How does Hobbes’ views on our senses influence his overall theory

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 22 September 2016

How does Hobbes’ views on our senses influence his overall theory

It is no coincidence that the first part of Thomas Hobbes’ The Leviathan begins with a discussion of the senses—his views on how the human faculties of sight, smell, taste, hearing and feeling form the basis of his theories on humanity and society. Hobbes presents a departure from most of the prevalent beliefs on perception during his time. Thomas Hobbes lived during the 16th to 17th Century, where most of Europe has already undergone the Renaissance. The Renaissance was a rebirth of the culture in Europe, primarily through the re-discovery of the Classical Greek and Roman traditions.

Hence, most of the philosophical scholarship during that time centered on the works of the great Greek philosophers like Aristotle and Plato. Hobbes departs from both philosphers in his view on the senses. Plato believed that the world we can perceive through our senses is a fallacy. Our senses cannot be trusted and being “base” or low faculties–they should be discarded in favor of the faculty of the mind, which would lead to the “world of ideas. ” The world of ideas is the truth and everything else is irrelevant. Notice the schism between the idea and the senses according to Plato.

Aristotle, like most students, countered his teacher Plato in his work, Poetics. He believes that the sensory world is the means by which one can achieve the truth. The world of ideas is not some far off place in the mind, but intertwined with the senses. Thomas Hobbes presents something quite revolutionary. He departs from the ideas of Aristotle that truth or knowledge is achieved through the senses. Hobbes has a more scientific approach—the faculties of the sense are merely absorbers of input from an external “object (10, I. 1). To sense is basically to manufacture a “fancy (10, I. 1)” or knowledge from the stimulus presented by the object. Thus, the act of sensing is not true at all. Hobbes also deviates from Plato’s idea that the senses are completely detached from the truth or knowledge. Hobbes believes that while the act of sensing or perception creates a manufactured thought, the production of thought is still impossible without the senses. That said, this creates a problem: it seems that the world as perceived by humans is inherently relative and false.

The universal truth of Plato and Socrates do not exist in Hobbes world view; even the production of knowledge through the sense yields results subject to the whims or desires of an individual. Hobbes’ theories in The Leviathan basically present structures that serve to create some semblance of order and a notion of truth from the artificial and shifting world that humans perceive. The Commonwealth and the concept of the social contract serve as anchors keeping humanity afloat in the chaotic sea of the sensory world and the passionate self being in constant flux.

Hobbes creates the image of a whale—a leviathan—swimming in a chaotic sea as a metaphor for the Commonwealth amidst the turmoil of human desire and perception (7, I). How does the theory of recollection relate to two other concepts in Plato’s dialogues? The theory of recollection in Menos is a very important concept as a basis for Plato’s (and Socrates’) other concepts. This is primarily due to the nature of recollection according to Plato—recollection is equated to gaining knowledge. In fact, to Plato and his teacher, there is no such thing as gaining knowledge.

An individual already knows everything he needs to know, coming from a divine source that has given that knowledge to an individual even before birth: “Socrates: But if he did not acquire the knowledge in this life, then he must have had and learned it at some other time? Menos: Clearly he must. Socrates: Which must have been the time when he was not a man? (22)” The concept of recollection then becomes the basis for one of the most important ideas that Plato presents—that knowledge comes from an outside source that is divine in nature (14).

Since all knowledge has been with us prior to our birth, then it stands to reason that it comes from the divine, because it has existed before us. Knowledge being divine also implicates the existence of an immortal soul, which serves as the container of knowledge before it takes a mortal form. Recollection also relates to the concept of self-examination as the purpose of man. Self-examination is the only means of an individual to achieve the divine gift of knowledge and virtue. Again, this is based on Plato’s assumption that one does not learn, but rather remembers.

Self-examination is therefore the highest form of gaining knowledge, since it is an attempt to reach the divine gift within. The main tool to be used in this case is rationality or reason. One must always question one’s self to achieve the divine. This concept is a very important one because it places a primacy on reason. While the presence of the divine is still very dominant in Plato’s ideas, the use of reasoning to reach the ultimate good within would make reason an important aspect of later ideas in Western philosophy.

Thinkers like Immanuel Kant and even Thomas Hobbes would take the primacy of reason and further place it at the center of Western thought. So much so that at some point, the concept of the divine will be dealt away with and only reason remains. Whose philosphy is better justified: Plato’s or Hobbes’? With both philosphers being part of the Western tradition, is comes as no surprise that the primacy of reason is apparent with both Plato and Hobbes. While Plato’s ideas have influenced almost all his contemporaries in the Western world, Hobbes presents more justified arguments regarding political and social theory than Plato.

Plato’s arguments have two major weaknesses. First, Plato makes a big mistake by creating a so-called “world of ideas,” and immediately labelling it as the ultimate good. While the call for self-examination to achieve a sense of enlightenment prides reason and the intellect, the implied mysticism of an almost unreachable other world of truth detached from reality lacks proofs. How can one prove that ther is indeed a world of ideas, if man cannot perceive it? Worse, how does one know that it is truly good? Plato presents no basis for an axis of morality, but resorts to the simple dichotomy of intellect good, body (sensory faculties) bad.

Hobbes starts his premise on more solid argumentative grounds because he takes the divine aside and argues on objective grounds. He would not do away with the divine completely, but reserves concepts related to God for the discussion on the Commonwealth itself. The entire introduction—where important concepts are introduced—remains free of mysticism and theology. Only rationality is employed here. The foundations of Hobbes’ premises begin with an immediate examination of presupposed notions the senses, then the imagination, then speech, etc.

Everytime Hobbes introduces a new concept, that new concept is well grounded based on arguments prior. The dialectic mode of arumentation by Plato through Socrates and various individuals often easily fall into assumptions and generalizations. For example, in Plato’s Menos, Socrates uses a dialogue with a boy regarding geometry to prove one of the foundations of his arguments—the illlusion of learning masks recollection (15-20). As stated previously in the second question, recollection would lead to more complex arguments regarding man’s purpose and the nature of knowledge and truth.

But is the use of the boy “recollecting” knowledge well-proven? Socrates offers no other examples of an individual knowing something immediately just through queries to help that individual recollect knowledge that is already there. Also, there is no examination of the role that questions play in the remembering of knowledge. How sure is Socrates that his questions indirectly “teach” an individual knowledge, rather than just guiding an individual to remember knowledge? Hobbes, in his exploration of memory in “Of Imagination,” posits that memory “is decayed sense (11, I. 2).

He argues this position well because he not only leaves the mystical divine aside, but also because his arguments for the imagination is based on his objective examination of the senses (from which imagination is derived). The logical inferences are more straightforward in Hobbes The Leviathan. Explain Hobbes’ thinking on the Commonwealth The Commonwealth is a stabilizing structure based on natural laws, and more importantly, on contracts. Based on the chapter “Of Man” in The Leviathan, there is a fluidity that exists within an individual. An individual is inherently chaotic.

The generation of knowledge and the ability of human beings to perceive the world cause this inherent chaos. Individuals are driven by varied desires, and their perception of the world is influenced by the said desires. Therefore, conflicts would erupt between individuals with conflicting desires. Thomas Hobbes accepts the inevitable nature of desires. The Commonwealth is a means to establish order among individuals despite them having many and often conflicting desires. While Hobbes draws influence from the Classical thinkers like Plato and Aristotle, particularly with his concepts on natural law (111, II. 7) which are very similar (but still divergent) to Plato’s view on virtues, Hobbes introduction of the contract is his important contribution to Western social thought. Hobbes establishes a view on morality based on desires, which, as mentioned earlier, is fluid and chaotic. Desires are subject to the whims of every individual. Anything an individual desires is good; anything he does not desire is bad: “For every man is desirous of what is good for him, and shuns what is evil (7, I. 1)…” This duality is the cause of conflicts, even war.

But because of several desires common to all individuals and instituted by the divine, which Hobbes names as Natural Laws (86, I. 14), some desires are quelled so that common desires like Peace, Liberty and Justice can be achieved. Furthermore, other desires that conflict among individuals can be curbed by one individual giving up part of his rights for another individual. If both parties agree to this, again stability is achieved. When many individuals agree to create such contracts so that these same individuals can enjoy their common desires by giving up some of their other desires, the Commonwealth is achieved.


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  • University/College: University of California

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 22 September 2016

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