Hobbes’ Materialist Rebuttal of Decartes’ Responses

The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes presented many compelling objections to Rene Descartes’ Meditations, some of which Descartes responded to. Considering the speculative scenario in which Hobbes would have proposed another series of objections to Descartes’ rebuttal, it perhaps can be suggested that Hobbes would continue what appears to be his materialist argument against Descartes, so as to further reveal the idealism that Hobbes felt was inherent to Descartes’ position. In other words, Hobbes’ arguments appear to be based upon the sense in which the cogito isolates the human subject from the outside and exterior world, and thus makes it difficult to understand how the cogito as basis can re-incorporate man into the living reality that is around him.

Consider for example, Hobbes’ objection the second Cartesian meditation. In this objection, Hobbes focuses on the structure of the cogito itself in its translation. Hence, the phrase cogito and sum cogitans for Hobbes have two possible translations, which reveals a certain inconsistency to Descartes’ argument. In the first case, cogito is translated by Hobbes as “I think”, whereas sum cogitans is translated by Hobbes as “I am thinking.” (Hobbes, 41) Hobbes suggests that these two phrases essentially mean the same thing, as this phrase means that that which is thinking exists. However, what is problematic for Hobbes is that Descartes then goes on to suggest that “I am a mind or intelligence”, which Hobbes refutes by suggesting the following example: “I am walking, therefore I am a walk.” (Hobbes, 41) Namely, there appears to be a fundamental gap between the step of confirming what it is that is thinking after one has concluded that one is thinking. One cannot say that they are thinking and they are therefore a mind, because this is based on a presupposition that a mind or intelligence is what can think. But there is nothing in the cogito itself that links up thought to the mind: this is precisely a materialist account, which Hobbes favours, which would be able to make this link, since it would be able to discern exactly what types of substances think.

With this in mind, let us look at Descartes’ objection and then consider, based upon this materialist approach that appears central to Hobbes, how Hobbes could then refute this remark. Descartes’ objection is that with his phraseology he is attempting to denote “things that have the faculty of thought.” (Descartes, 43) Namely, in so far as one states that they are thinking, then they can then understand that they are a substance that thinks, and this would therefore be a mind or intelligence. Descartes furthermore objects to the comparison that Hobbes makes between thinking and walking, where walking is for Descartes, merely an act, whereas in the definition of thinking itself there is some type of act but also something that performs the act.

Hobbes’ rebuttal to this remark would be to continue his materialist response in his initial objection. Namely, Descartes is assuming that to think has some type of special definition, whereby it presupposes a specific type of entity that can perform this thinking. It does not matter if this entity is metaphysical or physical to use Descrates’ terminology: what the presupposition is that thinking can refer to a type of existence that can be clearly identified, as opposed to the “I am walking” that is essentially wide open in terms of its referring to only an act. However, what is crucial, and Hobbes does hint at this in his objection, is to take the entire Cartesian account in its context to understand the unjustified leap here made by Descartes. Namely, Descartes’ projected is started by a radical doubt, which leads him to suspend any type of knowledge, and try to cover an indubitable epistemological position. This position is the cogito, I think therefore, I am. It cannot be rejected in any sense that Descartes is thinking. However, what Hobbes criticizes is precisely the next step to the question of what is thinking. And in a context in which all previous knowledge has been bracketed out, Descartes cannot make any self-evident claims about what kind of entity, be it physical or metaphysical, is thinking. Namely, Descartes’ starting point as the cogito is simply to idealistic to reach the existence that is ultimately signified in the I am, and the understanding that there is someone thinking this thought, and that, most importantly, we can discern what it is that is thinking and what is the ontological meaning of this thinking.

This type of argument is also repeated in Hobbes’ objections to Descartes’ Third Meditation on the Existence of God, in so far as Hobbes is once again using his materialist position to debunk some of Descartes’ more idealistic claims. It is once again important to underscore that these idealistic claims are the result of, from Hobbes’ perspective, the notion that Descartes begins from the cogito itself, that is to say, from the idea that the thought becomes aware of its existence as thought, and this is somehow enough to ground an entire philosophical system.

Hence, Hobbes objects to Descartes’ existence of God by criticizing Descartes’ analysis of the content of his thoughts. In particular, Hobbes focuses on the idea that if we have an idea of God, this in some sense must mean that God himself exists, namely, the idea of God means the reality of God. Hobbes critiques precisely this movement from the idea of God to the existence of God, and therefore, once again we can see that the idealism of Descartes is what Hobbes does not accept: the idea of something does not mean that something can exist in form that is not only an idea, just as the argument that I am thinking cannot imply any necessary type of entity – once again be it physical or metaphysical, such as the ambiguous “mind” – that is thinking. Descartes’ problem, from the Hobbesian standpoint, is that its aim appears to assert existence, but that it cannot assert this existence beyond the standpoint of the individual thinking and this is not a rigorous enough criterion to state without doubt, as is the desire of Descartes’ entire project, that something exists, that something is certain, that there exists something upon which all thought can be based. Notice here one important point: Hobbes never rejects the validity of the statement “I am thinking” and the cogito itself. The problem is that this cannot serve as a foundation for subsequent claims, because there is a gap between this idea and existence.

Descartes responds to this argument as follows: that Hobbes basically has an all too limited notion of what an idea is. Hence, Descartes writes that “Hobbes wants the term ‘idea’ to be used to refer only to the images of material things that are portrayed in the corporeal imagination.” (46) However, Descartes argues against this conception of idea, that the entire point of his discourse is to understand the idea as “whatever is immediately perceived by the mind.” (46) Namely, for Descartes, Hobbes’ thinks of the idea as something that ultimately is the result of something material, and therefore, Hobbes’ idea of the idea is not radical enough to fully understand the cogito, because the cogito’s starting point is not something material, but rather from the self realization that thought is thinking, after which we can then assert that the material exists. Descartes thus frames Hobbes’ objection as an attempt to materialize thought.

Arguably, however, Hobbes would object to this point by stating that that is not at all what he is after when he is critiquing Descartes’ reliance upon the idea. This is because, as Hobbes makes clear numerous times, this type of presupposition is present in Descartes’ own meditations: namely, that when one says I think, one cannot automatically then deduce that there is some type of mind substance that is thinking, precisely because Descartes’ project is based on radical doubt and therefore Descartes cannot rely upon any type of presuppositions, but must generate all his conclusions from the notion of “I think, therefore I am.” In other words to say that “I am” in this case means that I am a being that thinks: but what is it to be a being that thinks? Once again the gap between ideas and existence is too severe: the idea may itself exist, but it cannot in its own closed space merely conclude that everything it thinks about necessarily exists, that all these thoughts and ideas ultimately have reality. This is not a rigorous foundation for thinking as Descartes’ wishes, but rather an opening the gates of hell, if you will, since any type of thing that can be thought is automatically conceived to exist, such as, in this objection, God.

Hence, for Hobbes the gap between I think therefore I am and a general concept of existence is too great for Descartes to overcome. Instead of finding a rigorous basis for philosophy and all thinking, in Hobbes’ view, the idealist starting point of Descartes admits that every type of entity exists. This is problematic because now basically everything exists and there is no difference between philosophizing and fantasy. However, if one starts from a shared material reality, as is Hobbes’ starting point, this rigorous desire can be attained, since it does not rely on the thought of the individual subject. Accordingly, the materialist timbre of Hobbes’ objections to Descartes shows through.

Works Cited

Descartes, Rene. Objections to the Meditations and Descartes’ Replies. Accessed at: