Hobbes believed that all phenomena in the universe, without exception, can be explained in terms of the motions and interactions of material bodies. He did not believe in the soul, or in the mind as separate from the body, or in any of the other incorporeal and metaphysical entities in which other writers have believed. Instead, he saw human beings as essentially machines, with even their thoughts and emotions operating according to physical laws and chains of cause and effect, action and reaction. As machines, human beings pursue their own self-interest relentlessly, mechanically avoiding pain and pursuing pleasure. Hobbes saw the commonwealth, or society, as a similar machine, larger than the human body and artificial but nevertheless operating according to the laws governing motion and collision.
In putting together this materialist view of the world, Hobbes was influenced by his contemporaries Galileo and Kepler, who had discovered laws governing planetary motion, thereby discrediting much of the Aristotelian worldview. Hobbes hoped to establish similar laws of motion to explain the behavior of human beings, but he was more impressed by Galileo and Kepler’s mathematical precision than by their use of empirical data and observation. Hobbes hoped to arrive at his laws of motion deductively, in the manner of geometrical proofs. It is important to note that Hobbes was not in any position to prove that all of human experience can be explained in terms of physical and mechanical processes. That task would have required scientific knowledge far beyond that possessed by the seventeenth century. Even today, science is nowhere near being able to fully explain human experience in physical terms, even though most people tend to believe that science will one day be able to do just that. In the absence of such a detailed explanation, the image of the human being as a machine in Hobbes’s writing remains more of a metaphor than a philosophical proof.
The Inadequacy of Observation as a Foundation of Knowledge
Hobbes rejected what we now know as the scientific method because he believed that the observation of nature itself is too subjective a basis on which to ground philosophy and science. Hobbes contested the scientific systems of the natural philosophers Francis Bacon and Robert Boyle. These major figures in the Scientific Revolution in England base their natural philosophy on a process of inductive reasoning, making inferences and conclusions based on the observation of nature and the manipulation of nature through experimentation. For Hobbes, the chief aim of philosophy is to create a totalizing system of truth that bases all its claims on a set of foundational principles and is universally demonstrable through the logic of language. He rejects the observation of nature as a means of ascertaining truth because individual humans are capable of seeing the world in vastly different ways. He rejects inductive reasoning, arguing that the results of contrived experiments carried out by a few scientists can never be universally demonstrable outside of the laboratory. Accordingly, Hobbes holds that geometry is the branch of knowledge that best approximates the reasoning that should form the basis of a true philosophy. He calls for a philosophy based on universally agreed-upon first principles that form the foundation for subsequent assertions.
Fear as the Determining Factor in Human Life
Hobbes maintained that the constant back-and-forth mediation between the emotion of fear and the emotion of hope is the defining principle of all human actions. Either fear or hope is present at all times in all people. In a famous passage of Leviathan, Hobbes states that the worst aspect of the state of nature is the “continual fear and danger of violent death.” In the state of nature, as Hobbes depicts it, humans intuitively desire to obtain as much power and “good” as they can, and there are no laws preventing…