While hope and anxiety are both directed at uncertain states of affairs, hope is considered a “positive” emotion, and anxiety a “negative” emotion. In other words, it is commonly understood that what distinguishes anxiety and hope is their valence.
Valence is thought to be an essential attribute of emotions. It is generally assumed that types of emotions, such as guilt, pride, sadness, etc., are divided between those that have a negative valence, and those that have a positive valence. This is reflected in our claims that, for instance, anger is negative, and pride is positive. Each emotion type is thought to have a valence that is either positive or negative, and that is consistent across all occurrences of that emotion. Here I will indeed be interested in “emotional valence”, that is, valence as a property of whole emotions, as opposed to a property of individual bouts of affect, appraisals, or behaviours (Colombetti, 2005).
The fact that emotions inherently carry a negative or a positive force is thought to be what imbues them with personal meaning or concern (Frijda, 1986; Lazarus, 1991). However, the nature of emotional valence is still a matter of great debate in the philosophy of emotion. Determining which property of the emotions provides them with their valence is far from obvious (Colombetti, 2005). In this paper I will presuppose an attractive and often defended view of emotional valence, which I present in this section. This view, as we will see, is motivated by the observation that valence is a fundamentally evaluative notion, that is intimately linked to the motivational nature of emotions. Without valence and its accompanying ‘charge’ or ‘force’, emotions would not “impel us to act” (Prinz, 2004, p. 128) in the specific normative direction that they do.
However, certain emotions, such as surprise and the feeling of sublime for instance, have been presented as counter-examples to the principle that each emotion is either positive or negative (Dokic & Arcangeli, 2020; Noordewier & Breugelmans, 2013). I will here examine whether we have grounds to believe that hope and anxiety might also have a valence that is more complex than what we tend to think. This intuition can already be found in folk psychological notions, and in certain expressions we commonly use to refer to the complexity and ambivalence of our emotional engagement with the future. For instance, in our everyday language, we might speak of an episode of hope as “infused with” or “tainted by” anxiety. Certain philosophers have suggested that hope does not have a fixed valence. Sabine Döring (2014, p. 124) has stated: “Sometimes hope is joyful, sometimes it is anxious; in any case it is always inspired by a feeling of confidence of a certain degree”.
Other philosophers claim that hope and anxiety may affect each other’s valence, due to the fact that our emotional engagement with uncertain events is often constituted by a mixture of both emotions. Spinoza argues that one cannot hope for an outcome without also fearing that it does not occur (Ethics III.P50). A few contemporary philosophers have continued to acknowledge the tight relationship between hope and anxiety. Averill claims that hope always involves anxiety, in the sense that: “a person cannot hope for something unless he or she also fears that the hoped-for event might not happen. Hope and fear are two sides of the same coin” (Averill, 1996, p. 36). This echoes Bovens’ claim that whenever one cares for the well-being of a loved one, one necessarily both hopes that the person be well, and fears that they won’t. Bovens (1999) states that: “hoping and fearing for the well-being of a loved one are constitutive of loving”.Footnote 4 How should we read these philosophical claims about hope and anxiety? And how should we understand these folk psychological expressions? What reasons do we have to doubt the valence of hope and anxiety? In what follows I will attempt to lay out some initial intuitive reasons, before presenting two philosophical accounts of hope and anxiety as ambivalent and unstably valenced.
As we have begun to see, hope and anxiety are different from other emotions. Hope and anxiety are not based on a belief; they are not based on a “settled” epistemic state, but on an “unsettled” epistemic state. The fact that both emotions are incompatible with one’s knowing whether or not the target state of affairs will come true distinguishes hope and anxiety from a large variety of emotions which instead require that one knows (or take oneself to know) that an event is happening or has happened. For instance, feeling sad (in an appropriate manner) requires one to believe that a loss has happened; feeling angry requires one to believe that an offense has been committed; feeling guilt requires that one believes that one has performed a wrong deed, etc. Emotions like anger, sadness, or guilt require that one takes an object or situation to be present or actual. In other words, they require that one believes the relevant facts about the particular objects of one’s emotion.
By contrast, the target objects of hope and anxiety are states of affairs that one takes to be uncertain. Hope is about a world in which I win the upcoming race, or pass my law degree next semester. Anxiety is about a world in which my medical exams show a complication, or the plane I embark on crashes, or my partner leaves me. All of these propositions express possibilities, states of the world which I take to be uncertain (that is, neither certain nor impossible). When I am sad about my bike having been stolen, I take it that it is the case that my bike has been stolen. By contrast, when I am anxious about my bike having been stolen, although I doubt that it might be the case, I do not take myself to know this. For all I know, it might or might not have been stolen. In other words, the question of the occurrence of their target event is one that is necessarily open and unresolved for the person who hopes or is anxious. How might this affect the stability of the valence of these emotions? To answer this question, we first need to say more about the nature of emotions, and about the property which emotions plausibly derive their valence from.
Philosophers commonly think that emotions are mental states which relate us to values (De Sousa, 1987; Deonna & Teroni, 2012; Goldie, 2002; Tappolet, 2016). Some philosophers believe that emotions relate us to values in virtue of being a kind of perception, or a kind of judgement, and others believe that emotions constitute sui generis evaluative attitudes which are not reducible to a kind of perception or judgement. While these theories differ in their accounts of how emotions relate us to values, they all conceive of emotions as involving a form of evaluation. Emotions are thus thought to have a twofold intentionality: they are directed at a particular object (a given situation, an event, etc.), and they apprehend this particular object as instantiating a certain evaluative property. The specific evaluative property that an emotion type makes salient or relevant in our environment or current situation is also called its formal object (Teroni, 2007). The formal object of an emotion refers to the property which the emotion as a type (i.e. “fear” or “sadness” for instance) generally tracks or responds to. Fearsomeness, funniness, and offensiveness are respectively the formal objects of fear, amusement, and anger. Each emotion type can thus be considered as a distinct type of affective evaluation in virtue of the fact that it targets a distinct formal object, i.e. a distinct evaluative property in its particular objects. Because it is the nature of emotions to relate us to evaluative properties in our environment, emotions constitute a kind of engagement with the world that is by definition not neutral. But why should emotions necessarily be bivalent states? Why should there be intrinsically positive and intrinsically negative emotions?
Valence plays a crucial psychological role in motivating intentional action, by enabling us to compare alternative courses of action on the basis of a swift signal generated by our evaluative systems (Gilbert & Wilson, 2005). Following a hedonic approach, it is widely accepted that emotions can be classified as positive or negative in virtue of their phenomenological feature, or “what it is like” to experience them (Lambie & Marcel, 2002). Carefully examining the phenomenology of some emotions, however, it is often not clear whether they are to be primarily associated with pleasure or displeasure (think of anger or surprise, for instance). Alternative attempts to classify emotions as positive or negative include considering 1) their motivational tendencies: attraction towards the object of the emotion, or aversion from it (McLean, 2008), (2) the desires and wants (to continue or stop) accompanying the emotion (Prinz, 2004), 3) the degree to which the emotion is congruent or incongruent with the subject’s goals (Lazarus, 1991).
As Carruthers points out, there are however few views of valence capable of accounting for the essential role of valence in motivation (Carruthers, 2018). The one I will favor here centrally appeals to the evaluative nature of valence. The valence of emotions, on this account, is explained by the fact that emotions are or involve the evaluation of an object as good in some particular manner, or bad in some particular manner. Indeed, it is commonly assumed that each type of emotion (such as anger, fear, sadness, etc.) is an experience of a thick valueFootnote 5 being instantiated in particular objects or situations. When we feel an emotion, what we experience is the value of that object or situation: in fear we experience the fearsomeness of the snake, in amusement we experience the funniness of the joke, in anger we experience the offensiveness of the remark (Deonna & Teroni, 2015; Tappolet, 2016). Crucially, thick values have polarity: they are either negative (the shameful, dangerous, disgusting, etc.), or positive (the funny, admirable, successful, etc.). Negative thick values are specific ways in which something can be bad (because it is shameful, or disgusting, or dangerous), and positive thick values are specific ways in which something can be good (because it is admirable, funny, or successful). And thus, the property able to explain the valence of emotions can be found in the fact that emotions are essentially defined as states which relate us to those values (Teroni, 2018). Given that values are polarized entities – they are necessarily either negative or positive – the valence of an emotion type depends on whether this emotion type has a positive or a negative thick value as its formal object.
The account can be understood in various ways, depending for instance on whether one views emotions as involving a nonconceptual perception-like representation of value, or whether one views them as nonrepresentational states. For example, fear may be seen as representing the fast approaching vehicle as fearsome, or as otherwise apprehending it as fearsome. In any case, in this view it is the fact that an emotion amounts to the experiencing of an object, situation, sensation, etc. as in some way bad, which accounts for emotional valence. On this account, the reason why valence has a psychologically fundamental role in motivating intentional action is that it presents options and situations as good, bad, better, or worse to us; that is, as more or less positively or negatively valuable (Carruthers, 2018).
The fact that emotions are experiences of value explains why emotions are associated with the hedonic states that they are. What is unpleasant or pleasant in an emotional episode of some type is the fact that it relates us to some (positive or negative) value (funniness, fearsomeness, offense, loss, etc.). Emotions draw their pleasantness and unpleasantness from the values of which they are experiences: it is because pride is essentially an experience of a positive value (success) that it has a positive valence, and it is because sadness is an experience of a negative value (loss) that it feels unpleasant (Teroni, 2018). It also explains why emotions are associated with the behavioral orientations that they are: emotions move us in the way they do because they relate us to the values (danger, offense, etc.) that they do. In sum, the valence of an emotion is constituted by the fact that this emotion either consists in an experience of a positive thick value, or of a negative thick value.
Now remember that, by contrast with emotions like pride, anger, or guilt, in the case of hope and anxiety, the values (of some event as threatening or desirable) are experienced as instantiated by states of affairs which are uncertain. Hope and anxiety are not emotions which relate us to evaluative properties of actual events, they relate us to evaluative properties of relevant possibilities (possibilities which are meaningful to us, given our desires, goals, and concerns). While anger, sadness, and guilt are ways for us to apprehend evaluative properties as being instantiated in particular objects, hope and anxiety are ways for us to apprehend that evaluative properties might be instantiated in some object. The scenarios we hope for or are anxious about are per definition scenarios which we have not seen unfold in front of our eyes. We are anxious or hopeful about outcomes which we imagine could occur. As such, hope and anxiety constitute experiences of uncertain value, as opposed to experiences of actual value.
In a similar manner, some responses to the famous paradox of horror or tragedy in aesthetics consist in claiming that fiction-directed negative emotions are in fact not experienced as negative. This, as some have claimed, is in part due to our awareness of the fictional nature of the events depicted in the artwork and at which our emotional reactions are directed. We are able to appreciate the negative emotional experiences provided by horror films and tragedies, since:
our first order affective reactions to negative, unpleasant representational content are not straightforwardly intrinsically negative, for their valence is partly dependent, amongst other things, on the awareness of non actuality (Todd, 2014, p. 21).
Our awareness of the non actuality of the events to which we react emotionally, Todd claims, impacts the valence of our emotional experience. If this is valid, then one important reason for doubting the valence of hope and anxiety is that these emotions do not take evaluative properties to have been instantiated in actuality. Hope and anxiety do not present us with an evaluation that a threat has occurred or that a desired event has come true. They are states which relate us to the possibility that these may occur.
I have here provided initial intuitive reasons why the idea that each emotion type has a fixed valence may apply well to those emotions that are based on a belief about how things are, and not so well to those emotions that are about unknown or uncertain states of affairs. In the coming sections I present two distinct ways in which this claim has been defended in the recent literature on emotion. According to the first account, anxiety is an intrinsically ambivalent emotion, as a result of involving an awareness of conflicting possibilities or ways in which the future might unfold (Miceli & Castelfranchi, 2015). According to the second, hope is not a strictly positive emotion, as certain specific occurrences of hope are negatively valenced (Stockdale, 2019). I introduce and discuss the first account in the next section.