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Markus Gabriel on Hope and Reason

What is hope to you?

Hope is the imagination of a better future that ideally guides action in the present. Hope is a particular form of temporal extension of our current expectations into the future. And then we return to the present.

Is hope real?

Hope can be very powerful. What we do as humans is always a reflection of how we think about ourselves. Humans are the kinds of animals who live in accordance with how we conceive of ourselves as individuals and as a collective. The various layers of identity, individual, collective and human, all exist in a projection towards the future. We will never do anything without imagining the alternative.

What does this mean in the face of climate change? What can we hope for?

In order to solve the climate crisis, we need different narratives that extend well beyond the present moment. No person who is currently alive will see a relevant change in human behavior with respect to climate change. We will not see things getting better, which means that we need to extend our temporality to historical horizons, way beyond the existence of everyone who is currently alive.

What is the relationship between hope and reason?

Hope is based on reason. Rationality, our emotions and our capacities for imagination are connected. Reason is not a cold exercise in our capacity to solve mathematical equations. Reason is not opposite to human, mental life. If it were, morality in response to the concerns of others would not exist.

And what is the relationship between hope and knowledge?

Even though I am a philosopher, I think that knowledge in a certain sense is overestimated in discussions about our current climate crisis and other crises. We know all sorts of things, but that doesn't change anything. The fact that we know something is not as such action-guiding.

We need places, even institutions, of hope. Maybe even a ministry of hope.

Is philosophy a place to create hope?

I practice philosophy of the future, which is something that existed in the past. Feuerbach coined the phrase and Nietzsche took it over. We need a serious future-directed philosophy, a philosophy of change. I see myself philosophically in the traditions of Ernst Bloch and Schelling, on whom Bloch drew. Schelling was the first philosopher who – as early as the 1830s – told us that it is the future, not the present, that is the paradigm of time. I think this is the origin of a lot of philosophy of hope.

There is the need, you say, for a quantum leap in philosophy. This happened with scientific knowledge and industrial production, but has not found its equivalent in thinking.

Absolutely. Philosophy has been looking backwards, as Hegel famously said of the owl of Minerva. This holds true from Aristotle to Hegel and beyond. We need a philosophy that is not afraid of the new. People suspect the fault lies in what is new. Philosophers are really scared of innovation, of novelty in general. I am the opposite. I am very happy with the idea that we need to achieve something new. It would be a quantum leap to think of philosophy as a value driven exploration of the future.

Is the new always new?

Oh, no. I think the so-called Middle Ages were radically innovative, being radically exposed to constant disaster and so forth. Modern thinking is flat, right? We think that mere scientific progress will solve our issues. And whenever there’s a perturbance, a virus, a pandemic or whatever, we get incredibly nervous because we thought that we had figured things out. But the repetition of the same is not going to lead to the kind of breakthroughs that we need, especially when it comes to the climate crisis.

How does hope translate into action?

Hope is a much better action-guiding model for humans than fear. For the climate crisis, we need to create scenarios of hope. A lot of the irrationality in this current highly critical situation is precisely a consequence of a lack of hope. We need places, even institutions, of hope. Maybe even a ministry of hope.

Hope as an essential part of a renewed democracy?

Indeed. Currently, the democratic public sphere is mostly driven by mutual critique, among parties or individuals. Critique is fine. We need critique. But critique doesn’t solve any issues, it just points out which issues are not solved. We need a discourse of hope and friendship. What Derrida called a politics of friendship. We need places, even institutions, of hope. Maybe even a ministry of hope.

Do we need a new vocabulary for democracy?

That would be a good idea. It reminds me of what Jonathan Lear called “radical hope”. Change happens if our collective imagination changes. Crucially, we must have the right hope for the right kind of change. And that means that hope and certain values need to go together. For this we need knowledge from different disciplines.

Are the moral facts in your philosophical system connected to hope?

Hope should be in line with moral facts. We need an additional layer of normativity, and this comes from moral facts – some of which are obvious and some of which are more hidden. Take the Taliban, for example, who prohibit female children from attending school. So, if someone were to hope for the return of the Taliban, as has just occured, this hope would not be in line with moral facts. And the discovery of hidden moral facts leads to an improvement of the structure of society.

Could you finish this sentence: for me, this is personal because –

it concerns my family.


MARKUS GABRIEL is an internationally acclaimed philosopher of the New Realism school of thought. At the age of 29, he became Germany’s youngest philosophy professor. He holds the Chair for Epistemology, Modern and Contemporary Philosophy at the University of Bonn where he is also the Director of the International Centre for Philosophy. His publications include studies of German philosopher Schelling, skepticism in German Idealism, the Philosophy of Mind and most recently a concept for Enlightenment in dark times. At THE NEW INSTITUTE, he is director of the programme “The Foundations of Value and Values”.


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