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Escaping the Whirlpool: The Role of Hope in Philosophy

6:00:00 AMHannah Bruckner


“Yesterday’s meditation has thrown me into such doubts that I can no longer ignore them, yet I fail to see how they are to be resolved. It is as if I had suddenly fallen into a deep whirlpool; I am so tossed about that I can neither touch the bottom with my foot, nor swim up to the top.”
– Rene Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, Meditation Two
What is so attractive to me about phenomenology right now is how tangible and real it tastes – it seems genuine; and with personalism thrown into the mix with phenomenologist thinkers such as Hildebrand and Stein, the resulting philosophy seems to breathe right off of the paper with a life of its own, echoing back the fundamental truths of reality to which it corresponds and reflects. It is a philosophy dealing with what is really real, and the more that I read, the more I find myself able to engage the real world around me with more clarity than before.
Sometimes it feels like I had blurred vision my whole life until now.
This is the hope that must go hand in hand with philosophy; all true philosophy must be a quest to know what is real, what is true. What would be the point of trying to “know” something that isn’t even real?  Would that even be possible? The quest for knowing must be an optimistic one; an adventure in which the mind intentionally seeks to grasp at the essence of things, and to come away from the grasping with a fistful of experiences that tell us something about reality.
What used to irritate me so much about philosophy (and kept me from truly entering into it for the longest time) were my encounters with the philosophies that seemed impractical and clumsy – the ones which made living seem like more of a chore, or a complicated puzzle to be solved, rather than a natural unfolding as it happens to the human person. I was aggravated by the ability of so many philosophers to think themselves into a vacuum or a black hole, only to emerge despairing, with their once youthful zeal for life completely destroyed. Philosophy, to some, can become the whirlpool described by Descartes; how do I know that I know that I know that I know anything? Perhaps nothing can be known. But upon stumbling across phenomenology and the Hildebrand Project, I discovered a philosophy of hope.


The philosopher must reject any and all occasions of despair. There is no room for despair in the heart of one who is seeking after wisdom, for to despair is to deny “that anything in reality is worthy of credit” (Stanford). If reality is ultimately meaningless, then philosophy in itself is a complete and utter waste of time. The only thing that would make sense in a senseless reality is hedonism – which, as one can learn (rather quickly) through experience, ends in even greater despair.
Hope, on the other hand, “affirms that reality will ultimately prove worthy of an infinite credit” (Ibid.). Hope is what causes my interest to be piqued, my mind to come up with questions, my heart to race when it appears that I have stumbled upon an answer. Hope is the guarantee that my search for whatever it is that I am looking for will not be fruitless – when I am grasping for reality, I never come away empty-handed.
This is the hope found in phenomenology.
It is a challenge to experience life with as much color and sound and aroma as I can find.
It is a challenge to live.
Life as experienced by the human person is rich and complex. Phenomenology is a reflection on life as experienced by the person in many different aspects, “ranging from perception, thought, memory, imagination, emotion, desire, and volition to bodily awareness, embodied action, and social activity, including linguistic activity” (Stanford). Among a nearly infinite number of things to be touched and grasped through rich life experience, there is no room for despair.  Despair imprisons us within ourselves, creating a whirlpool of destructive and depressing thoughts; hope frees us to grasp at the world outside of ourselves in order to come to reality and relate with other persons. Despair creates an illusory world of deceptiveness and half-truths. Hope serves as a mediator between the human person and reality. Hope encourages us to experience, and experience gives us direct intuition into reality. We can become intimately acquainted with the essences of things by having rich and profound experiences of them. But if our philosophy leads to despair, then we cut ourselves off from the things around us and turn inwards. The despairing person does not allow for things in themselves to speak; he silences the world around him in order to be distracted by his obsessiveness with his own inner, meaningless noise.
As a human being, I am situated in reality.  I am ordained to the real.  And in this ordination, I must make it my task to live, and live well.
Do not despair.  

There is a whole world out there, waiting to speak to you, to communicate itself and its truths to you.  

Have hope, and reach.



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