Post lecture notes for students of IR 6901: (Week 2, Part 2) Descartes, Hobbes and Locke: towards Foundationalism and Empiricism

By Farish A. Noor ~ March 16th, 2010. Filed under: Lecture Notes.

Post lecture notes for students of IR 6901: (Week 2) Introduction to Discourse Analysis, with a special reference to religio-political discourse: (Part 2)

Descartes, Hobbes and Locke: from Idealism and Essentialism to Foundationalism and Empiricism.

Russell (1946) notes that the long shadow of Plato and Aristotle was to have a deleterious effect on the development of Western philosophy that would last for more than a thousand years. I think this is somewhat of an exaggeration, though as we have seen in the earlier note the influence of both Plato and Aristotle on Western art, literature, religion and philosophy was strong indeed. By the 16th to 17th centuries however the early beginnings of what would later be known as the scientific revolution was already putting into question many of the settled assumptions of the dominant religio-political institutions of Western Europe that had been both sedimented and hegemonic for a long time. The discoveries of Galileo, Copernicus, Newton etc would revolutionise the way people viewed the world and bring into doubt the claims of both classical and scholastic cosmology, much of which was rooted in either myth or religious dogma/scripture.

What we need to remember however is that despite these developments there was some degree of continuity in the works and ideas of the major philosophers of the 17th century, including Rene Descartes, (1596-1650), Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and John Locke (1632-1704). In particular, the Meditations and Philosophic method of Descartes owed a lot to the scepticism and method of doubt of Socrates/Plato, though with one important difference: In Descartes the final assurance of truth value is not to be found in some external basis of truth or epistemic certainty, but rather in the certainty of the thinking individual Self/I. This effectively meant that truth was henceforth to be found and verified on a more subjective personal basis, with the human subject as a measure of truth and truth-value as well. So let us start with Descartes.

A. Descartes and the method of Cartesian doubt.

As Russell rightfully notes, Descartes was not an original philosopher who invented an entirely new system of philosophical enquiry. (pg. 542). But his great innovation, if we can call it that, was to transfer the centre of enquiry from the realm of ideas and essences to the Self/I of the thinking subject.

Descartes ideas and methods are found in two of his most important works, ‘The Discourse on the Method’ and the ‘Meditations’. (Both texts are sometimes compiled in a singular edition; the Penguin paperback editions are an easy read and the most accessible.) It is interesting to note the style of Descartes’s writing, which reflected his personality and career as an amateur fighting man as well. In both the Meditations and the Discourse on the Method, he employs military metaphors often, with phrases like ‘laying siege’, ‘doing battle’ (against falsehood) etc. There are only two key ideas that we need to take from Descartes for the purpose of our own study of the philosophy of language, and they are: his method of doubt and his mind-body dualism which establishes the physical world as a separate reality to be talked about and to be known. Let us start with Descartes’s method of doubt:

Cartesian doubt: reductivism leading to foundationalism.

Taking off where Plato and Aristotle had left, Descartes, like the Greek philosophers, attempts a rigorous examination of all that he knows/is known. Like Plato and Aristotle, Descartes shares their suspicion of all forms of knowledge that are derived from sensory perception. He applies this reductivist method as he begins his own meditation and gradually eliminates all claims to knowledge that he believes are doubtful: Descartes casts doubt on the existence of physical/material objects around him on the basis that his experience of such objects may be false due to his senses that may fail him. A lump of wax in his hand feels cool and hard when he touches it, but gradually grows warm and soft as he approaches a fireplace. As such this poses the question: what is the true nature of the lump of wax then? Is it hard or soft, cold or warm? As objects may change shape, form, colour, etc according to the perspective that one experiences them, he concludes that he cannot, with certainty, make truth claims about the true nature of such material objects. (Descartes does not accept the Platonic notion of ideals or the Aristotelian notion of essences either, so there cannot be a metaphysical basis to any claims of knowledge about material reality.)

Descartes then applies this method of doubt not only to the material world around him, but also directs it against his own sensible faculties: He concludes that his sense have been faulty at times (no doubt alcohol consumption did not help at times) and that one cannot trust one’s eyes, ears, sense of touch etc to be consistent. He further notes that while dreaming one can have perfectly clear sensations that are nonetheless not real, so the senses are not a source of true knowledge either.

Having eliminated all this sensory data, Descartes even begins to doubt his body and his physical existence with the curious argument of the ‘evil demon’ (or mad scientist if you prefer a contemporary model) who casts a spell on him. What if ‘he’ did not exist, but was merely a brain in a vat or a body that was being fed images and sensations by some external malignant force? How can he know that he – as a physical body – even exists?

At this point Descartes chances upon the one thought that he believes cannot be refuted, even if the external world did not exist, his senses were faulty and he was merely a brain being fed sensory data: Cogito ergu sum – I think, therefore I am. For whatever doubts he may have of his physical existence, Descartes feels that he cannot doubt the fact that he is thinking, and therefore he has to exist (in whatever form).

From this one foundational premise Descartes tries to reconstruct his order of knowledge and the world, with the help of an omniscient God whom he posits as benevolent (as God, being perfect, has to be good by definition.) Descartes’s system therefore necessitates the existence of a benevolent God as much as it depends on a benevolent divine presence to ensure that the world is in harmony with its parts and that there is some sense of order in the working of things. (i.e. the benevolent God sees to it that the sun always rises in the East and sets in the West and doesn’t play tricks with us by getting the sun to move in the opposite direction just to play a joke on human beings.)

This propensity to seek a solid premise upon which an entire system of knowledge is referred to as FOUNDATIONALISM and Descartes is in this respect a good example of a foundationalist thinker.

Descartes’s Mind-Body dualism:

Another aspect of Descartes’s philosophy that is relevant to us is his neat dualism between mind and body. We need not dwell on the more esoteric aspects of this theory, which by today’s standards would seem naïve and ill-informed, but simply note that for Descartes the thinking mind/Self (the ‘I’ of the Cogito) is separate from the body and the two function independent of each other.

Just how the mind acts with/on the body is the stuff of speculation that he touches on, albeit crudely, with a curious theory of the pineal gland in the brain being a sort of ‘transmitter’ of the Soul’s intentions to the body, but like I said this theory is of no importance for us here.

The only thing we need to take from Descartes’s dualism of mind and body is the notion that the body is a separate material object that functions on its own, thereby endowing the body with a separate existential status from the Self/I: This is already a major leap from the theory of Plato and Aristotle who regarded the body with suspicion and who denied the truth claims of sensory experience. For Descartes at least, the body is real and has an existential status from which truth claims can be drawn and made. This was no doubt a consequence of the scientific discoveries of the time, that further eroded the belief in the metaphysical and which gave greater importance to the realm of corporeal/objective reality.

In so far as the philosophy of language and language-use is concerned, by the time we get to Descartes, language is seen as a means of communicating about the material/corporeal world around us, and not mere speculation about ideas and/or essences.

B. Hobbes and Locke: Materialism and Language in the social context

Now from Descartes we turn to Hobbes and Locke, and are generally known and read by those reading political philosophy and theory as philosophers of politics and governance. To some extent this is undoubtedly true, but we also need to remember that they were both primarily philosophers of the same tradition who were also deeply concerned with the question of knowledge and in particular the use of language as a means to arriving at truths.

Hobbes is best known for his treatise the Leviathan, which seeks to secure authority in some form of sovereign government where power (including the power to control language) is centralised in some political authority that is commonly understood to be the King or monarch. In Hobbes the mind-body dualism of Descartes is maintained as Hobbes’s view of human beings, as Russell (1946) notes, is mechanistic and which sees human beings as complex corporeal organisms. Indeed much of the Leviathan is concerned with the regulation of these human organisms in a centralised unit that he calls the commonwealth. In this respect Hobbes is very much a secular thinker though the accusations of atheism that were levelled against him were, I believe, unjustified. (If anything, Hobbes was a devout Protestant and in his other writings demonstrates his religiously partisan nature in his attacks on Catholicism.) Later on we shall look at how Hobbes’s political theory of the Commonwealth rested, among other things, on the regulation and control of language and language-use.

Locke, who was likewise a philosopher whose theory of language-use is further developed in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding was also keen to ensure that politics and governance could be secured through a thoroughly rationalised system of language-use. In his theory of knowledge Locke begins – like Descartes and Hobbes – from the premise that the foundational point of understanding is the human subject and human subjective experience. He rejects the idealism and essentialism of Plato and Aristotle and argues that the only source of primary knowledge is experience, restoring value to sensory/sensate knowledge that was denied by Plato and Aristotle. Locke regards the human being as being like a ‘blank sheet of paper’ who enters the world devoid of any knowledge whatsoever, and who slowly constructs his/her body of knowledge via sensory experience first and foremost. Locke would argue, for instance, that our knowledge of what ‘red/redness’ is is not based on some Platonic notion of ideas or Aristotelian essence, but simply sensory experience of red/redness itself.

From such simple premises Locke argues that human knowledge is built via the combination of simple ideas (mostly derived from direct sensory experience) to complex composite ideas (that are complex abstractions of singulars and particulars). Human knowledge is therefore constructed, and not to be found in some idealistic/essential realm of metaphysics.

Both Hobbes and Locke can be described as NOMINALISTS who see signs as standing for the objects they signify. Locke, in his elaboration of how complex ideas are formed, argues that such a nominalistic approach accounts for how we can arrive at complex signs that have no empirical referents as well. (eg. The complex idea of a Pegasus, a winged horse, is not drawn from any sensory experience but is rather a nominal idea that is a combination to simple ideas: horses and wings.)
In the same vein Locke argues that our knowledge of the complex world around us and of the differences between all particulars we see/experience are nominal distinctions that are introduced not by the world but rather by the language we use to describe the world. So the distinction between a horse and a zebra, for instance, is not found in the world itself (‘difference’ does not exist as a thing that can be described, as there are only universals and particulars, but relations and distinctions are not ‘real’) but rather a distinction that is introduced in language as a mode of differentiation between categories and types. Anticipating Foucault who was to write about the Order of Things and the Order of Language centuries later, Locke insists that the ordering, differentiation and classification of all things (both simple and complex abstract ideas) is a function of language.

The nominalism of Locke, however, is somewhat limited by his argument that all human knowledge is derived primarily from subjective individual experience, for this argument – if pushed to the extreme – leads us to what we call SOLIPSISM, which is the stand that we can only have true verifiable knowledge based on personal subjective experience and no further. In short, while we may know and make knowledge-claims, our knowledge (however vast) cannot exceed the confines of our subjectivity; which leads one to the peculiar position of being able to know the entire contents of the world but never being able to know the experiences of another subjectivity. (In other words, I can learn about everything, but I can never know if you exist.)

The other consequence of Locke’s solipsistic position is that it can lead us to the theory of private language: i.e. the theory that languages are fundamentally private in the sense that words mean and signify what they do to/for us on the basis that every sign corresponds to my private sensory experience (including abstract thoughts) of it. That is, ‘red’ means something to me privately based on my private experience of ‘red/redness’. Pushed to another extreme, the private language argument – as we shall see next week – means that all meaning is defined on a subjective basis, and renders communication problematic.

Final Note: Now all we need to remember from this brief overview of the general theories of Descartes, Hobbes and Locke is this: By the time of the modern philosophers of the 17th century, the Platonic/Aristotelian disdain for the material world and sensory knowledge has been overturned, partly as a result of secularisation and the rise of the hard physical sciences and the impact of the scientific revolution. In the mind-body dualism of Descartes and the mechanistic view of human beings as complex automatons in Hobbes, the external material world is once again seen as a source of knowledge and the place where truth-claims and knowledge-claims can be made. In Descartes, Hobbes and Locke, a thoroughgoing materialism is already at work that no longer seeks truth at a metaphysical level, either in ideas or essences.

However, this is not to suggest that Descartes, Hobbes or Locke were materialistic atheists who denied God or metaphysics. Descartes and Hobbes – though both were accused of heresy and atheism – were nonetheless devout believers and God, as we have seen in Descartes, plays a role in the system of knowledge that they were trying to build. The main difference being that by the 17th century God – though immanent and omnipresent – is no longer a determining force/cause in the mechanics of society. In Hobbes and Locke’s theories of knowledge and language-use, the search for knowledge and the attempts to regulate language-use are both governed by the will and agency of men and society at large. Cosmology and theology have receded into the background while human agency assumes centre stage in the drama of both politics and philosophy.

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