Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

Leviathan: I.III-IV

“Rodin’s Thinker” by ChrisSampson87 – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.


Once we have our material for thought from the external world brought into the mind through the senses, the next subject for examination must be the means by which we order those thoughts. That is, how do we think about what we think about?

When a man thinketh on anything whatsoever, his next thought after, is not altogether so casual as it seems to be. Not every thought to every thought succeeds indifferently. (III.2)

Thoughts are usually not random things (emphasis on the “usually”—Hobbes does not discount the possibility of a truly wandering mind). One follows the other by some kind of comprehensible process. This is perfectly reasonable, if we take as a given that we can only think about what we have experienced through our senses:

But as we have no imagination whereof we have not formerly had sense, in whole or in parts, so we have no transition from one imagination to another whereof we never had the like before in our sense. (III.2)

For Hobbes, there is truly no original thought. In the same way, our “mental discourse,” or “train of thoughts,” is not really spontaneous and does not blink into existence out of nothing. In fact, we can observe two kinds of mental discourse:

1) “The first is unguided, without design, and inconstant, where there is no passionate thought to govern and direct those that follow to itself, as the end and scope of some desire or other passion; in which case the thoughts are said to wander, and seem impertinent one to another, as in a dream” (III.3).

2) “The second is more constant, as being regulated by some desire, and design” (III.4).

No doubt we all know and understand this distinction experientially. Sometimes we sit and let our thoughts wander—which results in what would appear to be random and unconnected insights to an outside observer, but which in reality lead one to another within our minds. Other times we force ourselves to focus and intentionally link our thoughts together in a rigid progression. The difference between these two modes of thinking is, according to Hobbes, passion. That is, we focus more or less on ordering our thoughts based on our being more or less passionate about what we want the results of that order to be. The role of passion will come up again, so we need only note here that it is the difference between focused and orderly thought on the one hand, and daydreaming on the other.

The second category of mental discourse—that well-ordered by passion—in turn has two subdivisions:

a) We see an effect and try to discover its causes;
b) We see a cause and try to discover its potential effects.

When one becomes especially good at a), we call this “wisdom” (“sagacity,” to use Hobbes’s term); while becoming good at b) is what we call “prudence.”

And yet, even animals can be wise or prudent in the way we’ve described it. When they are hungry or tired they seek out the cause of their hunger or fatigue and remove it (category a). When they enter into familiar circumstances they can understand that certain effects will be the result (category b). What, then, sets people apart from the beasts? Everything that makes mankind unique

…[proceeds] from the invention of words and speech. For besides sense, thoughts, and the train of thoughts, the mind of man has no other motion, though by the help of speech and method the same faculties may be improved to such a height as to distinguish men from all other living creatures. (III.11)

Man is lifted above the animals by his words. Which makes a study of speech particularly important.

Before getting to Hobbes on speech, a quick word needs to be said about Hobbes on religion. One major question in Hobbes scholarship is whether or not he was an atheist, and much of that because of this passage:

Whatsoever we imagine is finite. Therefore there is no idea or conception of anything we call infinite. No man can have in his mind an image of infinite magnitude, nor conceive infinite swiftness, infinite time, or infinite force, or infinite power. When we say anything is infinite, we signify only that we are not able to conceive the ends and bounds of the thing named, having no conception of the thing, but of our own inability. And therefore the name of God is used, not to make us conceive him (for he is incomprehensible, and his greatness and power are unconceivable), but that we may honour him. (III.12)

There might be good reasons to conclude that Hobbes is an atheist, especially once we get to Books III and IV, but I don’t know that this passage is the appropriate one to hang that hat on. The context of this quote is the capabilities and actions of the human mind, and unless any of us are seriously willing to argue that the human mind is capable of comprehending infinity Hobbes’s point here has to stand. After all, he is not saying there is no one or nothing that is infinite; he is saying that for a finite human mind the idea of infinity is simply too large for true comprehension. And so it is appropriate to use the idea of “infinity” in terms of worship, but inappropriate to use in terms of physical existence. We must be careful to draw no philosophical or theological conclusions from this observation of human limitation, whatever Neil deGrasse Tyson might tell us otherwise.

Hobbes gives us a quick anthropology of speech, noting that the human aspect of it begins with God commanding Adam to apply words to the animals. And although this commission was confused at Babel, it has remained the primary means by which mankind lives in the world and images our Maker.

Speech has two general uses: first, it is the externalization of our thoughts. This use becomes the means by which we remember what our senses have experienced. Words here become what Hobbes calls “marks, or notes of remembrance” (IV.3). When we speak a thought or chain of thoughts, hearing it again later is the external stimulus that works through our senses (hearing, in this case) and rouses those same thoughts again.

The second use of speech is for communication with others, what Hobbes calls “signs.” This is how we transfer our thoughts and make them the thoughts of others, and vice versa. Hobbes gives four specific ways this communication takes place and four ways this communication can be corrupted or abused (IV.3):

Use of Speech

Corruption of Use

To communicate wisdom and prudence Communicating mistaken wisdom and prudence
To communicate truth Communicating a lie
To communicate “our wills and purposes that we may have the mutual help of one another.” “When by words they declare that to be their will, which is not.” That is, when we lie.
To “please and delight ourselves and others, by playing with our words, for pleasure or ornament, innocently.” “When they use them [words] to grieve one another.”

We don’t need to go into Hobbes’s detailed explanation of how this communication works (particularly since this post is already getting long). What matters for our purposes should be clear: speech is the way human beings use their thoughts and experiences to shape the world. Which means that we must get correct the three-way connection between our thoughts, the world, and our words before we can move on to anything important. This is the problem of definition:

For the errors of definitions multiply themselves according as the reckoning proceeds, and lead men into absurdities, which at last they see, but cannot avoid without reckoning anew from the beginning, in which lies the foundation of their errors. (IV.13)

Again Hobbes gives a detailed explanation—which I will not cover here—as to how this act of naming/defining things should be done if we want to do it right. (We can also note that this is also where Locke’s philosophy begins, though he spends significantly more time on the subject than Hobbes.) What matters for our purposes is that

When a man, upon the hearing of any speech, hath those thoughts which the words of that speech, and their connection, were ordained and constituted to signify, then he is said to understand it, understanding being nothing else but conception caused by speech. (IV.22)

When we speak and the thought is generated in the listener’s head that we intended to be generated and that reflects the real world, speech has succeeded. Which is where Hobbes will deviate from most of the postmoderns—he does think authentic communication is possible. Those who are speaking must be clear in their definitions, while those who are listening must be using their reason well, but neither of those negates the reality of communication between people about the real world. Which is where we will pick up in the next post.


Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri.


2 Responses to “Leviathan: I.III-IV”

  1. gabe


    Ok, fair enough – words are signs!

    However, a better term and one perhaps pregnant with more possibilities is “symbol.”
    The difference between man and beast is that the beasts see “signals” which may have a more *compelling* effect toward action than do the symbols ( abstract creations of the human mind, doubtless dependent upon sense experience in the first instance) which man perceives and may or may not respond to in various ways.
    Symbols allow the human mind to choose between a far wider range of options than do “signals” and, as both you and Hobbes note, symbols allow us to peer into another beings mind as well as allowing similar access to our own.

    But I ain’t certain that this guarantees effective or *true* communication as all symbols possess within themselves the possibility of misuse / misinterpretation.
    Definitions, yes, in fact absolutely – all one need do is look how the modern leftist has “re-defined” certain symbols and one can gauge how difficult communication has become. (Although did not Hobbes also do a small section of the “artfulness” of human thought / epistemology – getting old and don’t recall?)

    • Coyle Neal

      Heh, fine–we can use “symbols” instead of “signs.” Though Hobbes wouldn’t necessarily want to give us options, he would want us to be as narrow as possible so as to avoid misunderstanding.


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