The Logic of Ratiocination:
Hobbes’s Materialism, Both Vulgar and Sophisticated
It seems obvious that Thomas Hobbes is a materialist, and yet it is hard to precisely pinpoint in what this (or any) materialism consists. The question (both of Hobbes and of materialism generally) is all the more infuriating for its supposedly foundational and urgent nature – it is supposed to be a big deal whether a philosopher is a (good) materialist or a (bad) idealist. Though I suspect this has a primarily political significance, it also deserves to be dealt with on its own terms.1
Richard Lee frames the essence or definition of materialism in terms of two possibilities: first, what I would call the ‘vulgar’ materialism that posits “all that exists is body”; and second, the more ‘sophisticated’ materialism that is based on anti-identitarian thinking, that is, it rejects the supposedly idealist assumption that concept and object go into one another without remainder.2 The question then would be: Where does Hobbes fall in this classification? In what does his materialism consist, if indeed he is a materialist?
This paper will explore the question of Hobbes’s materialism from a somewhat different perspective than that of Lee, providing a different reading of Hobbes and of materialism in general. In particular, I will argue that Hobbes’s flat plane of sensation/appearance can only be constituted by a fundamental exception: ratiocination. Therefore, I will suggest, Hobbes can be analyzed in terms of the Lacanian logic of the universal-plus-exception, and thus he can be read as closer to idealism than might at first be supposed. Nonetheless, Hobbes himself complicates this picture, and the anti-identitarian character of his thought cannot be denied; the problem remains in the formal structure by which he constitutes himself as both vulgar and sophisticated with regard to his materialism. The goal or ideal, then, would be a materialism that refuses vulgarity, a goal which I argue has not been achieved by Hobbes.
First, I will present the problem of emergence in its general form, and then apply it to Hobbes. Then, I will argue that this problem can be analyzed in terms of the Lacanian logic of universal and exception. As evidence, I will present numerous statements from Hobbes himself that demonstrate the vulgar character of his materialism. Finally, I will examine the ways Hobbes attempts to overcome this vulgarity, showing how his anti-identitarianism functions within the confines of his vulgarity. A short conclusion will follow, which argues that Hobbes cannot be looked to as a model for contemporary materialism to follow.
II. The Problem of Emergence
We begin with what I will call the ‘problem of emergence,’ that is, the apparently incoherent problem of the flat plane, which plays so prominent a role in Hobbes’s philosophy. In Hobbes, the problem can be stated as follows: there is no position from within sense that can articulate sense in the way Hobbes does, that is, one cannot give a theory of sense that is solely restricted to the regime of sense. There must be a position from outside sense in order for knowledge, philosophy, and indeed, for any kind of ‘materialism’ to be articulated. This section will substantiate this claim and give its Hobbesian coordinates.
One of Hobbes’s fundamental commitments is to a form of radical nominalism, from which his materialism supposedly follows:
There are two separate propositions [in Hobbes’s nominalism]; first, the reduction of universals to names; and second, the reduction of names to will. Since Hobbes also says that will reduces to affect, the second proposition is in fact the reduction of names to affect.”3
What this amounts to is a radical empiricism. There is no intellect that could shore up affect in some stable, higher plane, and hence such things as the truth or falsity of propositions depend upon our use of names, which use then depends ultimately on sensation. Sensation, in turn, is merely the effect of our vital motion moving outward and coming into contact with the motion of the sensed object moving inward (into our body and organs of sense), an occurrence Hobbes terms “resistance.”4
But there is one thing that does not seem to fit this structure, something that resists the reduction to sense (and that allows for that reduction in the first place): ratiocination. This resistance can be shown in a simple way: though “body” is basis of first philosophy for Hobbes, we never sense “body,” but this or that particular body.5 As Richard Lee has noted, the most radical form of empiricism is just sensing, not theorizing.6 There must be something to stop the flow of sensation, so to speak, in order to theorize that sensation.
This stopping is accomplished by Hobbes’s supposed annihilation of the universe, and therefore that thought-experiment shows ratiocination in action; whether it accounts for it in its own terms is another matter. In supposing the world annihilated, Hobbes believes he can get to the root of phenomenality: he declares that the mind’s phantasms of objects seem themselves to be external, though by hypothesis there are no such external objects to which those phantasms correspond.7 This forces us to confront space, “the phantasm of a thing existing without the mind simply.”8 After this, time is derived as well.9
In any case, this leaves us with a number of difficult questions. In particular, it leaves the question of ratiocination unresolved, since it merely shows what can be found out by means of it, showing how it works for the derivation of the concepts of first philosophy without itself being accounted for or derived in any way; it is properly ungrounded. But the problem is not merely that there is something ungrounded, which depending on the scope of a theory may not be a problem at all; rather, the problem is that the theory/world constituted by ratiocination would seem to have no place whatsoever for that faculty by which it was constituted. There is an apparently vicious circularity here. Retroactively, ratiocination is deprived of its ultimate and essential power; but this retroactivity could only occur with the use of ratiocination in the first place. So what is going on here?
It seems that Hobbes is suffering from a general issue I will call the problem of emergence, which occurs when a philosophy, in its theoretical positing, destroys the conditions for that very positing, or at least the grounds for their evaluation. This problem is also closely bound up with the problem of error: if everything is just some presentation, sense, &c., on some single immanent plane, then whence comes the possibility of error?10 In any case, the problem is that the constitution of the plane is not possible from within the plane itself, but must be enacted by some outside force or perspective; otherwise, we are left with simple incoherence, where anything is as good as anything else.
Another possible way to think this occurrence is as philosophy’s fundamental trouble with reflexivity. It seems in many ways to be similar to the problem of language and meta-language, in that the position that delimits reality to a certain particular subset of possible realities must be spoken from outside that subset. There is of course an analagous problem in the philosophy of logic and mathematics, which leads to incompleteness. But without getting too far afield, we can stop and remark that for Hobbes the problem has a special significance, since his reduction (his delimitation) is general, properly philosophical, and not merely of this or that formal system. For Hobbes, the problem of emergence is extremely important, since how it is resolved (if indeed it can be) determines not merely this or that construction, but, for Hobbes, what constructions are even possible in the first place: we are dealing here with the urgency of first philosophy.
III. Ratiocination as Exception
What is a possible way we could interpret Hobbes in a coherent manner? Clearly it is out of the question to read him as merely incoherent rambling, by the principle of charity as well as usefulness. I propose to read the activity of ratiocination with regard to the materialist plane of sense as an exception that founds a universal, a structure first formally treated by Lacan.11 I will argue that this reading makes the relation of ratiocination to the plane of sense intelligible, including the thought-experiment of the supposed annihilation of the universe. While potentially this operation could be read in another way, I want to argue that this reading has the advantage of explaining not merely Hobbes’s sophisticated materialism, but also where that materialism becomes vulgar, something perhaps not available to alternative readings that attempt to elevate him entirely above vulgarity, a vulgarity attesting to in his very writing.
Masculine logic (the logic of the exception) works something like this: In order to found a universal (totality, plane, &c., designated by a universally-quantified proposition such as “all that exists is matter”), there must simultaneously be an exception to that universal statement; in fact, it is the exception that allows for the universal to be produced in the first place.12 We can see how easily and directly this fits onto Hobbes’s materialism: in order to be able to say that everything is sense, to explicate the categories of body, space, &c., Hobbes must posit the exception to sense in the form of ratiocination and via the supposed annihilation of the universe. Without this ‘outside’ position, Hobbes could not have an empiricism as radical as he in fact seems to have.13 While this structure is extremely common (any totality would seem to need some ungrounded point from which to constitute it), in Hobbes we have the lucky situation of seeing it clearly and obviously; it may be a testament to his honesty as a thinker.
This also allows us to account for the supposed annihilation of the universe. What Hobbes is explicitly aiming to do is to take us out of the universe and give us this outside position. The fact that he expresses this structural necessity in the thought-experiment form he does is laudable. Certainly, the form of the thought-experiment appears, on the face of it, to attempt a re-enveloping of the outside into the plane of sense; it is presented in terms of imagination, of supposing the annihilation of the universe and then attempting to imagine what would follow from such a thing. Nonetheless, this points us back to the radical retroactive temporality that causes so much trouble: if the thought-experiment is to have any special status above any other random sensation, it is either reduced to a kind of physics or must be a real departure and escape, a real exception; I have already given reasons not to go with the former reading, since it reads Hobbes as incoherent while merely changing gears and saying that his incoherence is actually a good thing.
And here we come to another reason why reading ratiocination as exception is preferable to the alternative (or alternatives): it preserves intact the vulgar elements of Hobbes’s materialism, elements I believe to be undeniable. These elements fit clearly within the terrain delineated by an affirmation that matter (or in this case sense) is all there is, which is one side of the logic of exception. For example, Hobbes clearly rejects the existence of any non-bodies whatsoever as things “still deceitfully received for things really true, under the names of ghosts and incorporeal substances.”14 Earlier in that same paragraph, we get a strange complication of Hobbes’s empiricism, referencing as he does things people “thought they saw” and “thought they heard.”15 Or again: Hobbes’s denial of any faculty such as the Cartesian intellect, or even the Ockhamite one, is quite consistent with this. This is a rather strict reductionism that cannot countenance incorporeality, and it is hard to imagine how Hobbes is able to consistently claim this without adhering to the vulgar aspect of materialism, the position signified by the common materialist thesis that ‘there is nothing but bodies and the sensing of bodies.’16
I think it is a mistake to read the vulgar materialist thesis as an empirical claim; in fact, it is profoundly metaphysical. Reading ratiocination as exception gives us a way to think about this metaphysical character, since according to this logic the universal (the plane of sense) is constituted from the outside, and hence from a position itself profoundly metaphysical.17 To reject all ghosts, it seems, one must become a ghost oneself.18
IV. Hobbes Pushes Back: The Asymmetry of Knowledge
Though Hobbes is certainly vulgar, he is also quite sophisticated, and therein lies the complexity and creativity of his thinking of materialism. This section will explore how Hobbes pushes back against the problematic nature of the exception; however, it will be seen that this pushback itself must be interpreted as itself an effect of the exception, and can only arise in its Hobbesian form from within that domain.
The sophistication of Hobbes’s materialism is undoubtedly centered on his asymmetrical restriction of the reach of ratiocination: we can reason from known causes to actual effects, but we can only reason from known effects to possible causes:
Philosophy is such knowledge of effects or appearances, as we acquire by true ratiocination from the knowledge we have first of their causes or generation: And again, of such causes or generations as may be from knowing first their effects.19
This is due in some sense to the practical focus of Hobbes’s philosophy, in that the same effect can be produced by many different causes, but if one is provided with a possible cause, one can then produce that effect. So the “real” cause of something may not be known, but for all practical purposes, we know how to produce the desired effect, so what does it matter whether we have the “real” cause in hand or not?
What this amounts to is a kind of anti-identitarianism, that is, an asymmetry or non-coincidence between mind and reality. The result is an abolition of the metaphysical “beyond” with regard to phenomena; there is no essence or occult quality that lies behind an appearance to the senses, and furthermore no transcendental certification or guarantee. All that can be known is that things might be some certain way, caused by some certain thing, unless we are the ones doing it, in which case a more exact knowledge is possible. But what precisely does this have to do with materialism? Obviously, it is against the “idealist” assumption that thought coincides with matter without remainder, unproblematically and simply. And yet, we should now return to how we got here: ratiocination. We have not yet solved the place of ratiocination with regard to materialism.
The ability to reduce reality to sense, to posit the one-sided nature of the world (that we can never get “behind” the appearances, so to speak), is possible only on the basis of ratiocination; the exception founds the universal. Although Hobbes fights back with his asymmetry of knowledge (of cause and effect), the asymmetry itself can only exist within the flat plane on the first place; otherwise, there would be no way to exclude the other side of phenomena, as it were, and we would be left with – with what?20 It seems to me that this problem is insoluble without extremely sophisticated conceptual acrobatics, and if one does not opt for those, one would seem to be out of luck. To my mind, the most obvious solution with regard to contemporary materialist philosophy is the “feminine” counterpart to the masculine logic at play in Hobbes. But this already involves a high engagement with psychoanalytic theory, and may not be an appealing solution for many.21
There would seem to be a fundamental choice between, on the one hand, materialism, and on the other, immanence. To try to have both, as Hobbes seems to do, while certainly enticing, seems to rapidly submerge the philosopher into the mire of masculine logic, and leaves us wondering how it all fits together. If there is to be some kind of plane of immanence, I think delimiting that plane in the way Hobbes does, as a plane of x (where, to make perhaps a grammatical point, ‘x’ is not merely a holding place for “plane” or “immanence”), is already to fall into this trap. Radical immanence demands that there be no outside constitution, and therefore the nature of that immanence cannot be further qualified into a coherent category, totality, or universal.
On the other hand, I do think the antinomy is present in Hobbes, and if we are doing a reading of Hobbes we cannot escape this antinomy via clever interpretation or overly-distorting citations of contemporary thinkers; this would perhaps be to miss the fundamental nature of the problem at hand. Without an unflinching grasp of the two pieces of Hobbes’s materialism, that is, his vulgarity (all is body, sense) and his sophistication (asymmetry with regard to knowledge of causes and effects), we cannot really understand what Hobbes was attempting to do.
The limit of Hobbesian natural philosophy seems to be the internal struggle between flatting reality into a plane (it certainly doesn’t come pre-packaged to us in that way; it does not appear to imply the kind of materialist empiricism Hobbes espouses) and inhabiting that plane (sensing as the most radical Hobbesian act). This is strictly speaking an antinomy. The asymmetrical aspects of Hobbes’s natural philosophy serve to absolve him of another potentially vulgar pitfall, namely into unproblematic metaphysical knowledge of causes. On the other hand, this does not save him from metaphysics more generally. For somehow, he is surely aware that nothing can be incorporeal, that it is simply impossible for ghosts or spirits to exist (and this includes many philosophical abstractions as well, but also actual spooky encounters), presumably by definition (although this is unclear and perhaps understated in De Corpore).
It seems to me that, unless one is either a vulgar materialist philosopher (however sophisticated one may simultaneously be) or some kind of materialist scientific rationalist (and I distinguish these because there is not a developed scientific method in Hobbes, though the rudiments are there), one cannot reject the existence of incorporeal beings out of hand, by definition, and so on. A more thorough critique of Hobbesian materialism would have to take into account this use of definitions, spending more time with his nominalism and relation to geometry and algebra. While I did not have time for that in this paper, I hope I have at least indicated the problem with regard to the exception, and how a truly post-metaphysical thinking is not possible if one goes down the Hobbesian route.
Hobbes, Thomas. The English Works of Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury: Volume 1. Ed. Sir William Molesworth, Bart. London: Adamant Media Corporation, 2005. Print.
Hull, Gordon. Hobbes and the Making of Modern Political Thought. London; New York: Continuum, 2009. Print.
Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XX: On Feminine Sexuality, The Limits of Love and Knowledge, 1972-1973. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Trans. Bruce Fink. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1999. Print.
Lee, Richard. “Materialism as Metaphysics? Hobbes’ Rationalist Materialism.” in Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal, Vol. 26, No. 2, 2005, pp. 137-55. Electronic.
Žižek, Slavoj. Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism. London; New York: Verso, 2012. Print.
1 The primacy of materialism for Marxism is an obvious example, whether in the academy (Althusser above all comes to mind) or in wider circles (the crusade against religion of all kinds, the rejection of spirit, and so on).
2 Lee, Richard. “Materialism as Metaphysics? Hobbes’ Rationalist Materialism.”
3 Hull, Gordon. Hobbes and the Making of Modern Political Thought, 70.
4 See the definition of “sense” in Hobbes, 391.
5 Technically, this results from Hobbes’s supposed annihilation of the universe as explored in De Corpore chapter VII, which will be treated of shortly.
6 Personal communication in seminar.
7 Hobbes, Thomas. The English Works of Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury: Volume 1, 92-93.
8 Hobbes 94.
9 Hobbes, 94-95.
10 If there is really no such thing as representation, then whence comes mis-representation, that is, error? But then theories affirming the reality of mis-representation are from that perspective not wrong. Philosophical discourse is more or less undone. If it all comes down to a generalized might-makes-right kind of scenario, then admitting this kind of structure would appear to be rather weak. Is it possible that this is the root of Hobbes’s strange lack of declaring this incoherence? I do not want to outright posit anything of this sort, but it would explain it on some level.
11 Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XX: On Feminine Sexuality, the Limits of Love and Knowledge, 1972-1973, 78-80.
12 In this explication, I will attempt as much as possible to avoid psychoanalysis proper; luckily, the analysis of masculine logic stands more or less on its own two feet. For an analysis of the masculine logic and its counterpart (feminine logic of the non-all) with relation to materialism, see Slavoj Žižek’s Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism, chapter 11: “The Non-All, or, The Ontology of Sexual Difference.”
13 Or else we would have to read him as, strictly speaking, incoherent. One could then read him as enacting a political intervention, but this would not absolve him of incoherence. I leave that possibility to the side.
14 Hobbes, 402.
15 Ibid.; emphasis mine.
16 Of course, this reductionism is accomplished by means of one exception – ratiocination – that enables the reduction to occur.
17 Though it is perhaps a strange connection, Quentin Meillassoux’s establishment of the metaphysical Absolute of the Great Outdoors (Hyper-Chaos) has exactly the same formal structure as Hobbes’s constitution of the supposedly non-metaphysical plane of sense. See Slavoj Žižek’s analysis of Meillassoux’s After Finitude in the former’s Less Than Nothing, “Interlude 5: Correlationism and Its Discontents.”
18 Just to be clear: Again, I do think this is a charitable reading of Hobbes, since it saves him from incoherence. Though it does get him into some other trouble (namely, metaphysics), we shall see how Hobbes nonetheless attempts to push back against identitarianism from within this logic.
19 Hobbes, 3; emphasis altered.
20 I am of the (probably wildly unpopular) opinion that materialism cannot escape being a reductionism; insofar as a philosophy is materialist, it has a problematic relationship to identitarianism. What we need is an anti-identitarianism, without the pretensions of materialism.
21 Not to mention the complicated systematic thinking of Alain Badiou, which takes the problem into entirely different registers and cannot easily be compared to prior thinkers such as Hobbes.