Hope as a Syndrome
According to the fount of all immediate knowledge, Wikipedia, a “syndrome” is “a set of medical signs and symptoms that are correlated together.” Let’s work with that.
Once a correlation between signs and symptoms has been identified and accepted by physicians as important, doctors who encounter one of the signs or symptoms in a patient can be alert for the possible presence of the others. The known association of one sign or symptom with another can be useful even before the cause of the syndrome is discovered. Sometimes, as with Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, a single direct cause is found, e.g. a virus. In other cases, such as toxic shock syndrome, we learn that multiple causes can produce very similar clusters of symptoms.
The concept of a syndrome gets used in wider circles. In psychology, “syndrome” labels many different clusters of dysfunction. For example, the Munchausen syndrome, sometimes called “hospital addiction syndrome,” is marked by the patient repeatedly feigning disease, often many different kinds of disease. Researchers speculate that Munchausen patients are trying to gain sympathy or attention, but psychologists do not have a single theory about the cause of the syndrome. Obviously, researchers would like to discover the cause or causes of such disorders/syndromes, but in some cases treatment can begin without that knowledge. It is enough to know that x correlates with y, and that such-and-such treatment can reduce the negative effects of the syndrome.
Now let’s move further afield.
Philosopher Adrienne Martin borrows a usage from Margaret Urban Walker, who calls hope a syndrome. Martin and Walker want to drain all the negative connotations from “syndrome” when talking about hope. In medicine and psychology, syndromes are bad; Martin and Walker think hope is good. The idea is that in hope there are recognizable correlations or associations of a variety of signs or symptoms. Walker says, with Martin approving, that hope is “characterized by certain desires and perceptions, but also by certain forms of attention, expression, feeling, and activity” (my emphases).
That’s an amorphous and seemingly vague collection of descriptors. Does it really help us to call hope a syndrome, if the list of signs and symptoms covers so much space?
Maybe. Martin adopts the syndrome definition of hope because she is reacting against a definition of hope that has dominated modern philosophers’ discussion of hope. (In philosophy we say anything after 1650 is “modern.” So the modern philosophers Martin disagrees with include David Hume, who died in 1776.) Martin says that modern philosophers generally agree that hope has two parts: a desire that some outcome occur along with the belief that the desired outcome is neither impossible nor certain. Martin calls this the “orthodox” view among modern philosophers (which may be read as a humorous gibe at most of them, who would hate being labeled orthodox in regard to almost any subject).
The modern “orthodox” definition of hope: Hope = Desire + Belief that the desired thing is possible but not certain.
Martin agrees with this definition as regards belief. We might wish for things that we know are impossible, but we don’t hope for them. And it hardly seems right to say we hope for something we already have or that we are absolutely certain to receive. So it seems that we hope for things we believe are possible but not certain.
The place where Martin disagrees with the modern definition regards “desire.” She points to cases of “hoping against hope,” that is, cases in which people hope for very unlikely things. Martin asks that we imagine two cancer patients, Alan and Bess. The doctors have told Alan and Bess that the experimental drug they would like to try has only a 1 in 10,000 chance of curing them. Alan and Bess both agree to the drug trial, but while Alan holds only faint hopes for a cure, Bess hopes strongly. Now, Martin asks, how should we explain the difference between them? If hope is defined only as desire + belief, it seems we must say that either Bess desires a cure more than Alan or that she is somehow fooling herself about the chances that the drug will help her. Martin, who has spent time with actual cancer patients, says neither of these explanations will do. Even if, in some cases, one person deceives herself about the likelihood of her desired outcome or has stronger desires, is it likely that this is true in all cases of hoping against hope?
Martin says we need a better analysis of hope. Hope is not merely desire + belief. Other things come into play, and that leads to the syndrome analysis of hope.
When we hope, we think about the outcome we desire. We may imagine what it would be like if the hoped for outcome occurred. We let our minds dwell on it. The presence of hope in our mind makes us alert to happenings around us; we perceive events differently. Hope is often accompanied by positive feelings; in a sense, we rejoice in anticipation of the hoped for outcome. Hope sometimes affects the decisions we make. When we hope, we are able to suffer setbacks without despairing of the eventual good result.
Thought, imagination, perception, emotions, decisions, and actions: on the syndrome analysis hope is complicated. That sounds right to me.
Martin asks us to consider a recent parable of hope, The Shawshank Redemption. Andy and Red are friends in Shawshank prison. Red, a prison veteran, warns Andy against hope. “Let me tell you something, my friend. Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane.” Against Red’s advice, Andy hopes to escape.
For more than 20 years, Andy entertains certain thoughts. He lets himself feel certain feelings. He imagines certain future scenes. He plans and executes certain actions. In the story, Andy eventually escapes. But the value of hope does not depend on this happy outcome. Andy’s hope sustained him through many years of imprisonment, and he would have enjoyed this benefit even if his escape failed in the end. The moral of the story is expressed in Andy’s words to Red: “Remember, Red, hope is a good thing. Maybe the best thing, and no good thing ever dies.”
If hope is as complicated as the syndrome analysis suggests, it may be that we understand it best through stories. A narrative can show how the different “signs and symptoms” hang together.