Hobbes and Language

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Jason Kuznicki

Jason Kuznicki is a research fellow at the Cato Institute and contributor of Cato Unbound. He's on twitter as JasonKuznicki. His interests include political theory and history.

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19 Responses

  1. Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

    In between postmodernism and classical thought, we did find out that logical systems are themselves limited.

    I’ve always wondered what the world would have been like if the geopolitical changes and the political and philosophical thinkers that occurred between 1750 and 1930 instead happened after Heisenberg and Goedel… or what would have happened if they had come first.

    There’s lots of good thinkers in that 180 years who wrote a lot of fascinating theory all of which had the weakness that they were working off the assumption that there was an answer.Report

  2. Avatar Murali says:

    Jason, Hobbes is not talking about deciding politics by calculation, but about being precise about our definitions and axioms and thus avoiding errors that are often found in more casual and informal modes of argumentation.

    Hobbes seems to be saying that as long as our initial definitions and axioms are grounded in our empirical sensibility, the deductions thereof will not seem too absurd or counter-intuitive. I think he is being overly optimistic about this. This kind of anglophone empiricism eventuaaly culminated in a kind of Berkelian idealism which, for all that can be said about it, is still very counterintuitive.Report

    • Avatar Tom Van Dyke in reply to Murali says:

      I’m in the zone w/Murali, that Hobbes is using “science” in the sense of scientia, knowledge as opposed to opinion.  “Science” sometimes refers in the essay to what we think of science, other times to a precision in terms, therefore with a particular [and proper] aversion to sophistry, which exploits the ambiguity in words and leads to invalid arguments.

      “The Light of humane minds is Perspicuous Words, but by exact definitions first snuffed, and purged from ambiguity; Reason is the pace; Encrease of Science, the way; and the Benefit of man-kind, the end. And on the contrary, Metaphors, and senslesse and ambiguous words, are like ignes fatui; and reasoning upon them, is wandering amongst innumerable absurdities; and their end, contention, and sedition, or contempt.”Report

      • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

        If you are correct, then the entire passage about sums and arithmetic is not only superfluous but misleading, as is the whole of chapter v:

        When a man Reasoneth, hee does nothing else but conceive a summe totall, from Addition of parcels; or conceive a Remainder, from Substraction of one summe from another: which (if it be done by Words,) is conceiving of the consequence of the names of all the parts, to the name of the whole; or from the names of the whole and one part, to the name of the other part. And though in some things, (as in numbers,) besides Adding and Substracting, men name other operations, as Multiplying and Dividing; yet they are the same; for Multiplication, is but Adding together of things equall; and Division, but Substracting of one thing, as often as we can. These operations are not incident to Numbers onely, but to all manner of things that can be added together, and taken one out of another. For as Arithmeticians teach to adde and substract in numbers; so the Geometricians teach the same in lines, figures (solid and superficiall,) angles, proportions, times, degrees of swiftnesse, force, power, and the like; The Logicians teach the same in Consequences of words; adding together two Names, to make an Affirmation; and two Affirmations, to make a Syllogisme; and many Syllogismes to make a Demonstration; and from the summe, or Conclusion of a Syllogisme, they substract one Proposition, to finde the other. Writers of Politiques, adde together Pactions, to find mens duties; and Lawyers, Lawes, and facts, to find what is right and wrong in the actions of private men. In summe, in what matter soever there is place for addition and substraction, there also is place for Reason; and where these have no place, there Reason has nothing at all to do.

        And so on.  I can’t agree that this is unrelated to his political project, or just a sideshow.  He means to find something important here.Report

    • Avatar Chris in reply to Murali says:

      Oh, I think Jason’s got Hobbes exactly right. He (Hobbes) means science, not as we do (because we think of a specific method), but much closer to what we mean than scientia or Wissenschaft. For Hobbes, science was rigorous, though not (strictly, or even primarily) empirical (because our empirical reasoning sucks), but deductive. It is the only way of doing things right, and intended to remove the errors of human judgment. Again, this is much more specific than Wissenschaft. It’s science like we do it, but with demonstration rather than experimentation at its core. And as the last few hundred years of tinkering with the scientific method have shown, the demonstration and deduction part is not only limited, but leads down the sorts of garden paths that Hobbes says bad definitions do.

       Report

  3. Avatar BlaiseP says:

    Politics isn’t that far from becoming a science, though what passes for PoliSci these days is a bit of a contradiction in terms.   People are awfully predictable.  A true science of politics might look something like weather prediction, as great masses of air and water seek equilibrium.   Speaking as a guy who develops predictive models for a living, it’s not all that far off.   Bertrand Russell said it’s already here in Beyond Freedom and Dignity.Report

    • Avatar Chris in reply to BlaiseP says:

      Speaking as a guy who’s had to listen to talks about some of those models (not yours, obviously) at conferences, we’re really pretty far off.Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Chris says:

        What passes for political “science” is neither truly political nor scientific.  I’ve always been one who believes the model is at best a simulacrum of the How and Whats.   They fail when we try to derive the Whys.  There’s lots to learn from failed models.  The difference between the prediction and the outcome always points out the need for some hitherto-unforeseen rule.   When models become overly complex, they betray underlying fallacies, the most obvious such model was Ptolemy’s.

        The Science of Politics is roughly where chemistry was when alchemy was on its way out of favor.  Effective science does not seek to control the world but instead to understand it.   Politicians and campaign managers still seek magic spells, attempting to harness the forces of fear and herd instinct, the better to shill their candidate.

        Once, the word Glamour meant a spell of illusion.   Thus was Arthur sired upon Ygraine with the help of Merlin, his father Uther made to resemble Gorlois for one night.  Politicians, especially American politicians, seek glamour more than wisdom, knowing it’s the sizzle that sells steak.

        And every time the spell of illusion wafts away, we moan and curse ourselves, as if we didn’t know the rules of glamour, that it can never last, that appearances are deceiving, that we choose among these morons like so many adolescent children mooning over some movie star, projecting our own hopes and desires onto these plastic politicians.   Obama made no secret of his strategy, to appeal to our innermost hopes and dreams of a post-political world.  It’s love’s illusions we recall.

        Our deepest wish is to always to be loved.   Strip away the illusions of love and we’re given the icky details of procreation and power, of dopamine and our own brains, discharging like biological capacitors in orgasm, the dull misery of pregnancy and the stench of diapers.   Were it not for the illusions, our species would die off, I’m sure of it.   The dissected rabbit never hops again.   Flay the unicorn pelt off a politician and we are given much the same picture, of desire and the ceaseless lusting for power.   We seem to require all that bunting and the marching bands, the bullshit promises of love everlasting, knowing it is all a sham and a lie.

        So we moved, and they, in a formal pattern,
        Along the empty alley, into the box circle,
        To look down into the drained pool.
        Dry the pool, dry concrete, brown edged,
        And the pool was filled with water out of sunlight,
        And the lotos rose, quietly, quietly,
        The surface glittered out of heart of light,
        And they were behind us, reflected in the pool.
        Then a cloud passed, and the pool was empty.
        Go, said the bird, for the leaves were full of children,
        Hidden excitedly, containing laughter.
        Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
        Cannot bear very much reality.
        Time past and time future
        What might have been and what has been
        Point to one end, which is always present.Report

    • BlaiseP, this comment really helped me see clearly where you’re coming from.Report