Hume’s Political Theory (Part 2 of 3)

Continuing from part 1, we turn now to the role of focal points play in solving coordination problems. Focal points emerge as a crucial piece in Andrew Sabl’s account of how Hume’s History should be read. Focal points, in other words, are integral to the solution of coordination problems and are essential, therefore, as Sabl will argue, to understanding Hume’s account of ‘how [fundamental] conventions of political authority arise, change, improve by various measures, and die’ (HP 7). The concept of focal points Sabl borrows from Thomas Schelling’s classic work, The Strategy of Conflict (1960), where Schelling addresses the problem of how two or more people are to coordinate, as they desire to, when they do not know where the other is and cannot communicate with them. If two parachutists need to meet up with each other after landing, but they don’t know where the other lands nor can they communicate with them, but they do each have a copy of the same map (as in the figure above which is from Schelling’s 1960 book), then the question is whether or not the parachutists will be able to coordinate their actions and meet. Schelling argues that they would, and that in many cases people resolve such coordination problems all the time. Schelling offers another example, of ‘a man who loses his wife in a department store,’ and Schelling argues husband and wife will likely ‘think of some obvious place to meet, so obvious that each will be sure that the other is sure that it is “obvious” to both of them.’ (Schelling, 54) Similarly in the case of the parachutists, each will likely think of an obvious place to meet, and as experiments have shown the most common place people pick, when asked what they would do if they were one of the parachutists, is the bridge. It is the most unique, prominent, and obvious place on the map. Such obvious places are focal points. ‘Most situations,’ Schelling argues, ‘provide some clue for coordinating behavior, some focal point for each person’s expectation of what the other expects him to expect to be expected to do,’ and the ‘prime characteristic’ of these focal points, Schelling continues, ‘is some kind of prominence or conspicuousness.’ (ibid. 57)

Sabl applies this notion of focal points to historical circumstances where traditional conventions break down and one is left without a common framework with which coordination problems are predictably resolved. What one turns to in such circumstances are focal points, and Hume’s History is replete with examples. As Sabl summarizes a typical example, what happens in ‘times of chaos—and the death of a king without a clear succession rule is always such a time—a variety of crude indicators, not just the capacity for physical violence, could serve as focal points.’ (125) These crude indicators or focal points include things such as common, local knowledge, charisma, family relationships, battlefield speeches, and so on, but as Sabl points out, once we move beyond small, local communities where focal points may be most effective, the multiplication of such focal points becomes a problem in and of itself for there are too many of them (‘The problem with natural rallying points is not that they do not work but that there are too many of them’ [125]). The tendency of human nature, however, as Sabl reads Hume, is to resort to focal points during times of crisis, regardless of the difficulties this brings. This difficulty, moreover, simply presents the problem that comes to be resolved as the multiplicity of focal points come to be replaced by fundamental conventions. In fact, Sabl offers a rather simple definition of constitutional government that relies on just this point: ‘One way of defining a constitution is a fundamental convention of ignoring first-order focal points’ (125-6).


But how do these focal points come to be ignored; or, stated differently, how do constitutional governments come about? This is perhaps the central question, at least for this reader, that Sabl’s reading of Hume sets out to answer. Sabl himself admits that the question is not one commonly found in the literature:


For whatever reason, the processes by which government, “one of the finest and most subtile inventions imaginable” (T, SBN 538-9), arises from its component parts, namely partial and short-sighted individual human beings, is often regarded as far less important than the question of what government should do once it gets started. (91)


So what are these processes, at least as Sabl understands them on the basis of his reading of Hume’s History? One suggestive claim Sabl makes is that there is a point, we could call it a threshold point, whereby ‘If enough people,’ for instance, ‘decide that a certain pattern of ownership counts as property, it at some point becomes property and those who try to challenge the pattern become thieves. If enough people decide to recognize a given form of government, it becomes “the government” and those who hold positions under it will be able to get people to do things without threatening physical harm each time.’ (17). At the critical threshold point, therefore, when enough people come to believe in a pattern of ownership or a government, then what comes to be is a pattern of ownership and government. Governmental institutions are not to be thought, Sabl thus argues, as reified entities that exist independent of the beliefs that support them. Sabl is explicit on this point: ‘Reifying governmental instituions, as if they had an existence apart from our belief in them, is a tenacious mental habit, but Hume’s treatment reminds us of its incoherence.’ (91). The epigraph from the film Miller’s Crossing that Sabl uses to begin his third chapter distills the general point: ‘You don’t hold elected office in this town. You run it because people think you do. They stop thinking it, you stop running it.’ (90). One way to think of government, therefore, is as a set of habitual beliefs, or fundamental conventions to return to Sabl’s term, that may appear to us as independent institutions or entities distinct from our beliefs, but for Sabl they are merely what he calls ‘congealed choices’: ‘Put in our terms, fundamental conventions are congealed choices and strategies; they arise and persist to the extent that people have found it more advantageous to acquiesce to them than to reject them.’ (159)


Although this sheds some light on the process of how government arises from its ‘component parts,’ it’s still not clear how the focal points themselves, the component parts, come to be ignored or moved beyond as fundamental conventions take hold. The difficulty here, I believe, has to do with the nature of fundamental conventions, and with our habitual ways of thinking about conventions in general. To illustrate this point, we can turn to Davidson’s essay, “A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs” (in Truth, Language, and History [TLH]). The problem Davidson addresses in this essay is to account for how we can translate malapropisms, as we do all the time Davidson claims, with such ease. Given this sentence from Goodman Ace, ‘In quest of this pinochle of success, I have often wrecked my brain for a clowning achievement,’ (TLH 89) or many others like this, we can generally, and without hesitation, understand what is being said and correctly and accurately translate what is meant. How do we do this? According to Davidson, what we do not do in circumstances such as this is to translate based on our having learned a basic structure or system of language that accounts for the regularities of language that we then apply to a given situation as we translate what is said. The malapropisms, Davidson argues, do not fit such a model. After detailing the difficulties with the traditional understanding of language as a systematic convention that we have learned, Davidson comes to this surprising conclusion:


I conclude that there is no such thing as a language, not if a language is anything like what many philosophers and linguists have supposed. There is therefore no such thing to be learned, mastered, or born with. We must give up the idea of a clearly defined shared structure which language-users acquire and then apply to cases. And we should try again to say how convention in any important sense is involved in language; or, as I think, we should give up the attempt to illuminate how we communicate by appeal to conventions. (TLH 107)


To restate Davidson’s conclusion in the terms Sabl uses, what we should give up on is the attempt to use ordinary conventions to account for our ability to understand malapropisms. What does account for this ability, however, are fundamental conventions. As we saw earlier, many of the traditional attempts to account for social phenomena in terms of conventions already presuppose fundamental conventions such as language. As a fundamental convention, language, as with government, is a common framework that is an achievement in its own right (‘The “felt need…for a common framework or decision or course of action” was an achievement, not a starting point’ [HP 85]) that makes possible the ordinary conventions that become the subject of the studies Lewis and others engage in and which Davidson rejects. As was argued in the quote that began the previous post (Part I), fundamental conventions are ‘both below and above ordinary laws.’ (122). They are below in that they ‘can never be codified as such,’ and thus language as fundamental convention is not the language Davidson rejects in his conclusion when he says ‘there is no language as such’; in short, there is no language as a codified or codifiable system, though there is a language as a fundamental convention. Similarly language as a fundamental convention is above ordinary laws in that there is a limit to making sense, or there is a point where malapropisms become nonsense.


With this clarification of fundamental conventions, we can no begin to clarify the relationship between focal points and the fundamental conventions that come to ignore them. This we will do in the third and final post of this series.

5 thoughts on “Hume’s Political Theory (Part 2 of 3)

  1. The “fundamental conventions” sound like what Huntington calls institutions, “stable, valued, recurring patterns of behavior”.

    To make any of this work we need definitions of stable and recurring as stochastic phenomena, since most divergences and errors don’t destroy the pattern. The convention / pattern / institution is an attractor in dynamical system terms.

    Treating language or government as big complicated attractors is a lot more realistic than seeing them as a fixed structures or sets of rules.

    The transition you very usefully describe, from too many focal points to fundamental conventions, can be viewed as the transition to the institution (that is the shared rough expectation of collective behavior) as the dominant focal point.

  2. I have a question and I don’t know where to ask it exactly. in spite of all the things Deleuze says, I still have a pinch of vagueness in my mind about how exactly can one reconcile Spinoza and Leibniz in a unified ontological system like Deleuze’s. Difference as Spinozan substance which is an immanent productive power and difference as discussed in differential calculus by Leibinza. I think Deleuze is building a Spinozan ontology but also using Leibniz to explain the meaning of expression more elaborately in Spinoza. I would appreciate if you could answer this or guide me to some books or something. thnx

    • That’s a big question, but I think the way to reconcile Spinoza and Leibniz with respect to metaphysics and ontology as Deleuze approaches it is to highlight the importance of the concept multiplicity. I give a very brief summary of this concept in part three of the Hume’s Political Theory post (just now posted). Understood in this way, multiplicity is a substance but not a One in the sense that people tend to read Spinoza. As Deleuze says somewhere, he embraces Spinoza’s monism but wants to make substance turn around the modes – and it is with the concept of multiplicity where Deleuze develops this approach. Deleuze also develops Spinoza’s and Leibniz’s version of the ontological argument, both of whom are opposed to Descartes’ use of that argument. I develop that theme elsewhere and may post on it soon. Thanks for your question.

  3. Pingback: Hume’s Political Theory (Part 3 of 3) | Aberrant Monism

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