January 12, 2017

Berkeley and Hobbes

From a certain point of view (or perhaps several points of view), one might think that no two early modern philosophers are more opposed than Berkeley and Hobbes. True, both are empiricists, and the disagreement between rationalists and empiricists is often treated as the 'main event' of early modern philosophy. However, a comparison between Berkeley and Hobbes might well be regarded as a vivid and compelling illustration of the failings of the traditional rationalist-empiricist narrative. Note, for starters, that the ontologies of Berkeley and Hobbes are disjoint: Hobbes believes only in material substances, Berkeley believes only in spiritual (immaterial) substances. Second, Hobbes, known as the "Monster of Malmesbury," was the arch-infidel, regarded by many early modern writers (including Berkeley!) as the poster child for modern atheism. Berkeley, on the other hand, was ordained a priest of the (Anglican) Church of Ireland in the same year he published the Treatise on the Principles of Human Knowledge, and he went on to become a respected bishop.

However, from another point of view, the philosophies of Berkeley and Hobbes are quite similar, in ways that go beyond their shared empiricism. Indeed, I would venture to claim that, specifically on issues related to mental and linguistic representation, Hobbes and Berkeley are much closer to one another than either of them is to (for instance) Locke. Here are a few controversial theses endorsed by both Berkeley and Hobbes:*

  • All ideas are concrete (fully determinate) sense images.

  • There are no intrinsically general ideas. Generality is introduced by the introduction of conventional marks/signs, such as words.

  • There is no idea of God or the soul, nor are there ideas corresponding to most of the key words of Christian theology (e.g., 'homoousion'). (This is taken to follow from the previous point.)

  • Reasoning is merely the manipulation of symbols according to conventional syntactic rules. (Both use mathematical examples to illustrate this point.)

  • Language does not merely permit us to express to others the thoughts we already had, but rather expands our capacities for thought.

  • Language is first and foremost a practical matter. Having the right words and using them properly enables us to interact properly with our physical, social, and political environment.

Both Berkeley and Hobbes regard these reflections on mind and language as philosophically foundational. Yet they hope to draw from them radically different visions, especially with regard to religion. Coming from such similar starting points, where do they diverge? One rather subtle difference is this. Both Berkeley and Hobbes hold that religious language frequently contains words that do not signify ideas. Hobbes concludes from this that these utterances are insignificant, that is, that they are nonsensical, that those who use them are guilty of what he calls 'absurdity'.** On the other hand, as Berkeley's early critic Peter Browne correctly recognized, Berkeley holds "that Words may be Significant, tho' they signify Nothing" (Divine Analogy (1733), p. 534).

Now one could be excused for thinking (as Browne certainly did) that this is a distinction without a difference. Yet it seems to me that this difference—between Hobbes's view that religious utterances are insignificant and Berkeley's view that they are significant although they do not signify anything—is the key point of divergence between them. Berkeley follows Hobbes in holding that the introduction of words can expand our capacity for thought. In fact, Berkeley goes beyond Hobbes in holding that the use of words can expand our representational capacities in such a way as to allow us to make cognitive (and interpersonal) contact with a supra-sensible (hence supra-ideational) reality. In other words, Berkeley takes seriously the notion (occasionally, though perhaps only ironically, endorsed by Hobbes) that although we have no idea of God, our word 'God' nevertheless names (refers to) God. Similarly, despite denying that we have any idea of the Trinity (or any idea signified by 'homoousion'), Berkeley holds that the claim 'God is triune' really does describe God. Since Berkeley does not identify persons with their bodies, all talk about persons is like this: the sentence 'Socrates is wise' refers to Socrates and describes him as wise, despite the fact that there can be no idea of Socrates or of wisdom.

The relationship between Hobbes and Berkeley here is illustrative of a broader phenomenon in the history of Western philosophy: it is frequently the case that two philosophers are from one perspective difficult to tell apart, but from another perspective appear diametrically opposed. A clear example of this can be seen by consideration of the other arch-infidel of the 17th century, Spinoza, as compared to the mainstream/orthodox tradition of classical philosophical theology. Classical philosophical theologians—whether Jewish, Christian, or Muslim—generally began from a Pagan tradition of reflection on Being Itself, running from Parmenides through Plato to Plotinus. Being Itself, it was held, was necessary being, pure actuality, being having all perfections, being than which none greater could be conceived, etc. Now this is not very similar to the conception of God possessed by the ordinary pew-sitter, embodied in religious practice, etc. The philosophical theologians therefore sought to (somehow) recover traditional religious belief and practice (suitably reinterpreted) after the fact. What does Spinoza do? He begins from this same Greek notion of Being Itself, but rather than proceeding to recover traditional religion he proceeds to upend it. Yet he is employing as fundamental this same notion that Being Itself is necessary being having all perfections and that all finite things depend on and are explained by it.***

In the comments on William King's De Origine Mali that Leibniz appended to his Theodicy, Leibniz complains that King "confuses a Thomist with a Spinozist" (sect. 13, Tr. Huggard). From one point of view, such a confusion seems inexcusable. After all, Aquinas is the bastion of orthodoxy, and Spinoza is the arch-infidel. From another point of view, however, the project of distinguishing Aquinas (or Maimonides) from Spinoza is quite a delicate one. After all, Aquinas believes that the Ultimate Substance (aka, God, the One, Being Itself, etc.) exists necessarily, has all perfections, that all things proceed from Him/It, that He/It determines every detail of the world of finite things, that personal attributes cannot be ascribed univocally to Him/It, and so on and so forth. Where precisely shall we locate the difference between Aquinas and Spinoza?**** Similar remarks could be made about confusing a Berkeleian with a Hobbist.

There is an important general lesson for the historiography of philosophy here, and it is this: when our attention remains focused on abstract issues in metaphysics and epistemology, distinctions that were extremely important to the figures under study can appear quite subtle and esoteric. When, however, we attend to what these philosophers took to be the practical upshots of their disagreements—especially but not only for religious practice and the role of religion in society—these debates often come into focus in ways that make it much clearer what the figures under discussion thought they were arguing about and why they thought it mattered.


(Cross-posted at The Mod Squad.)


* Some of these interpretive claims are controversial. I defend the attribution of these views to Berkeley in Language and the Structure of Berkeley's World. My interpretation of Hobbes here is mostly drawn from chapters 2 and 3 of Philip Pettit's Made With Words.

** Hobbes nevertheless uses quite a lot of religious language in the later parts of Leviathan. What exactly he thinks he's doing is a vexed question. I'm not a Hobbes expert, but I suspect that Hobbes does regard religion as 'useful nonsense' (useful, of course, to the sovereign in maintaining order) and that recognizing that it is indeed nonsense is supposed to ease the way to just accepting whatever form of religion the sovereign imposes, rather than having rebellions and things. Berkeley, on the other hand, would certainly not accept the characterization of religion—even revealed religion—as 'useful nonsense' (see Williford).

*** I arrived at this way of looking at Spinoza via a long ago conversation with Lewis Powell.

**** Leibniz is a sort of neo-Thomist, and Robert Adams argues convincingly that Leibniz saw Spinoza's rejection of teleology as the key point of divergence.

Posted by Kenny at January 12, 2017 2:20 PM
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