Western Thought for Dun Linguists and Schoolmen Reformed

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Leviathan (Chapter III: Of The Consequence Or Train Of Imagination)


There's a lot in this chapter that I didn't get, starting with the first paragraph:

BY CONSEQUENCE, or train of thoughts, I understand that succession of one thought to another which is called, to distinguish it from discourse in words, mental discourse. 

When a man thinketh on anything whatsoever, his next thought after is not altogether so casual as it seems to be. Not every thought to every thought succeeds indifferently. But as we have no imagination, whereof we have not formerly had sense, in whole or in parts; so we have no transition from one imagination to another, whereof we never had the like before in our senses. The reason whereof is this. All fancies are motions within us, relics of those made in the sense; and those motions that immediately succeeded one another in the sense continue also together after sense: in so much as the former coming again to take place and be predominant, the latter followeth, by coherence of the matter moved, in such manner as water upon a plain table is drawn which way any one part of it is guided by the finger. But because in sense, to one and the same thing perceived, sometimes one thing, sometimes another, succeedeth, it comes to pass in time that in the imagining of anything, there is no certainty what we shall imagine next; only this is certain, it shall be something that succeeded the same before, at one time or another.

This totally lost me and its my hope that some of you will be able to help decipher. With that said, I think this section, very much, relates to the approach of this blog:

Sometimes a man desires to know the event of an action; and then he thinketh of some like action past, and the events thereof one after another, supposing like events will follow like actions. As he that foresees what will become of a criminal re-cons what he has seen follow on the like crime before, having this order of thoughts; the crime, the officer, the prison, the judge, and the gallows. Which kind of thoughts is called foresight, and prudence, or providence, and sometimes wisdom; though such conjecture, through the difficulty of observing all circumstances, be very fallacious. 

But this is certain: by how much one man has more experience of things past than another; by so much also he is more prudent, and his expectations the seldomer fail him. The present only has a being in nature; things past have a being in the memory only; but things to come have no being at all, the future being but a fiction of the mind, applying the sequels of actions past to the actions that are present; which with most certainty is done by him that has most experience, but not with certainty enough. And though it be called prudence when the event answereth our expectation; yet in its own nature it is but presumption. For the foresight of things to come, which is providence, belongs only to him by whose will they are to come. From him only, and supernaturally, proceeds prophecy. The best prophet naturally is the best guesser; and the best guesser, he that is most versed and studied in the matters he guesses at, for he hath most signs to guess by. 

A sign is the event antecedent of the consequent; and contrarily, the consequent of the antecedent, when the like consequences have been observed before: and the oftener they have been observed, the less uncertain is the sign. And therefore he that has most experience in any kind of business has most signs whereby to guess at the future time, and consequently is the most prudent: and so much more prudent than he that is new in that kind of business, as not to be equalled by any advantage of natural and extemporary wit, though perhaps many young men think the contrary. 

Nevertheless, it is not prudence that distinguisheth man from beast. There be beasts that at a year old observe more and pursue that which is for their good more prudently than a child can do at ten. 

As prudence is a presumption of the future, contracted from the experience of time past: so there is a presumption of things past taken from other things, not future, but past also. For he that hath seen by what courses and degrees a flourishing state hath first come into civil war, and then to ruin; upon the sight of the ruins of any other state will guess the like war and the like courses have been there also. But this conjecture has the same uncertainty almost with the conjecture of the future, both being grounded only upon experience. 

My sense of this is not that history is God, or that history necessarily reveals everything, or even that the past is likely to repeat. I think the claim is more humble--that history is better than nothing, that it allows for educated guessing. Hobbes says "The best prophet naturally is the best guesser." But I think this could also be read as "The best prophet is only the best guesser." We are all guessers, but our hope through the study of history is to be "better guessers," not to achieve an impossible ultimate prudence, but to be more prudent than we would be had we chosen to remain ignorant of past events.

I want to push this a little further: One thing that often comes up when I give talks concerning history (or even here in our recent talks around housing discrimination) is a desire to know, with certainty, precisely what this means for today. But for me, the more important thing is not the certainty but the prudence. And part of the prudence (at least as I am reading Hobbes) is understanding that there is no certainty in contracting from the "experience of time." There is only better guessing.

I'd here someone tackle that first paragraph. As well as the last one in which Hobbes continues his feud with the dastardly "Schoolmen."

Last week's entry here.

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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