The Leviathan of Thomas Hobbes, Part II: Of Man, Knowledge, and “Science”

As we continue to read through Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan, an actual reading of the text again causes much confusion to readers who have swallowed the false pill of the myth of the “Enlightenment” and the “Age of Reason.”  In this post we will examine two crucial chapters, 6 and 7, and what the implications are for man and knowledge (e.g. epistemology).  When someone says science is taken on an act of faith, such a person has actually read Leviathan, as well as Francis Bacon, and what the foundation of “modern science” is premised on.

Man has no Rational Soul (Chapter 6)

Classical anthropology, especially as developed in Christianity – though taking inheritance from Greek philosophies of the soul – concludes that while man is an animal, he has a tripartite layered soul.  (On this aside, the Threeness of the soul is one of the reasons why so much Greek and Roman philosophy was simply subsumed by Christianity; the Threeness being a primitive sign of the Trinity which Greek and Roman rationalism had somewhat uncovered – the Greek and Roman philosophies of the soul being signs pointing to the fullness of Christianity.)  If you recall back to Aristotle, Aristotle noted that the human soul’s layering was broken up into three states: Vegetative (and vitalistic), animal, and rational.  Hobbes, by contrast, suggests that man only has two “souls.”

Hobbes denies the soul in the classical understanding: Soul as rational mind and that rational mind being the “image of God” (in Christianity) that bridges the phenomenological with the Transcendent.  Instead, since man is purely material, therefore purely phenomenological, he only has two souls, so to speak – Hobbes calls this “two motions”: Vital and Animal motions.  The vital motions are akin to the vegetative soul.  They concern themselves with the movement of the vital organs and blood necessary to have motion (e.g. life).  Animal motion is what Hobbes defines as voluntary motion: To speak (or communicate), to move, and to have awareness (from the senses).

The greatest propaganda term which ever came out in Western history is how the 17th century is the birth of the “Age of Reason.”  That depends on what one means by reason.  For, as Hobbes defined, reason is but reckoning through all the (mathematical) consequences to which the sum total.  As the reader of Chapter 7 already knows, there is no definitive knowledge in Enlightenment epistemology.  We can never know anything for certain.  This is because there is no Transcendent Truth because there is no Transcendent God in accord with classical theology, both in its “Pagan” form and Christian form.  This is highlighted already in Hobbes when he asserts that man only has vital motion and animal (or voluntary) motion.

Endeavor is the greatest desire according to Hobbes.  For it is endeavor which propels the voluntary, or animal, motion in man to aim at a destination.  For motion without a destination is not an endeavor at all.  Again, this is the result of Hobbes’s reductionist metaphysics that everything comes from matter.  What motivates man to his freedom (motion)?  His desire.

Man thirsts.  Man hungers.  Man wonders.  All of these things, which stem from the vital motions, pushes man into his full being: Animal motion.  The layered motions (or soul if you stick to classical language) works as thus: Since man is matter, he is vitalistic, the vital is the only “real” motions man has – the vital motions give rise to animal motion.  For it is vital that man thirsts, that man hungers, or that man wonders.  Without his vital appetites man would sit still and die.  In sitting still, he is not in motion.  Since he is not in motion, he is not free.  Since he is not free, he is dead.

Hobbes, here, does something very unique with the concept of freedom, or liberty, which he will fully define for us in Part II during his considerations on the commonwealth.  Liberty, in Latin, is rooted in the word Liber, who is the Roman god of fertility.  Liberty is about life and not death.  If man is motionless, he is dead.  If man is static, he is dead.  Therefore, man’s appetite is what fuels his motions.  When man’s appetite dissipates and evaporates, he is dead.  Readers of Plato will see how Hobbes destroys Plato’s idea of life and the human soul.  For it is the rational, or thinking, soul who is alive and the soul that that slumbers that is dead.  Because man has no rational soul his rationality is not the indicator of his life (e.g. flourishing), but his appetites and ability to feed his appetites.

Hobbes now moves to explain what is good and what is bad (or as Hobbes calls it, evil).  For Hobbes, good and bad are words we craft to communicate experiences of the senses in motion.  For Good denotes pleasurable physical sensation while Evil denotes unpleasant physical sensation.  Nothing is intrinsically good or evil since these are merely communicative terms one uses to communicate physical sensation that was either pleasurable or unpleasant.  (This is something important to remember when reading the famous chapter about the state of nature (Chapter 13) to prevent the gross misreading that Hobbes’s picture is of an evil and immoral man in an evil and immoral state of nature.)

It is after this that Hobbes launches into a massive account on how all “moral language” is really a map of motions.  Ambition requires motion to climb to the top.  Hope is the appetite anticipating fulfillment.  Fear is the appetite anticipating failure, or being hurt.

Most importantly, and most radically, Hobbes breaks with the Pagan and Christian understandings of joy and glory.  “Joy, arising from imagination of man’s own power and ability is that exultation of the mind which is called glorying.”  Only those who a comprehensive knowledge of philosophy and theology will understand the radicalness of Hobbes’s statement, especially when paired at the end of Chapter 6 where he assails felicity, or happiness, “For there is no such thing as perpetual tranquility of mind, while we live here; because Life it self is but motion, and can never be without desire, nor without fear, no more than without sense.”

Praising the heroic is vain.  Praising the successful is vain.  Praising God is vain.  Praising yourself is vain.  All one is really doing, in praise, is commending someone having temporarily satisfied their appetitive desires.  This is vain because appetites are enduring (until death).  The bid to win praise is futile.  You will always have to be praised until you die.  And after you die, you will not be praised anymore because people forget you.  (Which is why we build statues and monuments of our accomplishments because we know of our mortality and still want to be praised for what we have accomplished so monuments will remind people of those accomplishments so we can be praised.  But this is truly irrational because what satisfaction do you get from praise of others when you’re dead?)

Hobbes’s anthropology has deep consequences for social and ethical life.  Hobbes is assailing the classical tradition, in his other famous work De Cive he attacks the classical tradition even more explicitly.  (It is because humans don’t have ties and obligations to each other than the only way to prevent animalistic conflict is by rise of the Leviathan, which Hobbes will cover in Part II.)  In classical tradition, the social animus means man has duties and obligations.  In the liberal tradition, begun by Hobbes, man’s animalistic nature and a-social animus means he is only ever out to satisfy his own desires.

In sticking with the idea of man as an artificial machine with life (e.g. motion), the vital motions, or desires, is like the fuel of the machine.  The animal motions is the machine operating, in motion.  Without the vital fuel which gets the machine started it would come to a halt, which represents death.  “Reason” has no place in the machine.  For, as Hobbes defined, reason is simply what the machine aims at.  In other words, reason is but rationalization of actions taken to have achieved one’s aim.

How does he reconcile man being a machine and an animal?  Because animals were viewed as machines during the 17th century.  Descartes famously said that all animal bodies are like machines.  The physiology of the Enlightenment was mechanistic and mechanical, in line with the prevailing mechanistic and mechanical science of its time.  Animal bodies were governed by the laws of matter alone.  Hence their machine-like characteristic.  Julien Offray de La Mettrie, for instance, openly declared that “man is a machine” in the early 1700s.  This is why it’s important to know the context of philosophy too.  Biological and vitalistic science had yet to emerge.  What had emerged was the mechanical notion of science, which informed 17th and 18th century philosophy, of which Hobbes was a leading figure in the synthesis movement which bequeathed liberalism.  Man was free because he was a machine made to be free, e.g. made to be in motion.

All Knowledge is Conditional and Dependent on Faith (Chapter 7)

One thing that drives philosophers mad in epistemology, or the philosophy field dealing with knowledge, is the idea that science is unique somehow.  Scientia simply means knowledge.  Knowledge, if it exists, has to have a first principle.  This is basic epistemology 101.  Furthermore, modern science is a faith-based epistemology.  Faith acts the first principle, in the form of our axiom, by which we trust that the reckoned conclusion is total so as to avoid epistemological skepticism and its exhaustive outgrowth, epistemological nihilism.

As Hobbes says, “No discourse whatsoever, can end in absolute knowledge of fact, past, or to come.  For, as for the knowledge of fact, it is originally, sense; and ever after, memory.  And for the knowledge of consequence, which I have said before is called Science, it is not absolute, but conditional.”  All knowledge is conditional because there is no Transcendent Reason or Truth because all things are material.

Conditional knowledge is only conditional on the grounds that that mathematical reckoning had all the right inputs in it.  Discourse which “breaks off the chain of man’s discourse” leads to opinion.  Opinion is the result of lack of complete reckoning which Hobbes previously defined as what reason and reasoning is about.  Thus, opinion arises when we have an incomplete equation.  We can presume what the sum total will be, but without the total sum we cannot really have an answer (the complete reckoning of all consequences) whereby this presumption of what the total sum “will be,” or “will not be,” is what we call opinion.  Therefore, opinion is like guessing what a mathematical equation will be without the complete equation.  Yes, you can make an “informed” opinion but that doesn’t mean you’ve reckoned through everything and thereby arrived at the total sum that serves as our conditional knowledge.

As it relates to communicative discourse, conditional knowledge is premised on the first principles of definitions followed out to the consequential total sum conclusion.  This is called syllogistic reasoning.  Hobbes is a father of Analytic Philosophy in this sense and Analytic Philosophy became the dominant form of philosophy after Hobbes in the English-speaking world (in contrast to “Continental Philosophy” in Catholic and “secular” European circles where philosophy remained dealing with questions of metaphysics, ontology, epistemology, phenomenology, human nature, etc.).  When all the definitions are agreed upon and we follow the logical consequences of them being rightly joined together we reach “the conclusion.”  But the conclusion is conditional on having used agreed upon definitions that were properly connected together.  When we lack agreed upon definitions, or when we fail to observe a connection (thereby breaking the connections of deductive reasoning to which the total sum conclusion), this again is called “opinion.”  In this way Hobbes is similar to Aristotle insofar that to speak falsely of something is to speak falsely of it (ergo opinion); definitions matter otherwise we’ll never have a meaningful discourse.  Definitions are the “regulations” whereby rational speech is made possible otherwise you’re uttering noise without an aim.  (This stretches back to Chapter 4.)

“Well, that’s just like, your opinion man.”  (The idea that everything is opinion is itself a logical consequence of claiming that all knowledge is merely conditional and that we can never be sure of anything.)

This is where Hobbes turns to discuss what faith is and how faith relates to science.  Faith is an act of trust.  For science to produce its conditional knowledge we take our total sum conclusions on an act of faith being complete and never needing new revision (though we remain aware that this is always an open possibility).  This is how we arrive at our conditional knowledge.  But, again, as Hobbes said at the beginning of the chapter, “No discourse whatsoever, can end in absolute knowledge of fact, past, or to come.  For, as for the knowledge of fact, it is originally, sense; and ever after, memory.  And for the knowledge of consequence, which I have said before is called Science, it is not absolute, but conditional.”  We trust science to be true on conditions that we have “solved” the equation, but, as Hobbes notes, we are also uncertain because we know we may have missed something.  The open possibility of change means the knowledge is only ever conditional.  This is why science is a faith.

In sum, proper discourse or reasoning only ends in conditional knowledge which we hold to be true on an act of faith.  Faith is our axiom to hold onto for certainty.  Failure to fully reckon through discourse, mental or spoken, is like not having the entire mathematical equation whereby we are left with presuming the total sum which is called opinion.  This is also dealt with by Spinoza.  The problem of finite minds trying to understand the infinite.

One can only appreciate the revolutionary nature of Hobbes’s anthropology and epistemology if they have a substantial knowledge of the preceding epochs of philosophy.  Unlike many people today, Hobbes was extensively trained in the classical tradition and in his attack against the classical and Christian tradition he doesn’t create strawmen like ignorant critics of the vestiges of classical philosophy like Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins.  Hobbes knows what it would mean to grant humans a rational soul and the tranquility of the mind.  Likewise, this is why he goes to great lengths to reduce everything to motionary matter (which he had good reasons to believe on the conditional knowledge offered by 1650s and 1660s science at the time), in showing how everything is an extension of matter in motion and sensations he eliminated the need to have Transcendent Reason (in the realm of Forms or God, etc.).  The “Enlightenment” may be the greatest propaganda term ever propagated by the English Whigs, but there was nothing short of a revolution in philosophy occurring in the 17th century of which Hobbes is one of the chief architects of.

Chapter 9 (Science Revisited)

As Hobbes also says in Chapter 9, returning to this topic of science and knowledge, he states that only “matters of fact” are absolute.  Knowledge that comes from science is always conditional.  (Note, I have included this brief comment in this post looking at Chapters 6 and 7 because Chapter 9 is but a few paragraphs and a drawn table.  It fits the themes of Chapter 6 and 7 better than 8 and the chapters after Chapter 9.)


This post is adapted from a post from Hesiod’s Corner.

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