Friday, August 21, 2009

Made With Words: Hobbes on Language, Mind, and Politics, by Philip Pettit

Birds do it, bees do it. Why can’t humans live together peacefully outside a coercive political order? Thomas Hobbes offers as one part of the explanation, that such creatures “want that art of words by which some men can represent to others that which is good in the likeness of evill; and evill in the likeness of good… discontenting men, and troubling their peace at their pleasure.” (L 17) Indeed, the human art of words opens a Pandora’s box of sources of conflict—conflict over what is “yours” or “mine”, “right or wrong”, “reasonable” or “unreasonable”, “orthodox” or “heretical”—as passion-tinged and indexical uses of terms make for a babel that ensures not just a failure to communicate, but a war of all against all.

Philip Pettit takes seriously this problem, describing it as one negative implication of what he calls Hobbes’s “invention of language” thesis, namely, that language is a cultural innovation that transformed the human mind. In his elegant and textually erudite discussion, Pettit argues that in addition to this problem of “linguistically disordered desires,” one of the worst effects of Hobbesian men’s acquisition of language is the ability they thereby acquire to fear the future. Because language enables them to imaginatively project themselves into the future, they can never rest contentedly in the present, but must provide for their future security against others, always seeking an excess of power against all comers.

However, language itself provides resources for addressing these sources of conflict. Pettit argues that words enable men to create the conditions for entering into valid contracts, for “personification” (enabling some to speak for others as the representatives of their persons) and for “incorporation” of themselves into unions that can act as persons. These are tools that, in Pettit’s view, make it possible for a multitude to incorporate into a public body, or commonwealth whose personator enjoys sovereign authority.

The story of Hobbes’s social contract as Pettit reconstructs it treats Hobbes’s sovereign as most importantly the provider of meanings of words. In its constitutive role, the sovereign “saves rationcination from the problems deriving from the indexical, perspective-relative character of words like good and bad, and mine and yours. It establishes an order of public meanings in an area where such an order is not spontaneously available, restoring the power of words to provide people with common bearings and shared reasons… The words that waver too much to facilitate ratiocination are regimented appropriately, releasing the capacity of reason to bring people to a common mind.” (P 132) Pettit reads Hobbes as intending to resolve substantive disagreements in interests by having a sovereign arbitrarily redefine the meanings of words to provide a new public standard to which all disputants are to be compelled to defer. He calls the ensuing construction he attributes to Hobbes a “commonwealth of ordered words.”

Pettit meticulously extends his core interpretation to account for many of the key positions any interpretation of Hobbes’s theory will have to give account: Hobbes’s absolutism as expressed by his opposition to divided government, to constitutionalism, and to so-called rule of law, and his view that there are “true liberties of subjects” that are and must always be reserved against political authority. These and the other interpretive elements Pettit calls on, including the attribution to Hobbesian men of a primary interest in self-preservation and “self-concern” are familiar from many interpretations. What is unusual is the central significance Pettit affords Hobbes’s view that human thought is shaped by language.

Pettit’s approach is not dissimilar in impulse to the roughly contemporaneous Hobbes study by Samantha Frost, which also digs deep into Hobbes’s core conception of the human being. Frost attends to Hobbes’s so-far unappreciated idea of “thinking substance” or what we might call animate or living matter as opposed to inanimate matter. From this she shows that Hobbes’s view of human mindfulness differentiates states according to its perception of change; and so memory is crucial to all human mindfulness; this constrains practical politics. Pettit’s is a less radical redirection of interpretive emphasis toward Hobbes’s ideas on language.
One peculiarity of Pettit’s approach is that the view it attributes to Hobbes would appear to render Hobbes culpably incoherent, articulating a would-be solution to the problem his theory identifies that could not even in principle work. Suppose Hobbes had thought that idiosyncratic uses of language create chaos in the state of nature because there are no common meanings available. How then is the contract establishing a civil state supposed to be publicly understood? In what language shall the state of nature contractors converse? Even if all agree to “own” and “authorize” all the “actions” of a “person” for their “self-preservation” and “self-concern,” what public understanding can we assume about the meaning of the public agreement? Why suppose any more meeting of the contractors’ minds on the meaning of “personification” and “incorporation” and “sovereignty” when such relatively transparent terms as “mine” and “good” are insuperably incomprehensible? If language really cannot generally fix meanings, it gains no special magical powers to fix meanings only in the special case of authorizing a sovereign. A million parallel pledges to contracts of differing content do not the union of a commonwealth make.

This problem is only intensified when it comes to deciding whether those conditions that would void subjects’ duty to obey the sovereign’s commands obtain. Hobbes articulates a set of “true liberties” to resist sovereign commands to perform actions that would seriously jeopardize subjects’ safety or filial duties. If the sovereign enjoys the right to define the meaning and application of such terms as “safety”, “threat”, “risk”, “extreme”, “danger”, “protect”, “self-concern”, “filial duty” etc., Hobbes’s true liberty doctrine—upon which he unremittingly insisted—becomes worth nothing, not even as a badge of moral blamelessness, to subjects who must consult their sovereign to learn when they may act on it. If, on the other hand, the meanings of all these terms remain wildly contested, subject to each individual’s interpretation, the true liberty doctrine can be expected to shake the foundation of Hobbes’s system of sovereignty so violently that it collapses in on itself.

This sort of problem posed by Hobbes’s doctrine of the true liberties of subjects is well known and widely discussed. It is unfortunate that Pettit’s interpretation offers no advance in addressing it. Pettit indulges in no sidetracking to consider alternative interpretations nor to account for recalcitrant texts that might mar the quiet clarity of his case for his own interpretation of Hobbes. There is nothing illegitimate in general about an author’s decision to pick and choose texts to support a preferred interpretation, nor to set aside conflicting ones. With such a large body of work as Hobbes’s, it is unavoidable. However, in this case, Pettit’s omissions have profound negative impact on both the plausibility of Hobbes’s view, and the plausibility of Pettit’s contention that his interpretation captures Hobbes’s view.

Pettit makes a case for his interpretation of Hobbesian desire, but sets aside the entire realm of belief, explaining that he “decided against a separate treatment of the effects of words on belief because this would have required an investigation of Hobbes’s views on religion” and such an investigation would have “shifted the focus from issues of continuing philosophical concern to questions of a somewhat more arcane kind.”(5) I am less confident that a political philosophy adequate to address the most pressing questions of our current social world will view questions of citizens’ religious beliefs as all that arcane; but howsoever that may be, Hobbes did not believe a stable commonwealth could be achieved unless subjects’ beliefs were addressed and their erroneous content corrected. He insisted that “The actions of men proceed from their opinions; and in the well governing of men’s opinions consists the well governing of their actions, in order to their peace and concord.” (L ) When certain sorts of false opinions hold sway, social order simply cannot be sustained, for “When people are once persuaded that their obedience will be more hurtful to them than their disobedience, they WILL REBEL.” (L ) Hobbes held that an adequate political theory requires not just an account of the formation of belief, and a strategy for revision of belief, but also an understanding of which beliefs are problematic for political union.

So to set aside the whole question of people’s beliefs, is disallowed by Hobbes’s project. To do this precisely in order to avoid having to address people’s religious beliefs propels the project so far outside anything Hobbes could have intended, that we’ll have to think again about why we are investigating Hobbes in the first place. Suppose we treat as non-arcane Hobbes’s view that people desire their self-preservation, as Pettit asserts. Does how they pursue that desire depend on any of their beliefs? A whole bunch of them believe on grounds of religion that they may survive the current life of their bodies, and are willing to act in accordance with that belief. Can we expect that belief to affect their willingness to submit to sovereign civil authority?

Pettit’s account rightly emphasizes that Hobbes thinks most people ordinarily fear death above all other harms. But it is sensible to think that the reason people fear death, if or when they do, is because they want to continue to live. People who do not want to live don’t care so much about dying; some even welcome it. Those who want most (above all else) to live, want to live longer rather than shorter. And for such people, the promise of afterlife or of eternal life will quite naturally tip the scale in Pettit’s Hobbesian calculus. Some prophets or ministers or charlatans purport to show them ways to eternal bliss, far beyond anything this earthly world could hold. Many hold that true religion does so. Hobbes spent increasingly larger percentages of his writing devoted to religious interpretation. Hobbes stipulates in Chapter 12 of Leviathan on what he terms “natural religion”, that in the state of nature people have already formed beliefs about the requirements for their longest-term survival, and concomitant allegiances.
Precisely the fear of the future and human curiosity that Pettit notes ensures that Hobbesian people will form religious beliefs prior to any consideration of joining into a civil union. And those beliefs in the requirements of earning an afterlife will quite properly, rationally, constrain, the terms of any social contract entered. One thing they cannot properly, rationally permit is any arbitrary redefinition of the meanings of the terms of duty upon which they believe their salvation depends. The only way believers will submit to civil authority is if they believe that their authoritative religious source requires or at least allows them to submit to civil authority. What that means is that Hobbes was right that detailed engagement with the Biblical and other authoritative texts of believers is an ineliminable prerequisite to settling a civil peace.
That, I think, was Hobbes’s least arcane insight, and Pettit’s constricted use of resources in mounting his interpretation precludes our seeing it. That said, Made With Words is a beautiful condensed introduction to Hobbes’s political theory that will become a standard teaching tool in classes in political philosophy and theory henceforward. It is neither as short nor as far-ranging as Richard Tuck’s classic Past Masters volume Hobbes, nor as critical of Hobbes and internally rigorous as Gregory S. Kavka’s Hobbesian Moral and Political Theory, but I expect Pettit’s book to help a whole new generation of students begin to engage Hobbes’s thrilling perspective on our world.

S.A. Lloyd

A later version of this review was published in Ethics, Volume 119 No.3.

If you have written any reviews on Hobbes and like them to be posted, please email Sharon Lloyd at

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