- Hobbes, Thomas
- (1588–1679)English philosopher, mathematician, and linguist. Hobbes was born of an impoverished clerical family in Malmesbury, Wiltshire. He was fond of the joke that his mother fell into labour with him on hearing the rumour of the Spanish Armada coming, ‘so that fear and I were born twins together’. At school he quickly excelled, making a reputation as a linguist and fluent poet and translator. After Oxford he entered the employment of William Cavendish, 3rd Earl of Devonshire, and except for a short interval remained secretary, tutor, and general adviser to the family for the rest of his career. His employment included several ‘Grand Tours’, during which he met the leading European intellectuals of his time. He and his patron took a particular interest in the devious political affairs of Venice, and from this political literature Hobbes became acquainted with sceptical attitudes towards political morality (see Machiavelli ), the inadvisability of commitments such as those of religion and patriotism, and the necessity for people to look after their own interests to the exclusion of others. As a spokesman for the royalist Devonshires, Hobbes was caught up in the turmoil preceding the Civil War, and fled to France in 1640, remaining there until 1651. During this period he published the short Elements of Law, partly as a kind of brief for his patrons to use on behalf of the sovereign, but also as a general (and most accessible) statement of his philosophy. He was also busy on a major treatise to be known as the Elements of Philosophy . Part III of this was published as The Citizen (De Cive ) in 1642. De Corpore (On Matter ) appeared in 1656, and De Homine (Man ) in 1658. Human Nature had appeared in 1650, and his most famous work, Leviathan, was published in 1651 (the title is a reference to Job 41, in which the terrifying power of the sea monster is described: a metaphor for the absolute power of Hobbes's state).In its time Leviathan shocked Hobbes's friends (who had looked to him for a defence of the English royalty against the puritan revolution), mainly because of its attack on the Church of England and its endorsement of the freedom of religion from state and ecclesiastical control. This was the very doctrine associated with Cromwell's party. From this time onwards Hobbes became ‘the Beast of Malmesbury’, a symbol of atheism, egoism, and heresy, and although his defence of the independence of religious life was indeed congenial to Cromwell, Hobbes lived in serious danger of prosecution after the restoration of Charles II. Hobbes's principal interests in his later years were translations, and he lived out his old age at the Devonshire's home, Hardwick, allegedly remarking that he ‘was 91 years finding a hole to go out of this world, and at length found it’.In his writings on physics Hobbes shared the general Cartesian outlook of his time, but with several variations. His (early) theory of light was prescient in postulating a pulsating source for light, as opposed to the mechanical connection between the eye and its object postulated by Descartes . He believed that ‘whatsoever accidents and qualities that our sense makes us think there be in the world, they are not there, but are seemings and apparitions only’ (Elements of Law, i. 2. 10). The real cause of these seemings are external ‘motions’. Hobbes had no time for the Cartesian appeal to the deity as the foundation of natural knowledge. His general sympathy with the solipsistic or sceptical predicament led him to the interesting position that words and reasoning (both of which are available to the person whose whole life is a dream) are essentially self-contained; their relationship to the outside world is not what matters to their meaning (see content, wide and narrow ). Hobbes frequently took as his paradigm of science the self-contained axiomatic system of Euclidean geometry, which had always inspired him and in which he dabbled extensively. Part of his dislike of the rising scientific establishment of the time concerned the use of technical language, and Hobbes is one of the earliest British philosophers both to pay attention to and mistrust the enchantment of words: ‘words are wise mens' counters, they do but reckon by them: but they are the mony of fooles’ (Leviathan ). His realism about the power of civil society and pessimism about philosophical systems and ‘right reason’ imply what is currently thought of as modern pragmatism, or even the postmodernist doctrine that, in linguistic matters, might is right. He held, for instance, that ‘upon the occasion of some strange and deformed birth, it shall not be decided by Aristotle, or the philosophers, whether the same be a Man or no, but by the Laws’ (Elements of Law, ii. 10. 8), which if true would put many thinkers in fields such as bioethics out of business. His life in political and religious controversy also gave him a sage mistrust of the rhetorical power of empty words.Hobbes's political and ethical writings set the agenda for much subsequent theorizing. In ethics his mechanical philosophy leads him to identify the judgement that a thing is good with the purely personal pleasure felt upon contemplating it (a suggestion later refined by Hume ). He follows Grotius in taking the universal desire for self-preservation as giving rise to a fundamental right. Imagining people without a social or civil order, we see the emergence of that order as a device for self-preservation, a way of avoiding the ‘war of every man against every man’ that constitutes the state of nature, ‘and the life of man nasty, solitary, brutish and short’ (Leviathan, ch. 13). The remedy is the appointment of a sovereign, and a trade of personal freedom in return for personal safety. The doctrine of the absolute power of the sovereign that this seems to imply caused a good deal of trouble to Hobbes (and his commentators). The other famous crux is how men can contract together (promise) in order to lift themselves from the state of nature into civil society, for Hobbes himself sees clearly that the first person to make a promise and then turn aside from his own interests to keep it, ‘does but betraye himself his enemy’ (ch. 14).Hobbes remains permanently important, not least because his adoption of a rigorously minimal metaphysics (materialism) and ethics (a kind of egoism), and his impatience with theory that does not confront these underlying truths squarely, make him the permanent model for sceptical and pragmatic philosophies.
Philosophy dictionary. Academic. 2011.