On Radical Hope by Jonathan Lear — Part 1

This post is the first in a series looking at Jonathan Lear’s Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation.

Crow Winter Camp

Jonathan Lear describes his book Radical Hope as a work of “philosophical anthropology”. Like an anthropologist, he is interested in what happened to the Crow tribe when they were moved onto reservations and their traditional way of life came to an end. Unlike an anthropologist, however, Lear is also concerned with the larger questions entailed by the possibility that a way of life could come to an end. One such question is ethical in nature: how should one live in relation to the prospect that one’s way of life may come to an end? Another such question is ontological, in the sense that it concerns the nature of that being for whom such a thing is possible.

This ontological dimension was intimated by something the last Crow chief, Plenty Coups, said when describing the end of his tribe’s traditional way of life. In recounting his life story, Plenty Coups described the period when his people moved onto the reservation this way: “But when the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened.” Lear admits that he cannot know precisely what Plenty Coups meant when he said “nothing happened.” Was Plenty Coups depressed? (Lear notes in passing that the rest of Plenty Coups’ life certainly does not seem to be that of a depressed person.) Does he mean that his tribe could no longer go on living according to the traditional ways? These are plausible interpretations of what Plenty Coup might have meant. But Lear wants to pursue the possibility that something deeper was being communicated by Plenty Coups’ remark. He asks: “What if it gave expression to an insight into the structure of temporality: that at a certain point things stopped happening? What would he have meant if he meant that?” The implication here is that our sense of time, of things happening and our understanding of what happens, are bound up with a particular way of life. When that way of life comes to end, the intelligibility of our world also collapses; for us, it is as if nothing more happens because nothing can make sense outside of that way of life.

For Lear, Plenty Coups’ remark points to “a particular form of human vulnerability”; a vulnerability we all share by virtue of being human. It is an ontological vulnerability because it concerns our particular way of being in relation to the world and to time. In posing the issue in these terms, Lear acknowledges a debt to the German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889–1976). In his book Being and Time, Heidegger presented human existence as fundamentally concerned with making sense of the world in terms of its meaningful possibilities. Everyday objects, for example, are intelligible to us primarily through the way they express specific possibilities for their use: a hammer for hammering nails, a lectern for placing lecture notes on, etc. These possibilities are not infinite — the range of possibilities is determined by the specific culture and society we grew up in and in which we live of our lives. What is significant about Heidegger’s account in this context is that culture and social life are not things which come after or exist alongside our relation to objects, but instead are the very medium through which objects become intelligible to us at all.

It is in this light that Lear reflects on the simple act of cooking a meal. Cooking is common to all human societies, but the meaning which the act of cooking a meal has for each of us depends on the culture and society in which the action is embedded. For the Crow, whose traditional way of life revolved around hunting and fighting, the intelligibility of cooking a meal would have depended upon its relation to the possibilities of hunting and fighting. With the collapse of their traditional way of life, cooking a meal could no longer be made sense of in those terms. Of course, the Crow could make sense of it otherwise in relation to the way of life which followed. But to someone bearing witness, as Lear puts it, to the demise of the traditional way of life, it is as if the act of cooking no longer counted as an intelligible act at all. And without the meaningfulness of cultural objects like the coup stick used by the Crow in battle, or of everyday acts like cooking in preparation for a hunt, there is no longer any socially meaningfully way for the Crow to mark time. The Crow “ran out of whens,” as Lear puts it, “all Crow temporality had fitted within these categories — everything that happened could be understood in these terms — and thus it seems fair to say that the Crow ran out of time.” It is this possibility, peculiar to human beings as cultural creatures, that Lear seeks to understand when reflecting on the fate of the Crow people.