Kamil asked:

Explain Hobbes justification for a government with absolute authority. Do you think that his call for an absolute government is merited? Relate your arguments with present day examples.

Answer by Martin Jenkins

Politically, Thomas Hobbes, (1588-1679) favoured Absolute Monarchy. Before and up to the first English Revolution, he supported the monarchical forces of Charles Stuart against the revolutionary Parliamentary forces. This support was in part, influenced by his philosophical views, especially his view of human nature. These views were expressed in his book Leviathan (1651).

Essentially, without a government with absolute powers, anarchy will ensue. Perhaps Hobbes’ argument finds support in examples of those states around the world where, following the collapse of a central government and state, a condition of war ensues. From Sierra Leone, to Afghanistan, Iraq, to Libya, a war of each against each, tribe against tribe, warlord against warlord ensues. Without going into the contentious issue of the causes of such situations, here, in lieu of the previous, central rule of law, we have the rule of the strongest, or the most cunning, the most powerful: a de facto basis for ruling and not one based in right or law. Further, the rule of the strongest is continually challenged by alternative power or powers at all levels – regional and national. There is no stable condition of Peace but of continual war. Hobbes would perhaps not have been surprised by this as his Political Philosophy predicts it.

Condition of War, Covenant and Commonwealth

Prior to State Government or ‘Common Power’ as Hobbes terms it, men do not live in a condition of Peace and security but in the very opposite. Men are so competitive and aggressive that it is a condition of War. It is characterised as:

“…continuall feare and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish and short.” (Ch 13. Leviathan).

Men have to rely on their own strength, wit, cunning in order to survive and can use any means to this end. Contrary to those who maintain that men are naturally good, capable of peaceful living and being guided by conscience alone, Hobbes argues that if men could follow and obey conscience or Natural Law/Reason as he terms it, they would have done so and Government would have no raison d’etre to exist. That it does exist is evidence that Men cannot live in Peace without a ‘common power’ to keep them all in order.

At some point, men tire of living in this precarious condition of War. The fear of death and the absence of security to live and prosper in peace makes them seek a political society of order, peace and security. They congregate to mutually create a contract or Covenant. This gives one of their number Power to end the condition of War and who, they will unconditionally obey. Their power of self-government and self-protection operational in the condition of War ceases, as it has all been covenanted to a single Sovereign Power. Hobbes cites the Covenant in the following words:

“I authorise and give up my right of governing myself, to this man or to this Assembly of men, on this condition that thou give up thy right to him, and authorise all his actions in the like manner.” (Ch 17. Ibid)

Once the Covenant is made, men leave the condition of War to enter political society ruled by the Absolute Monarch and termed the Commonwealth. Notice that the Covenant is made mutually between men themselves and not between the Government and governed as with other Social Contract Theorists such as John Locke or Jean Jacques Rousseau. The Monarch is Sovereign and legitimate Power lies with him and not the People. The reason for the existence of ordered, peaceful and secure commonwealth lies with the Monarch and his actions. He is the legitimate foundation of and for the commonwealth. Neither is the Sovereign Power bound or accountable to the People, as he has not made the covenant with them but they with him. They have agreed to become his subjects.

Absolute Power

The Sovereign Power provides Peace and Security from internal and external threats. To this end, he has absolute Power(s), which Subjects must obey. Absolute power is required as limited, constitutional power would permit spaces for the re-emergence of the state of war; as human nature compels men to be competitive, it would naturally fill those spaces as it were. Absolute power does not permit such spaces to emerge, as it is what would now be termed totalitarian. (See Chapter 29 Leviathan).Further, as men have created the Absolute Monarch, by this act they have given assent to any act or action he does or, to any law he makes. As the above quote states, men, by the act of the Covenant, did ‘authorise all his actions’ (ibid). So in obeying the Absolute Monarch, the subjects are obeying themselves.

The Absolute Monarch makes all decrees, Laws in the Commonwealth and appoints magistrates and other officers of State to implement and administer them. Laws and decrees are concerned with many things but driven by the end of maintaining Peace and Security in the Commonwealth. It is up to the Monarch to judge upon the means and methods to keep the Peace and against whom and what. Doctrines and opinions are regulated, permitted or censored in the interest of Peace and Security as decided by the Monarch.

Privileges can be granted to Subjects such as Property, trade and exchange, of Combining in systems but these are contingent. Contingent because they depend for their existence upon the Absolute Monarch and as such, can be revoked. Obviously, if they could not be revoked, the Monarch would not be Absolute and other powers would exist apart from and beyond Him. Scope would then exist to challenge the Monarch leading to the re-emergence of the condition of War.

Unnervingly, Hobbes writes that the Monarch even has the power to execute innocent subjects if deemed necessary. This would not be an injustice or injury against the subject but only against Natural Law and God.

Aristotle once wrote that no man could be happy on the rack. Perhaps it could also be added, living in an Absolute Monarchy as described by Hobbes. Why did Hobbes favour such a draconian and extreme Political Philosophy? It actually seems preferable to live in the condition of War than in what appears to be an equally precarious Commonwealth ruled as it is by the arbitrary whim of the Monarch perhaps better described as a Tyrant. Yet Hobbes argues that this is a legitimate political society and one that follows upon the natural condition of men in absence of a common power. As Hobbes’ political conclusions follow upon his premises about human nature, it is to this human nature that we now proceed.

Human Nature

Hobbes was acquainted with the leading thinkers of his age such as Galileo. Galileo formulated the Law of Inertia. Contrary to the Aristotelian view of the universe which held that all things are in or seek repose, the law of inertia states that objects will exist in motion unless hindered or prevented by something else. For Hobbes, this law provided an understanding of human actions and of the society he observed around him. Human beings are naturally in motion unless hindered by other human beings.

Stimulation causes motion in the senses. From the senses arise voluntary motions or appetites. Appetites are either toward something (appetite, desire) or away from something (aversion). This motion is termed Endeavour. Endeavour is the very motion of human beings – it is what we are according to Hobbes. A man can no more cease having appetites and aversions than cease to live. Felicity is the state of having appetites and aversions satisfied. Human endeavour is for the procuring and assuring of felicity and this requires Power.

“The Power of a man is his present means to obtain some future apparent good. And it is either Original or instrumental.” (Ch 10. Ibid)

Power is natural (Strength, Wit,) and Instrumental (Riches, Reputation, Friends). Continuous appetites and the Power required to procure and assure their satisfaction is ‘the general inclination of mankind’ t is:

“…a perpetual and restless desire of Power after power that ceaseth only in death. And the cause of this is (not always that a man hopes for a more intensive delight than already attained to, or that he cannot be content with a moderate power but) because he cannot assure the power and means to live well, which he hath present, without the acquisition of more.” (Ch 11. Ibid)

Constantly endeavouring men utilise their Power to satisfy their appetites. The procuring and assuring of things for their felicity leads to conflict with other men and what they possess. This conflict leads inexorably to the condition of War as stated above. Here ‘such a warre as is of everyman against every man’. Success depends on might and wits – of how much natural and instrumental Power one can command. Might is right. Hobbes famously describes human life in this condition as ‘solitary, poore, nasty, brutish and short’. As we have seen, the only solution Hobbes concluded, was for Absolute Monarchy with corresponding Absolute powers necessary to contain human nature and prevent its degeneration into the condition of war. This conclusion relies heavily on a conception of human nature. Refute this and Hobbes’ political conclusions will not follow.

Criticisms of the Hobbesian conception of Human Nature

Firstly, if power comes into conflict with the power of others, the more powerful can subdue the weaker or, the weaker can acquiesce to the Powerful. There would be no state of war but the rule of the most powerful. Further, Power and appetites can be sublimated.

Expression of appetites and Power can change state. For instance, anger can be sublimated from its crude state into articulation (as in Political understanding and activism). Again, the human infant cries to be fed by its mother. Such crude crying is sublimated (by parental, social education and socialisation over time) into independent acquisition of food and communication of desires. Whilst all humans have the appetite of hunger, few of us enter hunting parties to acquire food as our ancestors did. We are more likely to shop at a supermarket. Thus Power, the means by which appetites are satisfied, is dependent upon social context for its expression. Thus contrary to Hobbes’ reductive and crude understanding of Power, Power does not of necessity result in conflict. For the way it is expressed is dependent upon social factors which mediate and mould it.

Secondly, there appears to be a causal determinism in Hobbes’ formulation. A causes B and B causes C and so on. Rather like a snooker ball determined in its motion by a previous snooker ball and that snooker ball determined to motion by the cause of the cue; so appetites cause Power to secure and assure their satisfaction. Reducing Human beings to the status of snooker balls is fallacious. Human beings possess consciousness – they are conscious of themselves, others and the world they are in. Deliberation and understanding can alter behaviour. So Appetites and the Power to secure them are altered by conscious understanding etc. Again, understanding, deliberation, consciousness do not exist in splendid isolation but are contextualised in a definite social and historical environment.

Thirdly, I perceive a tension in what Hobbes writes about appetites and Power. Either they are alterable or they are not. Power is inherently insatiable coming into conflict with other powers. The unfettered expression of appetites leads to the natural condition of men, which is war. Yet as Hobbes writes that the fear of death makes men form the Commonwealth. In the Commonwealth, the fear of the Absolute Monarch makes men alter their appetites and expression by power; this prevents the condition of War from re-emerging. Both counts implicitly mean that social factors can alter men’s behaviour contrary the view that insatiable appetites and Power are inherent to human nature and immutable. That appetites and Power can be redirected is due to the process of sublimation mentioned above. If appetites and Power were unalterable, then any attempt at forming a Commonwealth would continually be frustrated by the actions of men. There would be a permanent condition of War. And this is contrary to what Hobbes writes.

Fourthly, I believe that Hobbes’ hypothesis about the natural condition of men being that of a condition of war can be falsified. Even in his writings, Hobbes states that not all men come into conflict with each other. This contradicts the claim that all men are compelled to conflict by appetites and power. He also describes the condition of war as not permanent actual battle but the continuous possibility of conflict. Thus, for times at least, men live in the absence of war. Moreover, external evidence such as that provided by anthropology seem to point towards human individuals as social and co-operative beings. Conflict existed between clans, tribes but not between individuals as Hobbes claims.

Fifthly, if the condition of War is of each against each, then any form of social co-operation is impossible. But co-operation is precisely what is required in the performance of the Covenant. The possibility for the making of the Covenant requires the peace and co-operation of men with men prior to the setting up of the Commonwealth. This is supposed to be impossible. So paradoxically, there is either a Covenant made prior to the Covenant made (in order to ensure peace and security for the making of the Covenant) ad infinitum. Or, the Covenant could never be made; a prospect Hobbes doesn’t want, as it would undermine the whole argument of the Leviathan. Or, people can actually co-operate for given ends prior to and perhaps without the need of a Covenant and the Absolute Monarchy it entails. This last possibility would contradict Hobbes arguments for human nature and the act of Covenant thus undermining his whole Political Philosophy. But it is one, which seems integral to Hobbes argument.

Sixthly, as Hobbes writes, Power is instrumental in satisfying appetites. This is the endeavour of a single human being. So Power could be made even greater by the combination of men in pursuit of a common goal. The greater the Power, the more chances of appetites being satisfied. If, as Hobbes writes, Power and the satisfaction of appetites (or felicity) is that which motivates a man, then how much greater would be the Power and consequent satisfaction of appetites achieved by co-operation between men. How much weaker would be the isolated man in competition with all other men. So even on Hobbes’ own terms, co-operation seems more productive than competition or than coercion by the Monarch. The success of co-operation would bind men together more effectively than either – for their appetites will be satisfied and this is what their nature demands

Moreover, co-operation seems to follow from Hobbes description of Human nature – as seeking power. This conclusion using Hobbes’ own premises contradicts his own conclusion of human nature leading to the condition of being at war with each other. For co-operation is just as natural a human condition as competition.

Finally, Hobbes argues that the Commonwealth of the Absolute Monarch is preferable to the condition of War. But as Hobbes proposes, men’s nature is such that it leads to War, and then this must apply to the Monarch as much to every other single human being. If so, the Monarch will be at war with his subjects. A state of Monarchical terrorism will replace the condition of war. Thinking and feeling people rarely prefer tyrannies to their alternatives. Although Hobbes maintains his Absolute Monarch is a legitimate conclusion following the philosophical argument in the Leviathan, practically it would be a tyranny, it would be unworkable and, it would share the same end as all Absolute Monarchies have in history. It would be subject to rebellion and overthrow.


Kamil, Hobbes’ political solution of Absolute Monarchy follows from his conception of human nature. Yet as written above, I believe this conception is flawed. Although it might be correct to state that for whatever the reason or cause, some human beings are selfish, competitive and aggressive, it is not correct logically or empirically to further describe all human beings as such. Therefore any political philosophy, such as right wing libertarianism, as free market capitalism, which propose that its politics follow from such human nature, is mistaken.


Stein asked:

I was wondering if someone has read Michael Dummett’s ‘Bringing about the Past’ and actually understood his arguments. I am not a newbie to philosophy, but I thought this article was quite hard to grasp. I was first presented to this article 5 years ago, when attending a course in epistemology/philosophy of science at the University of Oslo (a bachelor’s degree). Since then I’ve been attempting to understand it without success. And I don’t know where to look for a nontechnical explanation of his article either a (long enough) summary, or a stepwise explanation. Every response to the article ‘Bringing about the Past’ either is way too technical or picks out some specific feature. And that, I feel, is no help.

I ‘understand’ the beginning of the article what he means by our prejudice when it comes to the future and the past, but it’s only because the asymmetry idea is too deeply ingrained in us, that we have to (or better for argument’s sake, try to) free ourselves of our prejudices about asymmetry. But from here and on I get COMPLETELY lost I cannot reproduce his argument(s). Don’T know if my lack of understanding hinges on my interpretation of the phrase ‘bring about’ which I take to mean ’cause to take place’ (implying replacing whatever event/circumstance was already present in the past). I can see no other good interpretation of the phrase ‘bring about’. You, of course, have the special case where no event/circumstance already was in the past, in which case ‘bring about’ would imply replacing nothing, i.e. replacing/filling up some empty time/space stretch with some event/circumstance.

Taking ‘bring about’ to mean just what I did above implies quite strange results (but actually not more strange than ridding oneself of the conception of asymmetry between future/past). One could ask (a natural question for any rational person): how can one generalise this? If this is not a special case of prayer and this particular tribe that Michael uses, then it must apply to everything? We could pick literally any example and play with it. For instance I could (in principle) cause myself not to be born in the past, which would yield the strange (but no more strange than annulling the concept of asymmetry between past/present) result of me disappearing right now in the present (or perhaps like in ‘Back to the Future’, where the body disappears in a stepwise fashion right before the protagonist’s (Michael J Fox’s) eyes.

Or I could kill Michael Dummett when he was alive before he produced this article, which in turn would remove the CAUSE for me sitting here and wondering what the hell Michael (Dummett) was saying.

Since this conclusion seems TOO absurd to me, I am inclined to think that I made the wrong assumption somewhere along the line, or that my reasoning just went astray (or it seems that this is how philosophers argue if a conclusion disagrees with intuition, then the conclusion goes overboard, not the intuition). But I still maintain the importance of understanding this article as it must have caused a lot of havoc when it was published. And if it caused havoc (I know there exists many responses to this article), it must be because the article made an impression by bringing up something profound.

Anyway, I have attempted to explain to the best of my ability what I wonder about and hope that someone could throw some light on the issue.

Answer by Craig Skinner

Where you go wrong is in thinking that the past could be CHANGED, that there could be different versions of the past. There can only be one version, what actually happened, and that’s it, done and dusted. Any actions by time travellers from the future are already built into past events. Thus if Jack Flash, a time traveller from the 28th century went back to the 14th century and signed the Magna Carta, his signature is on the document, for all to see, now and at all times since he signed it all those years ago. And you can’t go back and kill Dummett: he wasn’t killed, he lived to a ripe old age. Nor could you go back and prevent your birth: your birth wasn’t prevented. You might go back and try to do these things , but you wouldn’t succeed because they happened despite your efforts.

Now, to Dummett. He is notoriously opaque. He writes for other philosophers, not for beginners, and doesn’t spell out his underlying assumptions or views (his informed readers know what they are).

His view of the past is as I have spelled out, but he doesn’t make this clear.

His article makes four points:

1. We experience an asymmetry between past and future. You have got this point. We are entropy-producing creatures, and live our lives along the direction of increasing entropy (into the future, since the universe started out with very low entropy which can only increase). We experience causation in this direction, we experience time in this direction, remembering the past and planning for the future. In short, the entropic, temporal, causal and psychological arrows all point in the same direction (past to future).

2. Although we experience causation as antegrade (past to future), retrograde or backward causation (future to past) is logically possible, and may sometimes occur (some interpretations of quantum mechanics imply this). I think you can see this point, provided you cut out the idea of changing the past, and stick to the notion of causing or ‘bringing about’ the past (by future action).

3. Experiment can’t prove or disprove retrograde causation.

You might think it would be simple to disprove the matter by what is called ‘bilking’. This means: find out whether the relevant past event occurred or not. If it did, take steps to prevent the alleged future cause. If, contrariwise, the past event didn’t happen, take steps to ensure that the future alleged causal action does occur. In this way the disconnect between alleged cause and effect would be shown.

But Dummett, using his example of the chief dancing (the cause) to ensure that the tribesmen were brave some days earlier (the effect), shows that matters are less straightforward.

Take the case where it has been reported to us that the tribesmen didn’t act bravely. We try to ensure that the chief dances. But:

* sometimes the chief can’t dance (he has broken his ankle, he is in bed with a fever), so he can hold on to his view.

* sometimes the chief does dance, accepts that the men were not brave, but just says well, it doesn’t always work, it’s probabilistic rather than deterministic causation.

* sometimes the chief does dance, but it turns out that the report of the men’s cowardice is mistaken (communication error, or somebody trying to impugn the tribe’s good name, or somebody trying to undermine the chief’s credibility). Now, of course, it is open to the chief to say, whenever his dancing seems to have failed, that the report of the men’s cowardice is in error.

A combination of these three ensures that the chief can plausibly hold on to his view about retrograde causation.

4. Even if a reliable association between dancing and past bravery were shown, we needn’t accept backward causation. We can say that the bravery caused the dancing. Of course we would struggle to think of a mechanism by which this happens. But here we are no worse off than on the retrograde assumption where we struggle to explain the mechanism by which dancing causes past bravery. As Hume famously said, we only ever observe a conjunction, never the connection. Hence modern ideas of causation which strive to establish the connection by defining the cause as what we need to manipulate to produce a change in something else (the effect) e.g. altering smoking habits in a population changes the later incidence of lung cancer, hence smoking is a cause of lung cancer.

I hope things are clearer to you.


Tom asked:

What kind of knowledge (a priori or a posteriori) did Descartes discover in the cogito argument, and how much help is it in defeating skepticism? What more is required in order to have knowledge of the real world?

Answer by Martin Jenkins

In his Meditations, Descartes employs a process of rigorously doubting what he believes and is convinced he knows. He does this in the hope of discovering an indubitable, certain truth which can act as an unshakable epistemological foundation for human knowledge and for the developing Natural Philosophy (Sciences) of his time. In this quest, anything which even hints of doubt is rejected.

Knowledge acquired by the senses is judged as unreliable. A convincing distinction between waking and dreaming is not found. Even the ‘certainties’ of arithmetic and geometry could be deceptions. The existence of a benevolent God who upholds truth is questioned for perhaps there is instead, a malevolent deceiver. Rather like in the Matrix films, the deceiver maintains deception whereby all that is experienced as real could be unreal.

At the end of Meditation I, Descartes concludes that he cannot know anything with the certainty he seeks.


In this intellectual abyss, Descartes questions the truth of his own existence.

Yet if he is deceived then something must exist to be deceived. Further, this something is a thinking thing – Descartes has evidenced this by the very process of doubt he has employed.

This thing is a thinking thing which reflects, which doubts. It exists because it thinks. Although the existence of his body cannot be proven, that of the Thinking thing or Cogito can.

The Cogito as Thinking thing qua thinking, therefore exists and this cannot be doubted without engendering absurdity. This evinces a self-evident Truth, a certain truth which is the foundation Descartes had been searching for. It is a contradiction to state I am thinking but I don’t exist as the latter would remove the conditions of possibility for the former. The status of this truth is apodictic – it is self-evident when analysed and the opposite is impossible.

In the remainder of Meditation II, Descartes reflects upon how he arrived at such a self-evidently true conclusion as the means employed might assist in the discovery of more truths.

Reflecting on the wax before him, he notes that although there are inessential qualities which change, appear and disappear (such as its taste, smell, texture) ; there are also essential qualities such as its occupation of space, its motion and flexibility. These qualities cannot be doubted as existing.

How did he arise at this conclusion? The conclusion is derived by the faculty of Judgement employing and dealing with what Descartes called Clear and Distinct Ideas. These possess an Objective reality. In other words which Descartes doesn’t use, clear and distinct ideas display sound a-priori reasoning which cannot be doubted, challenged on pain of committing contradiction. The reasoning involved leading to a conclusion which is sound, or where the conclusion follows from the premises, is as already said, apodictic. As you put in your question Tom, this is the knowledge Descartes discovers in his meditations on the Cogito.

With respect to Descartes reasoning, if the sceptic doubts the internal soundness of a-priori reasoning, then the sceptic cannot understand or appreciate ‘logical’ thinking. The sceptic could however, recognise the internal soundness of a-priori reasoning but question whether its conclusive truths are applicable to ‘the world’ beyond the reasoning process…

Of the World: That it Exists

Returning to the Objective reality Clear and Distinct Ideas display (a-priori reasoning) , Descartes further wonders where it comes from – for no thing can arise from nothing.

Importantly, one idea bridges the certainty of the Cogito with the certainty of the existence of an independently existing world and of our knowledge of it- this idea is that of God. In Meditation III, Descartes argues that the idea of infinity-which he attribute to the nature of God – cannot arise with a finite creature such as himself, so it must arise from something other – God. Secondly, Descartes reasons that he cannot create himself and sustain himself in existence so, this also must arise from something else – God. (Variant on the Causal/Contingency Argument for God’s existence here) Thirdly, as no thing can come from nothing (Nihil ex nihilo), there must be a first cause before all other effects -including the cause of Descartes’ own existence. What is in the cause must to some degree or other, be in the effect (Aristotle’s account of Cause here I think). As Descartes has concluded that he is an unextended, thinking thing which exists then, he must, as an effect, contain to some degree, characteristics of that which caused him or created him. That cause is God: an eternal, infinite, thinking thing.

Note here Tom, the employment of clear and distinct reasoning — that there can be no effect without a prior cause, that the finite cannot create the infinite and so on. For rationalist philosophers, this method is indubitable and yields sound conclusions about the nature of reality – ontological conclusions. As Descartes believes he is created by God and that what is in the cause is also in the effect, then God as the supreme thinking thing, has also placed the faculty of Understanding, of the recognition and use of clear and distinct ideas, in his thinking creations (Meditation IV). Mistakes, illusions arise in finite minds from the bad application of the Free Will or Judgement in matters of the Understanding. As finite creations, such mistaken thinking is to be expected. However, Descartes believes that this mechanism of thinking will, can and does provide certain knowledge of the world – if correctly executed. It further lays the grounding for Natural Philosophy’s attempts to understand the world by mathematics and geometry.

In Meditation V, Descartes yields the knock out punch by employing the Ontological Proof for God’s existence. Again, it is achieved by employing clear and distinct ideas which exude objective reality. If one can understand the nature of God as all-powerful then, one must conclude that God must necessarily exist. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t be all powerful – which is a contradiction. God’s existence has to be conceived along with his nature just as the conception of a mountain involves that of a valley. So God necessarily exists. As God is all powerful, he is perfect. As perfect he cannot deceive. So as creator of all reality, God could

not deceive Descartes that the world he perceives and more importantly, conceives by clear and distinct reasoning does not exist. So the world necessarily exists. Hence Descartes has acquired knowledge of a real, independently existing world beyond his senses.


Tina asked:

What would Berkeley’s argument be against Descartes’ wax argument? Would he say the sensory properties are not different in the solid wax and the melted wax? How would his continuity theory come into the argument?

Answer by Martin Jenkins


As part of his meditations on the correct philosophy, Descartes maintained that reasoning using clear and distinct Ideas would yield truths as opposed to the dubious conclusions borne of the senses. The senses had led Descartes to notice changes in the properties of the wax. Having previously established the indubitable certainty of his own existence and that by the same clear and distinct reasoning, a good, benevolent God necessarily exists Descartes concluded that firstly God qua God could not deceive him in his perceptions and secondly, if the correct clear and distinct reasoning implanted by God, was followed, further truths of the world could be deduced.

Hence the wax is examined and although information conveyed by his senses tell him it changes shape, texture, smell, the judgement of his mind convinces him that objectively, something continues to exist beneath such superficial changes [i.e. substance]. Judgements of the Mind and not images from the body allow Objective Ideas to be formed. This characterises the methodological approach of Rationalist Philosophers like Descartes.


I think Berkeley would argue that there is no underlying ‘substance’ that somehow continues to be the wax despite its different properties and manifestations. Berkeley would maintain that the solid wax and the melted wax are continuous ideas, one following the other but both remaining the ontological status of ideas.

This is consistent with his Immaterialist thesis that only Ideas exist and these are perceived by Minds, Spirits or Souls. There cannot be an material world existing independently of perceivers and continuing to exist when not perceived. Throughout the Principles of Human Knowledge Berkeley argues consistently that this cannot be otherwise. For essentially this would propose that Ideas can exist without and independently of a Mind or Minds which have them. This heralds a contradiction, an absurdity for it would be proposed that Ideas can exist without a Mind or Minds, that they do not depend on Minds for their existence. This is obviously absurd: Ideas cannot exist without Minds and only Minds can have Ideas.


Nate asked:

The fundamental objection to materialism is that sense perception is unreliable, so our empirical knowledge of the world is faulty. true or false?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

Your premise is false, because you adopt a false perspective on the matter. Sense perception is, on the contrary, highly efficient. If it were not the case, you would not be alive to ask the question. The fact that hallucinations are possible does not negate it. Being human means making mistakes. We only realise when we make mistakes that there are such things as mistakes. Otherwise humans would be gods.

So our knowledge of the empirical world is perfectly reliable. It is survival knowledge. It does not necessarily mean that the world is exactly as we perceive it. But once you familiarise yourself with the miracle of sense perception, you will clap your hands in wonder, instead of making such feeble assumptions as your question presupposes. For example, our senses, in addition to being very competent, also produce phenomena in our mind which enable us to make good images of our empirical surroundings which are meaningful. There are certain types of radiation that are not coloured; but your senses and mind collude in making you see colours to help your orientation.

So it would much better for you to learn some astonishment at the richness of the empirical world which, for example, a deaf and blind person cannot experience. Try imagining what kind of a life you would have living in permanent silence and blackness!


Elaine asked:

So… I’m a regular high school student who has run across the problem of not knowing what a monad is try so hard to understand what Leibniz what trying to explain but it seems like monads are just a substance of everything. They’re described as if they are alive yet they don’t exist and at the same time they already know what they’re suppose to do yet still nonexistent…*sigh* I’m trying to understand it all but in a way I can’t please help!

Answer by Martin Jenkins

‘Monads’ or ‘Monadology’ is Leibniz’s response to the philosophical debate started by Descartes. As Descartes had established the existence of two substances Extension (my body, your body, bodies generally, objects in the world, the world itself) and Mind (Thinking, unextended), one immediate problem arose as to how the two could interact as Descartes had argued they did.

Descartes never arrived at a satisfactory solution to this problem and it served to occupy thinkers such as Spinoza and Leibniz in their ponderings on the nature of Substance

The Problem of Substance

Following the influence of Aristotle, the nature of reality, of what is (Ontos Greek) was deemed to be that of Substance – the building block(s) of reality. Substances could be defined by their characteristics or Attributes. So the attribute of Mind was that it Thinks. Attribute of Body is that it is extended – has length, breadth, heights, can be measured and it occupies space.

If there are a plurality of Substances and not just one, then they will interact with each other – as Descartes had proposed Mind and Body do. This led to problems as to how to define, categorise and understand them. For if substance A causally interacts with substance B, – causes changes or effects in it – B will be affected by A and vice versa. Hence the clear water of substance definition becomes very muddied and it is hard to understand what part of a substance comes from another to the point where a pure substance and a corresponding definition of it becomes impossible.

The solution Spinoza proffered for this problem was that it was logically impossible for there to be more than one substance. Substance was self-generating and sustaining, it did not interact with any other substance and did not owe its existence to any other. In short, a single substance ruled out and problems associated with the causal relation of one substance to another. Spinoza deemed this single, all inclusive substance to be God or Nature (Deus sive Natura). Mountains, human beings, the computer screen before me are modifications of this single substance.

Why the detour with Spinoza? Because it contrasts and therefore provides an insight into the solution to substance interaction by Leibniz.


Each spirit [human being] is a substance. Leibniz calls them Monads. Like each human being, each monad has its own perspectives at any given time just as a building will appear differently from different perspectives. As they are created by God. God knows everything the monad will or will not do a-priori as God possesses true knowledge. In other words, God eternally knows the ‘what-ness’ and ‘is-ness’ (Haicceity) of each monad. This is stated in the example of Alexander the Great (#8 Discourse on Metaphysics. DM). That is, each Monad has an ‘individual notion’, its Idea which contains all it is, ever will be, ever will do.

As God knows the individual notion or idea of each Monad will do, the Monads cannot deviate from this as God knowing would be wrong – which as God is perfection, is impossible. So each monad is, so to speak, like clock-work: it is wound up by God and in unwinding, it lives its life: everything the monad does in its life is contained in and determined by the ‘winding-up’. (#13. DM)

As so ‘wound-up’ by God, each Monad will do its own thing, regardless of any other Monad. This is what is meant by the term ‘windowless monad’, there is no influence from outside the monad, it is enclosed in itself and executes its own life as determined by God’s knowledge. Hence as Leibniz writes that each monad expresses the universe in its own way. (#9. DM)
So the problem of substance interaction and knowing the nature/identity of each substance or monad is solved by Leibniz.

There is no influence from any other monad into/onto another. It may appear so as when two people bump into each other for example, but again; God has already anticipated this as he knows it by knowing our individual notion. As he knows it, the interaction of one monad with another is pre-established by God and everything occurs according to this divine knowing and not by our individual will. Hence, it is all a matter of ‘pre-established harmony’. (#15. DM)

Monads do exist! They are created by God and depend upon it for their existence (emanation). They can also be called ‘souls’. Only God can create and end the existence of a Monad. As there are millions of monads, there are millions of corresponding views or perspectives of the Universe by each monads. This is in actuality, the view each of us has from the standpoint of our own, individual lives.

Hope this is of use regular high school student Elaine.



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