One of the main strengths of philosophers is in conceptual analysis and making distinctions. Among other things, this involves painstakingly examining an issue or a concept piece by piece. “Sometimes annoyingly so,” jokes Andrew Chignell, Philosophy, whose latest topic of interest is hope.
Hope permeates our lives. It’s such a ubiquitous attitude that you’ve likely employed it more than once today. But how do researchers study an ambiguous subject like hope? Here are a few ideas: through historical research, analysis of linguistic phenomena and philosophical arguments, extensive fieldwork, and thought and social experiments.
Hope: Fusing the Humanities and Social Sciences
Chignell leads an interdisciplinary research project as the co-primary investigator on "Hope and Optimism: Conceptual and Empirical Investigations," a three-year $4.8 million initiative that started during the summer of 2014 with funding from the John Templeton Foundation, the University of Notre Dame, and Cornell. Thus far, Chignell has mainly approached hope through his longtime study of the 18th Century German philosopher Immanuel Kant, he says that he’s excited about the new work that researchers in the humanities and the social sciences will produce together.
“The relationship between a Kantian or Marxist theory of hope and a contemporary psychologist’s theory of hope may not be obvious, but usually there is some useful connection to make, if you look closely,” says Chignell. “We’re hoping—see, hoping—that having people who are uninterested in the history of ideas collaborating with people who are interested will be productive.”
Despite its pervasiveness, hope has been understudied in philosophy, explains Chignell. Philosophers have thoroughly discussed two of Kant’s three famous questions: "what can I know?" "what should I to do?" but "what may I hope? is far less explored. This is, in part, because most people assume that Kant is talking about faith, Chignell says.
Chignell continues, “When he actually discusses hope, Kant has a sophisticated theory of what it is, when it’s rational and when it’s irrational, and how it relates to our assumptions about what is possible and impossible. For Kant, some of hope’s objects are indeed otherworldly -- like God, the afterlife, and so on. But there is also an important account of hope for the progress of the species and the future of rationality as a whole.”
A member of Hope and Optimism’s advisory board, Hirokazu Miyazaki, Anthropology, says that hope remained largely at the margin of social sciences research until a decade ago. Its study emerged out of two events—the collapse of the Soviet Union and the growing debate about opportunities for youth, Miyazaki explains. Progressive social theorists lost hope in alternatives to global capitalism, and unrelatedly, youth lost hope because of the economic downturn in several industrialized countries.
In this climate, Miyazaki began the thesis of his first book, The Method of Hope, published in 2004, in which he examines how the Suvavao people of Fiji maintained hope of regaining ancestral land even after more than 100 years of failing to do so.
More recently, Miyazaki followed Japanese financial workers in his second book, Arbitraging Japan: Dreams of Capitalism at the End of Finance, which was published in 2013. In it, Miyazaki examines how the workers’ hopeful visions affected their careers during Japan’s economic slump. He also worked on collaborative projects with the University of Tokyo and Cornell faculty Richard Swedberg, Sociology, on how hope is regained and lost. As a result, Miyazaki and Swedberg co-edited a book, The Economy of Hope, forthcoming in 2016.
“Many chapters in the book point to hope as a willingness to embrace uncertainty or ambiguity,” Miyazaki says. “You still have a sense of direction, but you have to reorient yourself to the future, knowing that the future is not clear. But that’s okay.”
Miyazaki says that he sees hope as less about wanting to achieve or gain something and more about “how we can continue to do what we do.” In this sense, everything—life itself—relates to hope. Miyazaki will also teach a class in Spring 2016 titled Hope and Futurity that will cover these topics (ANTHR 4423/7425).
The Different Kinds of Hope
Chignell talks about understanding the varieties of hope; “Can we be clearer about the different kinds of hope that people have, use, and talk about?” he asks. “It seems there might be a spectrum with two very different kinds of hope at each end.”
On one end is facile hope—the hope you have when buying a lottery ticket, he explains. It consists in the desire for something to happen and perhaps the belief that it’s possible, but you don’t structure your life around this kind of hope. On the other end of the spectrum is what Chignell calls robust hope, where a person not only believes something to be possible and wants it to occur, but also takes decisive actions because of it.
“What is this robust notion of hope that motivates action—political action, speech, and religious action—but doesn’t really amount to faith?” Chignell asks. “I’d like to understand the contours of this better and think about whether it’s sufficient for robust kinds of relationships or practices.” As Chignell works on a book, What May I Hope? Answers to a Kantian Question, forthcoming in 2016 as part of the Kant's Five Questions series from Routledge, he asks questions like these about hope.
Attributes of Hope
In addition to more clearly defining our various concepts of hope, Chignell says he wants to work with social scientists to see if measures could be developed that reveal correlations between hope and emotional and physical traits, such as being less likely to be depressed or living a longer life.
While learning from empirical research, Chignell hopes that philosophers can contribute to current social science work as well. One area in which psychologists have already written about hope is nursing science. The field poses interesting questions for philosophical inquiry: What is hope when you’re dying? At what is that hope directed? If it’s not the afterlife, then why are people hopeful? Is hope in the face of something highly improbable, for example, a one-percent survival rate, rational?
Miyazaki agrees that approaching hope with an interdisciplinary lens is compelling, given that hope is foundational to existence.
“We are not always able to retain our professional scaffolding when having conversations about hope,” he says. “Conversations can become very personal but also interdisciplinary in a very particular way, because hope is an inherently reflexive subject. Studying hope really demands that you put yourself at risk, and that’s exciting.”
Around the late 1990s and early 2000s, popular Japanese novelist Ryu Murakami wrote about the lack of hope in Japan. “That really resonated with my sense of the country in which I grew up,” Miyazaki says. “I left Japan in the midst of the economic bubble, but even then I didn’t see any hope. I had a personal interest in understanding why many of us shared this loss of hope.”
Miyazaki says that he sees hope as less about wanting to achieve or gain something and more about “how we can continue to do what we do.” In this sense, everything—life itself—relates to hope.
Chignell, growing up in a religious, doctrinally-serious family, later questioned whether and why he should believe what he was taught. “I’m motivated in part to look at these issues by curiosity about whether there’s an authentic religious mode of being or religious stance that involves hope rather than faith,” he says. “Hope, if it’s this robust kind, could accompany a certain kind of agnosticism about these big questions, the transcendent, that might feel intellectually honest and still substantive.”
What’s clear is that there’s much more ground to cover when studying hope, and its applications are plentiful.
Miyazaki’s next book, written with Annalisa Riles, Law, applies his theory of hope to academic and professional life. It will offer methods in which professionals can reorient and retool themselves toward hope in relation to their work.
The Hope and Optimism Project
The Hope and Optimism Project funds research projects through 2017. Its focus is philosophy, philosophy of religion, and the social sciences, with the goal of generating new work in conceptual, empirical, and practical understandings of the two subjects. The project will also run playwriting and video competitions for creative work engaging hope and optimism. Selection committees will award prizes to the winning videos and the first-place play. The grant will also fund the professional development and production of the winning play, which will premiere in Ithaca and then in Los Angeles during spring 2017.
The project will not only further the study of hope but also encourage collaborative work at Cornell and beyond.
“I’m enthusiastic about the idea of bringing the social sciences and humanities at Cornell together a bit more, not just in this project but in general,” Chignell says. “I think that social scientists and some of the more cognitive (as opposed to literary or postmodern) humanities people would work well together and profit from more interaction. We don’t want to force interdisciplinarity, but my hope is that this project will encourage it in a natural way.”