Made with Words: Hobbes on Language, Mind, and Politics

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They may respond rationally to the objects that command their attention, acting on the basis of reliable conditioning— acting, as Hobbes would say, with prudence—so as to satisfy their appetites. And they may display a sensitivity to general similarities and differences in doing so. But the phenomenology of their perceptual world will remain one of immersion in particularity.

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They will be lost in the hurly-burly of minute-to-minute stimulation and response, unable to gain any distance on what they register and know what they think about it—unable indeed to think about it at all. In either event, it is a case of vital or organic motion, akin to the beating of the heart or the adjustment of posture to kinesthetic cues.

People will no longer just undergo thought processes, as when this or that strikes them, or they are swept along in this or that train of associative or even regulative thought. They can now set themselves questions, identify the information they need in order to answer those questions, and undertake to consider what is true, as well as what follows from what, in a voluntary or intentional search for the answers to their questions.

This aspect of the transformation that language is supposed to occasion becomes clear as Hobbes elaborates on what we do with names or words. And it is because of serving in this role that they can facilitate voluntary thinking.

Made with Words: Hobbes on Language, Mind, and Politics

Words serve as signs when they are used to communicate our thoughts to others. As marks, they help me to recall at a later time something about an earlier conception of an object; thinking of the thing under a distinctive mark or name, I can recall the aspect under which it engaged my interests. As signs, words serve in the interpersonal communication of thought as distinct from its intertemporal, intrapersonal transmission.

The emphasis on the need to connect up words is not surprising.

The phrase on its own may serve me in memory as I recall a particular man—say, John Smith—and so classify him as human. For just as speaking with others is a voluntary activity, undertaken out of a desire to communicate interpersonally EL 5.

Thomas Hobbes

Once I am inducted into language, others can ask me questions and I can ponder the answers to give, as I can ask them questions and invite them to ponder the answers. But this being so, I can also ask myself questions, invite myself to ponder the answers, and take up that invitation in an intentional effort to deal with the questions. And doing this, plausibly, is precisely what active thinking requires.

Hobbes recognizes that there are many ways in which we use words, from keeping a record, to communicating the knowledge recorded, to making commitments, to entertaining our hearers L 4. The use of speech to keep a record—in particular a personal, mental record— illustrates the sort of voluntary activity in which we speak with ourselves and think out things in this active, voluntary way.

Hobbes clearly thinks that it is checking oneself with a view to attaining truth. This goal of attaining truth—the goal ultimately of method and science—becomes available with speech, and only with speech. The relationship between the two, he suggests, is like the relationship between numbering and numerals.

As numerals make counting possible, so language makes thinking possible: The use of words in registering our thoughts is in nothing so evident as in numbering. A natural fool that could never learn by heart the order of numeral words, as one, two, and three, may observe every stroke of the clock, and nod to it, or say one, one, one, but can never know what hour it strikes. Much less will he be able to add, and subtract, and perform all other operations of arithmetic. So that without words there is no possibility of reckoning of numbers. It gives us a nice instance of the claim that in the absence of words, thinking of any kind, numerical or otherwise, would be impossible.

The upshot is clear. As the access to numerals may be expected to transform the capacity to number, so the access to words may be expected to transform the capacity to think. But how do common meanings get established? Assuming that human beings are fundamentally alike L introduction, 3 , he almost certainly supposes that they will naturally form the same conceptions in response to the same stimuli.

And equally he allows that people may sometimes misspeak, as when a king gives expression to a state of mind—say, a permissive attitude—that is not consistent with the authority that he must be assumed to claim for himself L This attitude is in evidence when he writes in De Cive The exercise of reason in this usage is inherently inferential. Terms a to e may be the names of objects, such as the names of animals or collections of such animals; or the names of accidents, such as the names of colors or collections of such colors; or whatever. In any area, the pattern of connections between universal names and things will be as follows.

Thomas Hobbes (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

Given this pattern of association between terms and referents, it is possible to take the extension of a given term, add or subtract the extension of another term, and identify the result—in particular, see whether the result is the extension of any further term. Take term b, for example, and subtract term a from it; strictly, take the extension of term b and subtract the extension of term a from it. That means taking 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and removing 1, 2, 3 , which leaves 4, 5 , which is the extension of term e.

Or take term c 2, 3, 5 and subtract term d 2, 5 , and this will leave one object, 3—the object that we can refer to by the proper name 3. Again, take term a 1, 2, 3 and add term e 4, 5 , and this will give us term b 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. The pattern is straightforward. These patterns, as Hobbes observes, answer to patterns of inference. The term a has as its associated class referents 1, 2, and 3; the term b has referents 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5; the term c has referents 2, 3, and 5, and so on. We might say, along these lines, that if any object is b but not a, then it is e, or if it is c but not d, then it is 3.

And along these lines we might say that if any object is both a and e, then it is b. On this account, then, reasoning requires human beings to form beliefs not just about the things that nonhuman animals can form beliefs about but also about the words and sentences they use. Noticing that if something is a and e, as they believe it is, then it is also b, they come to form the belief that it is b, or perhaps to reject the belief that is it a and e.

And so on in other cases. Hobbes is not particularly original in his account of the sorts of relationships or patterns that are registered in reasoning; his views conform broadly to received Aristotelian theory.


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Now to compute, is either to collect the sum of many things that are added together, or to know what remains when one thing is taken out of another. So that all ratiocination is comprehended in these two operations of the mind, addition and subtraction. DCr 1. Second, he connects it with science and what he sees as a model of how reasoning should be conducted. And third, he represents it as a skill, not as an innate faculty; it is a skill developed from childhood on the basis of an induction in the use of words, not a capacity that comes on stream when the child reaches the age of reason.

For reckoning is something that regular folk do whenever they take out their counters and try to keep their accounts in order. The connection between reasoning and working with numbers, however, also gives Hobbes a basis for underscoring the high pitch to which the art can be taken, as evidenced in the successes of science.

There is a high ideal signaled by the equation of reasoning, even run-of-the-mill reasoning, with the art of addition and subtraction. But the equation between reasoning and numerical computation serves a third purpose for Hobbes as well. For by stressing the fact that reasoning depends on the availability of words, as more explicit forms of adding and subtracting depend on the availability of numerals, he breaks the spell of the traditional idea that reason is an innate faculty that is simply switched on at a certain stage of development DCv 2.

Such sapience, such reason, is like the capacity to play the piano; however dependent on native ability, it consists in a facility at a certain cultural task and presupposes individual training. The net effect of all this is to dethrone reason. In Hobbes, it ceases to be a divine spark lodged in the human heart—a source of light and inspiration—as it had been in almost all earlier, Western thought. It becomes a skill in the use of an artifact: something useful and precious, for sure, but also something entirely unmysterious and at base mechanical.

For Hobbes as for a fellow revolutionary like Descartes, the human body was nothing more than a complex machine. Think of this, in the computational idiom, as a capacity at the neurophysical, personally inaccessible level to manipulate an uninterpreted terminology—a language of thought Fodor —according to a certain pattern.

We can model Hobbesian numbering as an exercise in which that manipulative capacity is put to use with terms that have been given an interpretation as numerals.

And we can think of Hobbesian reasoning more generally as the employment of that capacity with terms that have been given an interpretation as ordinary names. It is worth noting, however, that his adherence to this computational model would enable him to deny that language alone could induce other animals to reason; for all that he says, they may lack the required computational ability. Although prelinguistic human beings have a mental life like that of other animals, they may be the only species to have the potential to be transformed by language.

Reason may be a developing skill, not an innate faculty that comes on stream at a certain age or under certain prompts. But it may still presuppose an innate faculty or capacity of the kind postulated in the computational model; it may not be capable of appearing and developing in the absence of such a faculty.

One crucial example is the truths of natural law, which I shall be discussing later. But natural law and civil science are still relatively theoretical disciplines. How can reasoning as characterized by Hobbes be relevant in more distinctively practical matters—say, in decisions about what to do? He does not address the question explicitly, but the only position that coheres with his practice is the view that the distinction between the two sorts of reasoning turns on the use to which they are put.

Seeing that p implies q may lead in the context of theoretical, belief-forming interests to believing q or not believing p, whereas it may lead in a practical, intention-forming context to deciding to make p true in order to make q true. Depending on whether it helps in the formation of judgment or will, it will constitute a theoretical or practical exercise. But while reasoning may take a theoretical or practical form, it should be noticed that Hobbes is not committed to thinking that whenever human beings form beliefs or intentions, whenever judgment or will materializes in them, there is reasoning.

We know that from his perspective, nonhuman animals form beliefs and desires, judgment and will, as well as human beings; this is one great point of contrast with Descartes, for whom only human beings have mental states. The difference between human and other animals is that human beings can reason or ratiocinate, and other animals cannot. Yet the fact that human beings can reason does not mean that they reason whenever their judgment or will forms.

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Let the linkages between words and their referents wobble or shift, and any attempt to reason will be jeopardized. When Hobbes makes this point, he is at one with a long logical tradition, according to which the term common to two sentences, by virtue of which the corresponding propositions appear to entail a third, must have the same meaning in each occurrence. Hobbes thinks there are many varieties of incoherence, of which one example would be using a word that names an accident of other words—say, the word universal—to bodies; thus, he can say that the belief in objective universals is not only false but incoherent L 5.

The third condition for reasoning well concerns the mode in which reasoning is carried out, rather than the ways in which the words used connect with things or one another. This is that the reasoning is followed through with care, exposed to the correction of others. For all men by nature reason alike, and well, when they have good principles.