Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

Leviathan: I.V

“The Triumph of Reason,” by Carlo Innocenzo Carlone.


In the first four chapters of the Leviathan, Hobbes has argued that the thoughts of human beings are the result of external stimuli passed into the mind through the senses. We then assign words to these thoughts both to help us remember them and to help us communicate them to others. This is the very essence of what sets humanity apart from the animals and is how we image God in the world. Doing this correctly, however, is a function of reason:

For REASON, in this sense, is nothing but reckoning (that is, adding and subtracting) of the consequences of general names agreed upon for the marking and signifying of our thoughts; I say marking them when we reckon by ourselves, and signifying, when we demonstrate or approve our reckonings to other men. (V.2)

This is not an innate process, but rather one that must be learned through trial and error, discussion and argument, and even at times combat. And it can be learned, which is why we can call children reasonable creatures, “for the possibility apparent of having the use of reason in time to come” (V.18). Which is not to say that reason always is learned well, especially in its final form which we call “science.”

Science, at the end of the day, is the regular and correct application of reason to the future.

And whereas sense and memory are but knowledge of fact, which is a thing past and irrevocable, Science is the knowledge of the consequences, and dependence of one fact upon another, by which, out of that we can presently do, we know how to do something else when we will, or the like, another time; because when we see how anything comes about… when the like causes come into our power, we see how to make it produce the like effects. (V.17)

Science is what makes us able to live in and to shape the world based on experience of the past and the proper method of reasoning. Which is not to say that science is necessary in any absolute sense—Hobbes quite willingly admits that one can know nothing of science proper and still have more common sense and “prudence” than the greatest philosophers, “For ignorance of causes and of rules does not set men so far out of their way as relying on false rules…” (V.19). This is worth keeping in mind through the following discussion on reason—however good proper reasoning may be, it is not in any sense absolutely necessary for a full, healthy, and complete life.

So what is proper reason? Hobbes holds that we cannot speak of it as some absolute abstraction that may be once-and-for-all appealed to if only we will set aside our false beliefs:

And when men that think themselves wiser than all others clamour and demand right reason for judge, yet seek no more but that things should be determined by no other men’s reason but their own, it is as intolerable in the society of men as it is in play, after trump is turned, to use for trump on every occasion that suit whereof they have most in their hand. For they do nothing else, that will have every of their passions, as it comes to bear sway in them, to be taken for right reason, and that in their own controversies betraying their want of right reason by the claim they lay to it. (V.3)

This might very well be the best succinct definition of our own times that I have ever read. Those on both sides of any given political or cultural argument who claim to be on the side of “reason” are most often doing little more than arguing for what makes them feel good about themselves. We ground our arguments on our passions, and in doing so ought to forfeit the claim to be appealing to reason—which isn’t to say we do forfeit that claim, since that would be tantamount to losing the argument.

What we need to do according to Hobbes is put reason to its proper use. “Reason” is not some abstract something out there that we can from time to time reach into and pull forth winning arguments. Instead, it is a method of proceeding:

The use and end of reason is not the finding of the sum and truth of one or a few consequences, remote from the first definitions and settled significations of names, but to begin at these and proceed from one consequence to another. For there can be no certainty of the last conclusion without a certainty of all those affirmations and negations on which it was grounded and inferred. (V.4)

Reason is neither the beginning of an argument nor its conclusion, but rather the means of proceeding from the former to the latter. Contrary to Plato, for Hobbes reason is an action or a motion of the mind, not a solid and unmovable foundation upon which to build. So when we use reason in the real world, say when we are going for a walk and stop to look at a house in the process of being built, an appropriate use of reason might be to string together a chain of thoughts and words that begin with someone buying the land and drawing up architectural plans in the past and project into the future a vision of what that house might look like when it is finished. When we make mistakes that are factual mistakes, we commit what Hobbes calls “error.” That is, we assume that Mr. X owns the house, when in reality it is Mrs. Y. Or we project that the house will be painted yellow when in reality it will be painted blue. Sometimes, however, we use reason inappropriately and fall into what Hobbes calls “absurdity.” This is when we attempt to use reason to draw abstract universals from our sense observations that are incorrect in their basic assumptions. So when observing the house being built, we make the basic assumption that all construction projects involve beginning with a cement foundation. However true this may be most of the time, the existence of brick, dirt, or wood foundations demonstrates that we’ve used reason to come to a false conclusion.

Hobbes encourages us to be exceptionally careful here; reasoning and our use of it to predict consequences is what raises us above the animals (along with speech, as already stated):

And now I add this other degree of the same excellence: that he [man] can by words reduce the consequences he finds to general rules, called theorems, or aphorisms; that is, he can reason, or reckon, not only in number, but in all other things whereof one may be added unto or subtracted from another. (V.6)

Hobbes immediately tempers this by reminding us that absurdity comes from this process as well, especially in the field of philosophy. Which raises the question of how it is that sometimes while reasoning we find the truth, and other times we wander into absurdity? Hobbes gives seven explanations for the absurd conclusions that some arrive at, all of which have to do with poor, inappropriate, or unclear definitions of words. To give just one example:

The third [cause of absurd conclusions] I ascribe to the giving of the names of the accidents of bodies without us to the accidents of our own bodies, as they do that say the colour is in the body, the sound in the air, &c. (V.11)

If we assume that “color” is something that happens in our eyes or in our mind instead of out there in the world, we are going to come to very different—and absurd—conclusions compared to the assumption that “color” is something that happens in the world that we observe. I’ll leave the question of whether Hobbes is correct scientifically to the physicists and biologists. What matters for our purposes is that we understand why he puts so much emphasis on this: with proper definitions,

…it is not easy to fall into an absurdity, unless it be by the length of an account, wherein he may perhaps forget what went before. For all men by nature reason alike, and well, when they have good principles. (V.16)

Correct definitions are central to correct reasoning, which ultimately is going to be essential to our understanding of the state.

To conclude, the light of human minds is perspicuous words, but by exact definitions first snuffed and purged from ambiguity; reason is the pace; increase of science, the way; and the benefit of mankind, the end. And on the contrary, metaphors, and senseless and ambiguous words, are like ignes fatui [a fool’s fire], and reasoning upon them is wandering amongst innumerable absurdities; and their end, contention and sedition, or contempt. (V.20)

Again, it has to be emphasized that for Hobbes, reason is not a foundation or a goal, it is rather a method—the “pace” at which we move toward our goal. Which means we need to ask what foundation reason is going to build upon? We already know that speech is going to be part of the answer and that the benefit of mankind is the ultimate goal, but what defines and shapes this speech and benefit from which we begin and toward which we move? As we will see in the next readings, Hobbes’s answer is the passions.


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


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