Post lecture notes for students of IR 6901: (Week 3, part 2) Hobbes: Private Language and the policing of definitions in a state

By Farish A. Noor ~ March 22nd, 2010. Filed under: Lecture Notes.

Post lecture notes for students of IR 6901: (Week 3, part 2) Introduction to Discourse Analysis, with a special reference to religio-political discourse:

Hobbes: Private Language and the policing of definitions in a state

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) wrote his works before John Locke but for the purposes of this lecture I will start with Locke and end with Hobbes instead, for reasons that I hope will become clearer as we progress.

Now as we saw last week and today, both Hobbes and Locke have a theory of language that is in many respects similar. They both hold the view that word/signs stand for ideas (that are in the ‘mind’ and are based on sensory experience), and that signification involves correspondence/reference to the ideas. This is the correspondence/referential theory of meaning we discussed today and in this case the linguistic component of language (words/signs) correspond/refer to extra/non-linguistic objects, in the case of both Hobbes and Locke these being the ideas that we have and which we can develop further through the process of reasoning.

Like Locke, Hobbes too has a conceptually atomistic understanding of ideas, in that we begin with simple ideas (most of which are derived from sensate experiences such as colours, tastes, etc.) and then we proceed to more general and complex ideas that can be built up through the combination/amalgamation of simple ideas.

A. Hobbes on the origins of Speech: Speech as naming

Hobbes has a theory on the origins of speech that is not really important for us here, save that it is a theory that is based both on religious scripture as well as his own theory of human agency and will. ‘Speech’, writes Hobbes, ‘is the most noble and profitable of all inventions’, for it allows people to name/label the ideas that they possess and by doing so allows for communication. Just where and when speech emerges is left unclear though Hobbes posits the view that God is the author if speech and that it was God who taught Adam how to name things.

Crucially, Hobbes insists that speech – being the means through which human beings communicate with each other about the ideas they possess/experience is also the basis of society, for as he argues without language there can be ‘neither Commonwealth nor society’.

Hobbes’s private language theory necessarily means that for him all words/signs stand for/signify ideas that are private. As in the case of Locke, this means that if and when pushed to the extreme the logical conclusion of Hobbes’s theory is that it leads us to a private language and solipsism, where we cannot know what is in the mind of the other, as we cannot have direct experience of the experiences of others. But language and speech for him is simply there to ‘transfer our mental discourse into verbal (discourse); or the train of our thoughts into trains of words’. (Again, note how the extra-linguistic component of language for Hobbes is primarily ideational. There is, in this sense, no signification of an external objective reality and words can only stand for ideas and sensate experiences.)

Hobbes’s view of language is instrumentalist in the sense that he sees language as a tool that has many features, of which he names four:

The first use of language is ‘to register, what by cogitation, we find to be the cause of things’; the second is ‘to show to others what knowledge we have attained’; the third is ‘to make known to others our wills and purposes’, and interestingly the fourth ‘to please and delight ourselves, by playing with our words’.

The four uses of language (for Hobbes) also have their four corresponding abuses, which include to lie, to abuse the meaning/signification of words, to invent metaphors (this is Hobbes’s undisguised attack on Aristotle and the scholars of Aristotle whom he regarded as ‘vain philosophers’ who were inventing ideas such as essences other concepts like ‘spirit’, ‘soul’ etc.) and to injure others deliberately through the use of words.

B. Hobbes’s anthropomorphism and the subjectivity of language:

Because Hobbes (and later Locke) takes the view that languages work instrumentally as a means to signify ideas that individuals have of things, then it follows that language is made up of words/signs that can only have a private meaning for language-users.
But this also has other, more important, consequences for Hobbes and the political system that he is trying to develop in the Leviathan.

Hobbes has to accept that all languages are made up of signs/words that can only have an arbitrary relationship with the ideas they correspond to. In other words, there is NO ESSENTIAL RELATIONSHIP OF SIGNIFICATION BETWEEN THE SIGNIFIER (the word/sign) AND THE SIGNIFIED (the idea). It follows also that all though-systems, including the very political model he is trying to construct, are constructed through and on language, and they are consequently artificial constructs that are the products of human mental reasoning and judgement. ALL of language-use and all knowledge that is derived from/developed through language is thus consequently subjective, socially and historically context-bound and anthropomorphic.

Thus the model of the centralised state that he poses in the Leviathan has no basis in any Platonic ideal type, nor on any Aristotelian account of an essentialist social order that ought to be reflected on earth. Human societies – based on Hobbes’s atomistic view of human beings as little more than complex biological automatons driven by selfish interests including self-preservation, greed, lust and fear – are all artificial constructs built on language, and not any ideal model. There is no transcendental model of an ideal state for Hobbes to draw his inspiration from, as he denies precisely the sort of Platonic idealism and Aristotelian essentialism that he denigrates as ‘vain philosophy’ based on metaphors.

If we were to accept this as Hobbes’s operational premise, then what can be said about the model of society and politics that we see in the Leviathan?

Well for Hobbes at least social order rests on the agreement of individuals who come together to form the Commonwealth (even if there is a minority that dissents) and that once that artificial Commonwealth is created it ought to have the power to monopolise and control the workings of language in the public domain. Why? Why this need to control, monopolise and police the workings of language?

This is because Hobbes takes the view that language is like a double-edged sword that can do as much harm as it does good. Hobbes’s atomistic and antagonistic view of human society is one that sees language as one of the means through which ‘Society’ can be formed, but as human beings are seen and cast in the most anti-humanistic terms by him as violent, selfish and brutal, then they are also capable of using language in an abusive manner as he describes the abuses of language above: that is, to lie, cheat, misname/misinform, to beguile and to hurt one another.

The cause of social strife here lies in the absence of regulation of language-use in the public domain, and the fact that there is no overriding political power that can arrest the free-play of language and signification to ensure that the meanings of words remains constant over time and regardless of context. Hobbes’s theory of language-use is a private one like Locke’s, but unlike Locke Hobbes’s deep distrust of human nature leads him to the conclusion that human ‘nature’ is such that all human beings will abuse language if and when they can get away with it. He decries the use of language by the scholastic tradition and Aristotelians in particular, whom he argues have created meaningless metaphorical concepts for the sake of complicating things in the scholastic debates among themselves; and cites the instances of scholastic/theological debates over the meaning of words/signs like ‘trinity’, ‘soul’, ‘spirit’ etc that have led to intra-religious violence.

Hobbes is NOT interesting in making claims about correct/truthful meaning however. He is primarily concerned and worried about the consistency of definitions above all else. So he states clearly that ‘true and false are the attributes of speech, not of things’. (And adds that ‘where speech is not, there is neither truth nor falsehood’)

THIS is the basis of Hobbes’s constant demands for consistency in signification: He is less interested in how a word/sign refers to or corresponds to a particular idea, but more interested in ensuring that once a particular relationship of linguistic–extra-linguistic correspondence/reference is established, then it has to be maintained consistently over time. As he writes:

‘Seeing then that the Truth consists in the right ordering of names in our affirmations, a man that seeks precise truth has need to remember what every name he uses stands for; and to place it accordingly; or else he will find himself entangled in words’. (Hobbes’s emphasis, not mine).

This is the role of definition/definitions, and definitions are there to define word/signs according to their similitude with other words/signs. But who is to do the defining? This is where Hobbes’s centralised state comes in.

Now as we have seen above, Hobbes’s view of human beings is a rather nasty one and indeed he argues that the natural condition of men is one of war between all against all where the life of man is ‘poor, nasty, brutish and short’. In this nasty state of nature, there is no state, no governance, no centralised authority and presumably nasty people being nasty people as they are, language-use will be incoherent and inconsistent as everyone will be defining word/signs as they please. (A nightmarish vision of the world indeed where everyone is speaking in free verse and poetry. Urgh!)

Hobbes’s Leviathan is the civil state where all political power is centralised and where with the power that is possesses the state/sovereign will be in the position to fix the definitions of word/signs once and for all; thereby arresting the freeplay of signification and ensuring proper, regulated and predictable language-use as the referential/corresponding relation of signification is no longer left entirely to the individual to decide.

C. The problem with Hobbes’s theory of language:

The problem with Hobbes’s theory of language is that he cannot account for the transition from a private language (where words/signs refer/correspond to ideas) to the uses of language in the public domain. Yet Hobbes’s concerns about the abuse of language all focus on the use of language in the public domain, which is the arena of antagonistic competition, contestation and violence.

The simple reason for this is that Hobbes simply doesn’t have a public language theory because of the trap of subjective empirical solipsism that he fell into (along with Locke, who falls into the same trap later). Hobbes’s takes the view that language-use is private, and that the individual determines the relationship of signification between signifier and signified. But once we get to the use and abuse of language in the public domain he still maintains that all language-users function as atoms in a linguistic universe; i.e. that each person still means what he/she intends the words/signs to signify.

This, then, is the rather unstable depiction of the public language domain in Hobbes’s theory: Where the public domain is not one that is brought together by a common public language, but rather a contested (and perpetually unstable) domain where individual language-users enter it and try to communicate with each other by using words/signs – the meanings of which remain determined on an individual basis by the individuals themselves. Now in such a contested state, how do we ensure consistency in meaning and signification? Hobbes’s only answer is that the Leviathan – the centralised powerful sovereign/state – is there to ensure the consistency of definitions of terms, and should any individual try to challenge the state’s definition of any word/sign, be it a mundane sign as ‘dog’ or a complex one like ‘justice’, then the full weight of the state’s power will be brought to bear upon him.

Later we will see how this private language theory is challenged by the likes of the later Wittgenstein who reverses his own earlier stand and who adopts a public language theory via the idea of ‘language-games’ and the ‘family resemblances’ between words/signs.

What is relevant to our concerns here is Hobbes’s observation on the intimate workings and close relationship between language, politics and power. Hobbes was perhaps the first modern philosopher who saw that language is political and that the use of language (and in particular the control of the uses of language) has political ramifications. In the Leviathan, he elaborates at length about how the Leviathan has to centralise and monopolise power in himself, including the power to define the meaning and use of words in the public domain. This is partly because Hobbes himself concedes to the artificiality of the political model he proposes, and indeed the first opening paragraphs of the Leviathan already admit to the fact that the Leviathan is an ‘artificial man’ and a human construct.

Both Hobbes and later Locke are thus set up with this problem that they face when justifying and rationalising their respective political theories and models: Both are empiricists and nominalists, both also adopt a private language theory and concede that all complex and abstracted general concepts/words/signs are the products of human reasoning and judgement. If this be the case, then what moral/ethical justification can there be for the political models of Hobbes and Locke? Neither can make an appeal to ‘nature’, ‘divine will’, ‘ideals’, ‘natural justice’ etc.

Yet both Locke and Hobbes – after having admitted to the artificiality of their respective projects, try to overcome this artificiality by appealing to things like Law instead. In the case of Hobbes this contradiction is even more manifest in his own uses of language and his style of writing: Hobbes attacks the Aristotelian scholars for their ‘vain philosophy’ and their ‘invention of metaphors’, and yet the entire text of the Leviathan is littered with metaphors from start to the end. And if Hobbes attacks the scholars for their alleged abuse of language for the sake of arousing emotions such as fear and desire, then it ought to be noted that the very language and metaphors he uses in the Leviathan are likewise metaphorical (the ‘Leviathan’ itself is a metaphor, remember?) and rhetorical: Hobbes can only try to persuade us to submit our wills to the artificial Leviathan by playing with the narrative device of his account of the state of nature, which is sensational, hyperbolic and designed to scare us into submission. Here then lies one of the more interesting paradoxes or contradictions of Hobbes.


*Note: All quotes from Hobbes above are from his essay ‘Of Man’, which can be found in Penguin ‘Great Ideas’ series, available in most bookshops. Do make it a point to read the Leviathan in full if and when you can though.

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