Democratic Hope

Dr. Jakob Huber

Laufzeit des Forschungsprojekts: 07/2018 – 06/2021

In times of a prevailing sense of crisis and disorder in modern politics, there is a growing sentiment that anger and despair or at least resignation and apathy are more appropriate attitudes to navigate the world than hope. Political theorists have long shared this suspicion and shied away from theorising hope systematically: they see it as expressing a doe-eyed approach to the world that condones complacency or at least detracts from what is to be done ‘here and now’.

The aim of my project is to resist this tendency by vindicating hope as a vital component of democratic life. In making this argument, I will draw on Immanuel Kant’s account of hope. For Kant, hope is a foundational kind of state that plays an important role in our practical engagement with the world in general. In particular, hope allows us to retain our resolve to act when the odds of making a difference are dim. Hence, it is not something we take refuge with once there is nothing else left to do but it is intricately intertwined with contexts of action.

I will set out to show that hope, conceived along these lines, is particularly indispensable for democratic agents. For they often find themselves torn precisely between the democratic promise that they can make a difference on the one hand, and the seeming futility of their efforts amidst institutions and processes that are often experienced as slow and unresponsive, on the other. Active engagement in democratic practices thus requires agents to find ways of fending off despair, frustration and demoralisation in the face of their own ostensible inefficacy. This motivates my attempt to develop a systematic account of democratic hope that is sensitive to its unavoidability as much as its dangers.
My inquiry will proceed in two stages. At the first, preliminary stage, I intend to investigate the nature, objects and ends of hope more generally. Under which epistemic and practical conditions are we rationally permitted (or even required) to hope, and at which point does our fixation on the hoped-for outcome slide into wishful thinking? What may we hope for, or can “radical hope” even be objectless? Is the significance of hope merely instrumental and, if so, why should we prefer it to darker ‘futural’ orientations such as pessimism or fear (that may be just as efficacious in motivating action)? And how precisely does it relate to other ‘aspirational’ attitudes such as optimism, confidence, or expectation?

At the second, main stage of my project, I will turn to the role of hope specifically in democratic life. Here, I will zoom in on three questions. First, in order to see why democratic agents must hope, I shall identify the structural features of democratic practices and institutions that make citizens particularly vulnerable to despair and resignation in the pursuit of their goals (such that hope is required), but also reflect on those that make them particular prone to hubris and wishful thinking. Second, I will ask under which conditions democratic agents can hope. For instance, can we hope under circumstance of severe injustice or if we deeply mistrust our fellow citizens? Third, I will investigate the effects of hope on social and political relations. Are hoping agents (as often suggested by political theorists) really bound to be ineffectual in bringing about positive change (when they are paralyzed in anticipation of a desired future while the present falls apart) or even dangerous (when they become too fixated on hoped-for outcomes), or can hope contribute to healthy political relations? What are the conditions for the emergence of “collective hopes” around which a political community as a whole can organise their joint political efforts? And are hopeful agents able to shift the limits of practical possibility by retaining their resolve to pursue distant and ambitious ends?

As already mentioned, my take on these questions will be informed by Kant’s account of hope. There is little doubt that hope plays a prominent if not central role in Kant’s wider philosophical thinking; famously, What may I hope? is designated as one of the three questions central to human reason. Surprisingly, however, there is little agreement in the literature just why we must hope according to Kant, or what precisely it is that we are doing when we entertain hopes. Alongside the substantive normative focus of my project, I will thus also have to engage in some interpretive work aimed at distilling the ideas upon which I build my own framework.

The aim of my project is to bring into conversation ongoing debates about hope in analytic philosophy with an emerging literature on the role of hope in politics as well as recent Kant-inspired arguments for practical (i.e., non-evidential) reasons for belief. The monograph it is intended to lead to will appeal not only to political theorists (particular those with interests in democratic theory and processes of social change and transformation) but a wide array of philosophers working at the intersection of epistemology, ethics, and moral psychology.


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