Save Us V: The World Is Lost But I’m Found, Research Time, 16/12/2015

Well, that turned into a couple of nice false starts. But here we are at the actual start of what I wanted to say about Hobbes when I was writing my follow-up to the Only a God post.

What Leo Strauss has to say about Hobbes is rooted in Strauss' own attitude about truth. The problem of truth – particularly the natural universal rights of man als Männer – is the conceptual core of Natural Right and History.

Here's the pragmatist answer to the problem of
relativism. Many truths doesn't mean there are no truths.
Each truth is partial, limited to a particular unique
domain or set of concerns, and only God knows the
totality of all that truth. But God isn't exactly
forthcoming with the answers, so we have to figure
all this out on our own.
Okay, so what makes truth a problem? 

See, Strauss is a textbook example of someone who thinks that saying “There’s no one absolute eternal truth about X" is the same as saying “There’s no truth at all about X, and you can believe whatever you want about X.” When X is the list of human rights, shit gets serious.

It’s the fear of moral relativism, but in a context where anything that falls short of moral absolutism is total relativism. And Strauss’ analysis of Hobbes is how he roots moral relativism in thinking that goes back well further than the usual suspects like Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger.

The real relativist, as far as he's concerned, is Hobbes. The reason is intriguing, though. It has to do with the implications of a thorough mechanism for knowledge in Hobbes’ thinking.

Before I lay this out, I want to say that these aren't my views at all. I’m walking you through how I understand Strauss’ argument. I think that argument is fascinating as a set of ideas and inferences, but I don’t think it’s true at all.

If everything that exists is a mechanism, then humanity has no powers to progress beyond what we can already do. That includes our thinking. We can only think, plan, and act in a way that’s peculiar to human existence alone. So we can only understand the world in human terms.

If we want to understand everything in the world (the ostensible goal of scientific inquiry), we’d have to understand everything in the world on its own terms. But we only have human knowledge frameworks to work with, so can’t know the world in itself. 

So humans gaining knowledge of truths beyond human experience or thinking is impossible. Reason is impotent. But action isn’t. Mathematics is a human way of knowing, but it does allow us to study how mechanisms work and manipulate them.

The heavily oversignified central illustration of
Hobbes' Leviathan.
Non-human mechanisms are permanently alienated from humanity. But we can use our knowledge of mechanism in the abstract (mathematics and the derived applied sciences) to wrench those alien bodies to behave according to human possibilities.

This is the mind-set of Modernity.* The book of nature is in a language we can never know. But we can burn its pages and remake the world in the human image. Strauss thinks this is a disastrous path, and so have many environmentalists over the years.**

* The epoch, that is. 

** Further notions that environmentalism should properly be a conservative dogma, as it was back when it was called conservationism, and resulted in the creation of America's national park system. But in the 1960s, the movement became critical of big business because of pesticides and pollution, so became the province of hippies. Environmental consciousness still hasn’t recovered the same political power it had in John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt's day, and I don't know that it ever will.

If humanity is so lost in the world that we can only find ourselves, then we'll make sure we can be found everywhere by steamrolling our nature, our character, our way over everything. That’s modernity, says Strauss. 

So we have to figure out a return to the pre-modern mind-set when we rooted philosophical thinking and argument in real endpoints: the actual, absolute, universal answers to our questions.

Hoo boy. To Be Continued . . .

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