Thursday, February 18, 2016

Back to the Hope Project

How to Hope:
Mundane Hope

            I’ve been working on the hope project for more than a year, having produced two papers for philosophy conferences and a growing list of short essays for Story and Meaning.  Eventually the project will culminate in a book.  At some point, readers (at least some of them) will ask: How can I hope? 
            It’s a good question.  I agree emphatically with Iris Murdoch, who criticized much 20th century moral philosophy by pointing to its abstraction and sterility.  Moral philosophers, she wrote, ought to ask how people might make themselves morally better.  If moral philosophy never helps us change, what good is it?  If hope is a virtue, how do I get it?
            A traditional Aristotelian answer says that virtues are acquired through habituation.  A young woman observes good people (almost all of Aristotle’s moral theorizing was directed to men, but we can generalize) and models her life on them.  There are several typical stages to the process.  At the beginning, it may be a significant step just to recognize good role models and desire to be like them.  There comes a stage, which Aristotle called akrasia, in which she desires to be like the good persons she admires but does not in fact act like them.  She “knows” the good but does not do it.  Then comes a stage in which through self-control she compels herself to copy the behaviors of good people.  Her immediate desires are not in accord with virtue, but her higher order desires triumph over them.  Eventually, though, by habituation, she discovers that what once was distasteful and hard has become second nature.  It is at this final stage that she truly exhibits the virtue and it may be said that virtue is easy.
            Now, I think there’s much right in this Aristotelian schema.  It emphasizes paying attention to exemplars, and it underscores the idea that moral progress typically takes time and effort.  So, as a preliminary answer to the question (How can I hope?), I endorse Aristotle’s advice.  Observe persons who hope well, and mimic them.
            Notice I just wrote: “hope well.”  That invites the idea that some people do not hope or hope poorly.  One needs to think critically about role models, including models of hope.  In Aristotelian terms, we need phronesis, “practical wisdom,” at every stage of virtue acquisition.  Phronesis is an intellectual virtue.  On Aristotle’s account, our pursuit of moral virtues is a rational pursuit.  By phronesis we recognize good models of hope and we train ourselves to be like them.
            I am persuaded by reading authors like Jonathan Lear, Michael Bishop, N.T. Wright, and Adrienne Martin that hope is a far more complicated concept than many thinkers recognize.  (Ironically, Bishop himself seems to think hope is simply a feeling or attitude; he misses the complexity of hope.  At the same time, his network theory of positive psychology provides a good explanation for why hope is so complex.)  I think Adrienne Martin rightly criticizes the “orthodox definition” of hope (orthodox among modern philosophers, that is) as being far too simplistic.
            Martin argues convincingly that hope is a “syndrome”: a combination of characteristic perceptions, thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.  The syndrome idea coheres nicely with Bishop’s theory of positive psychology, i.e. that positive psychologists study “positive causal networks” and that such networks are composed of attitudes, traits, behaviors, and accomplishments.
            If hope is a complex concept—a “syndrome” or a “causal network”’—my initial Aristotelian advice may be correct and yet too simple.  The person who asks, “How can I hope?” may be facing any one of a number of difficulties.  A helpful answer will speak to the particular needs of the inquirer. 
            Imagine a parent locked in a seemingly perpetual war of words with her middle-school daughter.  Or a man facing a lay-off after sixteen years working what he had thought was a stable job.  Or a couple whose marriage has turned silent and cold and seems headed for dissolution.  These are all examples of what I will call mundane life crises.  By mundane I do not mean that such difficulties are mild or unimportant.  But they are ordinary and “earthly.”  We all know people enduring mundane problems; at one time or another, we all experience them.
            Mundane crises can bring a person to despair.  We feel trapped.  There is no way out—at least, we are tempted to think there is no way out.  Sometimes people become clinically depressed.  We don’t know what to do.  We feel hopeless.
            Such persons (and at one time or another we are all such persons) need mundane hope.  It is for such people that C.R. Snyder’s “Hope Therapy” was designed.  People who come for therapy have goals: the mother wants a peaceful relationship with her daughter, the man wants steady employment and income, and the couple wants to repair their marriage.  But something gets in the way, a “block”: hurtful words, a lay-off notice, fear of a spouse’s reaction.
            According to Snyder, hope consists in the combination of two things.  First, the patient needs to imagine “pathways” to reach the goal by getting around the block.  Second, the patient must perceive herself as being motivated to use the pathway.  Here’s a diagram:

(motivation) Protagonist -->  {BLOCK}  Goal

            I have already approved of Adrienne Martin’s syndrome analysis of hope, so it is clear that I think Snyder’s theory is too simplistic to fit all cases.  But we cannot deny the ample evidence that Snyder and his research colleagues have accumulated.  Hope therapy is effective in many cases.  By helping clients to think differently, hope therapy enables them to overcome despair, feel hopeful, and achieve positive outcomes in diverse areas of life: relationships, employment, sports, etc.
            Very often mundane hope is exactly what we want.  We feel hopeless when some circumstance of life, from the world around us or from within, blocks us from achieving our goals.  Snyder’s hope theory provides a straightforward way to increase mundane hope.  First, realize that you are able to invent practical paths to the goal.  Second, realize that you are motivated to use those paths.  These two realizations combine to make hope.

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