Western Thought for Class Cutters and Schoolmen Reformed

More
leviathan.jpg

The Leviathan (Chapter IV: Of Speech)

This was probably my favorite chapter so far, given my chosen craft. I continue to be amazed at Hobbes's literalism. He rails against metaphor and insists that words, and the training together of words, have precise meaning. Hobbes is pursuing truth. Words are his tools. Should his words be erroneous, he might find himself as the scientist fumbling with scales out of calibration. (TNC and The Horde are jacking for beats.) 


For Hobbes, "truth consisteth in the right ordering of names in our affirmations."  I don't want to keep beating the atheist drum, but this strikes me as an expansive vision of man's power. Perhaps the idea that total truth can be captured by words correctly applied was common at the time. I don't know. What's interesting to me also is that art, in no way, figures into Hobbes conception of truth. Poetry--or what today considers poetry--seems also out of the truth business. Here Hobbes list some of the abuses of language, including metaphor among them:

First, when men register their thoughts wrong by the inconstancy of the signification of their words; by which they register for their conceptions that which they never conceived, and so deceive themselves. Secondly, when they use words metaphorically; that is, in other sense than that they are ordained for, and thereby deceive others. Thirdly, when by words they declare that to be their will which is not. Fourthly, when they use them to grieve one another: for seeing nature hath armed living creatures, some with teeth, some with horns, and some with hands, to grieve an enemy, it is but an abuse of speech to grieve him with the tongue, unless it be one whom we are obliged to govern; and then it is not to grieve, but to correct and amend.

I was reminded that Hobbes himself uses metaphor, but he almost always does it with a literalness and precision. I might think "a rounded quadrangle" has meaning--signifying the impossibility of a relationship, for instance. But Hobbes rejects paradox as a literary, or perhaps, philosophical device. Consider this remarkable image:

By this it appears how necessary it is for any man that aspires to true knowledge to examine the definitions of former authors; and either to correct them, where they are negligently set down, or to make them himself. For the errors of definitions multiply themselves, according as the reckoning proceeds, and lead men into absurdities, which at last they see, but cannot avoid, without reckoning anew from the beginning; in which lies the foundation of their errors. From whence it happens that they which trust to books do as they that cast up many little sums into a greater, without considering whether those little sums were rightly cast up or not; and at last finding the error visible, and not mistrusting their first grounds, know not which way to clear themselves, spend time in fluttering over their books; as birds that entering by the chimney, and finding themselves enclosed in a chamber, flutter at the false light of a glass window, for want of wit to consider which way they came in. 

So that in the right definition of names lies the first use of speech; which is the acquisition of science: and in wrong, or no definitions, lies the first abuse; from which proceed all false and senseless tenets; which make those men that take their instruction from the authority of books, and not from their own meditation, to be as much below the condition of ignorant men as men endued with true science are above it. For between true science and erroneous doctrines, ignorance is in the middle. Natural sense and imagination are not subject to absurdity. Nature itself cannot err: and as men abound in copiousness of language; so they become more wise, or more mad, than ordinary. Nor is it possible without letters for any man to become either excellently wise or (unless his memory be hurt by disease, or ill constitution of organs) excellently foolish. For words are wise men's counters; they do but reckon by them: but they are the money of fools, that value them by the authority of an Aristotle, a Cicero, or a Thomas, or any other doctor whatsoever, if but a man.
I let this go on to feature more of Hobbes writing, which is really so sharp here. But note the concrete nature of the image. It is not abstract, and even if you've never seen the thing, you can imagine what Hobbes is saying to you.

As always, I am amused by his disrespect for the "Schoolmen"--they who traffic in "many words making nothing understood." What is the line from Aristotle to Cicero? I now know why Hobbes hates Aristotle, but I know nothing of Cicero. What was happening at that moment? I feel like I haven't gotten a clear picture from comments as to how much of a break Hobbes was from the past. He certainly feels like he's a break. He writes like an insurgent intellectual, not like someone guarding a hallowed tradition.
Jump to comments
Presented by

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Why Are Americans So Bad at Saving Money?

The US is particularly miserable at putting aside money for the future. Should we blame our paychecks or our psychology?


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

The Death of Film

You'll never hear the whirring sound of a projector again.

Video

How to Hunt With Poison Darts

A Borneo hunter explains one of his tribe's oldest customs: the art of the blowpipe

Video

A Delightful, Pixar-Inspired Cartoon

An action figure and his reluctant sidekick trek across a kitchen in search of treasure.

Video

I Am an Undocumented Immigrant

"I look like a typical young American."

Video

Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion

Writers

Up
Down

More in Global

From This Author

Just In