Hobbes' Life & Work
by Garth Kemerling. Be sure to use the extensive links to relavant names and ideas.

On Hobbes's Leviathan
Summaries and observations on this great work from Garth Kemerling.

The Leviathan
A searchable version of
the 1660 text by Hobbes.

Hobbes's Moral and
Political Philosophy

A concise and incisive analysis by Sharon A. Lloyd.



Thomas Hobbes: mechanism

One great lesson we learn from a study of philosophy is how interconnected the areas of human thought are. This matters much in an age where specialization and expertise are accepted as the norm. Hobbes provides an excellent object-lesson in connectedness, as he sought to ground the most complex topics (political and social organization) on observations about the physical world and logical method.

Hobbes produced one of the most sophisticated accounts of mechanist philosophy of the 17th century. Mechanism is the view that everything can be explained in terms of the causal relations of material objects. This view relies on philosophical materialism, which holds that there is only one category of things in existence; the stuff of the material world (whatever that is). Materialism and mechanism are opposed to philosophies of Dualism in which two distinct categories of things exist. Plato's two-level view of reality and Descartes' mind-body distinction are Dualist ideas.

Materialist and mechanist ideas have been around for a long time. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) recognized those ideas as major competators to religious philosophy when he posed them as Objection 2 in his famous Five Ways;

"all natural things can be reduced to one principle which is nature; and all voluntary things can be reduced to one principle which is human reason, or will."

Hobbes certainly did hold that all things could be reduced to a single set of principles. This reduction applies to logic, physics, biology, psychology, morality, and politics. In the Leviathan, he builds from each of these in stages, showing how the later are based on principles of the former.

Hobbes asserts that all human actions, voluntary and involuntary, have their beginnings in bodily processes that he calls endeavours. These processes might take place in the brain or the muscles or whatever - that is a matter for physiologists to work out. The important point is that there is an interal physical process at the causal end of every human action. We are complex mechanisms.

Hobbes further asserts;

"This endeavour, when it is toward something which causes it, is called appetite, or desire, the latter being the general name, and the other oftentimes restrained to signify the desire of food, namely hunger and thirst. And when the endeavour is from ward something, it is generally called aversion....That which men desire they are said to love, and to hate those things for which they have aversion. So that desire and love are the same thing; save that by desire, we signify the absence of the object; by love, most commonly the presence of the same. So also by aversion, we signify the absence; and by hate, the presence of the object." [Leviathan, Ch. VI]

Here is the transition from the physical-biological world to the psychological. The material processes that produce all actions are also given as the explanation of all human motivations. We are attracted to some things, repelled by others and indifferent (contempt) to still others. Our actions follow these motivating forces that Hobbes calls passions.

From the dynamics of human motivations, Hobbes further derives the basis of all values - good and evil.

"But whatsoever is the object of any man's appetite or desire, that is it which he for his part calleth good; and the object of his hate and aversion, evil; and of his contempt, vile and inconsiderable. For these words of good, evil, and contemptible are ever used with relation to the person that useth them: there being nothing simply and absolutely so; nor any common rule of good and evil to be taken from the nature of the objects themselves." [Leviathan, Ch. VI]

This passage makes clear that good or evil is dependent upon the individual human being. Different people will see different things as good or evil depending on their appetites, aversions, and circumstances. Hobbes is a subjectivist when it comes to values. There is no objective basis in the things themselves for judgment of good or evil; the objective world is value neutral. Thus, if there is to be any objective guide to values at all, it must come from human beings. This is not an attractive view to religious and spiritual thinkers, but it is worth allowing this view (if just for the sake of argument) in order to see where Hobbes succeeeds in taking it.

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