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Thomas Hobbes, R. L. Dabney, and the Sensualistic Cat

September 27, 2006

Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. Pr 3:5

As I begin to read about the history of ideas, two things happen: First, the more I am called to repent my condonation of bad philosophy by reason of willful ignorance; and, second, the more I learn about the way the Cat thinks.

I am reading The Sensualistic Philosophy by Robert L. Dabney, a 19th-century conservative Southern Presbyterian theologian and philosopher, in an attempt to fill the philosophy gap I left open in my education. I avoided philosophy as much as I could in college, taking only a survey course.

After a two-decade gap, I began law school and was made to choke down something called “logical positivism” in a jurisprudence course. I figured I had to be stupid, because I could have sworn that logical positivism was illogical and nihilistic.

Fortunately, the course was such a joke that I could say virtually anything on the exam and it would bring about a decent grade. Relativists are flexible graders, not only because they allege that there is no right or wrong, but they tend to see what they want to see in someone else’s argument. One student actually failed this class; I have no idea why, but it sticks in my mind like the Sword of Damocles: the Logical Positivist Threat.

Logical positivism is a 1920s revival of same-old-same-old empiricism, aka sensualistic philosophy: If a tree falls and no one hears it, did it make a sound, and other Zen reminiscences. Logical positivism inches from the notion that all knowledge must come from the experience of the senses–though that notion remains foundational–and adds the proviso that, well, we can have some knowledge prior to, or even without, actual sensory experience. I suppose the some marks a new era in human thought.

John Owen (1616-1683) and Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) lived within the same sphere of time and absolutely disparate spheres of thought. When I consider the news and politics of our day, I become persuaded that most people now think fairly similarly. As Christians, we are necessarily outliers. But opposing political parties, for instance, show little substantive difference. Seventeenth-century thinkers, on the other hand, show more diversity of thought– perhaps because they thought more. Mercifully, we have no substantial record of what dull people from that era thought, because they could not write, whereas now they can.

I am getting around to the thought that the more I read about ideas and their history, the more I am persuaded that there is more convergence of thought now than there was during the Reformation, perhaps the last age of illuminated thought. Even people with bad ideas thought; they just didn’t think well.

Thomas Hobbes, a scion of the sensualist philosophical camp, was such a philosopher. Hobbes is famous for developing the idea of the “social contract,” the mechanism by which depraved (he had that part right) men are able to coexist in civilized societies.

I can only suppose that Hobbes felt the need to come up with a model that did not presuppose a Christian covenant like Calvin’s Geneva. But I think his world view was simply so different from Calvin’s that he required a model that did not rely on God in order to keep people in line.

I have not read more than excerpts written by Hobbes himself; only about him. At one point, life was too long to read his magnum opus, Leviathan. At this point, life is too short.

According to Dabney, Hobbes did believe in the concepts of good and evil; however, he believed that good and evil were relative concepts and that every man freely elects what is good and evil according to what pleases or displeases him. Therefore, the civil magistrate restrains citizens, who concede all rights to the magistrate in exchange for an order under which men allow one another to live. Self-interest is the tie that binds, restrained by the magistrate. It is a “war of all against all” out there, and it is to be resolved only in an absolute ruler in whom “irresistible force” is delegated. It isn’t about good and evil; it is about a conqueror and the conquered. And the conquered, if they owe any duties to God, must subordinate them to their duties to the ruler. Hobbes is not considered an atheist by other philosophers, and he was vindicated of a charge of atheism brought by Parliament, but clearly he was in the dark zone as to who God is, and so was an atheist in fact.

An aspect of logical positivism that I was taught in law school, is “widely and warmly shared values.” I recall my professor fairly rhapsodizing over this. And it is quite odd, because Hobbes holds that men’s values are neither widely nor warmly shared; in fact, they are concessions to the realities of force.

Hobbes, along with John Locke, was one of the leading influences behind the United States Constitution, the preamble of which begins, “We the people.” Our oft-called “God-fearing republic” is about people, and not too many of our people these days fear God. Many people, however, do believe they experience God. People love experience–they want it in their leaders, their teachers, their employees, their religion–but so much experience is really an imprinted pattern of doing something wrong.

The Cat, the Cat…the reason that I understand better about the way the Cat thinks as I read Dabney is because the Cat is a Sensualist. Everything he knows comes through his senses, and he remembers things that imprint on his senses, like tasty food and kitty litter, and his people and not-his people. But the Cat is decidedly not a Hobbesian. He would not even consider submission to any authority in order better to enhance the peace, and he is oblivious to any threat to his self-interest. I would advise against entering into any sort of contract with him.


Victorbravo said…
It was my classmate who got the F from that amiable Jurisprudence professor. Mostly it was because she wrote a paper that came to a similar conclusion as yours regarding logical positivism, and its ugly step-daughter, Critical Legal Studies. Her problem was that she had not learned how to be nice while saying it.The Professor’s “widely and warmly shared values” is just a different stream flowing out of Hobbesianism. The roots still draw from the social contract theory, but it presupposes a kinder and gentler sort of social contract: people are generally good and will cooperate for self-interest. Another variation is the idea that what is good for society is the highest good because all decent people recognize and decide that a good society serves their self-interest. They have a great deal of difficulty explaining how to determine who the decent people are that get to decide.All of this is very seductive, even Ayn Rand, the anti-relativist and the individualist’s individual, based her ethics on rational self-interest. There is the problem. People in their natural state cannot be rational if the only thing they have to rely upon is empiricism. That is because reason is not empirical.Dabney’s great observation is that the mind of man is an instrument created by God with certain a priori principles already established. Reason is built in, so to speak, but has been corrupted by sin. Hobbes, Locke, and the other sensualists, instead, strove to prove that knowledge came only from sensation, and in the end denied their thesis by employing logic to prove it.

For example, the mind automatically evaluates observations produced by the senses under principles that cannot be determined by the senses. “Like causes produce like effects” is such a principle. The senses and experience could not possibly prove this empirically, but the mind (and science) assumes this in order to be able to understand anything. The principle is a reflection of God’s image in man.

I think you are right about the Cat. He has no need to come up with a philosophy or to adhere to one. He wasn’t made for that. It illustrates how bent man’s mind has become: he tries to make himself an animal and at the same time use un-animal thoughts to explain himself.

10:57 AM  
Mrs. B said…
Easy for you to say; you’ve finished Dabney. No, seriously, you’ve written a guest column rather than a comment, and quite in order.Humanism/empiricism has so many spin-offs; we are fortunate, I suppose, that in our day we tend to see the “kinder-gentler” variety. We’ll see for how long.
11:10 AM  
Victorbravo said…
It’s more fun posting comments to your thoughts. I guess I’m more of a respondant than a petitioner.
3:09 PM  
Mike Pitzler said…
As I recall during one of my philosophy classes (perhaps I don’t recall, but just dreamed it), the typical equation for rate of zygote per
osmosis approximates the
metamorphosis of the irrational mind. I’m pretty sure that’s non-euclidean irrationality. Isn’t Hobbes the tiger and Calvin’s the little kid? Am I posting just so as not to be silent? (I’m just practicing my HTMl tags. Are there more we can use in here?)
7:43 PM  
Mrs. B said…
Tag Man, you’re it!
8:53 PM  
HZ said…
This was great. I loved the comments too. Now I am going to have to read Dabney.
11:22 AM  
Mrs. B said…
Naphtali Press, 2003, ISBN 0-941075-35-4
11:37 AM  

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