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Lecture

POLS_2900B_Lecture_Summary_1-7-2014.pdf

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Department
Political Science
Course
POLS 2900
Professor
Stephen Newman
Semester
Winter

Description
POLS 2900B Lecture Summary for Tuesday, January 7, 2014 On Tuesday, January 7 some students in the class celebrated a religious holiday. In keeping with my policy of accommodating students who miss class on account of a religious observance, I am posting a summary of Tuesday’s lecture. This was the first meeting of the class in the Winter term. I decided to begin by reviewing some of what we covered prior to the break. I reminded the class that we had been discussing the thought of th Thomas Hobbes, a 17 century English political philosopher. It was a turbulent time in English politics. The country was wracked by civil war between 1640 and 1660. Hobbes was not a political actor; rather, he was an intellectual attached to the house of a noble lord and served as tutor to his patron’s children. Nonetheless, he was very much interested in the events of his time and as a political theorist his concern was to discover a remedy for the ills afflicting England. Deeming civil war the worst fate that could befall a nation, his goal was to set out the conditions for a lasting peace. Leviathan is his masterwork. The book is divided into four parts. Part 1 is titled “Of Man” and presents what we may describe as a view of human nature. More precisely, Hobbes is concerned in Part 1 to elaborate a theory of mind, which includes both an account of how we form ideas about the objects of experience and a psychology of human motivation. Hobbes is a materialist. At the time he wrote most thinkers were ontological dualists who believed that the universe consisted to two distinct substances, matter and spirit. The former refers to the physical stuff of which the world is composed (including our bodies), the latter to the human mind and the soul as well as supernatural beings (including angels and the deity). It should be obvious why philosophers would think of the mind/soul as something distinct from the body even if we acknowledge that the two share a connection of some sort. It almost seems intuitive to conceive of our conscious selves as inhabiting our bodies. After all, we can lose an arm or a leg and still think of our “self” as being whole. And, as in the myth of Er told by Socrates in Plato’s Republic, we can imagine the soul of the warrior Er leaving his body upon his death and traveling to the underworld. Hobbes refutes dualism. He claims that the universe consists solely of matter in motion. This claim entails that the mind is in some way material. Hobbes explains in Part 1 of Leviathan that our ideas are the result of motion within the brain. This motion originates outside of our bodies when the organs of sense make contact with the objects of experience (i.e., the physical stuff of the world). Literally, matter in motion external to our bodies collides with our bodies and sets our internal organs in motion. When this motion reaches the brain and sets the brain itself in motion, we experience an idea. What has this to do with politics? Why does Hobbes begin his masterwork of political theory by addressing issues seemingly more relevant to the philosophy of mind? Surely, part of the answer is that Hobbes wants to construct a valid political science and to do so he thinks he needs to begin with an adequate conception of what human beings are really like. But a complete answer is undoubtedly more complicated. Hobbes’s understanding of how the human mind works denies the possibility of our having direct access to the objects of experience. He does not doubt that there is a world of physical stuff. He simply denies that our minds are capable of directly apprehending the true nature of this stuff. Why can’t we? Because our ideas about the external world arise from the motions of our internal organs. No one can take it for granted that the motion of the matter that makes up her brain generates ideas that are true representations of the objects external to her body whose collision with her body set her internal organs in motion in the first place. Indeed, this is why Hobbes insists that truth is an attribute of language, not of things. What he means is that we can speak of truth or falsehood only after we have assigned labels (words) to the ideas we form through sensory impressions. If we use the labels (words) consistently, then 1 we speak the truth. If we use them inconsistently, we speak falsehood. In a lecture last term I illustrated this point by saying that the statement “dogs bark” is a true statement because the visual sense impression that English speakers label with the word “dog” coincides with the audible sense impression that English speakers label with the word “barking.” What is true of barking dogs is true of good and evil, right and wrong, justice and injustice, and other terms of importance to politics. Given the way Hobbes thinks the human mind operates, we can imagine that the individual might be able to form an idea of justice or the good; but unless and until every person attaches these labels to the same conduct, there will be no universal standards of justice or goodness. As it turns out, this is why the political community is a necessary feature of any decent human existence. It is only in a political community that we find an authority capable of imposing uniform definitions of justice, goodness and the like. Outside of the political community, in what Hobbes terms the “state of nature,” each individual is free to use these terms as she thinks best. Recall that there is nothing about the ideas we form concerning the objects of experience, be they a barking dog, or our own conduct, or the conduct of other persons, that impels us to assign them any particular label. There is nothing inherent to any particular action that causes the mind to perceive it as just or unjust. Those of us who are born into an ongoing political community are taught the accepted notions of just and unjust, right and wrong, good and evil, from a very early age. But in a state of nature where there is no communal agreement on these notions and no political authority to impose uniform standards, each person is at liberty to apply these terms as they will. Hobbes contends that how persons in a state of nature use terms like justice and injustice, good and evil, will be determined by another feature of the human mind, the passions. Hobbes’s discussion of the passions adds a psychological dimension to Part 1 of Leviathan. In short, Hobbes argues that all persons naturally seek to obtain that which they desire and to avoid that to which they are averse. In a state of nature, the individual will call “good” that which she desires and “evil” that which she dislikes. Because different persons will desire and dislike different things, and because even the same person will desire and dislike different things over the course of her lifetime, the result is that in a state of nature the words “good” and “evil” have no stable meaning. Ditto for “right” and “wrong,” “just” and “unjust.” Hobbes takes it as given that all living creatures desire to remain alive. He further assumes that all persons want not only to live, but to live comfortably. In a state of nature, each individual will do whatever she thinks necessary to ensure her survival and comfort, even if that means doing injury to other persons. Indeed, Hobbes contends that in a state of nature each person will regard every other person as a competitor and a threat, turning the state of nature into a state of war –war being that condition where there is known disposition to use force against others. This state of war is a barbarous condition where people’s lives are “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” What should we make of Hobbes’s state of nature? It’s a thought experiment. Hobbes wants to describe what the human condition would be like if we were not brought up within an ongoing political community complete with established norms of justice enforced by the state. Think of his thought experiment as a counter to Aristotle’s contention that “man is a political animal.” Aristotle claimed that human beings naturally tend to associate with one another and to form political communities which express an inclination to justi
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