laps name lilies

AS/POLS 2900.6A
  Perspectives on Politics

January 4 – Hobbes: Science and the Break with Tradition

Machiavelli performs a good part of the work of destruction, but it is left to others to build up a substantial body of theory that might offer an adequate philosophical substitute for the classical and medieval traditions.  Thomas Hobbes is the first and greatest of these theorists of classical liberalism. Although Hobbes, because of his insistence on a strong central authority or because of his commitment to metaphysical materialism, is sometimes only accepted reluctantly by contemporary liberalism as a liberal, it is important to keep in mind that the term liberalism only came into use in the European world after about 1830, at around the time when a new strain of liberalism, liberal-democracy or “reform liberalism” came upon the scene. The most important representative of reform liberalism to date is John Stuart Mill, who we will look at at the end of the course.  Hobbes has also been called by many the most important political theorist of modern times. This is, of course, open to dispute, but nearly everyone would agree that his writings are of central importance to the subsequent development of modern political thought. In Hobbes, Machiavelli’s general theory becomes explicit, systematic and rigorous, even though Hobbes does not take it in the republican direction that Machiavelli followed.

Like Machiavelli, if not like most political thinkers of great importance, Hobbes was also involved, if at some distance, with the political problems of his times. His works were written between 1640 and 1679, that is in the period just before and during the English Civil War and up through the Restoration of the monarchy.  Hobbes was writing, then, not only during a time of chronic and chronically incipient civil war, but also during a time when authority of many kinds was increasingly being brought into question. The problem, as Hobbes saw it, the central problem facing political theory was to find a basis for political authority that was so evidently, obviously and compellingly reasonable, that everyone would have to agree to it. A stable and enduring state would then be able to arise on this basis.

Because of this goal, Hobbes attempted not to take sides during the English Civil War. But this attempt at neutrality failed in that it contributed to the suspicion and mistrust in which he was regarded by both sides, the Parliamentary and the Monarchical. Each side believed that his doctrine supported the other side. Although, in Leviathan, Hobbes argues for the establishment of an absolute and self-perpetuating sovereign power in the state, from the Monarchist position he does so for all the wrong reasons. His Sovereign does not even need necessarily to be a single individual of high noble birth; it is at least theoretically possible that it be an elected democratic assembly (although that is not the form Hobbes would favour). On the other hand, the absolutist bent of his theorizing was enough for the Parliamentary side to reject him, in spite of the fact that he vigorously and thoroughly rejects all traditionalistic and traditional arguments for absolutist authority.

So, misunderstood and somewhat feared by both sides, Hobbes did not have an easy time of it. For example, when he chose to leave England after the fall of the monarchy. He went to France, where the English King Charles II had gone into exile. But after the publication of Leviathan in 1651, he was hounded out of France by Charles II’s court. Not only the warring political factions of Hobbes’s day, but also most political thinkers regarded Hobbes as a subversive. They felt this way because Hobbes, in the first place, based political obligation on the independent will of each individual. This implies that political obligation cannot be rightfully imposed from the exterior. Secondly, Hobbes thought of the individual will as being purely a reflection of an individual’s psychological and physical appetites. There was no higher moral will that could account for the political obligation an individual recognized. All of this was revolutionary from the point of view of the older traditions of natural law and natural right. These traditions, heavily informed by Greek and Christian thought, held that moral principles were inherent in the universe or were divinely revealed. Hobbes’s thinking also went against the jurisprudential traditions that looked for a basis for right in historical precedent.

It wasn’t so much the extreme individualism (in the ontological sense of individualism that we’re now familiar with) that was offensive to so many of Hobbes contemporaries and immediate successors; it was the apparently a-moral mechanism that Hobbes saw as the essence of the human being. Nor was it so much the social content of his thinking that gave offense, but the notion of a self-perpetuating sovereign.

But for Hobbes, as with Machiavelli, the traditional theories were inadequate because they had not thoroughly and carefully enough examined the actual needs and capacities of individual human beings. They had never brought to bear the resources of the new post-Aristotelian natural science on the examination of what it was that actually determined the human will. Here Hobbes is definitely following in Machiavelli’s footsteps. Political theory, to be worthy at all of the title of knowledge, had to be based upon an objective analysis of cold, hard facts. If stability, peace and order depended upon a general sense of obligation, the basis for that obligation could only dependably be found  in the scientific analysis of the facts concerning human needs and powers, without traditional illusions about the nature of morality. Hobbes also believed – and here he went further than Machiavelli – that moral principles could be derived from fact, that morality and principles of obligation could be made a science like the science of mechanics developed by Galileo, that morality could be reduced to the logic of matter in motion.

So Hobbes bases everything on science because science is supposed to give us certainty and because peace, security and order have to be based on the certainty in  individual minds that the commands issuing from the chief of state are legitimate and must be obeyed. His is the first example of a social science that strives to be equal to physical science or even mathematical science in certainty. Behind this quest for certainty is the assumption of permanently incipient chaos, disorder and conflict that Hobbes would come to describe as a war of each against all in the state of nature, a condition in which human life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

But Hobbes’s understanding of science is not exactly the same as our own later view of it. He takes his model of scientific explanation from the pioneers of 17th century modern natural scientific method, especially from Galileo as the founder of modern mathematical physics. Hobbes is also very much fascinated by the certainty displayed by geometry.  The general method developed by natural science in the 17th century was and is known as the “resolutive-compositive method”. This method can be described as having two stages, each of which includes a number of smaller steps.

In the first stage, the resolutive stage, the investigator starts by assuming that the phenomenon to be explained is a compound effect of several simple forces (whether that phenomenon is the acceleration of falling bodies or the potential of human society for order). The second step would be to break down, or “resolve” the whole phenomenon to be explained into its simplest parts and into the simplest motions of those parts which, when taken together, would be sufficient to account for the compound phenomenon. Here, to be successful, one needs to arrive at not only those most basic and elemental simple parts and motions that are necessary to the phenomenon to be explained, but also determine that the parts are sufficient to account for the whole. When applying this method to (at least large scale) human social phenomena, experimental methods will be unavailable or limited in scope, so the investigation has to proceed in the imagination, by the building of theoretical models.

In the second stage, the compositive, stage of this method, one would alter and vary the results that would ensue from one’s analysis of the whole into elementary parts with necessary motions. Different accounts of the parts would allow for different possible wholes. One would know that one had arrived at the correct explanation when one has those parts and motions that correspond exactly with the observed phenomenon. Finally, after one has “experimented” (imaginatively in the case of the social) to determine that the basic parts and their logics or “motions”, when combined, do actually produce the observable phenomenon to be accounted for, one can further compose the forces and deductive operations that one has analyzed or operated with into a logical order and use this to demonstrate how the observable compound phenomenon operates the way it does.

How is this applied to society and politics, or what are the consequences of applying this method or of restricting social explanation to the use of this method? In the first place, society is resolved into the actions or motions of individuals. Secondly, actions are further resolved into their simplest units by an imaginative analysis of oneself and others, and by an imaginative analysis of of the relations between motives and actions. Finally, in the compositive stage, one would speculate about which relations between all these simple units and forces could account for what is to be explained. One must find those actions and motives that are necessary and sufficient for the continued existence of the whole, in this case society. At the minimum, one must find those simples without which there is no life; at the maximum, those actions that are consistent with staying alive.

 Applying this method to human society necessarily leads to a mechanical view of society, one quite unlike, if not directly opposite to Aristotle’s (explicit) and Plato’s (more implicit) view of society as basically being held together by an organic unity. In politics, the use of this method  will lead to the ideas, central to much of classical liberalism (and some later liberalism) , of a state of nature and a social contract (among individuals). No one thought of such a thing before liberalism (with the possible exception of a certain tacit version of this in the political ideas of some of the Sophists). One could say that this is because only the type of society beginning to emerge in early modern Europe, that is only a market society (which is different from a society that has or uses markets in a more limited way) could produce such a theory. A theorist does not produce a new way of life. The emergence of a new way of life, or the dawning of its possibility might produce a new theory (which production might then become even an important part of the further development of that new way of life).  Ever since Hobbes, the understanding of society by breaking it down into its supposedly independent component parts has been linked to liberal individualism.

In the organic view of the relation between the individual and the social whole it is the society which “makes” the human individual. The community is prior to the individual, “in the order of nature”, as Aristotle puts it, even if it is not temporally prior.  Everything, including individual humans, derive their identity and their capacities from the function they play in the whole. Aristotle, you will remember, begins his Politics not with the analysis of the individual human being or with the individual as the basic unit, but with the family, which is already a social entity. His analysis of human happiness in the Nichomachean Ethics, presupposes that a well-ordered society exists (or can be brought into existence out of less well-ordered societies) that can instruct the individual in the habits that makes happiness possible and in the type of character that is capable of it.

In the mechanical view, the basic elements essentially are what they already are. They are not fundamentally affected by the society and types of social relations into which they are born. These basic elements, the individuals, are considered to be like “atoms” (and sometimes this is called an “atomic” view of society). They are indivisible; you cannot analyze them any further down. They are the basic building blocks of nature and anything else is simply a combination of these atoms which, when combined, do not themselves  change. Thus, by studying “the individual” abstracted from his/her social relations and culture, we can eventually arrive at a complete understanding of society. We first resolve society into its component elements (individuals) and the individuals into their essential makeup in order to arrive at a “state of nature” – what the individual is taken to really be, outside of the confusing conditions and conditionings that they face in actual social history. Taking this state of nature as our starting point, we can then think of society as something essentially “artificial”. In relation to individual human nature it is something like an instrument or a machine. Society itself is not like a body or an organism. Perhaps in class we’ll get to take a look at the etching which is the frontispiece for the original English edition of Leviathan, where this view is strikingly illustrated.

So, using the new scientific method, the resolutive-compositive method, which does not require or admit of Aristotelian final causes or of teleology, we arrive at a mechanical rather than organic view of the social whole, of what is the fundamental relation between society and its individuals or the relation between individuals and their society. The individual is now thought to be “prior” – and “in the order of nature” --  to society or the community. Therefore Hobbes assumes that we don’t miss anything of real importance about the human being by analyzing individuals apart from society. Individuals already have all of human nature already inside them, as individuals, just as an atom does not change when it is brought into contact with other atoms. (We’re obviously talking about atoms before post-Einsteinian physics came up with the notion that they are compounds themselves and interchangeable in principle with energy). With the mechanical view of society, the possibility arises of thinking that one can throw off all social conditioning, all socialization, which is now seen as essentially an imposition upon the human being, as a constraint and essentially a block to their freedom and happiness.

For the first time now, society itself has to be justified, including the political authority that is essential to holding it together. For the ancients, this question of how to justify society was meaningless. When Aristotle said that outside the polis, one is not truly a human being, but either a beast or a god, this is what he meant: it was inconceivable that humans could become fully or even recognizably human outside an ethical association that lifted them beyond the original, “lower” aims they shared with other forms of animal life. But with the mechanical view, society can only be justified in terms of the “natural” aims of its individuals, who come together in order to improve their chances of satisfying these “natural” aims.  Society is for the universal self-interestedness of its members. And that is essentially all there is to it. For Hobbes, since society is an instrumental good of individuals, he will construct the first liberal theory of obligation. It will be a new, scientific theory of obligation that deduces a new science of morality directly out of the selfish interests of individuals.

This method, therefore, is in more ways than one a “genealogy” as opposed to a “teleology”. A machine has no internal purpose or inherent principle of development or aim of its own; it has only the purpose its makers build into it. For Hobbes, society is similarly a machine. Therefore society has no purpose of its own, no purpose or function beyond what its makers seek to derive from it. A lot will turn, therefore on how these makers, these social atoms, are conceived in the first place.

After looking a bit further next time at Hobbes general use of the notions of a state of nature and social contract, we will turn to his conception of the nature of these individuals atoms, and what he thinks must take place when they are brought into relation with one another.

Hobbes – Study Questions:

  1. What is Hobbes’s picture of “human nature”? How do appetite and aversion govern human behaviour according to Hobbes? How does Hobbes’ understanding of human reason differ from that of Plato and Aristotle?
  1. What, according to Hobbes, are the necessary relations of human beings like, and why?
  1. What does Hobbes mean by a “state of nature”? What does it describe? What takes place in it?
  1. What is the right of nature? What are the laws of nature? How would these laws differ from the view of nature held by Aristotle or Plato?
  1. What, according to Hobbes, makes the Sovereign power necessary? What makes it possible?
  1. What are the functions of the Sovereign power? Does it have any limits?
  1. Is there a contradiction between the powers of the Sovereign and the rights of individuals under him? If so, what power contradicts which right?

Back to Lectures Schedule.

York University Copyright © - Asher Horowitz - All rights reserved