions so I find it baffling that other reviewers can claim that her text "is the most sophisticated analysis of hope available."
Let's do some ordinary language analysis by first focusing on the etymology of hope.
The Slavic word for hope is nada. The same word in Spanish means "nothing." Perhaps the link between hope and nothing can help to forge a new meaning for this much-abused concept. How do we get beyond the need for hope? Can we free ourselves from the need to navigate between hope and hopelessness?
In his poem, "Burnt Norton", T.S. Eliot expresses the view that "human kind cannot bear very much reality." In this inability to bear one's cross, hope asserts itself as the final straw to clutch. Is it better to have not hoped when X does not arrive or is it better to still go on hoping even when you are aware that X will never arrive?
If one acts, there is no need for hope. Hope is simply the positive side of despair. Instead of inspiring hope or allowing hope to breath, one should inspire action. In this manner, we avoid the feeling of helplessness in the face of adversity. If the first path is blocked, hope waits rather than find another way. Hope does not lead to emancipation, action does. Action transforms the conditions of our situation. Hope dreams that the conditions can be transformed.
Hope has nothing to do with cognitive resolve. Hope does not think. Hope resolves nothing. Hope sits. The avalanche of facts dissolves hope into a stream of incapacity. Rather than revert to hope when faced with the adversity of life we might consider another response that does not daydream its future away on false expectations.
In Human All Too Human, Nietzsche argues that hope "in truth is the most evil of evils because it prolongs man's torment." Here Nietzsche reads the story of Pandora's Box differently. When Pandora opened the box, she released all the evils except hope. Hope is the last thing to leave the box. This makes it either the worst of evils or that which can do nothing to overcome evil. The hidden and unrealized come to fruition through action, not hope. Hope chases what it cannot obtain. It is utopian. The question of what I am and what must I do with my life is not answered by hope. It is answered by action.
In Greek mythology, Elpis or Hope was said to be the child of Nyx, goddess of the night. Hope was the mother of Pheme or the goddess of rumor. Hope's genealogy allows for a revealing disruption. Hope is related to the night. She is birthed from the night. Mother night gives birth to Momus (blame), Ponos (toil), Moros (fate), Thanatos (death), Hypnos (sleep), Nemesis (retribution), Apate (deception) and Eris (strife). Hope is a shadowy figure. Hope is the last resource available to us when night and her children come to devour what remains.
To live well means to act. An act is a performance that leads to a definite result. The act is a thing done. Act also related to the energy that is directed toward a goal. The goal always concerns living on. Nietzsche says our goal is to become what we are. Becoming is a process of change. For the most part, we remain stuck into being something we are not. To act real is the goal, but society has always rewarded fakery. To pretend may be suitable for a staged performance when acting out a scene, but to pretend with one's life is to live in a state of being deceived by one's own deception. Following Nietzsche, Adorno in his Minima Moralia writes, "There is no way of living a false life correctly".
The opposite of hope is not despair but action.
© 2014 Marko Zlomislic
Marko Zlomislic is professor of philosophy at Conestoga College, Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada