Hope’s reputation is so good, it’s bad. People hear the word and dismiss it as Hallmark, doe-eyed, emotional fluff. But hoping is not the same as dreaming or wishing: it is constrained by rationality, and unlike fantasy the possibility has to exist, even if the odds are slim. As Professor Andrew Chignell explains: you can wish the weather had been nicer yesterday, but you can’t hope it. Hope is a spectrum of how you react to possibility, and it runs all the way to despair. Here, Chignell explains his latest research in philosophy, mindfulness, and uses The Shawshank Redemption to illustrate how closely hope and despair are related. This video is part of a collaborative series with the Hope & Optimism initiative, which has supported interdisciplinary academic research into under-explored aspects of hope and optimism. Discover more at .
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Transcript: When you start talking about hope some people think it’s immediately a kind of Pollyanna-ish thing. Like: “Oh, I should be hopeful,” or it’s kind of a greeting card sentiment. You go kind of doe-eyed and start thinking soft thoughts about how we should all be hopeful in one another. And, of course, there are some important things to be said in favor of those kinds of things, but we think of hope as also an extremely difficult and important and foundational sort of state that can be discussed in ways that aren’t so saccharine.
One of the interesting things that philosophers talk about with respect to hope is, of course, its rationality. So there’s a sense in which you can’t hope for everything. You can wish for lots of things for which you can’t hope. I can wish that the Bears won the Super Bowl last year, but I can’t hope that they won the Super Bowl last year because we know that they didn’t. And so it seems almost like you’re misusing the word to say, “I hope that they won last year.” Or, “I hope that the weather was different yesterday than it was.” So there’s a kind of semantic content that suggests that there are rationality constraints on hope which philosophers try to look at and analyze.
There’s a kind of orthodox account—people call it the orthodox account because most people share it—that says that hope involves at least desiring something and believing that it’s possible. So in this case you wouldn’t believe that the weather yesterday could be different than it was and so you wouldn’t believe that’s possible, and so you can’t really hope for it. So that’s that condition that’s constraining the rationality of hope. And then there’s this kind of debate about what further conditions might be required.
One thought experiment that people have discussed frequently is that of ‘The Shawshank Redemption’. So this is a Stephen King short story that was turned into a film. You have two characters, Andy and Red. Both of them really desire something: to get out of prison. Both of them regard it as possible, it’s explicit in the story and in the film, but somehow one character, Andy, is hopeful and says he’s hopeful and that he’s acting in such a way as to make it come about even if he thinks it’s extremely unlikely. And the other character, Red, says he can’t allow himself to hope. The fear of disappointment is too great and will crush him. So they both meet those conditions. It’s something they really desire and it’s something they believe to be possible, and yet one hopes and the other despairs.
So cases like this make people think we need some other kind of condition to really explain the difference between hope and despair. And that’s where some of the debate is at the moment, trying to find this elusive third condition. And different people have different things they want to add to the orthodox conception. My own favored approach, which I’m in the middle of writing up, is what I call the focus or attention account of hope. So it basically says something like the difference between hope and despair is the extent to which you’re focusing on the very slim odds of the thing coming about or whether you’re focusing on the fact that it’s possible—or that you take it to be possible.