Saturday, May 10, 2008

Hobbes on Knowing Substance

Well, maybe its Hobbes. I've been reading more of Descartes objections and replies lately, and the third set of objections are from a "celebrated English Philosopher". He makes a few incidental remarks that lead me to think that the problem of knowing substance is not just some crazy thing Duns Scotus dreamed up, but possibily a recurring problem in the Aristotelian tradition. In any case, it would be interesting to compare Scotus' arguments against knowing substance with those of various early modern philosophers who also reject the very concept of substance itself and look for a connnection. Here is Hobbes:

Obj. iv: "The ancient peripatetics also have taught clearly enough that substance is not perceived by the senses, but is known as a result of reasoning."

obj. ix: "I have frequently remarked above that there is no idea either of God or of the soul; I now add that there is no idea of substance. For substance (the substance that is a material, subject of accidents and changes) is perceived and demonstrated by the reason alone, without yet being conceived by us, or furnishing us with any idea. If that is true, how can it be maintained that the ideas which reveal substance to me are anything greater or possess more objective reality than those revealing accidents to us ?"


Hobbes isn't the only one...Descartes as well holds this view, as can be seen in the beginning of his reply to the fourth set of objections (in my Great Books ed., p. 153b):

"For we do not have immediate cognition of substances, as has been elsewhere noted; rather from the mere fact that we perceive certain forms or attributes which must inhere in something in order to have existence, we name the thing in which they exist a substance.

But if, afterwards, we desired to strip that substance of those attributes by which we apprehend it, we should utterly destroy our knowledge of it; and thus, while we might indeed apply words to it, they would not be words of the meaning of which wehad a clear and distinct perception."

I also randomly picked up Peter Geach's Mental Acts today, and came across the same problem in his chapter on abstractionism, where he said it was characteristic of "decadent scholasticism", and though the terms and maxims (all from Aristotle) he quotes can all be found in Aquinas (and he likes Aquinas), he probably means Scotus or late medieval philosophy which has unfortunately been tarnished by the notion of "decline" both by Thomists as well as by early modern historiography, which sees it as the time of plague, schism and unrest; and of course, bad times for women. Though Gerson, the nominalist chancellor of of the university of Paris also wanted to get back to the 13th century style of thinking, at least for theology. Anyway, Geach also pointed to Locke, so it seems this problem is found in early modern philosophy as well, though it may only be part of their rejection of scholastic notions. I hope to blog on this more in the future.


Ocham said...

Greetings Smithians. Do you have a reference for the Hobbes please.

PS do not neglect to follow the raging dispute over 'existence' at the Maverick place. 2-0 to the nominalists, so far.

Lee Faber said...

They're from the brittanica great books edition of Descartes (vol. 31), p. 136 and 139

Brandon said...

If you have a different edition of the Objections and Replies, with Adam-Tannery numbers, you should be able to find Objection IV at AT VII, 178.