Lessons From A Skeptic About Hobbes

During my first semester of teaching philosophy, in my class on Hobbes and social contract theory, I introduced my students to the usual excerpts from Leviathan: the passages in which Hobbes describes the severely attenuated and impoverished life that awaits those who live in a state of nature, how this creates the need for a sovereign maintainer of power, and so on. As I did so, I was brought up short by a line of questioning directed at me by a student.

First, the student asked me if I knew where Hobbes was ‘raised’–where was he born, where did he grow up. I lamely answered ‘England’ even as I knew few to no details beyond that: I did not know the extent of his travels or journeys to lands elsewhere. ‘Hobbes’ was the name I attached to a particular theory; it was the author’s name. That recognized and acknowledged, I moved on to the theory associated with it, figuring out where and how the theoretical particulars I read about were associated with other theories. Those were the objects of my concern, not the author. I decontextualized the theory, not caring where it came from, who presented it, where and when it might have been written; the premises and conclusions of the various theoretical moves I encountered were evaluated and considered but that was about it.

Second, the student asked me how Hobbes had arrived at the view of human nature he had presented in Leviathan: had he observed such behavior in action, had he traveled to lands that were pre-political in the way Hobbes imagined it? Perhaps Hobbes’ view of human nature was a narrow one, based only on the experiences he had observed, and could not be extrapolated to all mankind, and thus could not serve as the basis for a supposedly universal theory of political philosophy? In response, I said that Hobbes’ was not relying on empirical knowledge of a known state of nature as much as he was providing a kind of rational reconstruction of how the existent political state with its contingent features came to be, based on a generalization of various aspects of human nature assumed or presumed to be universal because of their seeming ubiquity in human behavior. But, my student persisted, Hobbes’ theory was supposed to apply to all humans; it was made without reference to time or place; how could it claim such universality? When I made reference again to the extrapolation based on incomplete knowledge, on a certain kind of psychological generalization, my student pressed me on whether such an induction was justified or not. I found myself a little flummoxed by this line of questioning and do not remember if I had an adequate response at the time for my student.

I was aware of the context in which this discussion was taking place. My student was a young black man; he was reading a text which described an achievement of ‘Western philosophy’ and which made reference to a primitive form of man, one whose shortcomings were overcome by a particular philosophical maneuver associated with the ‘West.’ Perhaps the student had himself been assimilated to this ‘primitive man;’ perhaps the student had encountered schools of thought which regarded ‘primitive man’ as morally deficient in the ways in which Hobbes’ theory at first glance understood him. Perhaps my student was resisting Hobbes’ view of man because he regarded the view as not being benign in the way that other students might have.

My education then was incomplete; I was a graduate student still working on my dissertation. I had not thought much about the provenance of the theories I read and discussed; I had not thought of their varying implications for their diverse audiences. My student was not the only learner in that discussion in the classroom.

Descartes, The Planned City, And Misplaced Philosophical Desires

In Part 2 of Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason and Seeking for Truth in the Sciences Rene Descartes, as a prelude to his ‘clearing away’ of prior philosophy, writes:

[T]here is very often less perfection in works composed of several portions, and carried out by the hands of various masters, than in those on which one individual alone has worked. Thus we see that buildings planned and carried out by one architect alone are usually more beautiful and better proportioned than those which many have tried to put in order and improve, making use of old walls which were built with other ends in view. In the same way also, those ancient cities which, originally mere villages, have become in the process of time great towns, are usually badly constructed in comparison with those which are regularly laid out on a plain by a surveyor who is free to follow his own ideas….we understand how difficult it is to bring about much that is satisfactory in operating only upon the works of others.

Interestingly enough, as the examples of Chandigarh, Brasilia, and Canberra show, the planned city, built from scratch to purpose, the product of a singular architectural vision, is very often a counterpart to the bustling, chaotic, cosmopolitan cities whose growth has proceeded, at best, along an entirely haphazard trajectory.The ostensible beauty of the planned city’s design has not compensated for its lack of history, the absence of accretions of culture and lives lived within its precincts; the planned city gets off the ground with little interference from what came before, but it does not encourage riffs and improvisation. The planned city offers a gleaming surface and little else; it lacks the blemishes that speak of a rich interior. It has set itself apart, and there it shall stay. (No offense is intended to the residents of these cities; still, I think they would agree their city’s lack of a past, its ab initio origins, contribute in some measure to the contrast it offers to the great metropolises of the world.)

There is much that goes wrong with Western philosophy thanks to Descartes: the obsession with system building, the epistemic foundationalism, the quest for certainty, the alignment of philosophy with the sciences and mathematics, the appearance-reality distinction, the desire to ground truths in something beyond the human, the divorce of philosophy from history. (These sins cannot all be laid at Descartes door, of course; Plato is the original culprit for many of them.) Here, in the Discourse, we see the glimmerings of another problematic vision, one manifest in domains other than philosophy as well: that works made in splendid solitude are necessarily inferior to those made jointly with others, through acts of creative, even if sometimes clumsy and flawed, appropriation and improvisation. In doing so, Descartes reinforces–among other things–the fallacy of the lone creator, the solitary artist, the self-made man, the sole author.

Ironically, Descartes ended up generating a great deal of undergrowth that hasn’t been cleared yet (or alternatively, a foundation that still tempts too many of those who came after.)