Cultural devastation vs. cultural collapse: First thoughts on Radical Hope

Suppose we were to think about a people’s way of life’s going out of existence. What sort of hope, Jonathan Lear asks in his short book Radical Hope, could a people have for a life well-lived going otherwise?

In his brief comments on Lear’s book, the insightful Heideggerian philosopher Hubert Dreyfus points to a confusion in the argument.

[In the following comments, Dreyfus writes,] I address an uncertainty in Lear’s book, reflected in a wavering over the difference between a culture’s way of life becoming impossible and its way of life becoming unintelligible. At his best, Lear asks the radical ontological question [regarding unintelligibility]: when the cultural collapse is such that the old way of life has become not only impossible but retroactively unimaginable,––when nothing one can do (or did) makes sense anymore,––how can one go on?

That is a fine way of putting the distinction and the question. Further on, Dreyfus lines up impossibility with devastation and collapse with unintelligibility:

But there seems some uncertainty in Lear’s book as to how total the annihilation was. This is reflected in a wavering over the difference between a culture’s way of life becoming impossible and its way of life becoming unintelligible––I will call this the difference between cultural devastation and cultural collapse. A dramatic case of finding a way of life impossible would be losing the person you love; whereas a case of unintelligibility would be falling out of love and so finding it incomprehensible that you ever found the person you once loved loveable. [The latter example is akin to cultural collapse.] Since the old practices still make sense, the victims of the first type of case risks succumbing to nostalgia––it was so great being together, if only I could get her back;––whereas the second type of case would make getting the loved one back an embarrassment.

The basic thought is that history presents us with an ample number of cases in which a culture’s way of life becomes impossible (or, more narrowly, certain practices become impossible) without its also being true that it ceases to be able to make sense of that way of life. More special, rare, and revelatory are those times when a way is life becomes utterly, thoroughgoingly incomprehensible. And once a culture collapses, failing any longer to make sense of itself in the terms with which it was so used to doing, Dreyfus then argues–rightly, in my view–that fanaticism and nihilism are dangerous and likely offshoots. He wonders whether there is a way for a people to go on, to make novel, fresh sense of their lives in a different light, without becoming fanatics and without giving up entirely on the project in an expression of nihilistic despair.

Now the stage is set for Lear’s philosophical question: is there any sense to be made of the claim of ‘radical hope’ when we can no longer conceive of any way of life that is the object of our hope?

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