Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 30 November 2018

Convention and Hypothesis: Thomas Hobbes's Foundations of Bourgeois Nihilism.

This is a synopsis of the last chapter of our study on "Descartes's World". A much lengthier version of this study will be posted as soon as possible. Cheers.

Science and Technology as the Nihilist Ideology of Capitalist Enterprise.

The almost ubiquitous approach to the study and analysis of philosophy and science is to see them as the spontaneous offspring of the human faculty of thought and of experimentation. What we are seeking to do here instead is to present both disciplines as products of determinate historical social relations of production. Broadly, our aim is to show that whilst philosophizing is a faculty co-generate with human action, there is no such human aptitude or faculty as “science and technology”, but that these must rather be deciphered as “scientific enterprises” or praxes that play a highly functional role in the development of capitalism as a system of mass production. More specifically, here we are trying to interpret Cartesian idealism and the reaction to it in the British empiricism of Bacon and Hobbes as byproducts and emblematic of the struggle between the old feudal theocratic social order that prevailed in the Middle Ages and the commercial and industrial capitalism that began to emerge forcefully in northern Europe between the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries.

In this historical-materialist perspective, Cartesianism represents the first valiant attempt by philosophy to accommodate and integrate the incipient nihilism of bourgeois scientific ideology within the boundaries of the essentialism embedded and ingrained in Classical philosophy, Scholastic theology and Renaissance humanism. (Later attempts principally centre on and spring out of German Classical Idealism from Kant to Cassirer.) For this reason, it may be useful to call Cartesianism, with Antonio Negri, “the reasonable ideology”: - ideology, because it constitutes a rationalization of industrial capitalist exploitation in the guise of scientific research and technological progress; and “reasonable”, because it seeks to identify this ideology as, and to reconcile it with, the practical application of Substantive Reason as distinct from Instrumental Reason.

The transparent aim of this Cartesian reasonable ideology was to seek to preserve the millennial and millenary values of Judaeo-Christian and Hellenistic theology and philosophy, above all the omnipotence and benevolence of the Divinity and the centrality of humanity in the created universe, whilst at the same time integrating and absorbing into these values the novel and revolutionary productive techniques of the nascent capitalist industry. Descartes’s goal proved to be unachievable because he burdened Instrumental Reason in its formal components (logic and the understanding) with the task of reconciling the Freedom of human thought with the ultimate ethical values of Substantive Reason and with establishing the existence of Reason itself as an entelechy or Substance (in line with Platonic realism).

It ought to be obvious that any formal Reason whose evaluative criteria are deemed to be inconfutable and irrefutable (or “irresistible”, with Arendt) is immediately incompatible and contradictory with the very “freedom” that the human faculty of thought, of awareness or conscience, entails! Worse still, Reason as a formal faculty is obviously unable to confirm the existence of ontological entities or substances and is also incapable of identifying and prescribing any Values or Substantive Reason which, instead, are the exclusive province of human agency and reflection. Simply stated, Instrumental Reason (known as “the intellect” or “the understanding” or “logico-mathematics”) cannot dictate ultimate values to Substantive Reason because these values are the exclusive province of the latter. (This is the basis of Max Weber’s genial distinction between Wert- and Zweck-Rationalitat [Goal- and Purpose-rationality].) Yet this impossible task – the determination by means of logical analysis (notably the syllogism and apodosis) of ultimate ethical entities (God, the soul) and their implicit values - is precisely what Descartes attempted to do! The consequent dualism between res cogitans and res extensa, Subject and Object, Reason and Nature, Soul and Body, or Mind and Matter, was the unfortunate by-product of this Cartesian attempt to integrate bourgeois ideology and capitalist industry within the dictates of Christian values and the imperative aim of preserving the primacy of the Divinity and the centrality of human beings in the universe.

We have seen that a first response to Descartes came from Francis Bacon. Essentially, Bacon’s “novum organum” is the first major animadversion against the mainstays of the feudal-theocratic absolutist social order, that is, the Classical (Platonic and Aristotelian) and Scholastic insistence on the centrality of God and consequently of the human soul in the cosmic order – and therefore also of logic and rhetoric – the Ratio - as the quintessential tools of human scientific advancement – where “science”, episteme or gnosis, is understood as the adaequatio rei et intellectus (the congruence of intellect and thing). British empiricism is really the combined fruit of a pre-existing sceptic Pyrrhonistic tradition in European thought (see R. Popkin, The History of Scepticism) with what will soon become an incipient nihilism that replaces the theo- and anthropocentrism of Christianity and the Renaissance with the nihilism of what Nietzsche called “an undefinable X”. (Cf. F. Nietzsche, On Truth and Lies, where science is rightly seen as an attempt to pinpoint a cosmic order that, in reality, is filled “…with no forms and no concepts, and likewise with no species, but only with an X which remains inaccessible and undefinable for us”.)

Yet again, as we saw in our study on Bacon, the substitution of Cartesian deductive rationalism with the inductive empiricism of Bacon’s “new organon” method is itself guilty of this dual fallacy – namely, first, that no amount of induction (or, in Descartes’s case, of deduction) can ever lead to a “scientific method” or to “laws of nature”; and second, that any such “laws”, if taken to be “objective”, would be inconsistent with our awareness of them! Viewed “objectively”, the cosmos has no “laws” (cf. Nietzsche, “Viewed morally, the world is false!”): - it is what it is. The claimed “legality” of scientific observations is itself the ultimate ineluctable proof of their conventionality, of their being mere rules of thumb aimed at rationalizing human interests. There is no “scientific truth” outside of what suits human interests, be they “good” or “evil”. (This is the reality behind Nietzsche’s acute observation in The Genealogy of Morals that the object of all scientific experimentation is…the human body!)

Bacon’s claim that human beings are subject to the “laws of nature” clashes with the insurmountable objection that if indeed such “laws of nature” existed, they would have to correspond (a) with scientific knowledge or evidence that is immediately evident, and (b) with the immediate perception by human senses of the “objective reality” to which these “laws” presumably referred. Yet this “immediate certainty” is precisely what is lacking in any and all scientific evidence and indeed is quite impossible for humans to attain! Hobbes’s “annihilation thesis” illustrates quite devastatingly the untenability of Bacon’s na├»ve empiricism – not just because, if human ideas are taken to be separable from the “external world”, then ideas survive the annihilation of this external world, and are therefore conventional, ideal; but also and above all else because the hypothetical annihilation of the external world must entail the annihilation of all human ideas as well!

The vacuum left by scientific empiricism as the handmaiden of industrial capitalism will be filled by the mechanistic materialism of Thomas Hobbes which remains to this day the ideological hard core of the bourgeoisie and of the society of capital. Hobbes’s philosophy, however, is in this regard almost a carbon copy of Bacon’s and is subject to the same objections. Already in the Elements, Hobbes wavers between the twin untenable positions of scientific laws that are the products of “logical” deductions and laws that are instead inductive conclusions based on empirical observations. Equally, Hobbes’s mechanicist materialism whereby every event in the universe is the causal product of the interaction between bodies and motion clashes with the insurmountable objection that such objective laws of mechanical causation, if real, could never be accessible to human conscious knowledge – because human awareness would itself be the unconscious effect of causal interaction between bodies and motion!

Hobbes’s attempt to present a unified materialist philosophy starting with physics and the body (De Corpore) and proceeding to politics (De Cive) comes unstuck on this fundamental fallacy – namely, the impossibility of a purely “formal” reason or understanding to comprehend deductively, or be conscious inductively of, what are supposedly “objective” laws. A science that purports to understand the universe mechanistically is in direct contradiction with the very mechanical formal reason or understanding that presumes to formulate the scientific laws themselves!

Yet it is precisely here that Hobbes’s novel worldview comes into its own – and what provides the very nexus between his physics and politics that many critics have claimed is inconsistent or absurd. If humans are confined to their imperfect perceptions of the life-world, then it is inevitable and undeniable that any “laws of nature” that we may identify amount to nothing more than “conventions” on how to proceed in the world, on how to attain particular goals that are set by human beings themselves! The so-called “laws of nature” then amount to nothing more than a “convention”, an agreement among humans about what practical goals to achieve and on how to achieve them. Scientific laws become mere agreements on interacting with the human and natural environment – with our life-world – in a manner consistent with the goals that humans have set for themselves. Indeed, this is true even to the extent that humans transform and “stage-manage” their life-world so as to render it amenable to exploration and exploitation (“scientific experimentation”) through the metaphorical “laws” that they think they can identify as “objective laws of nature” corresponding to a mythical “objective reality”.

The key to understanding Hobbes’s entire philosophy – ranging from his ontology to epistemology and finally to his political theory – lies exclusively in this exquisite Hobbesian realization – one that is stunningly revolutionary for his time and that will be enucleated with even greater cold-blooded ruthlessness by Nietzsche two centuries later. Of course, if we took Hobbes’s professed materialist mechanicism at face value, then his philosophical system, which extends from atomic structures to political theory, would turn out to be hopelessly inconsistent. But in reality Hobbes’s philosophy is a genial mixture of convention and hypothesis that on one hand allows for the conventionality of social reality, which encompasses scientific enterprise, whilst on the other it latches this “free” conventionality around a “coercive” hypothesis founded on the ineradicable conflict of human self-interests. The “freedom” of convention is tied indissolubly to the “free-dom” of conflict, of the universal Eris. Thus, the conventions that arise from human epistemology – how we theorize our perception of the world “scientifically” – hinge and are pinned on the central fundamental hypothesis that human beings must preserve their own lives in a world in which humans are equal in their ability to threaten one another.

It is fair to assert that Hobbes’s worldview starts from his politics and percolates down to his physics rather than the other way around! That is the crucial reason why Hobbes abandoned his initial project to publish the Elements sequentially beginning with the De Corpore and ending with the De Cive – hence, from physics to politics – and preferred instead to begin with the politics based on “experience” (Thucydidean historicism) and end with the physics based on logic (Euclidean axiology). (Recall that Hobbes translated both Euclid’s Elements [same title as his opus magnum] and Thucydides’s Peloponnesian Wars.) Hobbes’s worldview hinges on the absolute paramountcy of the self-interest hypothesis whose only logical requirement to avoid annihilation in the physical as in the political sphere is convention. The rigid Euclidean-geometric hypothesis is needed for the discursive convention to have any social force at all. Hobbes’s philosophical system as laid out in the Elements is contradictory only if we begin from his physics and proceed to his politics – because then the initial premise is that of atomistic materialism (as in Democritus) from which the politics do not follow logically. But if instead we start from his political theory – universal conflict -, then the uncanny and diabolical consistency of Hobbesian nihilism emerges in its full crushing immediacy to permeate and percolate from the dira necessitas of the politics to the conventionality of the scientific experimentation and theorization on which physics is based.

The paradox implicit in Hobbes’s theorization of the life-world is that unalloyed self-interest is by definition incompatible with the ability (a) to reach the consensus necessary to reach a “con-vention” (coming together of minds) between conflicting self-interests, and (b) to allow for the rationality required for self-interested agents to reach any consensual convention. Of course, Hobbes’s axiomatic assumption is that self-interest is logically subordinate to self-preservation, given that each agent is equally likely to destroy each other agent. (We have shown elsewhere that the axiom of universal conflict is vital to general equilibrium theory in neo-classical economics.) But once these assumptions – (i) self-interest as (ii) the war of all against all (bellum omnium contra omnes) – are allowed as a matter of realistic necessity (or of “experience”, as Hobbes argues in the De Cive) then Hobbes’s initial paradigm becomes unassailable.

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