Hope : Bruce Robbins

Nicola Samori / Rverso

Hope : Bruce Robbins

“Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” One rarely hears this famous formula mentioned except with approval, and that is remarkable for a formula that is mentioned so often. When we pronounce these by now almost ritualized words, we feel that we are being properly tough-minded but that we are simultaneously managing, as we feel is our paradoxical duty, to maintain a hope which never looks very well grounded, or well grounded enough, and yet without which we know nothing will ever be accomplished.

Hope is in fact where the passage leads, a mere two sentences later. But the formula does not lead to a desirable conception of hope. That’s because it refuses to pay attention to hope’s grounding.

“Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will” is of course a slogan of the Left, borrowed by the Communist Antonio Gramsci from the fellow-traveler and brave anti-war militant Romain Rolland. Perhaps for this reason, those who repeat this slogan seem unaware that, philosophically speaking, they are pledging themselves not to Marx or Hegel but to Kant–specifically, to a Kantian sundering of will from intellect and of intellect from will. It was Kant who, in order to maintain the freedom of the will, was ready to separate it off absolutely from all calculation of worldly constraints and consequences. Each time we affirm that the will must be optimistic and the intellect pessimistic, we are agreeing with Kant that the will, in order to remain free, must turn its eyes away from the natural and social world in which it will be exercised. To put this differently: we are conspiring to prevent the will and the intellect from sitting down together and having a conversation. In that conversation, they might provisionally choose which of the two stances, pessimism or optimism, is actually called for here and now, under present circumstances, circumstances which can be assumed to be changing the odds of success.

If conversation between the will and the intellect is off the table, the result (even on the Left, which should know better) will be statements of the form “there is always hope”– that is, a conception of hope as something that, changing conditions not being open for discussion, one must unconditionally favor. That is more or less how the Rolland quotation continues after the famous slogan-to-be: “doubt itself,” Rolland concludes, “the French ‘what do I know?’ (que sais-je?) becomes the weapon of hope, barring the road to discouragement and saying to his dreams of action and revolution, ‘Why not?’”1

When we say “Why not?” what we mean, most likely, is the opposite: that we do not want to hear any reasons why not, however good those reasons may be. We have made up our minds to action, and we don’t want to be dissuaded. End of story. But action as such is not always the right ending to the story.2 And if there is always hope–if hope springs eternal, if while there’s life there’s hope, if one hopes as long as one breathes, then hope is not very strategic. It’s actually pretty stupid, even annoyingly so. Hope becomes Emily Dickinson’s thing with feathers that sings and sings “and never stops at all.” You want to make it stop. You want hope at least to prove itself capable of tactical retreat in order to survive and fight again on some other, better-chosen day. You want it to husband its resources so as not to end in disappointment, burn-out, and melancholy. As is all too often the case. (It was the suspicion of too much “always” that cooled my youthful passion for Ernst Bloch’s The Principle of Hope, which suggests that hope is hard-wired into reality itself, both social and physical.3) In appearing so predictably accompanied by a voluntarist “always,” hope seems to encourage Talal Asad’s rather stinging rebuke to the pious assumption that each and every collectivity is an active agent that authors its own history: “To take an extreme example,” Asad says to Marshall Sahlins, “even the inmates of a concentration camp are able, in this sense, to live by their own cultural logic. But one may be forgiven for doubting that they are therefore ‘making their own history.’”4 Or that they had grounds for hope.

If hope, like agency for the politically pious, is something you can’t not have, even on your way into a gas chamber, or at any rate are under strict orders always to affirm, then it is too much like religious faith — a neighboring concept, to be sure, but one from which it ought to be distinguished. As a latecomer to the discourse on hope (much of which, it turns out, is religiously-inflected), I cannot claim that I have a secular conception to offer, but this essay is meant as a step in that direction.

The usual definitions of hope include three elements: 1) desire for something, 2) the possibility of realizing that desire, and 3) uncertainty as to whether one will realize it or not. The most interesting of these elements is uncertainty. Hope’s dependence on uncertainty can be minimized, the better to underline its grounding or well-foundedness. Or the element of uncertainty can be maximized, making its ungroundedness into a virtue. According to Nicholas H. Smith, the empirical tradition of Hobbes, Locke, and Hume uses reason to minimize uncertainty: it demands calculation of the likelihood of attaining the desired object.5

The religious tradition coming out of Thomas Aquinas tends on the contrary to emphasize the unknowability of the outcome and the inappropriateness of rational calculation. It is perhaps not a surprise that Kant and many others who do not identify hope first and foremost with eternal life nevertheless agree with Aquinas that where hope is concerned, the calculating of probabilities is beside the point or even to be actively avoided. According to Smith, “there is a view, now quite widespread in the literature on hope, that hope should be separated from reason, calculation and consideration of probability altogether. Some go so far as to say that hope is ‘really hope’ only when this is the case. Those who espouse this view are often directed by the idea that we ‘hope against hope,’ which they interpret to mean that hope in spite of the evidence, in spite of probabilities and in spite of reason, actually brings us to the ‘essence’ of hope.”6

1. See David James Fisher, Romain Rolland and the Politics of Intellectual Engagement (New Brunswick: Transaction, 2004), 292.

2. The case that the person who fails to hope for the political future is blameworthy is made in Darrel Moellendorf’s “Hope as a Political Virtue,” Philosophical Papers 35:3 (2006), 413-433. One counterargument is that hope allows people to tolerate a reality that is intolerable. Another is that hope is less a virtue than a disposition. For the latter argument, see Terry Eagleton, Hope Without Optimism (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2015).

3. Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope, trans. Neville Plaice, Stephen Plaice, and Paul Knight (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1986). In Marxism and Form (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972), Fredric Jameson answers this objection by asserting that for Bloch “hope is always thwarted, the future is always something other than what we hoped to find there” (137). He credits Bloch with rejecting the hermeneutics of suspicion and, on behalf of an unexpected future, offering “renewed access to some essential source of life” (119).

4. Talal Asad, Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), 4.

5. Nicholas H. Smith, “Analyzing Hope,” Critical Horizons: A Journal of Philosophy and Social Theory 9:1 (2008), 5-23.

6. Nicholas H. Smith, “Analyzing Hope,” 10.

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