Reason and Existence in Hobbesian Anthropology
by David Foss
Who are we, to be so situated as to live by the mutual confinement of convention? What is the nature and function of such conventions whereby we live in common?
Buffeted by the political anarchy of the civil war in England, and seeing all around him the continuous and turbulent warfare between states, it should not be surprising that Thomas Hobbes sought a refuge, and a repose, within the regularities of a proposed mathematical science of human society. His plea may be a familiar one. Surely, something must explain the horrible tendencies exposed by such historical predicaments. There must be some way, by learning, that we may be able to avoid the disintegration of our society, and maintain the security necessary for the thriving of justice. Or perhaps, as would be more accurate to say of Hobbes, there must be some way of simply maintaining the security of our person: our life.
The real danger of a societal meltdown is perhaps only as obvious in our age, as it was for Hobbes, if we pay close attention to the events in the former republics of Yugoslavia: where rampant violence, an abandonment of law in favor of force, and a brutal indignation toward whomever is designated as “enemy”, has become a political reality. Or, if the conditions in Yugoslavia do not suffice to demonstrate the eternal danger of total cultural disintegration, due to the persistance of broad allegiances among the people to “ethnic” identity (and thereby the continuance of some form of rule), then the lawlessness of Somalia might more fully reveal the hazards. For Hobbes, such occasions expose the inevitable cost of abandoning the particularities of the present political order. To be without rule is to be without society; and the condition beyond society is here devastatingly clear.
Without the communion of society, and therein the collaboration of being which enables a degree of order and safety, humanity appears to be inevitably reduced to a condition of war. Like the blood guilt which, according to the ancient historians and playwrights, ravaged the powerful Greek families prior to the establishment of the Athenian law courts; as with the feuds that tore asunder the clans of the high country in Scotland prior to their mutual subjection to the British Crown: where there is no law — where lawlessness prevails — each household, every family, and for Hobbes, each man individually, is turned against the next to obtain whatever it or he privately take to be justice. And in such a condition, Hobbes notices a certain sameness among the persons afflicted with self-rule. There is a peculiar brotherhood of misery, and what appears to be a democratization of fundamental power. Seeking a foundation for the universal alienation experienced in such a time, he makes a rather startling claim:
Nature hath made men so equal, in the faculties of the body, and mind; as that though there be found one man sometimes manifestly stronger in body, or of quicker mind than another; yet when all is reckoned together, the difference between man, and man, is not so considerable, as that one man can thereupon claim to himself any benefit, to which another may not pretend, as well as he. For as to the strength of body, the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest, either by secret machination, or by confederacy with others, that are in the same danger with himself.
A careful reader will notice that the equality being proposed is one by the universal condition of mortality. Persons are perishable; and they are this with respect to the designs of other persons. But Hobbes moves from such an observation to the claim that there is thereby, when without consensual adjudication, an equality of claims between individuals to particular benefits. Beginning from a position which centralizes the mutual and incompatible desires of persons, and the universality of human mortality, Hobbes finds a universal right of each person to every thing (which it is the necessary purpose of sovereign authority to curtail).
And because the condition of man,..., is a condition of war of every one against every one; in which case every one is governed by his own reason; and there is nothing he can make use of, that may not be a help unto him, in preserving his life against his enemies; it followeth, that in such a condition, every man has a right to every thing; even to one another’s body.
There is, it seems, a natural entitlement of utility, based upon the determinative power of reason. Such an entitlement follows directly from the capacity of use internal to rational intentionality. This is to say that instrumental entitlement is a thing natural to a being which can treat things as tools. And the use of things as instruments naturally belongs to reasons, expectations, and intentions. While reason is roughly (and somewhat ambiguously) located by Hobbes in the basic mathematical operations of addition and subtraction (in concord with the manipulation of words and signifiers), the intentional aspirations of persons are clearly grounded in the fundamental instability of the human condition.
The general inclinations, like equality, growing out of the common predicament of radical temporality, press the person to ever increasing degrees of individual empowerment. This temporality is not merely the apprehension of imminent mortality, but rooted in the very nature of Hobbesian human physiology. All nature is only motion. As such, whatever may be truly said of the human condition, must ultimately have explanatory recourse to the motion of particulate matter. In the case of the cognitive appetites, such as desire and fear, it is the motion of life itself which grounds the experience. We are forever awash in a sea of ever changing sensory experience. There is no existential calm.
According to Hobbes, in the condition of nature, which is outside the confines of convention and law, such a drive readily engenders violence against other persons. It causes the unrestrained use of whatever resources present themselves, whether they be other people, or mere objects of the natural world, for the hopeless task of self stabilization. Within society (or within its reach), under the compulsion of popular covenant, such an existential instability manifests itself in the rational allegiance of the person to the law. Without law, or the presumed compliance of one’s neighbors to a common rule (which is not possible without a mutual subjection to the common sovereign), there is no trust. Without trust, there can be no peace.
Within the same features of the natural human condition which cause war, Hobbes locates the natural inclination toward peace. Natural equality, which finds its most perfect expression in the mutual annihilation of total war, is thereby found at the very core of common living: where it is the artificial unity of voice in the sovereign, and the shared mortality of the citizens, that binds together the people in a community of fear. Within such community, it is not merely the property (or right) of each individual which is forfeited to the common will, but the judgment as well. As to what is reason, or good reason, for the determination of proper action, it is the exclusive domain of the sovereign judgment. The entrance of each person into such a covenant — which is nothing other than a contract of each citizen to every other (excepting the sovereign) — is primarily and fundamentally a surrender of her claim to private judgment, concerning what is good and proper in human living.
Above all else, the Hobbesian approach is one which attempts to begin with only those attributes and motives which can of necessity be imputed to the motivational fabric of every individual. Rationality (as it is for the Kantian) lay at the core of the law, and seems an unproblematic reality to the nature of persons as persons. Mortality, with its incumbent fears, lay at the core of our inclination toward peace, as well as our proclivity toward war. The mixture of these two, which permits the proper articulation of commodious living, also engenders the realization of individual autonomy: which is for Hobbes the condition of total war, when each person considers himself auto nomos, or a rule unto himself, and is so authorized as to destroy his neighbor for his own protection. There is no room for natural generosity, kindness, authentic other-regarding motivations, not because they are impossible — although Hobbes would most certainly think that they are merely illusory — but because we are dangerously vulnerable if we presume their presence in our fellows.
A look toward Niccolò Machiavelli, who shares much of the Hobbesian account of the fundamental conditions of human living, exposes a troubling aspect of the inferences Hobbes makes from them. Machiavelli agrees that it is the nature of human existence that our desire forever exceeds our capacity. And it would seem natural to consider the apprehension of death to be the supreme limit of human capacity, and thereby represent the greatest foil to desire: fomenting there the tenacious drive each person has for the preservation of her own life, even to the detriment of all else. But Machiavelli does not follow such a course. Or, to be fair, he differs with Hobbes to the extent that the fear of death does not hold a supreme command over the motivational structure of individuals, even while it remains highly potent. Of at least as much motivational strength are the realities of social station: the maintenance and accumulation of personal property, and the social deference and regard with which an individual is considered within the community.
Such motivational realities require that there be more to intentional states than the immediacy of concurrent fear. For Hobbes, there is no momentum to conformity. The moment the fear of imminent punishment fades, the individual will transgress the law wherever advantage may be gained. And so, the power of any government cannot be measured by the longevity of its dominion, but only by the command it possesses at each moment over the judgments of its citizens. And this is only sufficiently revealed by the willingness of the population to abandon convention at the bequest of the sovereign.
This trivializes the strength and purview of tradition in ways that Machiavelli would certainly find imprudent. Whereas Hobbes finds habit and custom repugnant to a knowledge of causes, Machiavelli finds them essential to it. This difference can be seen at two levels: first, that for Hobbes, the conventional appeal to custom as an explanation of action obscures the true nature of such action; whereas for Machiavelli, a consideration of the habits and customs of a people are essential for a thorough understanding of their political behavior; and second, that Hobbes thinks custom is irrelevant to, or seriously impairs, the procedures whereby we open the world of causes to rational inspection; whereas Machiavelli might be seen as stressing a fully pragmatic form of rational inspection, wherein the emulation of noble rule in action reveals the clearest understanding of the causes internal to political being; and such an emulation is contingent upon a sufficient acquaintance with the cultural context in which one lives. The first level concerns the degree to which the notion of convention obscures or reveals the political reality; and the second questions the degree to which custom corrupts or enhances our reasoning about these things.
This last point, concerning the relevance of custom for a pragmatic/rational inspection of causes, may be a difficult one to draw between Hobbes and Machiavelli. The meaning of the mechanism of rational inspection is not clearly uniform across this distinction. A look to Aristotle may help reveal the extent to which habit can invade the method of Hobbesian analysis directly. As with Machiavelli, there is much in what Aristotle says that resonates with the general world view articulated by Hobbes. This is especially true of his comments regarding the condition of the person, who by nature is “without a city”, or without society:
... the city belongs among the things that exist by nature, and that man is by nature a political animal. He who is without a city through nature rather than chance is either a mean sort or superior to man; he is “without clan, without law, without hearth,” like the person reproved by Homer; for the one who is such by nature has by this fact a desire for war, as if he were an isolated piece in a game of chess.
For Aristotle, to say it is the nature of a thing to be a certain way, is to say that it is never so well situated, or more fully capable of actualizing all that is potential in it, as when it is that way. If it were man’s nature to be without society, then man is by nature a thoroughly warlike creature, and fully incapable of social living without severely obstructing the actualization of his (essential) tendencies. Conversely, it seems that if persons cannot thrive “without clan, without law, without hearth,” then they must not be without a city by nature. The premise is something that (while denying the conclusion) Hobbes allows: that family ties, and private law in the form of autonomy (sharing something of a familial resemblance to Law generally), are the natural conditions of personhood. But we may be playing with very different notions of nature here.
Turning to the rational capacity explicitly, or more immediately to the faculty of speech, there arises again an interesting resonance with the Hobbesian anthropology. Aristotle says:
... speech serves to reveal the advantageous and the harmful, and hence also the just and the unjust. For it is peculiar to man as compared to the other animals that he alone has a perception of good and bad and just and unjust and other things [of this sort]; and partnership in these things is what makes a household and a city.
Glossing this passage briefly (and echoing Hobbes): it is only in the city where we find that the good, the just, and the fine are articulated. It is only in the city that they belong. But Aristotle’s point is that a person without a city is not only deprived of the capacity to make such distinctions, but maintains the natural potency with regard to them. A person without culture, is therefore, worse off even than a creature incapable of entering into such partnerships.
The claim that the city, or the community, is generated and maintained by a partnership in such determinations of reason (as the good and the just) fits well with the nature of the social covenant for Hobbes. Each individual surrenders his or her liberty to come to an independent determination of these things in all cases. Each person must, for social living to involve anything more than a proximity of dwelling, permit a wider determination of reason, in which private estimations of value come within the scope of societal criticism, rebuke, and praise. There must be, in an important and nontrivial sense, conversation. Importantly, Hobbes adds that such social occlusion is only peaceful, that it only comes to rational closure, when there is a recognized (common and central) power to which private disputes are, in every case, deferred.
But why is such a closure important? For Hobbes, it would appear, that suspended judgment has no place in the motivational structure of the commonwealth. There must be complete resolution to contentious valuational difference in order that the rule of the sovereign flow freely. While unresolved rational disputes may be an annoyance for the Aristotelian Polity, or the Machiavellian Principality or Republic, within a Hobbesian Commonwealth they are mortally catastrophic. The causal structure of motivation, by which the coherence of the social order is maintained, has no intrinsic momentum. There is nothing to carry the community forward in time, without degeneration into anarchy and unintelligibility, other than the continuous rule of the master voice (the sovereign).
But for Aristotle clearly, and somewhat implicitly for Machiavelli, social coherence is not in such desperate need of instantaneous unity. To be sure, there is a requirement of broad unity and agreement; but this is only important insofar as it engenders a shared heritage, a common perspective, and a loose unity of presumptions. The determinations of common reason are only causally significant for social behavior to the degree that they contribute to a habit of particular sorts of rational deference.
All this is relevant to the rational method itself, because reasoning is not completely confined to the simple operations of addition and subtraction. The operands are words. Reason is in the first place speech. And while Hobbes is prepared to recognize the presence of words in reasoning, he appears unwilling to recognize the extent to which they invade the process itself. Words are notoriously conventional; and their conventionality extends to their inferential contexts.
Names and signifiers are admittedly arbitrary for Hobbes, but the inferential situatedness of meanings seems unproblematic; especially where a name or signifier corresponds directly with some physical phenomenon (other than the speech act itself). He takes as unproblematic the partitioning of the world by words, implicitly arguing that words which refer at all must have been generated by the partitions in the world. Words are viewed as having been taylored for and by the categories of objects and actions that actually exist. There is no room for the possibility (and for Hobbes, the methodological danger), as seems at least probable, that the arbitrariness of names extends to their inferential boundaries, and that the world is intelligibly susceptible to a wide range of linguistic partitionings.
More concretely, in this context, it may be seen that reasoning is not an instantaneous determination of the intellect. It is a complex temporal process, wherein accepted inferences are followed between signifiers. Hobbes allows that we are not born with such a capacity. It is something we learn. Indeed, it is our nature to learn it. But even when acquired, it continues to function by a patterning of behavior; it is a linguistic practice. As such, it requires a momentum of character particular of habit. And this is something Hobbes seems unprepared to accept, at least explicitly.
In a sense, Hobbes has been trapped by a physics of the instant. Superficially, he would complain that the language of habits conceals the more authentic causal order. Where is the habit? If it cannot be rendered immediately present to the senses (if you cannot point a finger at it, and proclaim, “There!”), then it seems indistinguishable from so many other phantoms of the intellect. But the same difficulty exists for physical inertia and momentum: it is nowhere to be seen. We can only comprehend it by its effect. How can we be epistemically confident in a thing we explicitly postulate. The fruits borne of modern science would have been impossible had it not been for the utility of such a conceptual liberality. Causality was, in the science of Galileo and Newton, to take a rude turn toward abandoning the instant (and the essential simultaneity of cause and effect), in favor of essentially temporal causes. But we need not look so far afield to see the advantage of a non-instantaneous casuistry.
Hobbes admits the power of education, and therein the natural authority of the household. Indeed, the commonwealth itself is imagined as a natural extension of such an environment. This is not simply the result of the centrality of the household in terms of the material sustenance of persons, but also of the role the household plays in the perfection of reasoning itself. It is in here that we learn the use of names, and the articulation of reasons. Aside from the obvious criticisms Aristotle would level at the equivocation of household rule and the rule of the commonwealth, it is his theory of habits (internal to a complex notion of character) which enables us to open the Hobbesian paradox, and notice that a person without a home, is a person without reason. The person without reason is without rule or right. The natural condition of persons, if they are to maintain the capacity of being an author of action, by the practice of meaningful reasoning, must begin from within some social fabric.
As is clear from the experiences civil war and strife, both in the contemporary experience of Hobbes, and our own time, the violent fragmentation of society does not have to do with a setting of each individual apart from every other, but with a localization of control to increasingly insular groups. Individual rouges of complete social alienation are not nearly so dangerous as the gangs and factions of social discontent. Total war cannot be a condition of every man for himself. Universal alienation is merely unintelligibility: no reason; no speech; no rational anxiety. Betrayed of reason, there is no “enemy”, and no “me”. Only act.