Wednesday, July 28, 2021

A latter day Hobbes?

When you read the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes you can't help but notice how well it fits with the mindset of some people today. There are Hobbesians among us.

In previous posts I have summarised the philosophy of Hobbes, as set out by Michael Allen Gillespie in his book The Theological Origins of Modernity. Here are some choice quotes from the book outlining Hobbes's ideas:

We are all only individual beings, determined by our idiosyncratic passions. Good and evil for each of us is thus measured not by our progress toward a rational, natural, or supernatural end but by the vector of our desire. No direction is naturally better than any other. Good is what pleases us, evil what displeases us, good what reinforces our motion, evil what hinders it.

And this:

For Hobbes reason means something different than what it did for his predecessors. It is not a separate power that can discern the appropriate ends of life and guide us in a proper direction. It is thus not teleological but instrumental, the spy and scout of the passions. It thus helps us to maximise the satisfaction of our desires but not to train, direct or control them.

 And finally this: 

Thus, while we all desire to exist, what any one of us wants to exist for or wants out of existence can only be specified by the individual. The happiness of each individual thus depends upon his getting what he wants, and this is related to his power...Such power is the basis for what Hobbes believes is rightly called freedom.

You can see here the logic of nominalism (that there are only individual instances of things) and a certain type of materialism (that we are just matter in motion) in undermining a "teleology" - a view that there are proper ends to human life that are discernible through reason. 

What you have instead is a belief that it is the freedom to pursue my own idiosyncratic wants that matters. It does not matter so much what these wants are - one direction is neither better nor worse than another. The important thing is that I have the power to follow my desires without external interference. 

The implications of all this become clearer when you see these ideas expressed in debate. For instance, I recently saw the following posted on social media:

Now, whether or not you completely agree with this assertion, note that this is not Hobbesian, as it suggests that women do have a "telos", a distinct end in life to fulfil. Predictably, this drew a horrified response from some readers, who shuddered at the thought that womanhood might be linked in a meaningful way to motherhood. I noted this in the thread:

Now, perhaps you think that I was exaggerating in my last remark. But consider what follows when I enter into debate with a poster named Steven.

Steven is channelling Hobbes when he claims that the purpose attached to womanhood is "whatever the woman wants". The argument continued:

I've tried to explain in the comments above that in practice denying that we have natural ends in life does not free the individual to do anything, but instead provides no limits to what is expected of the individual within a technocratic social order. Why would a society be organised to facilitate family formation, a culture of stable family relationships, and the fulfilment of a fatherhood and motherhood role, if none of these are rational, natural or supernatural ends of men and women? 

The digging deeper into Hobbesian soil continued:

It was part of the Hobbesian philosophy that no direction is better than any other. And here we have a latter day Hobbesian claiming much the same thing: that hedonism is as meaningful a direction as responsible parenthood.

Steven is claiming here that the category of womanhood is meaningful because that is how some people define themselves and that it doesn't matter what womanhood is actually thought to be. It could be made to be one thing or something entirely contradictory to that thing. There is no rational limit to how we can define anything, it is an arbitrary decision of the individual (who, in a sense, gets to act just like the God of nominalism).

(Note as well that Steven believes that it is either his wife who gets to define womanhood or else me doing it for her - the option that womanhood is a real thing that both of us can perceive is not part of his mental framework. This fits Hobbes's view that freedom is the power to have my own "motion" left unhindered by that of any other person.)

Steven then began to more aggressively defend his wife's status as a woman. I wondered why he would so vigorously defend a category which he had, to this point, reduced to a merely subjective and arbitrary choice:

Steven chose not to budge from his radical Hobbesian/nominalist framework:

There is a lot to draw from this exchange, but I'll just briefly mention two things. First, Steven's position is a "dissolving" one. This too fits in with Hobbes's philosophy, in particular with his scornful rejection of "quiddity" - the inherent essence or nature of people or things. Second, we have to be open to the possibility that the philosophical foundations of the modern West are part of the problem we face today. In other words, the problem is not just that one political leader, or party, or movement has put things off course, but rather that there are some philosophical assumptions that became prominent in the early modern period that need to be rethought. 


  1. When you're dealing with a man who feels it necessary to tell you what his personal pronouns are then you're dealing with someone who cannot be reasoned with.

    What's incredibly amusing is that such people who feel it necessary to believe that personal pronouns are a choice are slavishly conforming to social norms imposed on them by the media (and social media). So they actually have no autonomy or individualism. They are merely part of the herd.

    Every single comment he made was just regurgitated nonsense that had been fed to him by media/social media. There's not the slightest evidence of original thought.

    1. What's incredibly amusing is that such people who feel it necessary to believe that personal pronouns are a choice are slavishly conforming to social norms imposed on them by the media

      Yes, no doubt about that. They "just happen" to all share the same beliefs that "just happen" to be the beliefs of their own time. They find it difficult to believe anyone could think otherwise and are "shocked" if someone disagrees. And yet they think they are non-conformist free thinkers.

  2. It would be more coherent if your interlocutor, given his Hobbesian framework would just admit that there is no such thing as womanhood or anything that it means to be a woman. Imagine trying to do geometry with someone that said "how dare you impose your definition of a triangle as a three sided polygon. A triangle is anything an individual wants it to be". Geometry would be impossible. It seems to me that a Hobbesian framework makes rational dialog impossible, since there is no external or objective essence to anything. If all there is are equally valid subjective perspectives and desires, then rational dialog is not possible.

    1. Yes, good point. If he were merely disagreeing with my definition of womanhood it would be possible to have a rational discussion. If he were merely doubting that womanhood could be adequately defined, there would still be the possibility of debate. But he goes much further than this and condemns as bigotry the very attempt to objectively define womanhood. So, rather than rational dialogue there can only be everyone tolerating everyone else's subjective reality, no matter what it is. There's not much to say to each other, there is no common ground to share, apart from a commitment to tolerance/diversity/non-discrimination etc. It becomes a norm to think that we are all going to inhabit our own separate worlds that don't really connect with each other, that don't intersect. We are atomised, not just socially, but in having our own wholly discrete understanding of what things are, including ourselves.

  3. This is a fascinating, and very important dialogue here. Well done.

    This has large political, theological and epistemological implications for how and why society is like it is!! All in a seeming simple and innocent question of what defines the term woman.

  4. I would just add that this also ties in with what CS Lewis wrote in 'Men without Chests', on the consequences of the seemingly innocent argument that a waterfall, for example, is not beautiful, but only that the viewer finds pleasing to himself and his own reactions thereof.

    There's quite big fish nibbling at the end of this line.

    1. "There's quite big fish nibbling at the end of this line."

      Yes, I think so. You would not have known it from the initial statements of my interlocutors, which were phrased along the lines that I was trying to limit women to being just one thing. But if you patiently draw out the philosophy that lies just beneath these surface statements, what then emerges are those larger political, theological and epistemological issues you mentioned - which is where the debate should really take place.

  5. I've had similar arguments with unencumbered leftists and it is striking how they can, with persistent good faith dialogue, end up in some far out places. In one case transhumanism was their end point.

    The development of their thinking seems to be dependent on an angry refutation of the more traditional views of others (e.g., your position on womanhood). "Meaningfulness has no meaning" is truly meaningless without a positive backdrop conveniently supplied by others. I'm not sure if these views are based more in escapism or nihilism, but the angry defensiveness gives us important clues.

    Whatever this person thinks of womanhood is undoubtedly a reflection of what they think of morality in general. Does Steven regard a dim view of rape or murder as being somehow bigoted?

  6. You call Steven a leftist but he could just as easily be a conservative (or what passes for one today) because conservatives believe the same thing about women as he. To take one example, conservatives see nothing wrong with Ashli Babbitt's background or her actions the day she died. They see nothing wrong with a woman joining the armed forces and taking part in a dangerous political protest. Can you imagine a woman taking part in the Boston tea protests, or joining the Continental Army? It would have been unthinkable in the 1700s for a woman to do such things because that culture didn't leave a woman's role up to her choosing. Conservatives not only take this Hobbesian manner of thinking for granted, they defend it as a form of personal liberty.

    This is also why conservatives can't say anything substantive about transgenderism. They don't like transgenderism, but they can't seem to figure out why.

    According to conservatives, the issue with transgenderism is:

    1. They are not what they say they are, so the issue is about dishonesty/fraud. But so what if they aren't what they claim to be? Lots of people aren't what they pretend to be. You could make the case that the mainstream political right isn't what it says it is.
    2. They hurt women by winning medals in women's sports (itself a form of transgenderism) and by sexually assaulting them in changing rooms, restrooms and women's prisons. Sexual assault already occurs in these environments. Why is it worse when it is man on woman? Conservatives can't explain why.
    3. They are mentally ill. Again, so what? So are people with bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder can lead to all sorts of terrible things like suicide.

    The only reason transgenderism was able to get off the ground in Western culture is because it contains no barriers to womanhood. Feminists have done everything in their power to separate womanhood from motherhood and conservatives have gone right along with it.

    Suppose an Amish man wanted to transition from a man to a woman, so he snuck out at night and got SRS. Imagine that the procedure worked in that he pulled it off visually. After the sex change operation, he looked like a Dutch woman. Nobody could tell that he was a man from his outward appearance.

    What do you think would happen to him as soon as he went back to Amish country? People would see this woman walking around and would wonder why she was unmarried and without child. "Hey, why aren't you married? Who is your husband? Where are your children?" (You can also imagine a similar scenario playing out in a Hasidic or Arab community.)

    In an Amish community, it's not enough simply to look like a woman. Women in that culture have to *do* something that precludes men from passing themselves off as women. Amish women don't go to college and maybe decide if they want to have kids; from day one, they are raised to be mothers. Motherhood is a culturally enforced norm in that culture.

    But heaven forbid we impose limits on women.

    1. The problems you reference here can be summed up thusly: The social norms of society have become indistinguishable from the politics of society. This has not always been the case. Why do behavioral or biological aberrations need to be politicized? They don't. But in a weakened and culturally turbulent society they can be exploited as weapons against traditional institutions. This agenda is a mainstay of the Left.