August 17, 2008

Phillip Pettit's Hobbes

Phillip Pettit, the Professor of Political Philosophy at Princeton, is one of the most formidable political thinkers around today. Pettit's latest book explores an innovative line of interpretation which suggests a real connection between Hobbes's thinking about science and the mind and his thinking about politics. What Pettit argues is that Hobbes did something truly innovative- that he changed the face of political philosophy in a much more fundamental way. He suggests that Hobbes's thinking came out of the collapse of the medieval picture of the world, a world ordered by divinity to its own purposes. After the scientific revolutions of the sixteenth and seventeenth century, that divinely ordered world seemed implausible- Descartes and his followers believed in a more mechanistic universe. Descartes however argued that the world was dualistic- mind and matter both existed in the world and were different substances. Hobbes disagreed- he thought that mind was matter and that there was no distinction between the two. How then did he come to explain the unique faculties of the human mind? Descartes couldn't without inventing a separate substance from matter- mind- Hobbes had a different view.

Hobbes argued that human minds were similar to the minds of animals. Both were mechanical, responding to motion in the outside world. Both minds reacted to things that stimulated them with desire and to those that did not with aversion. Minds learnt- Hobbes called this prudence from experience. So animals tended to adopt certain trails or hideouts to catch their prey- and human beings extended that faculty into the construction of histories and proverbs. Prudence Hobbes suggested was a part of knowledge- imperfect but useful- and it was shared by both human beings and animals. But human beings did something different- they had located a technology- Hobbes does not provide an account of how but he does provide an account of why this technology was so significant- that technology being words.

Words enabled human beings to do a number of things. Firstly it enabled them to construct universals- to pick out characteristics common to their observation and suggest that these things constituted identities. Human beings made the identity of objects. Furthermore they constructed abstractions from those identities- so seeing shapes in the world meant that humans devised perfect shapes, that did not exist, and labelled them square, triangle, circle and gave them definitions. Secondly language constructed personhood- it gave human beings the ability to impersonate and represent each other to each other. It gave them the ability to argue from their own perspective. Thirdly it gave them the ability to incorporate- to create corporations or groups of individuals- Hobbes uses the example of a mercantile company or indeed a state to suggest to us how this might happen. But words created a problem or rather two problems: they created competition between humans- what Rousseau called amour-propre, a self love based upon the destruction of others- and furthermore they created a concept of the future in people's minds, a future which might and probably, given natural animal equality, would be insecure- such insecurity would lead humans to take measures to protect themselves- measures that would lead to life for everyone being 'nasty, brutish and short'.

So what did Hobbes believe would get you out of such a difficult situation. Hobbes argued that there was no single person in a state of nature (a place without a state) who could end this situation- no one could force everyone else into a state nor will people in a state of nature be able to accept a state of equality, after all they would have no guarantee that others would accept the state of equality. The only method to get out of the state of nature would be the appointment by contract of a sovereign who was completely absolute. Any other authority would be unable to guarantee the security of people- because another authority- be it legal or parliamentary would not be a safeguard for the people but a competing authority that would create conflict, argument and strife. Hobbes suggested that such a sovereign would be limited rather by the fact that its authority was limited by the condition of the contract- i.e. that he managed to perpetuate a peaceful society. The sovereign's main activity though was to extend and deliver legislation: that took two basic forms. One was a constitutive form- the sovereign would define the meaning of property- create rights from persons over the world which could not be competed with because they would be backed by sovereign power. Furthermore the sovereign would enable people to trust each others' words, and form corporations themselves, because he would guarantee that free riders would be prosecuted and dealt with.

The last key question Pettit introduces is Hobbes's concept of liberty. Most theorists of his time would have argued that Hobbes's sovereign would have seriously impinged upon his subject's liberty. They saw liberty as the opposite of slavery: and would have argued that the subject in Hobbes's state was unable to make any decision because he would always live in fear of what the sovereign might do to him. Hobbes argued that this was a false view of liberty- as he defined liberty, redefined liberty, as the ability to do something- and argued that whatever views might influence you in doing something were irrelevant. So for example Hobbes argued that the fact that the sovereign could decide to execute you for having done something, still meant you were free to do it. Therefore Hobbes argues that the sovereign that he has constructed does not impinge at all on your liberty but guarantees your security.

Pettit's argument about the construction of Hobbes's sovereign is fairly traditional and fits well with most other understandings on the subject. However his understanding of Hobbes's philosophy of language is very innovative and very interesting. Hobbes definitely spends a lot of time in most of his philosophical tracts- particularly his last one Leviathan- in discussing language. In Behemoth, his argument about the civil war's origins in England, he suggested that the English civil war owed much of its origins to the careless use of language by university professors. It is definitely a strand of thinking within Hobbes's thought- and though I have not investigated Pettit's work on the texts I find his theory plausible.

Where I do worry though is that Pettit treats Hobbes's philosophy as a monolithic enterprise. Hobbes wrote three books- the Elements of Law, De Cive, Leviathan- and a number of more minor treatises like the Dialogue between the Philosopher and the Common Lawyer and Behemoth. Pettit quotes mainly from the major works- but he does treat them as though they all had the same argument- which I'm not so sure is entirely accurate. He refers to Professor Skinner's argument that Hobbes's view on liberty changed but does not refute the argument that Professor Skinner makes. I do not mean to suggest that Professor Skinner is entirely right: but Hobbes made different choices in the set up of his works, published several works about the same subject over a decade (and then nothing afterwards apart from translations of previously published works- the Latin Leviathan!) and that suggests to me that his argument evolved rather than stayed exactly the same. However I have not investigated it and cannot prove that. Furthermore Pettit, like most of the rest of the literature about Hobbes, concentrates on the non-religious elements of Hobbes's thought- Hobbes though spent plenty of time examining and rejecting the claims of particular churches in politics and it would have been interesting to hear more about the strategies with which he undermined their use of the Bible.

However despite those minor caveats, this is a really interesting piece of work. Its a fine introduction to Hobbes which has a provocative theme and deserves to be read widely. It deserves to be read both because Pettit's interpretation and his argument are interesting, but more because of Hobbes's continuing relevance to the world in which we live. Hobbes is one of the thinkers who best articulated some of the problems of modernity- this new understanding of Hobbes through his anthropology of language merely supports that fundamental insight. Reexamining Hobbes has provided generations of political thinkers from Rousseau onwards with nourishment and his thinking, especially about liberty, underlies much of what people think about today. (A little recognised irony is that the begetter of the libertarian idea of liberty was himself a pronounced absolutist.) Hobbes may be wrong, but he is wrong in provocative and interesting way- and Pettit's take on Hobbes is one of the most fascinating around. In short this is an exciting argument about one of the indispensable philosophers- and it deserves a wide audience.