Hobbes, Thomas (1588–1679)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DA041-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2002
Retrieved July 04, 2022, from

2. Science and human improvement

Hobbes’ writings are those of an advocate and practitioner of a new science, a system of knowledge of causes that could, as he believed, greatly benefit human life. Yet he formed his ideas during a period when human intellectual powers, including the ability to develop science, were commonly thought to be limited. According to some theories prevalent in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the whole human race was involved in a quite general and unstoppable process of natural decay, so that all the best achievements of human beings belonged to a long-lost golden age. It was a way of understanding things that was consistent with, if not inspired by, the Biblical story of the Fall of Adam and Eve, and the loss of paradise. According to some understandings of that story, Adam’s expulsion from paradise cost him not only a life of ease in harmony with God and the rest of nature, but also the gift of a natural insight into the natures of all the things he could name. Regaining the knowledge of those natures might never be possible. In France, in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, recently popularized Greek sceptical arguments against dogmatism reinforced the view that human intellectual possibilities were limited (see Scepticism, Renaissance §§1, 4). The arguments were directed not only against the traditional learning of the schools but against the idea that any human learning – even untraditional or anti-traditional learning – could amount to a system of genuine knowledge. Hobbes’ philosophy of science stands in opposition to much of this gloomy theorizing. It stands in opposition to philosophical scepticism, to the theory of the decay of nature as applied to the human intellect and, to a lesser extent, to pessimistic interpretations of the intellectual costs of the Fall.

Although Hobbes had close friends and intellectual influences among French thinkers who took sceptical arguments seriously, there is little if any solid evidence in his own writing that he studied these arguments closely or took their conclusions to heart. He seems never to have doubted the soundness or scientific status of Euclid’s geometry, and he was an early enthusiast for the applied mathematics of Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo. He was also proud of the judgment of some early readers of De cive that this book ushered in a demonstrative science of ethics. Hobbes called himself the inventor of civil science and thought that his politics deserved a place alongside Galileo’s mechanics. The newly founded natural and moral sciences he regarded not only as great intellectual achievements, but as distinctively modern ones. Contrary to the theory of the decay of nature as applied to the human intellect, natural and civil science had not ceased with the ancients, but had only properly begun with the work of the mathematical astronomers and his own work in De cive. However, Hobbes also held that human beings were badly adapted by nature to do science of this kind, and that they had to work very hard to be capable of it. He thus disagrees both with the Cartesian idea that God benignly creates us with the ingredients of science latent in our minds and with the Aristotelian idea that knowledge of the natures of things is the unforced and inevitable by-product of repeatedly looking and seeing. To a very significant extent, according to Hobbes, our capacities for natural science are made by us rather than given to us. This position concedes something to both scepticism and the theory that life will always be difficult for Fallen Man. Although according to Hobbes sceptics are wrong to claim that we are incapable of science, they are right in insisting that we lack native scientific ability. They are also right to doubt that human beings are capable of an exalted sort of knowledge, the knowledge of what necessitates effects. For Hobbes, the scientific knowledge of which we are capable rarely rises to the level of knowledge of how effects must have been brought about, and it is not taken to extend to all effects. Again, although Hobbes believed that the scientific achievements of his contemporaries and himself were important, and that the then nascent sciences of nature and politics would develop further, he did not, with Descartes, suppose that we might one day complete science. Finally, while he claimed that even in their undeveloped state the sciences had delivered considerable benefits, Hobbes did not expect a more developed science to be the answer to all our problems. Like Bacon he believed that science could not entirely repair the Fall, that it could only act to relieve some of what was bad in human existence. Whatever one did, life would continue to have ‘incommodities’, but with the development of science life would contain fewer of them.

Science is not, then, for Hobbes, a means of regaining Eden. At best, it is our only way of cutting the costs of losing Eden. In paradise, Adam enjoyed the gift of immortality in conditions of ready abundance. Everything he could properly want was there for the taking. Punished for eating from the tree of knowledge Adam lost his immortality. He lived, as Hobbes puts it in Leviathan, under a death sentence ([1651] 1839 III: 438). Adam also lost the abundance of Eden. Banished to a place outside paradise, he had for the first time to work for a living, and to do so in a relatively inhospitable environment. Had they stayed in Eden, Adam and Eve would not have reproduced their kind continually or perhaps at all ([1651] 1839 III: 440). When they left they came under a necessity to multiply that worsened the life of their kind still further. Adam’s descendants, the rest of humanity, inherit from him not only their mortality but also life outside Paradise. Thanks to Adam’s transgression, human beings in general live in a world that demands ingenuity and hard work for survival. And thanks to human carnality, Adam’s descendants have to eke out a living in the company of, and often in competition with, many others of their own kind. These facts of life do not make it easy to do well. In order to flourish in a sometimes harsh physical environment people have to know which effects they observe are beneficial and which are harmful, and they have to learn to reproduce the beneficial ones and prevent, or at least avoid, the harmful ones. In order to flourish in a heavily populated environment people have to know how to co-operate with one another. Moreover, these problems have to be coped with simultaneously.

As things naturally are, however, the problems are too great for creatures like us. For, being descended from Adam, human beings inherit the cognitive and conative capacities of someone designed to live in paradise, not the harsh world outside. If things had gone according to God’s plan, Adam would not have needed to get causal knowledge of nature; he could have satisfied himself with contemplating the diversity and order in nature. Adam would not have had to make nature supply his needs. He would not have had to cope with overpopulation and the demands of co-operation. Made for a life without problems, Adam lacked the means – that is, the science – to solve problems. As Hobbes points out in Leviathan, there is no evidence in scripture that Adam had the vocabulary to do science ([1651] 1839 III: 19), and yet without the vocabulary to do science we should be no better off than savages or beasts (1640 pt I, ch. 5: iv; 1658 ch. 10: ii, iii). Either people reconcile themselves to living at the mercy of the elements and of one another – Hobbes thought that this was the course taken by Native Americans – or else they take the long and difficult road to a better life through science. Neither the better life nor the means to it are out of bounds to human beings, but both involve a kind of human reform. To get access to the degrees and varieties of motion that are required to understand nature, human beings need to acquire concepts more general and universal than those for everyday experience, and they need to apply principles involving these concepts in tasks of measurement and manufacture. To solve the problems of peaceful co-operation they need to be able to recognize the consequences of everyone’s trying to get what they want. This means more than knowing what moral precepts to follow. It means being able to see what overall good the moral precepts promote – something revealed by Hobbes’ civil science – and adjusting one’s practical reasoning to the pursuit of that good rather than something nearer and more gratifying.

Although human beings cannot live well without science, science does not come naturally to them. Science depends on the ability to impose names aptly, to join names into propositions, and to join propositions into syllogisms, but not even these prescientific linguistic skills are natural to people. People come into the world being able at most to form sensory representations of things, and to learn from experience. But experience is a far cry from science. In its raw state experience is either a disorganized stream of representations or else a coherent sequence. If it is a coherent sequence, then, according to Leviathan, it is ‘regulated’ by some design or plan, or by curiosity about an observed body’s effects ([1651] 1839 III: 13). Regulated in either way, a train of experience is only regulated as past experience allows it to be. Going by its past associations of observed phenomena, the mind will focus on a means to some goal or purpose in hand, or will suggest properties it is accustomed to conjoin with other properties it is now curious about. Once there are words for the things of which the mind has conceptions – words that can be used to signify the elements of experience – the possible ways of juxtaposing the words significantly, of analysing them and drawing consequences, introduce ways of ordering the elements that are not foreshadowed in previous experience.

New ways of regulating thought become possible because, for one thing, it is not necessary for a body spoken about to be present or remembered in order for a train of thought about it to be created. The train of thought can be generated instead by exploiting logical relations or analytic truths to get from one speech or thought to another. Reasoning can thus introduce new possibilities of combining things given separately in experience; it can also introduce ways of taking apart or separating things confounded in experience. Nor are the possibilities confined to the powers of one man’s reasoning. Speech enables investigation and reasoning to be carried on co-operatively, and allows one person’s explanations to be tested for clarity and coherence by others. The reasonings or explanations of one person can be preserved over time and made the model for those of many other people. A method can even be extracted from the findings of the most successful or conclusive pieces of reasoning, so that conclusive reasonings and explanations – in a word, science – can deepen and spread.

Hobbes believed that science as a whole could be divided into two principal parts, one concerned with natural bodies, the other with bodies politic. Each part of science arrives by reasoning at the causes of the properties of its subject matter; and demonstrates effects, with a view to making the relevant subject matter useful and beneficial to human beings. But the two types of bodies are very different from one another, and pose different scientific problems. Natural bodies are not made by us, and so the causes of their properties have to be worked out by reasoning from the appearances they present. Since the maker of natural bodies, God, is omnipotent and able to bring about effects in more ways than can be dreamed of in our explanations, only possible causes can be assigned to the appearances they present. Bodies politic are made by us – they are human artefacts and so at least in principle we can be certain of the causes of their properties. But the philosophical challenge they present is not primarily that of knowing their causes: it is that of knowing how they should be designed so that they last. This means setting out rules by which those involved in the commonwealth – those in government on the one hand and those subject to government on the other – can conduct themselves so that civil peace is ensured. It is doubtful whether the statement of these rules is really a science of a kind of body, as is natural science, and probably the differences between natural and civil science are to be taken more seriously than the supposed analogies. Hobbes claims that civil science is not only more certain, but more widely needed, and more accessible than natural science. On the other hand, natural science is the more fundamental of the two parts of science: its explanatory concepts are more general than those of civil science and are needed if a scientific understanding of the passions and actions of agents in civil life is to be acquired from the ‘first and few’ elements of science as a whole.

Citing this article:
Sorell, Tom. Science and human improvement. Hobbes, Thomas (1588–1679), 2002, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DA041-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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