Lea Ypi on Hope and Agency

What is hope to you?

Hope is an attitude, somewhere between a desire and a belief; a desire for a certain outcome and a belief that the outcome will be favorable. Hope in the individual is a kind of passion.

Is hope a good thing or a bad thing?

In the myth of Pandora, she opens the box and everything escapes: envy, anger, all passions basically. They are all out in the world. The one that stays in the box is hope. Does that mean that hope is something that needs to be kept from humans? That the ancient Greeks thought that hope is a bad thing? Or does it mean that it is actually a good thing? That it stays in the box because it is a mere promise of another world, of change, and that it should remain isolated from humans?

The question is: is hope a revolutionary power or a force to protect the status quo?

We can think of negative hope, which we would call illusion. On the other hand, if humans should not have access to hope, it might be because it opens up different horizons for them. Overall, it seems that the Greeks thought hope was more of a bad thing. That thinking really changes with Christianity, with Augustine and Aquinas – they talk about hope as the comfort that comes from God. That turns hope into a good thing.

Something that supports stability.

Exactly. In the Catholic dimension, hope is connected to salvation or the intervention of God, in a transcendent way, which separates hope from agency. I am more interested in the way in which Kant talks about hope because for him it is connected to the individual – something the individual needs to believe, a motivational set of attitudes that goes with their disposition to act in a certain way.

All the decisions about climate change need to be grounded in the assumption that there is a possibility for agency.

What about hope as a collective force?

What we call hope on an individual level we call progress on a collective level. When we think about collective agency, we think about what possibilities there are for reason. In Kant’s terms: the fact that you act in a certain way produces certain outcomes, and these outcomes confirm certain attitudes towards the future. What I like about Kant is that he talks about a duty to hope and a connection to hope as a rational expectation that comes with a certain understanding of human agency.

What is the connection between Kant and Marx in terms of hope?

I think of hope as the connection that bridges the idealistic Kantian tradition and the materialistic Marxist tradition. Hope is a way of inserting agency into expectations of the future, so it is not just a mechanism independent from human will. In connection to Marxism, hope allows us to think about the socialist tradition in a way that is centred on the subject as much as on the historical forces that transcend the subject – change that is not only driven by technology or natural evolution.

Hope is Marx plus agency?

Marxism gives you a theory of what’s wrong with the society in which you live and how you can make sense of change – the problem is that it offers only a diagnostic component, there is a lack of a prescriptive side to Marxism: what should you do? How should you overcome injustice? How should you overcome the status quo? Hope is a way of reconciling larger than human forces that lead to inaction with the necessity of remaining centered on the individual.

Did Kant think about struggle, emancipation or an enemy when he was talking about hope?

Oh yes. He didn’t name his enemy like Marx did. His problem was with evil. This connects his thought on hope to the theological tradition: you have human agency and you have free will, but you also know that this will can be corrupted by external circumstances – corrupted because of an innate tendency to evil. Kant says that we have good motives and bad motives, and they are always struggling with each other and within each human being. The question is: what guarantees are there that the bad motive will not prevail over the good motive?

Hope helps the good to prevail?

In Marx, as in Rousseau, you have empirical historical circumstances that exacerbate the evil tendencies: societies in which envy and competitive rivalry create particular historical and social forces that make humans act immorally. You need to enable humans to overcome these tendencies together. Kant called this the ethical community. The Marxist tradition reinterprets that to give you a more sociological story of class struggle. But the route is similar. And hope is important in both cases; it is connected to action motivated by a certain vision of the future.

Hope creates a future?

A vision of the future enables you to act in a certain way in the present, and by acting in a certain way in the present, you are already making that vision of the future happen.

Materialistic realities and moral visions battling it out?

The humanistic and the materialistic interpretation are both in Marx. It is a story about the social forces and a very strong moral story about what the human species is. One gives you an empirical description of capitalism, it’s contradictions, and why we currently live under oppression. But when Marx says that capitalism is alienating, you need to have a conception of flourishing or of human nature in order to talk about the alienation of humans from that nature.

Where is hope situated today?

Hope is partly connected to the question of progress. You need to identify, first of all, certain moral priorities vis-à-vis the political system in which you live. This level of analysis motivates a social and political critique of the system: to be able to see the gap between what you have and what you would like to have. On another level you need to look at the learning processes that help you establish movements in the present.

How does climate change affect the concept of hope?

Climate change is a fundamental challenge and a catalyser for action. In some ways, it empowers you because you realise that it is about humanity – this is the subject here, it is the world as a whole, the unit of concern. Climate change is really good for mobilising, but only if you also realise the promises of engaging with nature and not thinking of yourself as a victim of nature. All the decisions about climate change need to be grounded in the assumption that there is a possibility for agency.

The opposite of fatalism.

The fact that something needs to be done means that something can be done. It means it is in your power to do it. And if it is in your power to do it, then you can’t be like a stone or a bird or like an animal. There is something to you that is fundamentally different from these other elements of nature. And that needs to be recovered to engage with nature in the right way. I think it is important to have a human centred perspective – because if you lose that, you lose the sense of freedom and perspective and agency. Then you actually can’t do anything about nature either.

Can you complete this sentence: for me, this is personal because –

I have a duty to be hopeful.

LEA YPI is a political philosopher whose research centres on issues of global justice, normative political theory and the philosophy of the Enlightenment. As a prominent left-wing voice in Europe, she specialises in Kant and Marx. Ypi’s latest book Free, a political memoir about growing up in communist Albania and about the transition to liberalism, was published in October 2021 to broad public acclaim. At THE NEW INSTITUTE, Ypi is a fellow in the program “The Future of Democracy”.

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