Western Thought for College Dropouts and Lonesome Socialists


It's easy to forget that Leviathan isn't just an important text in the world of Western philosophy, but that's it's also a kind of primary historical source. So what struck me most about this chapter was what appears to be a debate about neuro-biology and human anatomy between Hobbes and his contemporaries. 

Hobbes defines sense as result of pressure put upon the sense-organ. So your spouse applies light pressure to your shoulders, and you experience this as a gentle massage. My father makes waffles in the kitchen and I experience this (initially) as a pleasant odor wafting out through the house. A terror suspect is water-boarded and experiences severe pain. Light from a canvas strikes my eyes, and I experience the various colors in a painting. What seems important to Hobbes is the space between the thing itself (which is outside of me, or "without") and my sense of thing (which is inside of me or "within.") 

Hobbes writes:

And though at some certain distance the real and very object seem invested with the fancy it begets in us; yet still the object is one thing, the image or fancy is another. So that sense in all cases is nothing else but original fancy caused (as I have said) by the pressure that is, by the motion of external things upon our eyes, ears, and other organs, thereunto ordained

We may all say that the sky is blue. But in fact the sky is just...they sky. The blue is in us.

Hobbes seems himself in competition with prevailing world-view of philosophers. They believe, for instance, that the waffles my father prepares in the kitchen are not merely sitting in the kitchen pressuring my olfactory nerves, but that they've sent some portion of themselves--some "show, apparition or aspect"--which my sensory organ than receives. I am not up on my sciences, but I think this is sort of how smell works. Perhaps Hobbes would say that while molecules from the waffles are conveyed and put pressure upon my nerves, the waffles themselves are still in the kitchen.

I think this is important:

Nay, for the cause of understanding also, they say the thing understood sendeth forth an intelligible species, that is, an intelligible being seen; which, coming into the understanding, makes us understand. I say not this, as disapproving the use of universities: but because I am to speak hereafter of their office in a Commonwealth, I must let you see on all occasions by the way what things would be amended in them; amongst which the frequency of insignificant speech is one.

So Hobbes sees his opposition not speaking of pieces, but almost of independent wholes. In the case of an idea, an intelligent being (a spirit? a ghost?) is conveyed forward to us thus gifting "understanding." Of course for college dropout the shots Hobbes fires (repeatedly, by the way) at the universities and their "frequency of insignificant speech" thrill me. 

Was this text incendiary at the time? Was it heretical? How far was Hobbes removed from his contemporaries? How radical was the break? And this notion of all the sciences and arts as interconnected, when did that leave us? Are we still encouraged to think in that broad manner? Have we lost something in our education by not drawing lines from biology to philosophy? 

I have written this without resorting to wikipedia or the internet or anything but the text itself. I don't want to project an "aspect" of wisdom. I expect to garner plenty of wisdom from you.

See last week's post here.

Leviathan (Chapter I: Sense)

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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