Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Man the Brute

Part 13 of Prisoners of the Real

Thomas Hobbes, who joined an expanding French circle of philosophers and mathematicians after studying at Oxford, was an early and avid reader of Descartes. A promising political philosopher, he conferred with Francis Bacon and Stephen Harvey, and visited Galileo in Florence. Yet his main source of inspiration was the father of "universal mathematics," with whom he soon began to correspond.

Descartes was equally impressed, and showed it not only by allowing the young philosopher to read his Meditations prior to publication, but also by declaring the young Hobbes to be the leading political thinker of the age.

Despite the praise, Hobbes liked to think of himself as a fellow mathematician. He had been deeply influence by the defining power of Euclidean geometry, describing it as "the only science that it hath pleased God hitherto to bestow on Mankind." And, like Descartes, he was committed to the value of certainty – that attainment of indisputable conclusions that could be reached with mathematical precision -- and the desirability of a monarchical form of government. Although the former was rapidly gaining in popularity, however, Hobbes' allegiance to monarchy served to limit his influence for almost two centuries. It was only in the early 19th century that his views were revived by philosophical radicals; in particular, John Austin used Hobbes' theory of sovereignty as the basis for analytical jurisprudence.

The cult of arithmetic had evidently led Hobbes to a revolutionary conclusion; all phenomena, he felt certain, could be explained in terms of two first principles – matter and motion. Time itself, he suggested, was a conception of motion: "to conceive that any thing may be moved without time were to conceive motion without motion, which is impossible." As a result, his systematic theory of politics, a bold attempt at a scientifically-based political philosophy, began with the study of bodies and their movements:

"That is said to be at rest, which during any time is in one place; and that to be moved, of to have been moved, which, whether it be now at rest or moved, was formerly in another place than that which it is now in. From which definitions it may be inferred, first, that whatsoever is moved has been moved....Secondly, that what is moved, will yet be moved....Thirdly, that whatsoever is moved, is not in one place during any time, how little soever that time be..."

For Hobbes, the interaction of matter and motion could explain any phenomena. The entire universe was for him a gigantic machine governed by laws of motion, a materialistic position that fit snugly with the mechanistic approach of science. Using geometry, he searched for clear definitions, assuming that they in turn would serve as launch points for his scientific inquiries. The evidence of motion also led him, however, to the rejection of free will. Emotions, he proposed, are responses to the motions of external objects, a view bearing a strong resemblance to B. F. Skinner's notion of a "controlling" environment.

According to Hobbes, waves radiate off objects in all directions, pressing against our sensory organs, brains and hearts. As sensations fade, they become imagination; the sequencing of imaginations is mental discourse, transformed through speech into reason.

The mind, he said, deliberates on a succession of alternating emotions, weighing good and evil, pleasant and unpleasant consequences. The most dominant of the emotions are fear of violence and the desire for power, both manifestations of the urge for self-preservation. This impulse, he concluded, is the natural right of the individual.

But human beings, he added, are concerned primarily with their own security. Naturally anti-social and aggressive, each person seeks to subordinate others to his will in order to eliminate threats. The will to live thus becomes the will to power:

"So that in the first place, I put for a general inclination of all mankind a perpetual and restless desire for power after power, that ceaseth only in death. And the cause of this is not always that a man hopes for more intensive delight than he has already attained to or that he cannot be content with moderate power; but because he cannot assure the power and the means to live well, which he hath present, without the acquisition of more."

The concept of humanity as naturally brutish and self-seeking followed the line of reasoning used by Descartes, and set the stage for the claims of countless modern social scientists. Unfortunately, it also became a tenet of rational management theory. Consider, for example, the central assumption presented by Douglas McGregor in his study, The Human Side of Enterprise:

"The average human being has an inherent dislike of work and will avoid it if he can."

Here is conventional management wisdom; workers are idle, they naturally resist productive association with others, and, if that isn't indictment enough, they're also devious. Using Hobbesian logic, most managers conclude that strong central direction and rigid regulation are absolutely essential to institutional survival.

Next: Surrender to Authority

To read other chapters, go to Prisoners of the Real: An Odyssey

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