Thursday, February 21, 2013

Reading and Hoping

I've been lying low lately, taking in many ideas, preparing to write (the first draft of) what I hope will be the final chapter of my book on patience. (Don't get too excited; there's still a long road of revision ahead.) I've also been trying to make sense of the literature on "theory of mind" in chimps and other non-human primates, which is an altogether different story.

I just finished a very nice paper by Matthew Ratcliffe, "What is it to lose hope?" In it he distinguishes between forms of hope that have clear propositional (or, intentional) content and a kind of hope that is "pre-intentional" and which he also characterizes as an "existential feeling." This kind of hope--which it seems to me could also be described as a fundamental attitude or orientation--is a sort of background against which it makes sense to have any hopes of the other, intentional/propositional sort. What he's doing seems good, and useful, too, as he points out that these different forms of hopelessness vary in severity, and it's not clear that the Beck hopelessness scale (used in psychiatry) really measures those important differences.

Ratcliffe's distinction suggests that we could lose most, perhaps even all of our hopes, without necessarily losing hope. He suggests this might be a way of understanding Plenty Coups, or Lear's reading of Plenty Coups. But it's not that Plenty Coups musters up a new, radical kind of hope (as Ratcliffe reads Lear) but rather that he manages not to lose his grip on the pre-intentional sort of hope.

One might ask: how is pre-intentional hope different from what we call optimism? Ratcliffe doesn't address this.

In "Sketch of a Phenomenology and Metaphysic of Hope," Garbiel Marcel suggests that the optimist "is he who has a firm conviction, or in certain cases just a vague feeling, that things tend to 'turn out for the best.'" Thinking of Liebniz, he also says that "the optimist is essentially a maker of speeches," and the general upshot of his characterization is that the optimist is superficial: "the optimist, as such, always relies upon an experience which is not drawn from the most intimate and living part of himself, but, on the contrary, is considered from a sufficient distance to allow certain contradictions to become alternated or fused into a general harmony."

Well, what's wrong with that? one might ask. Marcel distinguishes different sorts of hope, and notes that hope can be degraded, but also suggests that the higher or more ideal sorts of hope don't involve the distance, abstraction (or rationalism, as it were) that he associates with optimism. He also says that true hope contains "humility...timidity...[and] chastity," and I suppose that means that true hope is not the sort of thing one could make a big speech about.

The hope Marcel idealizes looks like a kind of pre-intentional hope, insofar as the kind of hope he sees as most genuine has a kind of flexibility; it doesn't pin itself on specific states of affairs coming to be, and seems connected to a kind of commitment not to "capitulate" in the face of life's trials. This is, he says, related to patience, both with life and with others. (And one kind of loss of hope is when we give up on another person in some absolute sense, deem them useless, etc. This is also connected to a loss of patience.)

Of course, there seems to be a question here about whether one can sensibly always retain such hope. At least, as I started reading and thinking, I thought that was the question. But I'm less sure now. There are practical questions about how long we should try to fix a relationship or teach something to another person (before giving up on that particular relationship or task), but giving up on those things isn't necessarily impatient and doesn't have anything to do with this pre-intentional hope. The loss of this sort of hope in major clinical depression suggests both that it's very important for any sort of decent life and that it's not something that can obviously be summoned on demand. And so how? seems like the wrong question. It might, however, be that it's this kind of hope that serves also as the background of the possibility of patience (and, of course, the exercise of any kind of skill or virtue that places some hope in the future or in the immediate meaningfulness of life's activities).

I'm just pondering (rambling), so I'll stop. How are you? I'll leave with this bit from Marcel's essay, which caught my attention, and reminded me quite a bit of things that William James says:
Perhaps the human condition is characterised not only by the risks which go with it and which after all are bound up with life itself, even in its humblest forms, but also, and far more deeply, by the necessity to accept these risks and to refuse to believe that it would be possible--and, if we come to a final analysis, even an advantage--to succeed in removing them. Experience teaches us, as a matter of fact, that we can never refuse to take risks except in appearance, or rather that the refusal itself conceals a risk which is the most serious of all, and that it is even possible for us finally to condemn ourselves in this way to lose the best of the very thing which by our avoidance we had intended to safeguard. (pgs. 54-55 in the Harper & Row (1962) edition)


  1. A vague feeling that things tend to turn out for the best could, I think, have two forms. It could be a vague feeling about each thing that it will probably turn out for the best, or it could be a vague sense that somehow or other everything, the whole, will be all right in the end. The latter seems compatible with pessimism about particular things. A crude version of what I have in mind might be a religious believer who trusts in God but views things of this world as generally bad. So of each particular thing he expects it to go badly, but of the whole history of the world he expects God to ensure that it turns out well. It might sound strange to call someone like that an optimist. Schopenhauer is a bit like this and no one calls him an optimist. That is, he views most particular lives and projects as miserable and pointless but the whole as, not exactly meaningful, but beautiful and valuable.

    And there is a Beck hopelessness scale?

  2. That seems possible, and would show that there's a form of hope even in Schopenhauer (though not, perhaps, anything that we would want to call optimism).

    Your video link made me chuckle. (I don't know any particulars about the Beck hopelessness scale; it's used as a diagnostic tool in psychiatry.)

  3. how is it that schopenhauer views the whole as beautiful and valuable?

  4. I was thinking of several things: Schopenhauer seems pretty enthusiastic about nature, as I think Iris Murdoch points out; Buddhism (and hence Schopenhauer as far as he is a Buddhist) is not as negative as it sounds; he identifies the world with music, and music is beautiful and valuable.

  5. i thought the vision of nature that directly preceded the discussion of aesthetics stuff in WWR made nature out to be pretty nightmarish. (it is telling that he sort of defers it until that point.)

  6. That's true. It's not exactly nature that I really meant as the whole, but even nature, as nightmarish as it can be, isn't really all that bad as Murdoch's Schopenhauer sees it.

    This is the kind of near-optimism I have in mind: "Before us there is certainly only nothingness. But that which resists this passing into nothing, our nature, is indeed just the will to live, which we ourselves are as it is our world. That we abhor annihilation so greatly, is simply another expression of the fact that we so strenuously will life, and are nothing but this will, and know nothing besides it. But if we turn our glance from our own needy and embarrassed condition to those who have overcome the world, in whom the will, having attained to perfect self-knowledge, found itself again in all, and then freely denied itself, and who then merely wait to see the last trace of it vanish with the body which it animates; then, instead of the restless striving and effort, instead of the constant transition from wish to fruition, and from joy to sorrow, instead of the never-satisfied and never-dying hope which constitutes the life of the man who wills, we shall see that peace which is above all reason, that perfect calm of the spirit, that deep rest, that inviolable confidence and serenity, the mere reflection of which in the countenance, as Raphael and Correggio have represented it, is an entire and certain gospel; only knowledge remains, the will has vanished. We look with deep and painful longing upon this state, beside which the misery and wretchedness of our own is brought out clearly by the contrast."

    And here he is sounding quite positive about nature: "The great difference between the English, or more correctly the Chinese, garden and the old French, which is now always becoming more rare, yet still exists in a few magnificent examples, ultimately rests upon the fact that the former is planned in an objective spirit, the latter in a subjective. In the former the will of nature, as it objectifies itself in tree and shrub, mountain and waterfall, is brought to the purest possible expression of these its Ideas, thus of its own inner being. In the French garden, on the other hand, only the will of the possessor of it is mirrored, which has subdued nature so that instead of its Ideas it bears as tokens of its slavery the forms which correspond to that will, and which are forcibly imposed upon it—clipped hedges, trees cut into all kinds of forms, straight alleys, arched avenues, &c." (from here: