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What was Hobbes' solution to Descartes' mind-body problem?

Hobbes could not make sense of René Descartes' (1596-1650) idea of a thinking substance. He first criticized Descartes for confusing the thing that thinks with the action of thinking. And then, concerning the thing that thinks, Hobbes wrote that "a thinking thing is something corporeal. This is because it seems that the subjects of all actions are comprehensible only if they are conceived as corporeal or material." What this amounted to in the history of metaphysics was that Hobbes solved the mind-body problem by denying that there existed a non-material substance of mind, because everything that existed had to be material.

How did Hobbes explain sensation, memory, imagination, thought, and emotion?

Hobbes described sensations as effects of movement in the body that are felt through the motions of the heart. Sense always has "some memory adhering to it," because sense organs retain the movements of external bodies acting on them. So long as the organs are moved by one object, they cannot be moved by another. Imagination is "decaying sense," after the source of sensation is removed, and memory is similar to imagination, except that it also has a feeling of familiarity.

Hobbes believed that thought involved literal movements in the head. His idea of unguided thought led to later theories of the "association of ideas" (that one thought automatically evokes another in the mind). Guided thought is goal-directed. Hobbes thought that while humans and animals both may perform the action that is necessary to reach a goal, only humans have the distinctive trait of prudence. Prudence involves beginning with the action that one can perform and then calculating its consequences as a guide for what to do. Prudence increases with experience.

Concerning the passions, or emotions, which he called "endeavors," Hobbes postulated two types of motion in the body: vital motions, such as breathing, nutrition, and the circulation of the blood; and animal motion, such as voluntary movement. Pleasure is nothing more than motion around the heart. Appetite is an endeavor toward an object associated with pleasure, and aversion is an endeavor away from it.

Cover of illustration from Thomas Hobbes' book Leviathan (Art Archive).

Cover of illustration from Thomas Hobbes' book Leviathan (Art Archive).

What was Hobbes' belief about free will?

In his The Questions Concerning Liberty, Necessity and Chance (1656) Hobbes called his position on free will "necessitarianism." He said there was nothing in the human mind to which the word "will" refers; in other words, there was no will. But there is desire, and what we call "will" is the last desire before we make up our minds to do something. The entire person can be free, however. Human freedom, according to Hobbes, consists in not being prevented from doing what one desires to do. Freedom, in his view, is thus nothing more or less than liberty.

Hobbes also believed that all actions have causes or are "necessitated." But we are responsible legally for what we do because it is just that we be punished for our decision or "will" in the matter. The purpose of such punishment is to deter others from misbehaving and preserve justice.

What was Hobbes' theory of government in Leviathan?

Hobbes advocated a strong form of monarchy as a way of re-describing the role of the individual in his own politically volatile society. He began with the idea of a state of nature, which was a condition of life without government. Hobbes' method was to determine the uses and justification for government, from that original condition, together with an understanding of human nature.

According to Hobbes, human beings in their natural condition are each roughly equal in physical strength, because the weakest has the ability to kill the strongest. They are not sociable by nature, but rather exist in a prolonged condition in which each individual is against everyone else—a condition of war. In fact, humans only seek one another out for their own glory, greed, or to gang up and conspire against third parties. Without government and the stable organizations and institutions created and supported by government, life in a state of nature is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

Men do have Right Reason in nature, the first principle of which is to preserve themselves. They are also aware of the Laws of Nature, the first of which is to do whatever is possible to keep the peace. But to keep the peace, there needs to be an enforceable contract between parties, and after one side has performed there is no guarantee that the other will do his or her part. Hobbes wrote that "covenants without the sword, are but words, and of no strength to secure a man at all."

What was Hobbes' idea of the social contract?

The social contract was Hobbes' solution to the unpleasantness of life in the state of nature. It was an agreement among citizens to give up their individual powers to harm one another and transfer all of those powers to the sovereign, or Leviathan. In return, the sovereign would keep order, which would enable all the benefits of civilized life, such as a just legal system, education, marriage, security in property, and a flourishing of the arts and sciences.

Hobbes' Leviathan, though, was to have totalitarian powers over his subjects, including the right over their lives, censorship, the right to draft them into military service, and to impose any other necessary burden of government. The only rights retained by subjects were the rights to preserve themselves and resist imprisonment or execution. Laws were literally the commands of the sovereign. Once the sovereign was made the irrevocable gift of power from the people, the only thing that could bring down the government would be its self-abdication or defeat by foreign enemies.

 
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