Hobbes on liberty and necessity

Class notes for 21 February


Hobbes’s view of free will made him a rather notorious figure. Jeremy Taylor reminded those listening to his sermon in 1663 that, “it is known every where with what Piety and acumen he [Bramhall] wrote against the Manichean Doctrine of Fatal necessity, which a late witty man [guess who!] had pretended to adorn with a new Vizor [i.e. mask or disguise - mjg]” (“A Sermon Preached in Christs-Church, Dublin, July 16, 1663” [Early English Books]).

Much later, T. S. Eliot insisted that Bramhall had exposed Hobbes as “one of those extraordinary little upstarts whom the chaotic motions of the Renaissance tossed into an eminence which they hardly deserved and have never lost” (“John Bramhall”, in Selected Essays 1950, p. 312).

Yes, but what did he really think?

Of course, Hobbes had his admirers as well. Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary for the 20th of November, 1661 that he went to bed and, “lay long reading Hobbs his ‘Liberty and Necessity,’ and a little but very shrewd piece, and so to sleep.”

I’m sure you did the same last night.

Main points

We spent most of our time in class trying to understand Hobbes’s view.

Hobbes held that actions and people can be free, provided they do not face external impediments to doing what they will to do. He denied that anyone’s will is free. The will is the last appetite before action. Our actions are caused by what we want but we do not generally control what we want. Therefore, our wills are determined but our actions are sometimes free.

One thing we discovered in discussing this is the value of examples. The simpler the better. Jon K.’s example of wanting lunch and Ariel’s example of the cage were very helpful in illustrating Hobbes’s view. Whether it’s right or not is another question, of course.

Another lesson was that it’s valuable to pay attention to the definitions. Justin, for instance, dug in on Hobbes’s definition of the will. Those are essential for keeping track of an author’s view, especially in this area. Again, as Garrett pointed out, a definition doesn’t prove anything and you have to be careful to be sure that authors don’t sneak their conclusions into their definitions.


There are many respects in which Hobbes’s writing is superior to Bramhall’s. Chief among these is his habit of defining his terms.

That said, we did not put a lot of effort into discovering the positive case that Hobbes made for his position. His arguments mostly consist in showing that one can consistenly say things like “Bramhall chose to write his paper” or “Bramhall had the liberty to write his paper” without being committed to something else, namely, “Bramhall’s will was free, meaning it wasn’t causally determined.”

We’ll discuss more of the positive case for a position like Hobbes’s on Thursday, when we will discuss §8 of Hume’s Enquiry, “Of liberty and necessity.”

Incidentally, while I think that Hobbes generally got the better of the exchange, there are a couple of places where Bramhall really scored some points on Hobbes.

One is in §20, pp. 9-10 of our reading. There Bramhall argues that a person whose will has been altered by a drug (our version of his “amatory potions and magical incantations”) would not act freely. There seems to be something to that and I don’t recall Hobbes addressing it.

What those who think that freedom is compatible with causal determination of our actions (compatibilists) typically say in response to this sort of point is that the reason why the drugged person is not free is that her actions are controlled by another person.

But those who think freedom is incompatible with causal determination of our actions (incompatibilists) ask why that matters. From my perspective, what difference does it make whether my desires are determined by another person feeding me drugs or the vast causal system of the universe?

Everything has a cause

Hobbes argued that an action (such as writing, talking, going to lunch, etc.) may be free even if the will is determined. But what reasons did Hobbes give for thinking that the will is determined?

In my opinion, his best option would have been to point out all the ways that we are not in control of what we want. I can’t control whether I feel hungry, want to do well in class, don’t care about doing well in class, and so on. But I think I act freely when I do things because I want to do them, such as going to lunch because I’m hungry or staying in class because I want to do well in class.

But that isn’t what he said in the reading we did (though he did say it later, on p. 72). Instead, he gave a two part argument about everything. The first part maintains that everything has a cause. This is the point that Emma explained: causes are necessary to determine when things happen (see pp. 39-40). Second, Hobbes, like Hume and Malebranche, held that every cause makes its effect necessary (see §31, p. 38). So, since everything has a cause and every cause makes its effect necessary, it follows that everything is necessarily determined to happen.

Hume criticized Hobbes’s claim to have shown that everything has a cause. The first paragraph below puts a twist on a familiar point. Just as we can imagine that any cause fails to produce its effect, we can conceive any effect without its cause. The second paragraph is aimed at the argument from Hobbes that Emma explained today: “some philosophers” means Hobbes.

We can never demonstrate the necessity of a cause to every new existence, or new modification of existence, without shewing at the same time the impossibility there is, that any thing can ever begin to exist without some productive principle; and where the latter proposition cannot be proved, we must despair of ever being able to prove the former. Now that the latter proposition is utterly incapable of a demonstrative proof, we may satisfy ourselves by considering, that as all distinct ideas are separable from each other, and as the ideas of cause and effect are evidently distinct, it will be easy for us to conceive any object to be non-existent this moment, and existent the next, without conjoining to it the distinct idea of a cause or productive principle. The separation therefore of the idea of a cause from that of a beginning of existence, is plainly possible for the imagination; and consequently the actual separation of these objects is so far possible, that it implies no contradiction nor absurdity; and is therefore incapable of being refuted by any reasoning from mere ideas, without which it is impossible to demonstrate the necessity of a cause.

Accordingly, we shall find upon examination, that every demonstration, which has been produced for the necessity of a cause, is fallacious and sophistical. All the points of time and place, say some philosophers, in which we can suppose any object to begin to exist, are in themselves equal; and unless there be some cause, which is peculiar to one time and to one place, and which by that means determines and fixes the existence, it must remain in eternal suspense; and the object can never begin to be, for want of something to fix its beginning. But I ask, is there any more difficulty in supposing the time and place to be fixed without a cause, than to suppose the existence to be determined in that manner? The first question that occurs on this subject is always, whether the object shall exist or not: the next, when and where it shall begin to exist. If the removal of a cause be intuitively absurd in the one case, it must be so in the other; and if that absurdity be not clear without a proof in the one case, it will equally require one in the other. The absurdity then of the one supposition can never be a proof of that of the other; since they are both upon the same footing, and must stand or fall by the same reasoning.

Source: David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, Book 1, Part 3, Section 3. [InteLex PastMasters]

That said, Hume agreed with Hobbes this far. He held that human action is just as subject to causal necessity as anything else. In our next class, we’ll read Hume’s version of compatibilism.