I argued in a previous book that Thomas Hobbes was one of the earliest critics, and perhaps the most significant opponent, of the republican way of thinking about freedom and government (Pettit 1997). His ideas about freedom, although fashioned to fit with an absolutist view of the state, were entirely original and played a crucial part in the development of classical liberalism--a later, nonabsolutist alternative to republican theory--in the nineteenth century. It was that fact about his views that led me to become interested in Hobbes's thought. And it is a good reason for being interested, since he sponsored a radical, conceptual innovation in thinking about liberty.
But there are many, many other reasons for taking an interest in Hobbes, as I have discovered since writing my earlier book. That discovery came about as a result of two graduate seminars on Hobbes that I taught at Princeton University with Dan Garber, first in 2003 and then in 2005. We set out to develop a picture of Hobbes in the round, taking account of his writings in the many different areas where he worked. I cannot overstate my gratitude to Dan for exposing me to the riches of Hobbes's thought and the wealth of connections between his thinking in different domains. Nor can I overstate my appreciation for the contributions of our students to the seminars in which we found our way through the Hobbesian texts. They were sparkling, memorable events.
Unsurprisingly, I came to refine the details of my views about Hobbes on liberty, as will be clear from the discussion in chapter 8 (Pettit 2005). But more surprisingly, I came to think that Hobbes is one of the most significant and least appreciated of modern thinkers. I like to move between different areas of philosophical inquiry, building on the analogues and connections that bubble up in that exercise, and seeking out the bigger picture that such shuttle research makes possible. I found that in this respect, if not in his political views, Hobbes is about as congenial a master as I could wish for. He is the very model of a thinker who ranges over many topics, searching out commonalities and connections across the many domains he covers.
But it is not just the broad, webbed quality of his work that struck me in this recent reading. I was even more forcibly impressed by the way his thought develops around a single idea that was quite original to him. This is the idea, in the title of my book, that human minds are made by words.1 More specifically, it is the idea that by nature human beings are more or less as other animals, and that what makes them different, giving them the capacity for thought, is the impact of a cultural development: the invention of speech at some distant time in the past. Language is an invented technology, not a natural inheritance, according to Hobbes, and it is a technology that transformed our kind, introducing a deep cleavage between us and otherwise comparable animals.
This idea now has wide currency, of course. It often surfaces in scientific discussions of cultural evolution and the great break that appears to have occurred among anatomically modern human beings over fifty thousand years ago (Tattersall 2002).2 And it is a recurrent motif in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century romantic thought, receiving typical expression in Percy Bysshe Shelley's line from Prometheus Unbound: "He gave man speech and speech created thought."3 But the idea appeared first in Hobbes and may ultimately derive from him. He is the inventor of the invention of language. He is the inventor of the idea that language is a transformative technology that has shaped our species, accounting for our characteristic features on both the positive and negative side of the ledger.
Hobbes's thesis about the transformative part played by speech shapes every aspect of his theory. It enables him to be a materialist about the human mind, giving him an account of what makes us special that he could invoke in place of a Cartesian dualism; it is no accident that he aired the thesis within three years of Ren� Descartes' first excursion into these topics. It makes it possible for him to develop a theory of reasoning that equates it with the manipulation of words or symbols; a theory of personhood according to which persons are essentially spokespersons who can give their word to others and thereby "personate" themselves; and a theory of group agency that equates incorporation with rallying behind the words of a collective representative or spokesperson. The thesis allows Hobbes to analyze the predicament that makes peace and polity so hard to attain, tracing this to the effect on people's passions of having the words that enable them to worry about the future and fret about their standing relative to one other.
There are no customer reviews available at this time. Would you like to write a review?
Princeton University Press
January 22, 2008
Number of Print Pages*
Adobe DRM EPUB
* Number of eBook pages may differ. Click here for more information.