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AS/POLS 2900.6A
  Perspectives on Politics

January 6 – Social Science as Scientific Materialism

Hobbes’s abandonment of Aristotelian teleological explanation, of final causes, through the use of the resolutive –compositive method, inclines him strongly towards a mechanical, rather than organic view of society. The individual is now thought to be (ontologically) prior to the community. Rather than understand the individual as a functional part of the social whole, society is now understood as the artificial construct of individuals whose identity is already contained within them. By his method, then, Hobbes is already on the way to the notion of a state of nature.

The state of nature does not refer to any actual condition of human beings – one where they somehow exist before and without social relations. It is a hypothetical construct and refers to what individuals would be like prior to or outside of political and social institutions. It is not therefore some particular historical stage in the development of human society or before the development of human society. It is a theoretical device used for scientific purposes (by allowing the investigator to limit the number of factors in play). As a theoretical device it derives its potential truth value from its internal coherence and from its ability to account for behaviour that is actually observable and observed.

The idea of a contract or social contract that will also be central for Hobbes is, however, not new. In medieval society it was a common idea that kingly authority was based upon a contract between king and people, guaranteed by God. Together with this notion came the idea that the people retained a right of resistance, should the king not fulfill his obligations under the contract and abandon the common good. The right of resistance should not, however, be understood as the right of revolution. It did not give the people the right to replace monarchy itself. And, importantly for our purposes in understanding what Hobbes is doing, the medieval idea of a contract (the pactum subjectionis) did not understand it as an agreement between the king and individual subjects, but between the king and the people as a whole, understood as a corporate entity. For Hobbes, there will be no contract between a sovereign and the people. For all intents and purposes the people does not exist as an entity separate from sovereign power. (Here is another good occasion to look at the illustration of Leviathan in your books to get a graphic suggestion of what Hobbes has in mind.) The contract Hobbes refers to will be a contract among all the individuals concerned (among the individuals considered severally rather than jointly – for the future lawyers among us) with each other, but on behalf of a third party. It is as though each person would be saying “I contract with you (and you and you…) that I will authorize all his (the sovereign’s) actions…”

There is an important implicit connection between this notion of the social contract and the emergence of a modern capitalist society. In capitalist society, what the sociologists call ascriptive or status relations (familiar to us now from Aristotle) are increasingly replaced with contractual relations between people. Capitalist society also has de facto hierarchies of status and power, but formally it substitutes contracts among individuals who, by nature, are held to be free and equal.

In a way, all of the master ideas of liberalism emerge from these paired notions of a state of nature and a social contract:

  1. Society is composed of pre-formed, self-constituting individuals
  2. all of whom are independent and equal by nature, and
  3. able to enter into tacit or explicit agreements to construct a society
  4. for the purpose of attaining maximum fulfillment of private, self-centered interests
  5. by first of all getting protection from each other

It is now possible to move on to look at Hobbes’s scientific materialism. The resolutive-compositive method intends to produce the simplest possible logical model. The ideal of knowledge here includes the notion that the best explanation covers the widest range of phenomena using the fewest necessary basic principles. One wants to be able to find the fewest simple forces that will make possible a sufficient explanation of what is observed. Many different hypotheses are, however, possible about what these most basic principles are. Therefore Hobbes accepts that in formulating a scientific explanation one must have recourse to a bold stroke of imagination in deciding which postulates to try out.

Hobbes’s bold imaginative stroke is this: not only is society like a machine rather than like a living organism, human individuals and their actions and motivations, like the actions of machines, can be reduced to matter in motion. If one can discover the true laws of matter in motion (as Galileo seemed to be doing when it came to the mechanics of inert objects), those same laws or principles will govern the entire material world. Thus we would have a unified science, beginning with mechanics or physics, from which could be derived physiology (the science of the movement of living bodies), from which psychology in turn would follow, from which a social and political science finally would emerge. The human being would best be understood as a specific kind of system of matter in motion.

The human system of matter in motion can be broken down into two fundamental parts. One part would be a set of innate impulses and appetites. The second part would be a somewhat complex apparatus for dealing with the external environment. The second part will include various senses, the memory, imagination and reason. The whole system registers and responds to motions or pressures impinging upon it that come from external forces, and it responds differently depending upon whether those external forces help or hinder the continued motion of the individual system. So each system has its internal driving force which impacts upon other bodies and is impacted upon in turn; it also has a mediating apparatus that governs the system’s reaction to past or to expected impacts.

So the human being is a system of matter in motion that has an inner compulsion to keep going and some sort of psycho-physical apparatus as a means of responding to the external environment. This mediating apparatus could roughly be broken down into three parts, a sensory-perceptual part; memory and imagination (which allow for the retention and projection of information received in the sensory-perceptual part, and thus for the anticipation of possible future motions); and finally, a part that is capable of reasoning, that is, capable of calculating causes and consequences. This concept of reason as simply the ability to calculate causes and consequences is fundamentally different from the ancients’ view of reason. For them reason certainly involved the ability to engage in the calculation of causes and consequences, but it also essentially was the purposive structure and order of the universe itself which, when present in the human mind, revealed the value, purpose and limits of each thing in terms of its place in the whole.

This view of the human being is for Hobbes the starting point of a long chain of deductions and inferences that leads to the core of his political doctrine. This central doctrine is that rational individuals, if they want to be secure in their continued motion, i.e. if they want to live, must accept the authority of an absolute and self-perpetuating sovereign power.

Now, this conclusion is not at all obvious. It does not follow immediately from Hobbes’s own model of the individual human being. Later liberalism, for example, while largely accepting Hobbes’s premises cannot accept his political conclusions. Yet right now that aspect of his theory, i.e. Hobbes’s special theory of sovereignty, is not what concerns us. It is important first to understand the chain of deductions that lead from his account of the individual human being to his account of the state of nature and the social contract.

Hobbes thought it should be possible to deduce the entirety of his theory, including his conclusions about an absolute and self-perpetuating sovereign, from an analysis of the physiological and psychological apparatus inside each individual. Yet Hobbes in fact adds social hypotheses, questionable hypotheses about the relations of individual motions to each other. These social hypotheses Hobbes builds in by way of observation of social relations around him and by self-observation. They are not therefore observations about any and every society, but observations of and about a very definite form of human society. Although Hobbes thinks he is deducing social relations from human psychology (and psychology from physiology and physiology from physics), in fact 1. Hobbes is not able to deduce his psychology from his physiology and his physics (although this is not too important for us here), and 2. his social relations are really not deducible from his psychology. This is what will centrally concern us.

Concerning the first point immediately above, in Leviathan, Hobbes puts aside his more grand ambition to derive human psychology out of the laws of matter in motion. Instead he starts his account of human individual psychology from introspection and observation. (If you want to look at Hobbes’s attempts to get from physics to physiology to psychology you can see this in some of his texts collected in R. Peters, ed., Body,Man and Citizen.) As it turns out the first five chapters of Leviathan are a description of what Hobbes takes to be the simplest elements of psychology – the apparatus of sense perception and thought. In Chapter 6 he begins to talk about the impulsions innate to the human psyche and has a bit to say about the relations between these innate impulsions and external factors. Rather than analyze in detail what is being built up in these chapters, I will want to concentrate on the chain of deductions beginning in chapter 6 and ending in chapter 11, where Hobbes thinks he has proven that the state of nature is essentially and necessarily a war of each against all. The problem of getting to that idea beginning from his description of human psychology will be what will concern us next time. 

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