Western Thought for Footmen and Aspiring Legionnaires

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The Leviathan (Chapter V: Of Reason And Science


I've long wanted to put in place hard standards for commenters on my blog. I think reading Chapter V and then writing an essay would be a good start. Of course this would be a standard that I would struggle to fulfill. So much for that idea.

At any rate, I thought this was so crucial:

By this it appears that reason is not, as sense and memory, born with us; nor gotten by experience only, as prudence is; but attained by industry: first in apt imposing of names; and secondly by getting a good and orderly method in proceeding from the elements, which are names, to assertions made by connexion of one of them to another; and so to syllogisms, which are the connexions of one assertion to another, till we come to a knowledge of all the consequences of names appertaining to the subject in hand; and that is it, men call science. And whereas sense and memory are but knowledge of fact, which is a thing past and irrevocable, science is the knowledge of consequences, and dependence of one fact upon another; by which, out of that we can presently do, we know how to do something else when we will, or the like, another time: because when we see how anything comes about, upon what causes, and by what manner; when the like causes come into our power, we see how to make it produce the like effects.

For Hobbes, sense and memory are things that we all come equipped with. But reason is worked at. Reason comes from naming--as precisely as possible--that which we sense, and then using a valid method to connect the names. I was joking at the top about comments because I think half the disagreement on this board--and  beyond this board--comes from an imprecision of names. We went through this yesterday. What do we mean by "liberal?" By "progressive?" By "conservative?" 

And you could take this principle and really go to town on American punditry. I think Hobbes would have a great deal of fun with Bill Keller's case against naming torture. There's probably some great line to be drawn from this problem of naming to Orwell:

Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements.

Misnaming is not simply how we misreason, it's how we deceive and evade. Perhaps Hobbes knew this:

To conclude, the light of humane minds is perspicuous words, but by exact definitions first snuffed, and purged from ambiguity; reason is the pace; increase of science, the way; and the benefit of mankind, the end. And, on the contrary, metaphors, and senseless and ambiguous words are like ignes fatui; and reasoning upon them is wandering amongst innumerable absurdities; and their end, contention and sedition, or contempt.

I know this is the wrong thing to say about a guy like Hobbes but there is something deeply moral, for me, in this part-reason is the pace; increase of science the way; and the benefit of mankind, the end. I just love that. And I love the idea that to muddy our words is a quiet contempt and sedition against ideas and mankind. 
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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.

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