Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) was a prominent English political philosopher reputable for his political philosophy, a field he is often credited with being its founder. This entry brings into focus Hobbes’ materialist and physicalist views.
Hobbes was a contemporary of Descartes and corresponded with him on mathematics. However, he differed with Descartes on the subject of dualism because he rejected the idea of an immaterial substance distinct from the body. Hobbes considered this notion contradictory because a substance by its very nature must be material, and to therefore talk of immaterial substances constitutes, in Hobbes’ words, “insignificant speech”. He further claimed that because immaterial substances do not exist then everything must be material (materialism) and physical (physicalism). Hobbes believed that the natural sciences have shown that the universe functions like a machine: it is subject to physical laws, and this explains phenomena such as the movement of the planets and other heavenly bodies. The universe is purely physical and operates like clockwork according to natural laws of motion. Hobbes writes,
“The universe, the whole mass of things that are, is corporeal, that is to say, body, and hath the dimensions of magnitude, length, breadth and depth. Every part of the universe is ‘body’ and that which is not ‘body’ is no part of the universe, and because the universe is all, that which is no part of it is nothing, and consequently nowhere” (1).
Because on Hobbes’ view human beings are a part of the universe and themselves purely physical then they must too follow the same laws that the universe does. Humans are essentially biological machines which follow physical laws such as the beating of the heart to circulate blood in the body. Hobbes also claimed that the human mind is physical: thoughts and intentions are not evidence of an immaterial substance but the result of physical processes within the brain. Hobbes’s physicalism is deterministic because on it all human behaviour is governed by the laws of nature, which means that even the most voluntary movement is physically predetermined. The thoughts and feelings that humans experience are reducible to physical events within the brain which are prompted by information provided by the senses.
Hobbes’s view has consequences for many theological beliefs for it rejects the existence of an immaterial God who exists transcendentally beyond the universe. If something cannot be reduced to its physical constituent parts, which to many is believed not possible for God, then it does not exist, and has no place within philosophy. According to Hobbes,
“Thus philosophy excludes from itself theology, as I call the doctrine about the nature and attributes of the eternal, ungenerable, and incomprehensible God, and in whom no composition and no division can be established and no generation can be understood” (2).
Despite this conviction of the world, it is not exactly clear what Hobbes’s personal religious beliefs were. Some have deemed him to constitute one of several views: an atheist, an unconventional Christian, or a theist who is skeptical about many widely held religious views. It is clear that he had a suspicion of miracles, rejected freewill and immaterial souls, and was opposed to Presbyterianism and to Roman Catholicism.
Hobbes also saw how societies function according to law when human beings organized themselves. He believed human beings are selfish and exist only to satisfy their own individual, physical needs. As to avoid this resulting in uncontrollable disorder, humans organize themselves into societies within which they submit to rule of law, and with law functioning as a personal protection agency.
1. Hobbes, T. Leviathan. In J. Green. 1929. English Works. p. 672.
2. Hobbes, T. De Corpore. In A. P. Martinich. 1981. Part I of De Corpore.