Hobbes: The Modern Materialist Turn

Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) was the son of an English Vicar who unfortunately deserted his family after an altercation at his church. He was raised by a relative, who saw to his education at Magdalen Hall, Oxford. After graduating in February 1608, Hobbes went to work for the Cavendish family, initially as a tutor to William Cavendish (1590–1628), who later became the second earl of Devonshire. Hobbes was employed by the Cavendish family for most of the rest of his life. [1] He died at the age of ninety-one.

Hobbes traveled widely, and was friends with Rene Descartes and other figures of the early Enlightenment. He was acquainted with Galileo and other founders of modern science. Hobbes was initially trained in the classics, but became proficient in law, in philosophy, mathematics, and the science of optics. His work reflects the emerging scientific worldview of his day.

Politically, Hobbes was aligned with the Stewart Monarchy, which eventually resulted in his exile to Paris for a time. In 1651, he published Leviathan, which forms the basis of this blog. [2] In addition to Leviathan, he published other works, notably another work on political philosophy. His influence on philosophy has been enormous, and he is justly considered the founder of modern political thought. Leviathan is considered one of the great works, perhaps the greatest work of modern political philosophy.

Materialism

Hobbes is an early example of the materialist tendency of modern thought. Hobbes was a student of optics and considered himself to be a scientist as well as a philosopher. [3] He intended, in Leviathan and his other works, to produce what he would have termed “scientific” philosophical account of reality, human perception, and human life and society. In his view, the world is made up of “one stuff” (matter), and the relationships between material particles can be explained on the basis of causal relationships between such material bodies (force). Even more complex phenomena, such as human society, can in principle be explained on this basis. Human beings are simply extremely complex material phenomena.

Here we see at work the reductionist and materialist bias of the modern world in its original form. Reading Leviathan can be a daunting task. For example, while Hobbes does express some form of traditional religious belief, he is skeptical of any kind of non-physical reality, miracles, angels, etc. In the end, while Hobbes expresses some degree of religious belief, his system is thoroughly non-religious and many, if not most, of his ideas are contrary to traditional  religious faith. In addition, he is uninterested in or rejects many themes that animated classic political thought.

For example, Hobbes is hostile to any final causation or any form of goal directed behavior cut off from the human propensity to seek pleasure and avoid pain. His view of human society is similarly cut off from a notion of the commonwealth seeking a common good unconnected to the private goods sought by individuals. For Hobbes, people are not communal by nature, we are communal by necessity to avoid the conflict that inevitably characterized human society. In his view, the fundamental state of people is “the war of all against all.” [4]

It is important to note that post-modern science, that is the worldview emerging from the 20th Century revolution in modern physics, is neither materialistic nor is it deterministic. [5] The fundamental sources of physical reality are not themselves material. There is built into in reality a principle of indeterminacy that prevents any form of absolute determinism—a feature of Hobbes thought. In addition, the world is deeply relational not just on a quantum but also at a Newtonian level of reality. The human sciences also reveal a deep relationality built into human beings. As we go through Hobbes, I will be alerting readers to the limitations on Hobbes thought and some of its fundamental flaws, which he could not have understood due to his place in human history. Therefore, where limitations are noted, it should not be read to indicate a lack of respect for his thought and conclusions.

Nominalism

Hobbes was a “nominalist,” that is one who believes that only particulars exist, and universals are “mere names.” The result of this view is that historically important virtues, such as Truth, Goodness, Justice, and the like are in no sense “real.” [6] Whatever value there may be in such ideas come from their utility in serving as names of human experiences that are explainable on other grounds.

Hobbes’ nominalism is deeply related to what I will call his “Naive Empiricism”. For Hobbes thoughts are simply images for the thing we are thinking about. The “thing” is a part of the exterior, material world. Contrast this view with the semiotic views of Pierce, where signs do not necessarily involve images of things but are part of the cognitive process of understanding. For Hobbes universals are “just names,” that is to say for example, that while there are Peter’s, Mary’s James’ and John’s, the designation “human being” is a mere name signifying some similar characteristic among the individuals. [7]

It might be best to say that Hobbes is correct but for the word “mere.” A “mere” name has a reality, albeit a noetic (mental) reality, in that it describes a real characteristic of a group of particulars discerned by human reason. For Hobbes, universals, like “justice,” for which there is no image can have no meaning and to be understood must be reduced to some material entity or process. The word “justice” is merely a matter of linguistic convention. There is no reality that we call “justice” or “injustice.”

For critical realists, universals have a reality in their cognitive role in understanding reality. Universals provide a noetic insight into reality. The realities they describe are not material, but exist as theoretical and moral ideas. This may seem like quibbling over words, but there is a deep difference in the two world-views. For Hobbes, and for many moderns, there is an unbridgeable gap between the world of things (the material world) and the noetic world (ideas). The world of ideas is not real (i.e. has not external verifiable reality) but a characteristic of the mental state of a thinker.  For a critical realist, the noetic world is not material, but is “real” in that it describes an unseen attribute of reality.

The theoretical insights of this mental world have a verifiable reality in the consensus of a community of inquiry devoted to the study of a phenomena. This consensus is provisional at any point and subject to revision based upon new evidence or a new and different interpretation of existing facts. The notion of a community of inquiry is not necessarily limited to science or empirical observation. It can include the realities of justice as disclosed in a legal system, of beauty as disclosed by an artistic community, and of meaning as disclosed by a religious community.

Political Consequences

The “super-nominalism” of Hobbes when applied to political reality results the view that all decisions about things like “justice” and “the general welfare” are simply matters of convention and differences can only be resolved by force, physical, legal or otherwise. This leads Hobbes to his theory of politics, which entails a preference for absolute monarchy, a dictatorship, whereby force is used to control “the war of all against all.” Thus, the totalitarian tendencies of modernity can be directly traced to the way of thinking that emerged at its inception. It is no surprise that Hobbes has been a favorite of modern totalitarian thinkers and regimes.

For the classic tradition, the notion of a “general good” was not simply a matter of power. The general good was an ideal towards which society moved over time and which was to guide political leaders in use of their power. The critical realistic formulation of this idea is the notion that at any point in time, we may be wrong concerning what constitutes the general good, but the general good as a goal, constitutes a transcendental ideal towards which a community can move by committing itself and its institutions to the task of seeking that good.

Conclusion

One cannot read Leviathan without seeing the continuity between Machiavelli and Hobbes. In a way, Hobbes gives a theoretical basis for the political views of Machiavelli. On the other hand, one cannot but be aware that Machiavelli is a classicist in his method, while Hobbes method is founded not on the classics but on applying the principles of the Scientific Revolution to philosophy and the political philosophy in particular. While the Renaissance thinkers were conscious of their continuity with the ancients, Hobbes is consciously opposed to the work of Aristotle and the classics. This is a feature of modern thought that we will see again and again in coming months.

Right at the beginning of the English Enlightenment, Hobbes rejects all thoughts of final causes; he wants to focus only on material cause. Thus, he cuts himself loose from the work of Aristotle. Hobbes also rejects the idealism of Plato; he wants to focus only on what can be empirically known. He rejects any form of superstition or mysticism in politics—anything that cannot be reduced to fit into his materialistic agenda. He cuts himself off from the communitarian insights of both Plato and Aristotle, as well as Cicero and the medieval thinkers.

Finally, Hobbes is captivated by a kind of monistic, individualistic anthropology characteristic of the modern world. At the basis of his society is not the individual in relationship with human family or community, but the individual as a solitary actor bound to others not by love, communion, partnership, family or the like, but by the force of will and desire. This is contrary to the classic notions defended by Plato and Aristotle—the notion that human beings are by nature social and that human society begins with a bond deeper than force, the bonds of love, be it marital love, familial love, community loyalty, or national love.

Hobbes materialism leads him to a notion of human society as made up of material beings bound together by force. Modern science, both physical and social does not lead in this direction. Reality is deeply relational and so are human actors. While force is a factor in human relations, it is not the only factor. These are aspects of Hobbes thought that we will examine next week. In the next blog, I will continue with Hobbes thought focusing on his version of the social compact theory that is basic to modern political thought in our society.

I know that this blog, and the next couple, will be challenging for readers and for the writer, but it is important to see, right at the beginning, some of the features of the Modern World and its dominant political ideas that are outdated. This does not mean that the ideas of Hobbes and some of his successors are unimportant or completely wrong or that we have nothing to learn from him. The modern critique of ancient and medieval thought brought progress, and no one would want to return to the Greco-Roman or medieval world. However, the intellectual energy of the Enlightenment has burned out, and we are now in its decadent phase. Sometimes, to go forward one must retrace a few steps and recover lost wisdom. Fortunately, the world view that is emerging from the advance of science in the early 20th Century gives philosophy adequate tools to respond and move forward. That is the task of these blogs in 2021.

Finally, I do hope everyone had a Merry Christmas and will have a wonderful New Year.

Copyright 2021, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] See, “Thomas Hobbes” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/hobbes/#1 (Downloaded December 17, 2020)

[2] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan: Or the Matter, form, and Power of a Commonwealth, Ecclesiastical and Civil ed. Michael Oakeshott (New York, NY: Collier-McMillan, 1971).

[3] Hobbes life intersects the life of Isaac Newton (1642-1727) whose work laid the intellectual and mathematical foundations for modern science and which laid out a theory that undergirded the materialistic world view of people like Hobbes. It is important to note that Newton was deeply religious and spent much of his life studying religious phenomenon. Newton was also a student of optics, as was Hobbes.

[4] Leviathan, 100-101.

[5] I have dealt with this insight in prior blogs and will not repeat here what I have said elsewhere. By “postmodern science” I mean science after the early 20th century with the development of quantum physics and relativity theory.

[6] This contrasts with the view these blogs defend, which is called “Critical Realism”. Critical Realism argues that scientific laws, and universal ideas (like justice) are real, though revisable in the face of new information. While I have failed to give full credit to them in this blog, it should be obvious to readers that I am deeply in debt to C. S. Peirce and Michael Polanyi for much of the response to Hobbes contained in the blog.

[7] This is not the place or time to completely unpack the error Hobbes makes here. The “image” theory he advances ignores the multiple kinds of meaningful signs that human beings in fact us in thinking and communicating. This is a specific area in which I am in debt to C. S. Peirce and his followers.

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