In this post, I will demonstrate a principle of critical thinking, analyzing propositions in terms of their operational context, applying it to a passage in Hobbes’s Leviathan (all citations from Chapter 13 thereof).
Having begun Chapter 13 “Of the Natural Condition of Mankind”, otherwise known as the state of nature, Hobbes says “Nature hath made men so equal…as to strength of body, the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest” either by secret plots or in confederation with others.
Hobbes goes on to address equality of the mind. “For Prudence, is but Experience; which equal time, equally bestows on all men, in those things they equally apply themselves unto”, he says, having just before told us that Prudence is acquired as we go about our business.
At first blush, this seems like a clever, perhaps even a meaningful statement, but an obvious overstatement.
Men aren’t really equal (we have standouts and champions, don’t we?)
Nor is prudence so very widespread (you have been watching politics and elections throughout the Free World, haven’t you?)
But now I want to introduce the concept of an operational context, in the case of Hobbes’s claim about equality, with two components: 1) independent units capable of acting on their own authority, and 2) the interaction of these units viewed as system defined by the bottom-up interaction of its individual units.
(The sharpest among you will already have noticed that this is the model of system interaction later applied to free markets by Adam Smith in 1776, to history in 1784 by Immanuel Kant, and to biology in 1859 by Charles Darwin. It is the pivotal intellectual model of modernity. And here we have our boy Thomas Hobbes applying it to politics — and the ethics of rule, AKA justice — in 1651.)
1) Hobbes is constructing a model of absolute competition between independent units, able to act and choose as they see best fit to their own interests and purposes.
That their interaction will be a competition is guaranteed by the equality mentioned above, which Hobbes further elaborates: “the difference between man and man is not so considerable that one man can thereupon claim to himself any benefit, to which another may not pretend, as well as he.” In short, the demands of men exceed the supply of things desired by men.
2) While some men may drop out of the competition, or be eliminated by it, yet there will always be competition among the survivors.
There may even be backwaters and islands where communities of lotus-eaters survive, but the competition continues without them, and they become more and more inconsequential to the state of the world (Bye-bye, Mao; bye-bye Russia; bye-bye red districts! Sure you don’t want to come along?)
(OK, Mao’s dead, but China, Russia, and the red districts still have a chance!)
Now, let us delineate the operational context, in the process of which we will discover that this term is not static, but dynamic, because there exists an always upward-spiraling hierarchy of levels of competition.
At the basic biological level, in the competition for survival among different biological lineages, losers are swept from the board by natural selection.
In an idealized competition among individuals, those who succeed either eliminate those they vanquish, reduce them from independent agents to subordinates (whether honored or not, paid or not, free or enslaved), or, in those gentler forms of competition that men so love to create, move beyond them to the next higher level of competition.
My cryptic reference, above, to “gentler forms of competition”, refers to sports. Sports are an obvious, if trivial, example. A successful team, if it triumphs, becomes champion of its conference, then its league, then its nation, then the world.
No matter how high it rises, it always faces competition — if not now, then as the reigning champion defending its crown against the coming wave of upstarts. Tom Brady, do you hear the agile footsteps of Patrick Mahomes at your back?
From the state of nature, whether viewed as made up of pure individuals or of nuclear families, extended families, clans, tribes, city-states, or nations, any unit so unequal to its present level of competition that it triumphs decisively over them, thereby only ascends to a higher level of competition.
If a family or clan outdoes its neighboring clans, it becomes the lineage of tribal chiefs. And thus, ever and again, until there emerge city-state lords, national sovereigns, and imperial rulers.
By the principle of operational context, traits (e.g., equality) derived from the context (e.g., competition) hold that quality dynamically, that is, in relation to the locus of competition. In short, one only ever competes with those who enter into the competition; they form the competitive world in which your competitive nature emerges.
In other words, the operational definition of equality adjusts as a unit ascends the hierarchical levels of competition.
And in the political, military, and economic arenas there is no such thing as an isolated small pond in which one can safely be the big frog; or, to the extent that there is, it is to that extent insignificant for the wider world, and entirely at the mercy of the bigger frog from the bigger pond, should they choose to put it to the test.
Thus, Hobbes: “if others, that otherwise would be glad to be at ease within modest bounds, should not by invasion increase their power, they would not be able, by standing only on their defense, to subsist.”
In short, however much the social contract may originate for defensive purposes: 1), the power for defense is effectively also a power for offense, and 2) in a world of escalating powers, strictly defensive positions are unsustainable.
This proposition was presented more pointedly by Machiavelli, in his Discourses on Livy, in which he asks which is the better model for a republic: static, stable Sparta or expansive, volatile Rome – which is so set up that the plebes will only consent to less power than the patricians, if war booty and conquered lands are their reward. Machiavelli concludes decisively for the Roman model, using an upmarket version of the above frog-and-pond argument.
In contemporary political science circles, this distinction sets apart John Mearsheimer’s offensive realism from the more mainstream versions of realism that allow for the possibility of a status quo power that is effectively beyond the necessity of further competition – a status that Mearsheimer considers an impossibility.
Competition softens and civilizes (to a degree), as one moves from the open violence and brutality of military competition to political competition within a constitution (if it upholds the rule of law) and economic competition within a free market.
Also, this move away from the destructive brutality of war raises the status and well-being of the lower classes, creating a middle class, whose real geopolitical value is as productive assets rather than as cannon fodder. Happily for those of us who work for a living, productive assets (what economists call human capital) must be incentivized, rewarded, even pandered to, to serve the geopolitical purposes of those who rule.
Rising GDP: when government cares enough to send the very best! (Apologies to Hallmark)
Emerging from the state of nature is a long, slow process, according to Kant, and we are still in the midst of it, and always will be.
So, don’t hold your breath.
Still, which of you would trade your current situation for the common lot of the average man, woman, or child 500 years ago?
The value of seminal works like Hobbes’s Leviathan or Locke’s Second Treatise on Government is the explanatory power, scope, and coherence of the conceptual models presented through them.
The literal text articulates the conceptual model; in that sense it determines the model. But the literal text is also understood with reference to the conceptual model; its meaning is tied to the functionality of the conceptual model in at least two ways. 1) If the literal text makes claims not supported by the conceptual model, those claims are superfluous to the model, and more a matter of the subjective perspective of the author than of the coherence of the model. 2) But also, if the model has possibilities that the literal text does not acknowledge, or does not choose to emphasize, once again, the integrity of the model matters more than the intentions of the author. If the power of the conceptual model to organize phenomena is its selling point, the particular purposes to which the author wants to bend it are secondary. See the Rules page, Rule III.2.
This dramatizes the tension between two ideals of the expert theoretician, the scholarly devotee of the literal text and the dialectical explorer of the conceptual model.
The former are dominant in Academia, in part because they represent the conventional wisdom of the discipline, that is, the consensus beliefs of the majority of experts within a community of experts (i.e., an academic discipline or area of knowledge). The latter are disrupters of the existing order. They often, but not always, come from the periphery of a discipline, or even outside it. Another way they arise is by being “woke”, as Kant puts it, from “dogmatic slumber.”
Another way to think of this distinction is using Thomas Kuhn’s distinction between normal science and revolutionary science. During the long periods of normal science, experts adhere to the conventional wisdom. But in the shorter, more intense, periods of revolutionary science, the discipline schisms, under assault from an outside disruptor, into two opposed camps, insiders — who back the status quo doctrines and adhere to the letter of the reigning paradigms — and outsiders — who attempt to replace the reigning paradigm with an emerging alternative paradigm.
This intellectual parallel of a political revolution follows its metaphorical model in that personal characteristics influence how experts react. Young ones tend to side with the emerging challenger paradigm, hoping to leapfrog up their discipline’s hierarchy as the new paradigm gains traction, while entrenched insiders prefer the reigning paradigm, upon which their careers, reputations and habits of thought depend.
Takes Hobbes’s model of the social contract. It’s really a model of how a group of individuals, each with the power to act independently, come to recognise an authority above them, that is, the sovereign authority required by any functioning government. Hobbes works out various aspects and consequences of this model, as he sees it. His version: the independence of each, coupled with conflicting interests (limited resources and conflicting claims upon those resources), produces a dangerous free-for-all, an anxiety-ridden state of nature, in which none can risk trusting another, and each is thus ever prepared for war.
Now this model is an abstract structure, and applies wherever that structure matches the distribution of power. So, it would apply in a hypothetical condition in which pure individuals competed with one another for limited resources. A more likely historical scenario would be small, family based clans competing for territories and their resources. But it applies as well to sovereign nations in their relations with one another (in the academic discipline called International Relations, this perspective is called realism). But it also applies to businesses vying for market share and to tech titans vying for domination of emerging industries.
Hobbes applies this to politics, and, coupled with his experience of the English civil war, develops from the social contract model an argument for submission to any sovereign able to establish a lasting peace, and the companion argument that subjects should be willing to give up all their natural rights to an absolute sovereign for the sake of a durable peace. We in the West view this argument as archaic, but it continues to appeal to people emerging from periods of civil conflict, anarchy, or foreign oppression.
Locke, however, takes the same model and rearranges it so as to produce the classic argument for republicanism. Rousseau, in his turn, rearranges the argument to produce the classic argument for a revolutionary makeover of society under a charismatic leader.
My point in this hurried comparison of three original thinkers is that the conceptual model is not a matter of doctrinaire interpretations but rather a set of relations that pose problems and raise possibilities which can be argued and engineered in different ways. Understanding the model that all three work from is not a matter of memorizing the twists and turns that each initiates, but rather seeing, reviewing, and judging the susceptibility of the model to each of their articulations of it, and of any inherent possibilities as yet undiscovered by any of the three.
In sum, to understand the model is to be able to follow and evaluate any argument that can be developed in reference to the model, as well as any criticisms of the model or alternatives to it. Complete mastery can only mean grasping the whole universe of models and alternatives, and being able to map out the value of any one model in relation to all of its alternatives.
In order to purge yourself of biases and assumptions, you must exercise eternal vigilance against the twin entrapments of doctrinal jargon and rehearsed orthodox narratives of argumentation, which, though seeming to consider alternatives and counterarguments, assume a linear, closed-end path traced and retraced by devotees of this particular perspective; the former locks you into a context, the latter into something like a chess opening (which triggers a sequence of predictable moves and counter-moves).
Any technical terminology, by focusing attention on certain differences and similarities (grouping and dividing things in different ways) illuminates some features while throwing shadows over others.
Jargons may be thought of as terminologies that aim less at establishing common terms of discourse than at creating an in-group and an out-group. While any terminology tends to encourage its adherents and wrong-foot its opponents, some terminologies are particularly aggressive and schismatic, among which I would number the more dogmatic versions of Marxism, postmodernism, determinism, and logical atomism; the prevailing attitude of a jargon is that you are either with them or against them.
Insistence on using a jargon is like insisting on playing all games on one’s home field — there is a built-in advantage in using a set of terms designed and used to advance a particular theory.
To insist on one’s own terminology exclusively is therefore dishonest, for it seeks a one-sided advantage. The terminology may well show the relations between concepts within one’s preferred conceptual framework more clearly; that would not be surprising, since that was what the terminology was designed to do. But, then, if one is honestly comparing one’s preferred conceptual framework against a rival, both parties must try to understand the other framework and look for common ground, bridges, and points of tangency between them, rather than insisting on repulsing attacks while safely ensconced in one’s own fortress.
Again, the internal coherency of a theory when examined through the terminology designed to show it to advantage decides nothing if a rival theory can do the same. Dogmatists and their disciples can train themselves in any number of sophisticated protocols vouched for by the somewhat inbred cultural community that grows up around them. But, as Machiavelli says, the real strength of an army is tested when it takes on its opponent in an open field offering both the full scope for maneuvering.
Orthodoxies are traditions of argumentation which too readily assume their own correctness. They employ many techniques, among them, papering over junctions, seams, and weak points in the argument, misrepresenting their rivals by selecting the weakest version to attack (attacking a straw man), covering any weakness by reasserting their fundamental assumptions in an unavoidably circular argument, employing jargon, and, when numbers or entrenched authorities are on their side, simply stonewalling the challengers, while indoctrinating the rising cohort within the mainstream institutions which they by definition control.
Without detracting from the mental agility employed in behalf of such cloistered traditions, this can reduce to a very sophisticated form of memorization, in effect, the promulgation of a culture as ornate as it is arbitrary.
Powerful perspectives, those that reduce a chaotic-seeming world to order are very attractive — they give us a handle on the world, and a sense of our place within it. But the same can be said of towering works of fiction. In order to claim to be a descriptive truth rather than a metaphorical one, a theory must not only have internal consistency, it must also show itself to be a more adequate descriptive truth than its rivals. It must account for a broader range of experience, show greater internal consistency, or fit better whatever there are in the way of demonstrable facts.
So, what can one do?
When learning a theory, always try to make parallel formulations, connecting points by which it can be compared to rival theories. Try rephrasing each feature of a theory from the perspective, and in the terminology, of its rival, or in a neutral terminology, if possible.
For example, if Locke insists that the state of nature is quite distinct from the state of war (while in Hobbes they are indistinguishable), ask under what conditions a Lockean state of nature dissolves into a Hobbesian one. And then, how prevalent are those conditions, and does that prevalence change as one moves from region to region and from era to era? Once you have posed the question, some things Locke says will jump out at you, like the parenthetical admission in Section 21, at the end of his chapter on the state of war (Chapter III, of the Second Treatise) that “every the least difference is apt to end” in a state of war.
Why do jargons and orthodoxies still plague us? Because, as Machiavelli explained about a more brutal form of power, “men almost always walk on paths beaten by others and proceed in their actions by imitation”, for nothing is more difficult to handle, more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to manage, than to put oneself at the head of introducing new orders” (The Prince, Chapter VI).
But that is precisely what seeking truth involves. For to confirm that the old “truths” are indeed truths, one must test them against every new “truth” that can be articulated. Both Popper and Plato would agree, though they would mean somewhat different things by it.