Political Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes and Rene Descartes
Political Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes and Rene Descartes
“Politics should be the application of the science Of man to the construction of the community” Explain this remark and discuss what reasons there might be for thinking it is not trueIn this essay I intend to examine the political philosophy of Thomas Hobbes and Rene Descartes, in particular their ideas relating to the science of man, and attempt to explain why their ideas prove that it is not possible to construct a science of man. I will also briefly mention the philosophy of Donald Davidson in regards to a science of man.
The theories of Hobbes and the contemporary socio-biologists attempt to recognise how man works and on that basis build a society. “Hobbes wished to be seen as the inventor of the science of politics” (Sorrell, p45) He went about this by looking at the psychology of man and discovering that man is a mechanism. Hobbes wanted to understand mechanics. He wanted to look at why men live the way that they do in society and therefore, breaks it down. By doing this he discovered that people are cogs in the social machine.
Therefore he wants to examine this cogs to achieve an understanding of the social mechanism, and does this by looking at the psychology of the mind. Hobbes is both an empirist and a materialist. Empirists believe that sense gives all knowledge. Generally, they do not believe in astrology, god, electrons etc. Their philosophy is summed up by saying that all things that give true knowledge can be sensed. Materialists believe that all things in existence are physical matter. In other words, the soul and the spirit do not exist. Therefore Hobbes believes that thoughts are material, that they are caused by sense and vice versa.
Tom Sorrell suggests in his essay, entitled “Hobbes’ scheme of the sciences”, that rather than have knowledge of how the mechanics of the mind’s passions work, a more successful way of gaining political knowledge is to understand what these passions cause. They cause various degrees of action, with the possessor going to various extents to achieve what they want. In chapter six of “De Corpere”, Hobbes makes a connection between the knowledge of the principles of politics and the knowledge of the motions of the average human mind.
Hobbes’ account of political science is an idea of what man must do if his goal is self-preservation. These ideas are not what mankind will do but what it will have to do, in a rational way, to form a political civilisation. One would assume that as Hobbes identifies both a natural science (that of the work of nature), and a civil science – that of the common wealth – (which makes laws and wills), he would suggest that they are parallels which, in political philosophy, work together. However, there are a few problems with Hobbes’ theory.
Hobbes suggests that a monarch makes a better sovereign than an assembly. Yet, surely he would not agree that a monarch who is not dedicated would be better suited than a group of thoughtful representatives. A politically secure society is built up from its people. Hobbes believes that these people all have one motivation; self-gain, or to be more precise self-preservation. Hobbes suggests that there is a link between voluntary motion and vital motion. He goes on to say that senses work together with the vital motions to produce that which is voluntary, i.e. an endeavour.
These endeavours can be categorised in two ways; attractions and aversions. An example of an attraction is to pick up a piece of cake because it looks good. That of an aversion is to run away from a dog because you are scared of dogs. As it is possible to see these actions are derived from the senses, again agreeing with Hobbes empirist theory. Endeavours are the small motions within man which occur before he walks, talks, runs or carries out any other voluntary motion. These endeavours are so small that they are undetectable.
By understanding why men act the way that they do, it is easier to come to a conclusion as to how society should be structured. However, the idea that the existence of a science of man can be questioned suggests that society can be constructed without it. This is due to the fact that many psychological and political theories are founded on the basis that there is a science of man. Without this “science of man” these theories are in turn questioned and therefore cannot be viably backed as reasons for the construction of the community.
Another prolific philosopher whose arguments should be taken into account is Rene Descartes. Descartes thinks that we, as humans, are made up of two separate substances. The body is the physical stuff and the mind – the res cogitans (thinking thing) – purely mental stuff. The res cogitans can will your body to move. The difficulty with Descartes’ theory is that the mind and body interact; if you pour boiling water on you hand, you will feel pain. Again we have to take into account voluntary and vital motions. A voluntary motion is me moving my arm.
A vital motion is my arm moving. I move my arm because I want to; but I may not necessarily want it to be moved. This can happen for a number of reasons. It may be possible that I have a muscle spasm in my arm or that somebody moves it. All of this suggests that for Descartes’ theory to be correct there must be some kind of connection between a material substance (the body) and an immaterial substance (the mind). However, we will find it impossible to understand the idea of a science of man if we cannot understand how the two substances interact.
Therefore, again, we have no proof that it is possible to build a political philosophy on the basis of a science of man. On p213 of Davidson , we find an explanation of monisms and dualisms. “Theories are thus divided into four sorts: nomological monism, which affirms that there are correlating laws and that the events correlated are one (materialists belong in this category); nomological dualism, which compromises various forms of parallelism, interactionism and epiphenominalism; anomalous dualism which combines ontological dualism with the general failure of laws correlating the mental and the physical (cartesianism).
And finally there is anomalous monism which shows an ontological bias only in that it allows the possibility that not all events are mental, while insisting that all events are physical. “The final position is that which Davidson himself follows. Davidson’s argument suggests that the psychology of man does not follow any causal laws. Therefore, it is impossible to impose any rationality on theories involving the mind. These anomological psychological states are defeasable. They are defeasable because it is possible that by adding another condition to the situation the expected behaviour changes.
Therefore it is impossible to agree with any political philosophy that involves the necessity of a science of man. What is easily discovered is that there are many different political philosophies and many different concepts as to what is a science of man. Philosophers such as Hobbes and his counterparts, Mill and Marx, possess the shared assumption that political philosophers must accept the political opinion that they are arguing for. They all think that rational agents must accept their arguments yet they all have different arguments.
They all believe that for a successful political structure human nature cannot be ignored, if the structure is to command respect. As I have shown, Descartes and Davidson on the other hand, believe that a science of man is impossible; Descartes because he believes that our minds are immaterial and Davidson because man’s behaviour follows no causal laws. All of this shows us that trying to interpret man’s actions and apply them to a science is an impossible conquest. Man is too complicated a mechanism to understand and therefore political philosophy, for a sensible and rational social structure, must be founded on another basis.
Subject: Political philosophy,
University/College: University of California
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 29 November 2016
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