Skip Nav

Thomas Hobbes

Navigation menu

❶This is the crunch point of Hobbes's argument, and it is here if anywhere that one can accuse Hobbes of "pessimism.

From the SparkNotes Blog

Academic Tools
Keep Exploring Britannica
Early life

They forbid many familiar vices such as iniquity, cruelty, and ingratitude. Although commentators do not agree on whether these laws should be regarded as mere precepts of prudence, or rather as divine commands, or moral imperatives of some other sort, all agree that Hobbes understands them to direct people to submit to political authority.

The social covenant involves both the renunciation or transfer of right and the authorization of the sovereign power. Political legitimacy depends not on how a government came to power, but only on whether it can effectively protect those who have consented to obey it; political obligation ends when protection ceases. Although Hobbes offered some mild pragmatic grounds for preferring monarchy to other forms of government, his main concern was to argue that effective government—whatever its form—must have absolute authority.

Its powers must be neither divided nor limited. The powers of legislation, adjudication, enforcement, taxation, war-making and the less familiar right of control of normative doctrine are connected in such a way that a loss of one may thwart effective exercise of the rest; for example, legislation without interpretation and enforcement will not serve to regulate conduct.

Similarly, to impose limitation on the authority of the government is to invite irresoluble disputes over whether it has overstepped those limits.

If each person is to decide for herself whether the government should be obeyed, factional disagreement—and war to settle the issue, or at least paralysis of effective government—are quite possible.

To avoid the horrible prospect of governmental collapse and return to the state of nature, people should treat their sovereign as having absolute authority. He argues that subjects retain a right of self-defense against the sovereign power, giving them the right to disobey or resist when their lives are in danger.

He also gives them seemingly broad resistance rights in cases in which their families or even their honor are at stake. These exceptions have understandably intrigued those who study Hobbes. It is not clear whether or not this charge can stand up to scrutiny, but it will surely be the subject of much continued discussion.

Hobbes progressively expands his discussion of Christian religion in each revision of his political philosophy, until it comes in Leviathan to comprise roughly half the book. There is no settled consensus on how Hobbes understands the significance of religion within his political theory. Scholars are increasingly interested in how Hobbes thought of the status of women, and of the family. Hobbes was one of the earliest western philosophers to count women as persons when devising a social contract among persons.

He insists on the equality of all people, very explicitly including women. People are equal because they are all subject to domination, and all potentially capable of dominating others. No person is so strong as to be invulnerable to attack while sleeping by the concerted efforts of others, nor is any so strong as to be assured of dominating all others. In this relevant sense, women are naturally equal to men. They are equally naturally free, meaning that their consent is required before they will be under the authority of anyone else.

He also argues for natural maternal right: He witnesses the Amazons. In seeming contrast to this egalitarian foundation, Hobbes spoke of the commonwealth in patriarchal language. Hobbes justifies this way of talking by saying that it is fathers not mothers who have founded societies. Such debates raise the question: To what extent are the patriarchal claims Hobbes makes integral to his overall theory, if indeed they are integral at all?

Very helpful for further reference is the critical bibliography of Hobbes scholarship to contained in Zagorin, P. Major Political Writings 2. The Philosophical Project 3. The State of Nature 4. Further Questions About the State of Nature 6. The Laws of Nature 7. Establishing Sovereign Authority 8. But Hobbes thinks at least that we will better understand how individuals interact in groups if we understand how individuals work.

Hobbes did not insist it was necessary to work through all the issues about individuals before tackling the issues about groups, as he acknowledged when he published the third part of the Elements of Philosophy De Cive first.

But he did think it helpful. Thus even in Leviathan , with its focus on political and religious matters, Hobbes starts with a story about the workings of the mind.

The first six chapters work through issues about the senses, imagination, language, reason, knowledge, and the passions.

Hobbes is a sort of empiricist, in that he thinks all of our ideas are derived, directly or indirectly, from sensation. Quite why this endeavour from inside to out should make the sensation seem to come from outside is unclear, for things coming from outside should be moving the other way.

At any rate, the sensation is strongly grounded in, perhaps even identical with, the internal motions. But what, we might ask, is the quality? What is, say, red? In this chapter Hobbes seems happy to say that red in the object is just motions in it, and that red in us is motions in us, which give rise to or are a certain sensation.

And he seems happy to avoid the issue of whether red itself belongs to the sensation or the object. His basic thought is that our sensations remain after the act of sensing, but in a weaker way: This is a story about how we form ideas.

That is, we can take the ideas, the faded sensations, from different experiences and combine them together. Imagination and memory, Hobbes says, are the same thing, with two names that point to different aspects of the phenomenon of decaying sense. Moreover, Hobbes thinks that understanding is a sort of imagination. That is, the faculty of imagining is responsible for understanding, as well as for compounding images and for memory. Understanding is not restricted to humans. But humans have a sort of understanding that other creatures lack.

A dog, for instance, can understand the will of its owner, say that its owner wants it to sit down. In general, the understanding that non-human animals can have is the understanding of will. Understanding is for Hobbes the work of the faculty of imagination, and crucially involves language.

An account of the workings of language is thus crucial for his having an account of the workings of the mind. For Hobbes, the mind contains sense, imagination, and the workings of language, and no further rational faculty, such as the Cartesian immaterial mind that can grasp natures by clear and distinct perception. His story about sensation, the formation of ideas, and the workings of imagination is supposed to explain how some of our thought works.

Hobbes denies the existence of that immaterial mind, and needs other accounts of those functions. This — combined no doubt with some independent interest in the topic — leads to Hobbes devoting a fair amount of attention to issues in the philosophy of language. But what is signification? One important question here is whether and how Hobbes distinguishes signification and the thing signified from naming and the thing named.

That is, Hobbes first introduces names as having a private use for individuals, to help them to bring particular ideas to mind. Notice here that though the point of using names is to recall ideas, the thing named is not necessarily an idea.

Later in that chapter, Hobbes starts to talk explicitly about signifying rather than naming. However, it is not at all clear that he really means to introduce signifying as a relation distinct from naming here. Indeed, he seems rather to be giving the same relation two different names.

In Leviathan and De Corpore something more complex goes on Duncan The equivalent chapters in Leviathan and De Corpore start in the same way, with discussions of the role of names as marks to aid the memory Hobbes , 4. Though there are hints of this account in Leviathan , it is set out in most detail in De Corpore. There Hobbes says that names alone are not signs: Someone might think that, and nevertheless have a derivative notion of what a word signifies.

Hobbes takes some steps in this direction. In particular, we can understand two words having the same signification as their being interchangeable without changing the signification of the utterance Hungerland and Vick , And some interpreters go further, and take Hobbes to believe that words signify ideas, which are the ideas they call to mind when used in utterances.

Hobbes is a nominalist: There is one name, and there are many trees. But there is not, Hobbes argues, some further thing that is the universal tree. Nor is there some universal idea that is somehow of each or all of the trees. What Hobbes calls common names, those words which apply to multiple things, are applied because of similarities between those things, not because of any relation to a universal thing or idea.

There are, in the minds of speakers, ideas related to those names, but they are not abstract or general ideas, but individual images of individual things. Leibniz put the point as follows. Hobbes seems to me to be a super-nominalist. For not content like the nominalists, to reduce universals to names, he says that the truth of things itself consists in names and what is more, that it depends on the human will, because truth allegedly depends on the definitions of terms, and definitions depend on the human will.

This is the opinion of a man recognized as among the most profound of our century, and as I said, nothing can be more nominalistic than it. Yet it cannot stand. In arithmetic, and in other disciplines as well, truths remain the same even if notations are changed, and it does not matter whether a decimal or a duodecimal number system is used Leibniz , However, he does endorse various claims about aspects of language and truth being conventional and arbitrary.

Some such claims are widely agreed upon: But Hobbes also endorses other, more controversial, claims of this sort. Most controversially perhaps, Hobbes thinks that there is a conventionality and arbitrariness in the way in which we divide the world up in to kinds.

That is, the groupings and kinds, though based in similarities, are not determined by those similarities alone, but also and primarily by our decisions, which involve awareness of the similarities, but also an arbitrary element. Hobbes describes reasoning as computation, and offers sketches of the computation that he thinks is going on when we reason. In De Corpore Hobbes first describes the view that reasoning is computation early in chapter one.

And to compute is to collect the sum of many things added together at the same time, or to know the remainder when one thing has been taken from another. In the section that follows, Hobbes gives some initial examples of addition in reasoning, which are examples of adding ideas together to form more complex ones. Hobbes also describes propositions and syllogisms as sorts of addition:.

In some sense we add the propositions, or at least bits of them: This is an intruiging suggestion, but seems not to be very far developed. This addition has to follow some rules, especially in the syllogistic case. But its conclusion too involves the addition of parts of the premises.

Presumably syllogistic addition, like arithmetic addition, must have its rules. And of course, Hobbes was aware of the properties of various good and bad arguments. Nor, indeed, is it clear what he really added to his discussion of the workings of the mind by his occasional use of such language.

Nevertheless, the notion that reasoning is computation has been referred back to more than once. Leibniz explicitly endorsed and developed it in one early work: And the idea appears to have continued to hold some appeal for him. The central idea of a modern computational theory of mind is that the mind is a sort of computer.

And very roughly, we might see Hobbes as saying the same thing. There are various mental processes compounding ideas, forming propositions, reasoning syllogistically that we can describe without knowing that reasoning is computation. By the time of Leviathan and De Corpore , Hobbes was convinced that human beings including their minds were entirely material.

This was not a popular or widely-held position at the time. Hobbes, however, was a materialist. Why was he a materialist? What need is there to postulate an immaterial mind when this perfectly good, and more minimal, explanation is available?

However, for the most part we do not find Hobbes explicitly stating that argument. All other names are but insignificant sounds; and those of two sorts. One when they are new, and yet their meaning not explained by definition; whereof there have been abundance coined by schoolmen, and puzzled philosophers.

Another, when men make a name of two names, whose significations are contradictory and inconsistent; as this name, an incorporeal body , or which is all one an incorporeal substance , and a great number more. For whensoever any affirmation is false, the two names of which it is composed, put together and made one, signify nothing at all Hobbes , 4.

Thus Hobbes apparently thinks that talk about incorporeal substances such as Cartesian unextended thinking things is just nonsense. But why does he think that? The gross errors of certain metaphysicians take their origin from this; for from the fact that it is possible to consider thinking without considering body, they infer that there is no need for a thinking body; and from the fact that it is possible to consider quantity without considering body, they also think that quantity can exist without body and body without quantity, so that a quantitative body is made only after quantity has been added to a body.

Hobbes attacks various views associated with the Scholastic Aristotelian tradition as resting on that mistake. One aim of this critical passage is to support materialism by showing a problem with the belief that there can be thought without a body. He was not, as he is sometimes misrepresented, a…. Man subjects himself to the…. Major works of political philosophy Spinoza In Benedict de Spinoza: Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy - Thomas Hobbes: Articles from Britannica Encyclopedias for elementary and high school students.

Help us improve this article! Contact our editors with your feedback. You may find it helpful to search within the site to see how similar or related subjects are covered. Any text you add should be original, not copied from other sources. At the bottom of the article, feel free to list any sources that support your changes, so that we can fully understand their context. Internet URLs are the best.

Thank You for Your Contribution! There was a problem with your submission. Please try again later. Keep Exploring Britannica Sigmund Freud. Sigmund Freud, Austrian neurologist, founder of psychoanalysis.

An encyclopedia of philosophy articles written by professional philosophers.

Main Topics

Privacy Policy

Thomas Hobbes (/ h ɒ b z /; 5 April – 4 December ), in some older texts Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury, was an English philosopher who is considered one of .

Privacy FAQs

All of Hobbes’s major writings are collected in The English Works of Thomas Hobbes, edited by Sir William Molesworth (11 volumes, London –45), and Thomae Hobbes Opera Philosophica Quae Latina Scripsit Omnia, also edited by Molesworth (5 volumes; London, –45).

About Our Ads

Thomas Hobbes was born in Westport, adjoining Malmesbury, England, on April 5, His father was the disgraced vicar of a local parish, and in the wake of the precipitating scandal (caused by brawling . Thomas Hobbes: Moral and Political Philosophy. The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes () is best known for his political thought, and deservedly so. His vision of the world is strikingly original and still relevant to contemporary politics. What are the writings that earned Hobbes his philosophical fame? The first was entitled.

Cookie Info

Thomas Hobbes (–), whose current reputation rests largely on his political philosophy, was a thinker with wide-ranging interests. In philosophy, he defended a range of materialist, nominalist, and empiricist views against Cartesian and Aristotelian alternatives. His scientific writings present all observed phenomena as the effects of matter in motion. Among the most-influential philosophers of law from the early modern period was Thomas Hobbes (–), whose theory of law was a novel amalgam of themes from both the natural-law and command-theory traditions. He also offered some of the.