Wednesday, December 7, 2016


4. The Syndrome Account of Hope

            Hope is directed toward possible future goods, and “true” hope is directed toward possible future genuine goods (so that we may regard Hitler’s hope of conquering Poland as a vice rather than a virtue).  But what is hope?
            In the last chapter, we saw that C.R. Snyder’s hope theory defines hope in purely cognitive terms.  Hope is the sum of perceived capabilities to produce routes to desired goals, along with the perceived motivation to use those routes.  Snyder and his colleagues recognized that his theory contrasts with earlier thinking by psychologists, who thought of hope mainly in terms of positive feelings.  On Snyder’s view, right thinking (that is, hope) will lead to positive affect (that is, “hopefulness” or feeling hopeful).  Accordingly, hope therapy focuses on cognitive changes.
            Philosophers have generally defined hope very differently.  Their analysis starts with Thomas Aquinas.
Aquinas, as I explained in chapter 1, distinguished the passion of hope from the virtue of hope.  Passion and virtue both look to the future, but passions aim at goods in this world while the virtue of hope aims at a transcendent good, eternal friendship with God.  Aquinas further distinguished between concupiscent and irascible passions.  Hope, both as natural passion and theological virtue, is irascible.  That is, hope moves us to overcome obstacles.
Later philosophers often ignored the complexities in Aquinas’ account.  Hope, whether passion or virtue, desires a future good, and that good is seen as possible (neither certain nor impossible).  For these philosophers, hope is a desire combined with the judgment that the thing desired is possible.  Notice that the judgment in this definition is very different from the cognitive elements of Snyder’s definition.  The modern philosophers’ definition of hope includes a judgment about the probability of some desired future good whereas the judgment in Snyder’s theory concerns a person’s ability to think up pathways and her motivation to use those pathways.
As Adrienne Martin points out, most modern philosophers, from the 16th century forward, dispensed with the categories (“concupiscent” and “irascible” passions) that Aquinas used.[1]  For them, and probably for most contemporary readers, a passion is just a motivating emotion.  Many philosophers of the last four centuries simply substitute “desire” for “passion,” which produces what Martin calls the “orthodox”[2] definition of hope: “to hope for an outcome is to desire it while believing it is possible but not certain.”[3]  There is ironic humor in Martin’s use of “orthodox,” since modern philosophers would blanche at being described that way.
Martin objects to the orthodox doctrine, in that it is overly simplistic.  First, it leads to an equally “orthodox” modern conclusion about hope: We ought to regulate our hopes by their probability.  The more unlikely the good we desire, the less rational it is to hope for it.  I will discuss Martin’s objection to this advice concerning the rationality of hope in my next chapter.
Martin’s second objection, which will occupy the rest of this chapter, concerns the notion of “desire.”  The “orthodox definition” oversimplifies hope, making “desire” cover too much ground.  Borrowing a word from Margaret Walker, she says hope is a “syndrome” that combines feelings, thoughts, modes of perception, and motivations.[4] 
Let’s explore this “syndrome” idea with an example.  Imagine a man, call him Alfred, living in 1730.  Alfred is sick with some condition that makes it hard to breathe.  His doctor tells him he has “consumption,” the disease we call tuberculosis.  Alfred’s doctor recommends treatment of one sort or another.
Alfred knows, as do most people in his age, that consumption is a dread disease.  Most people who get it waste away and die.  But some victims do get better.  Medical advice doesn’t seem to make much difference.  (Tuberculosis bacteria would not be identified for another 150 years.  In fact, the “germ” theory, that many diseases are caused by microorganisms, had not been invented in 1730.)
We can imagine that many “consumptives” in Alfred’s day had no hope of cure.  They firmly expected their disease to end their lives.  Imagine, though, that Alfred hopes to recover from his consumption.  How might this hope be expressed?
Feelings.  Perhaps this is the most obvious expression of hope.  Compared to other consumptives, Alfred is more cheerful.  His moods are “brighter.”  He smiles more.  But it is hard to describe Alfred’s feelings without also mentioning other aspects of his hope.
Thoughts.  Alfred’s hope is expressed sometimes in beliefs, such as: “Some consumptives do get well,” or “My doctor may be wrong about my condition,” or “God may see fit to heal me.”  Other times, Alfred’s thinking consists of imagination; he pictures to himself what it would be like to breathe freely again, or he sees himself taking on long-term projects, e.g. marrying and having a family.
Perceptions.  Alfred’s hope changes the way he experiences the world.  He wakes up and breathing seems easier today—“Perhaps my recovery has begun.”  On another occasion, he feels weak or out of breath, but he perceives this as a temporary setback.  It’s easy to imagine a contrast case, a consumptive who lives out his final months or years in despair; he interprets every new pain as a sign of approaching death.
Motivations.  Alfred’s hope spurs him to act on his doctor’s advice.  That is, if he trusts the doctor’s expertise; it’s possible that Alfred hopes for a cure, but not through medicine, in which case his hope might spur him to use some nature cure recommended by the village healer-woman.  In hope, Alfred might make plans for the farm he will buy after he marries.
Such an example Martin’s objection to the “desire + probability judgment” definition of hope is correct, at least in regard to “desire.”  From here on, I will adopt the “syndrome” definition of hope.  Hope is a syndrome of feelings, thoughts, perceptions, and motivations aimed at a future good.
            Martin aims her criticism primarily at modern philosophers’ overly simplistic definition of hope.  It turns out that it also reveals a weakness in Snyder’s hope theory.  Hope theory assumes that the cognitive elements of hope are the essential part, that cognitive changes drive affective changes.  The syndrome definition of hope suggests this is too simple.  Phenomenologically, hope is complicated.  I will return to this idea in a later chapter, when I discuss Michael Bishop’s theory of positive causal networks.  Before that, though, we need to explore Adrienne Martin’s defense of the rationality of hope.

[1] Martin, Adrienne.  How We Hope (2014). 4-5.
[2] In this context, Martin’s “orthodox definition” means something like “the definition of hope commonly accepted by modern philosophers except for those who follow Thomas Aquinas.”  One detects a bit of ironic humor in this usage. 
[3] Ibid. 5.
[4] Ibid. 5-6.

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