Made with Words: Hobbes on Language, Mind, and Politics. By Philip Pettit
Lessons from a Materialist Thinker: Hobbesian Reflections on Ethics and Politics. By Samantha Frost


Pp. 183 , Princeton, NJ , Princeton University Press , 2008 , $29.95.

Pp. xiii, 212 , Stanford , Stanford University Press , 2008 , $21.95.

For Hobbes mankind has undergone two profound transformations. The development of language first of all made him ‘human’, but this step was fraught with ambiguity in which the negative quickly won out. While the capacity for abstract, classificatory thought, in which he could distance himself from his immediate sensory stimuli and pay attention to words as if they were things themselves, promised exponential increases in his stewardship and husbandry of nature, the increased foresight also magnified his insecurity and his passion for superiority. The net result was not a step up but a step down. He was cast out of the peace and harmony of the animal kingdom into a ‘war of all against all’. But then language revealed a solution to the disaster it had created: man could ‘self-diagnose’, realize that he could create artificially an authority and arbiter to settle disputes and enforce contracts – and so for the first time unleash the quantum jump in quality of life that was language's hidden potential. The state is not ‘natural’ but represents a dramatic human intervention, correction, and rescue of a ‘natural’ development that led to the brink of catastrophe. Because you have to ‘join’ voluntarily, the state resembles more a private corporation, like a merchant company or country club, in which to enjoy the fruits of cooperation for certain specified goods, you have to pay the dues and agree to the penalties. These are drastic, but Hobbes feels there is no other way we could have pulled ourselves out of the hell we created, so it must already have happened. It is up to us now, in medias res, to recognize this and to ratify the original contract – in effect, to ‘join again’. We must give up what we value most – our will – to a designated sovereign, a repugnant remedy only made palatable on the condition that everybody else does the same. This is the second transformation, less profound than the first, fragile and precarious, which comes as close to returning us to the peace of the pre-human condition as we can get, given the ‘bent wood’ (Kant) we humans are. In effect, we agree to emasculate ourselves on condition that everyone else does the same. It is radical surgery, but there is no other recourse to break the social paralysis and futile warring to which we otherwise would be condemned. This is far from an ideal solution. The problem of distinguishing ‘true good’ from ‘apparent good’ is not solved by imposition of the ‘Will’ of the sovereign. He is not Aristotle's man of ‘practical wisdom’ whose subjectivity for the first time reveals ‘objectivity’ in values. There is no objectivity in values. The sovereign brings ‘union’, not ‘concord’, but this is better than the alternative, and that is as good as it gets. Pettit gives a superbly intelligent and articulate presentation on this topic.

Frost is successful at uncovering a nuanced, sophisticated and consistent thinker behind the stereotype defender of naked power bludgeoning rapacious subjects into obedience, but she devotes herself so wholeheartedly to a meticulous and sympathetic exegesis of the texts that she deprives her presentation of those wider historical comparisons that would allow the curious reader to ‘triangulate’ Hobbes' position by flashing insights, and so robs it of greater success. Hobbes was fortunately free of the later and more ‘advanced’ sensationalist epistemology of Locke and Hume; he built on the terminist logic, nominalism and voluntarism of late medieval English scholastics. ‘Matter’ is not inert but is enmattered form, including the full range of animate bodies. Many traditional oppositions, such as between ‘egotism’ and ‘altruism’ fall away in Hobbes' ‘embedded’ portrait of the individual in the social matrix; indeed, a dominant theme in his ethics and politics is the necessity in a closed society of ‘saving face’ for one's interlocutor, as there is no frontier to act as a ‘safety valve’, and feuds could spiral into disaster. The later Romantic ideal of ‘sincerity’ is a luxury nobody – including the sovereign – could afford. The Hobbesian self is ‘an anxious, watchful person ineluctably embedded in a tangle of tense and fragile relationships that serve as the conditions for possible action: a lonely subject perhaps, but not alone’ (p. 140). This self is materialist, determined, and thoroughly heteronymous; it is like a snowball reinforcing and building upon itself. At the centre is not a first (and permanent) ‘I’, but a first experience, on the memory of which all later build. The self is constructed, cumulative and constantly self-enriching, rather than transcendent, detached and identically the same through time. A missed opportunity is to explain how determinism and freedom are not opposed in Hobbes – at least any ‘freedom worth having’. Perhaps Frost believes Dennett and others have already accomplished this, but so much does she stress that our society is still in thrall to the immaterial and autonomous ‘I’ of Descartes and Kant that this topic deserved greater treatment here.