Closereads: Reason in Hobbes’ “Leviathan” (Part One)

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We’ve covered a lot of rationalists (I’m including the Romantics in this, strangely enough) and wanted to turn back to one of the original Enlightenment empiricists, Thomas Hobbes. His Leviathan (1651) is best known for introducing the political notion of the social contract, and this was our emphasis in one of our earliest episodes, for which we read ch. 13-15.

But Hobbes is also known as a quintessential empiricist, expressing before Locke or Hume that we only have in our minds what was previously in our senses. Do how does a figure like this account for our ability to reason, which Plato (and Malebranche and Kant, among others) saw as requiring innate knowledge? As per our current discussion of Chomsky vs. Tomasello, a rationalist (Chomsky) denies that we could possibly know what we in fact do if we had to piece this together via induction. For instance, how can we establish that every event has a cause? I’d have to see one event causing another (Hume denied that actually see this; we only see one event happening after another), and see it again and again until I finally get the idea that things will at least usually be causal, and even that wouldn’t establish this universal expectation that guides how we understand situations. We don’t discover causality from experience, says Kant, but rather we approach experience already equipped with the idea of universal causation.

Causality is the main type of reasoning that Hobbes has in mind in chapter five of Leviathan. As always with these Closreads, it doesn’t hurt to read along with us in the text (start on p. 16).

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