New article on the nature and person of the state

Johan Olsthoorn (2020): Leviathan Inc.: Hobbes on the nature and person of the state, in: History of European Ideas, June 16, pp. 1-16;

This article aspires to make two original contributions to the vast literature on Hobbes’s account of the nature and person of the commonwealth: (1) I provide the first systematic analysis of his changing conception of ‘person’; and (2) use it to show that those who claim that the Hobbesian commonwealth is created by personation by fiction misconstrue his theory of the state. Whereas Elements/De Cive advance a metaphysics-based distinction between individuals (‘natural persons’) and corporations (‘civil persons’), from Leviathan onwards Hobbes contrasts individuals acting in their own name (‘natural persons’) with representatives (‘artificial persons’). These changes notwithstanding, Hobbes retains the same corporate conception of the state throughout. On the prevailing ‘fictionalist’ interpretation, the sovereign brings the commonwealth into existence by representing it. I argue, rather, that as an incorporation of natural persons, the commonwealth becomes one person through the authorized (i.e. non-fictitious) representation of each constituent member singly by one common representative (‘the sovereign’).

New Article: Hobbes on rebellious groups

Jerónimo Rilla (2020): Hobbes on rebellious groups, in: History of European Ideas, June 16, pp. 1-16;

In this paper we deal with Hobbes’s elucidation of the political conflict caused by rebellious groups. First of all, we attempt to prove that groups are important characters in Hobbesian antagonisms. Secondly, it will be argued that the isomorphic structure that underlies all associations is vital to account for these disputes. To wit, the fact that minor corporate bodies are ‘similar’ vis à vis the State leaves a lengthy flank open to rebellion, since this homology may encourage their leaders to compare themselves with the sovereign and to challenge his or her power. Whereas the inclusion of this trait may seem at face value paradoxical to Hobbes’s absolute order project, we shall contend that it is actually a way of ascribing responsibility to the leaders of rebellious groups. Furthermore, as a subsidiary hypothesis, it will be claimed that the centrality of the theory of represented corporations is a result of Hobbes’s aim to erase, not rebellion as such, but only its tumultuous setup.

Online Colloquium (5): Reply to Critics by Silviya Lechner

This online colloquium has been established to discuss Silviya Lechner’s recent book, Hobbesian Internationalism: Anarchy, Authority and the Fate of Political Philosophy. We began with an introduction to the text by Dr Lechner, followed by responses from W. Julian Korab-Karpowicz, Chiayu Chou and Oliver Eberl. We conclude this week with a reply by Silviya Lechner. Many thanks to Palgrave Macmillan for supporting this colloquium.


I wish to thank the three scholars for contributing their thoughtful comments to this colloquium.[1] Certain disagreements about how we read Hobbes’s ideas of a state of nature, law, authority, and power are palpable, but this discloses the problem of interpretation—we inevitably import our own premises in interpreting a text, which is why even well-informed interpreters tend to espouse divergent points of view. But the fact of disagreement is also important because Hobbes saw it as the most perspicuous trait of human beings. Unlike ants and bees, each of us is a distinctive individual with a position of his or her own.

Chou’s reading closely follows mine, perhaps in light of our shared interest in law, and in Hobbes and Kant as philosophers of the state, defined as a public coercive authority. She raises two questions, one about the relation between natural law and positive law in my rendition of Hobbes’s moral and legal theory, and the other about the so-called ‘sovereignty dilemma’ (a term coined by Katrin Flikschuh, 2010) which problematises the moral status of the state in the international realm. Korab-Karpowicz does not engage my argument for the state of nature in Hobbesian Internationalism but provides an alternative, realist interpretation of the problem. Central to it are the premises of individuals as power-seeking egoists, and the idea of the state of nature as a state of war. Oliver Eberl detects silences in Hobbesian Internationalism pertaining to the modern state as a vehicle of European colonialism. He suggests that a historical reading of Hobbes’s state of nature is more profitable for understanding the concept than my philosophical analysis of it.

Egoism, Power, and the Realist Idiom of a State of Nature

Let me commence with Korab-Karpowicz’s derivation of Hobbes’s state of war from the premises of power and egoism, as presented in Leviathan. The thrust of my response is that taken together these two premises do not generate determinate propositions about human conduct, and that in his masterpiece Hobbes does not use them in the suggested sequence to derive the state of nature, or the state of war. Here we must differentiate Hobbes’s conception of egoism from our present-day understanding of it. Nowadays it is common to distinguish between psychological egoism and ethical egoism. The former is a descriptive thesis holding that action is motivated by a belief that the action is in one’s self-interest (or that it promotes one’s desires or inner states such as pleasure); the latter is a prescriptive thesis stating that one ought to act in one’s self-interest. Scholars like Bernard Gert and Francis McNeilly tend to agree that Hobbes did not subscribe to psychological egoism in Leviathan although such a doctrine is detectable in The Elements and De Cive.[2] And yet, they disagree about the nature and character of Hobbes’s egoistic premises. Gert (1965, 346) claims that Hobbes provided a mechanical account of pleasure, as an internal bodily motion effected by external causes, which promotes the body’s vital motion. Because this view of pleasure excludes the component of belief, it cannot be a proper motivational category as required by psychological egoism. Gert thinks that Hobbes adheres more or less to the same doctrine of mind throughout his corpus. Against this, McNeilly (1966, 199–200) has pointed out that the account in Leviathan is different since desire is now prior to pleasure (pleasure is the ‘appearance’ attendant to an already present desire). Desire, moreover, is no longer an effect of a perception (thought) of an external object, as it was in Hobbes’s early works, but is based on ‘endeavour’, an infinitesimally small motion inside the agent’s body directed towards a thought of a possible action. For McNeilly, Hobbes’s theory of desire involves mental projection and is not mechanistic. In his turn, Gert (1967, esp. 507) usefully points out the limits of egoism, by asking whether the notion of ‘one’s own desire’ is to be contrasted with the notion of ‘the desires of someone else’ or, rather, with ‘one’s moral sense’. He also ascribes ‘tautological egoism’ to Hobbes which merely points to the fact of a self having desires while remaining explanatory inert.

Gregory Kavka (1986, 25–26, 358–368) considers the ethically relevant form of egoism and attributes to Hobbes a position termed rule egoism. It stipulates that certain acts are justified by reference to rules, and that the rules are justified as being in the agent’s interest. The rules in question are Hobbes’s laws of nature and since their justification is prudential, Kavka fleshes out the consequentialist aspects of Hobbes’s moral system. It is notable that the notion of self-interest is not a purview of realist theory (in IR) but belongs to consequentialism as a basic moral theory.

Let us now see how Hobbes’s concept of power relates to self-interest. My interlocutor suggests that when egoists are engaged in a struggle for power the outcome is a Hobbesian ‘war of every man against every man’. The difficulty with this is that power can be pursued for egoistic (self-regarding) motives as well as for altruistic ones (McNeilly 1966, 204), so the two concepts are not logically interlinked. What is more, Hobbes changes his definition of power. In The Elements it is a relative notion (‘power simply is no more, but the excess of the power of one above that of another’, E I.8.4), whereas in Leviathan it is an instrumental notion (one’s ‘present means, to obtain some future apparent Good’, L X, 150 [41]). But if power is defined instrumentally, it yields no determinate propositions about how the agents will act. To be able to say something determinate, it is not enough to know what means individuals have; we also have to know their goals or ends. Hobbes denies that human conduct is directed towards some universal end or summum bonum (L XI, 160 [47]). Rather, different people pursue completely different goals, and even the same person at different times re-evaluates his or her goals. The term subjectivism rather than egoism better describes the human condition in Hobbes’s world. On my reading, Hobbesian individuals pursue divergent ends, and they only need power as a means to these ends. It follows that the quest for power is an amplifier of a problem whose source lies elsewhere—in the fact of irreducible diversity of human ends and the plurality of human wills. The state of nature, as presented in Hobbesian Internationalism, is a state of fundamental uncertainty precisely because no common measure of things exists—it is not necessarily an arena where individuals are trapped in a deadly struggle for power.

True, in De Cive Hobbes thought that power can suppress plurality and disagreement, which resulted in his command theory of law. To this end, the ruler’s power must be ‘irresistible’. But in Leviathan the naturalistic principle of power is replaced with the normative principle of authority. Rule by law replaces rule by force. While power has no theoretical limit—it can always be subdued by an even larger power—authority (the right to rule), once granted to a ruler by the subjects, possesses finality: it counts as supreme within a given realm (the realm of the state). In Hobbesian Internationalism the key category of analysis thus is sovereign authority, not sovereign power.

Korab-Karpowicz is interested in the tradition of political realism where the premises of egoism (self-interest) and power have a purchase. But realism is not the default position for state-of-nature arguments. The state of nature, as I try to show in the book, is a much broader and philosophically complex discourse. It refers to any condition of interaction among a large number of agents (humans or states) not modulated by common authoritative standards—in this sense, the internet is a state of nature. And this is a crucial point because the state of nature need not be a state of war—there need not even be an implicit invocation of a threat of physical violence, in the form of anticipation of physical harm. But what, then, is the predicament of the state of nature? In The Elements, it is a competition fuelled by vain glory (think of the academic market of scholars seeking tenure). In Leviathan, it is above all a situation in which people are mutually frustrated. What is emblematic of this predicament is not the plight of the solitary individual (the proverbial egoist), but the obstruction of one’s felicity by the mere presence of others. This is the problem of ‘men in multitudes’ (L XV, 214 [79]). And this is also why Hobbes takes law, as an authoritative institution designed to govern human multitudes, to be the solution to the predicament.

Morality, Law, and the Relations of States

The second set of questions in this colloquium concerns the connection between the law of nature and positive law. Quoting Norberto Bobbio, Chou asks whether my analysis is not burdened by a tension between law and morality permeating Hobbes’s own argument, which begins with the law of nature, as a moral law, but ends with positive law (civil law). In the book, I did not present the problem in these terms for a number of reasons. One is that Hobbes relies on a very restrictive notion of morality to describe agent relations in the state of nature. By ‘justice’ he means only that segment of morality dealing with the keeping of promises. Another reason is that he departs from the canonical notion of natural law, construed as a set of objective moral principles that govern rational agents. Hobbes thinks that discord in the state of nature is generated by the diversity of subjective judgments. Hobbes’s laws of nature, as a result, are (under a certain description) subjective ‘precepts’ advising the individual agent to make a certain manner of action (say, an equitable manner) a future policy in similar situations. Hobbes’s ‘precepts’ resemble Kant’s ‘maxims’. But their point is to govern intersubjective relations—the precepts are not supposed to tell Alan what to do, but how to behave towards James and Sally. Hobbes’s laws of nature also take account of the element of uncertainty that characterises the state of nature, leading Hobbes to make the famous claim that until security is attained, the laws of nature bind each agent in intention only (in foro interno) but not at the level of action (in foro externo) (L XV, 215 [79]. Law for Hobbes (and Kant) does not concern the moral quality of our intentions, but the external properties of our actions. As such it does not regulate actions but interactions. Law is the mirror image of the state of nature for both Hobbes and Kant because inside both domains—the juridical and the natural—the puzzle is to explain how each individual interacts (or should interact) with other individuals, and not how the individual as a self-standing entity complies with given moral principles (e.g., the Decalogue).

Hobbes is a modern philosopher who analyses his categories ‘under a description’. So the concept of a law of nature does not have a single meaning. It has multiple meanings depending on context. For the agent (from a first-person perspective), the laws of nature are prudential devices, enabling one to survive in a hostile environment. For an observer (form an explanatory or third-person perspective), they are rules found out by reason. In terms of their moral properties, they are ‘if-then’ (hypothetical) prudential propositions. Hobbes’s theory of morality is extremely complex because it combines deontological with consequentialist aspects. Concretely, it combines a prudential theory of the laws of nature with a deontological theory of covenant.[3] So this contrast is more central to Hobbesian Internationalism than the contrast between the law of nature and positive law.

But let me register my position on the question of legal positivism. By calling the laws of nature ‘rules’ Hobbes at once points to their generality as prescriptions (holding for everyone in the state of nature) as well as to their linguistic character. The laws of nature are propositions expressed in language and since their meaning demands interpretation, it can also lead to misinterpretation. How do we know that what Ellen calls ‘just’ is the same as what Alan calls ‘just’? In the state of nature we do not. This is the problem of disagreement and the only way to resolve it is by instituting ‘right reason’, as a principle of public reason. The device of public reason appeals to the sovereign and works on the premise that sovereignty is a legal office of final authority. Law, as a source of authoritative pronouncements, reduces the uncertainty of moral systems. In this sense, there is an affinity between HLA Hart’s (1961) legal positivism in The Concept of Law and Hobbes’s scheme.

With respect to international relations, we may ask whether the international state of nature can be seen as a sphere governed by moral rules, contrary to what realists usually suppose. Chap. 6 of Hobbesian Internationalism analyses a group of scholars, termed normativists, who have made a case for a Hobbesian morality among states. Some like Murray Forsyth (1979) and David Boucher (1990) equate the laws of nature to the law of nations, drawing on Hobbes’s claim from Chap. XXX of Leviathan. Others like Richard Tuck (1989) use a moralised version of Hobbes’s right of nature (appealing to Hobbes’s concept of ‘blameless liberty’ from The Elements) to articulate a ‘thin’ international morality that gives states a right of non-aggression but no right of mutual assistance. In Chap. 7 of the book the discussion moves from international anarchy to international authority. It raises the question, can a theory of international authority be developed along Hobbesian lines? It is argued that Kant’s theory of international right corresponds closely to what would have been Hobbesian theses for an international authority. Kant employs both Hobbes’s view of the state of nature, as a realm of fundamental uncertainty (and a realm of mutual frustration) as well as Hobbes’s definition of the state, as a coercive public authority. (He adds the further idea of a properly constituted state called ‘republic’). Unlike Hobbes, Kant posits moral rights in the state of nature, and a moral obligation that urges human beings to leave the state of nature in order to establish a rightful condition or a civil state.

This obligation generates a ‘sovereignty dilemma’ for states (discussed in Chap. 7). Kant’s logic requires each individual state to leave the international state of nature and to join a super-state (state of states). But, and this is the horn of the dilemma, a sovereign state cannot undertake such an obligation because by submitting to a higher authority (a super state) it would compromise its status of sovereign entity. This status is not just legal, but moral. Anarchy, it follows, is necessary for preserving the moral autonomy—or moral sovereignty—of states. A proper international authority therefore ought to be a Kantian peaceful league of republican states located within the international anarchy: it cannot be a super state. This is the core thesis of Hobbesian internationalism. Given that a centralised, state-like system of international law does not yet exist (and ought not to exist if the state’s moral sovereignty matters), the international moral obligations of states would have to be based on covenant as opposed to law.

Barbarism, Colonialism, and the Historical Interpretation of the State of Nature

Finally, the last section of this colloquium concerns the questions of barbarism, colonialism, and Kant’s principle of cosmopolitan right in relation to Hobbes. With respect to Hobbes’s state of nature, Eberl suggests that it should be read historically, and on this basis he interprets it as a condition of barbarism, as evident from Hobbes’s reference to the Americas in his description of the state of nature in Leviathan. With respect to the state, Eberl concludes that Kant saw it as a dangerous agent of colonialism and that this should give us pause for reflection. My response has three parts to it. The first is that in the Preface to Leviathan Hobbes observes that ‘He that is to govern a whole Nation, must read in himself, not this, or that particular man; but Mankind’: this is a generalising (philosophical) purpose rather than an ideographic (historical) one. In Chap. XIII of the same work he mentions the ‘savage people in many places in America’ but in the same paragraph he emphasises that the state of nature is a hypothetical condition (‘there was never such a time, nor condition …over all the world’, L XIII, 187 [63]). In De Cive he uses a hypothetical description of individuals in the state of nature as ‘sprung out of the earth, and suddenly (like mushrooms) come to full maturity’ having no prior history and social relations (DC 8.1). Hobbes’s main works on morality, law and politics, The Elements, Leviathan and De Cive, along with the rest two volumes of his trilogy, De Corpore and De Homine, are works of philosophy. Philosophy for Hobbes is a mode of reasoning that begins with clear definitions, and moves from premises to conclusions, by using terminology that is purged from ambiguity as far as possible. In analysing Hobbes’s theses about anarchy and authority developed in these works I have adhered to Hobbes’s own philosophical method.

As Korab-Karpowicz rightfully notes, anarchy is a distinct category from the notion of a primitive condition of life. Barbarism, we may add, when it refers to primitivism implies primordiality and a temporal horizon, and when it refers to backwardness it implies narratives of regress and progress. In contrast to these notions, Hobbes’s state of nature designates a condition of human interaction in the absence of a common authority, or common authoritative standards, be it linguistic, normative, or juridical. On Hobbes premises, the state of nature is a densely populated domain where individuals interact on a regular basis; it is not a domain of solitude where hardly anyone meets anyone else, as in Rousseau’s (1987 [1755]) image of primitive society. Rousseau’s theory of the state of nature contains a mixture of historical facts about the technological evolution of society and a philosophical analysis of how this society should develop in order to prevent domination and exploitation. Eberl’s interest in barbarism seems closer to Rousseau’s than to Hobbes’s views.

Colonialism was not of a central philosophical concern to Hobbes. Nonetheless, he noted that when it becomes unavoidable, due to population growth and scarcity, colonial settlement abroad should not be used as a pretext for killing or enslaving the local population (L XXX, 387 [181]). In The Metaphysic of Morals and Perpetual Peace Kant was careful to block the agenda of would-be colonial powers bent to colonise weaker peoples by pleading a right of settlement.[4] Accordingly, Kant restricts the purview of his cosmopolitan right to a set of rights allowing individuals to visit a foreign country (including a right of refuge) without granting them rights of permanent settlement. Cosmopolitan right regulates the relations between citizens of a foreign state and a corresponding recipient state. On my reading of Kant, the state as an institution is not the primary agent of colonialism, though certain states have been implicated in colonial quests as a matter of historical fact. Indeed, the problem of historical interpretation of philosophical notions that Eberl insightfully alludes to is that our philosophical theories are based on abstractions that conceal and indeed eliminate the historical complexity lurking beneath. Thus the real state as opposed to its abstract portrait is always a mixed identity, and it inevitably has a dark side (Oakeshott 1975c, Part III). This diagnosis is correct. But it is not a problem confined exclusively to the category of the state, it affects the philosophical analysis of any other category.

Finally, it can be pointed out that imperial expansion and colonialism have been propelled in an equal measure by the global expansion of the market which continues to unfold today. The concluding chapter of Hobbesian Internationalism ventured to show that if the state as a public authority were removed from the global realm, we would be left with the global market as a primary mechanism for distributing value. Because the market has the character of private authority, even when it generates efficiency and economic growth, it is likely to have detrimental repercussions for our freedoms and rights. My philosophical defence of the Hobbesian state is qualified both by the recognition of the enduring relevance of anarchy in the international sphere, and by the realisation that in its capacity of public authority that is supposed to safeguard citizens’ freedoms and rights this form of state represents a standard that will not be met by all actually existing states.

Dr Silviya Lechner (King’s College, London)


Boucher, David (1990) ‘Inter-Community and International Relations in the Political Philosophy of Hobbes’. Polity 23 (2): 207–232.

Flikschuh, Katrin (2010) ‘Kant’s Sovereignty Dilemma: A Contemporary Analysis’. The Journal of Political Philosophy 18 (4): 469–93.

Forsyth, Murray (1979) ‘Thomas Hobbes and the External Relations of States’. British Journal of International Studies 5 (3): 196–209.

Gert, Bernard (1965) ‘Hobbes, Mechanism, Egoism’. The Philosophical Quarterly 15 (61): 341–349.

Gert, Bernard (1967) ‘Hobbes and Psychological Egoism’. The Journal of the History of Ideas 28 (4): 503–520.

Hart, HLA (1961), The Concept of Law. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Hobbes, Thomas (1949 [1651]) De Cive or the Citizen, ed. Sterling P. Lamprecht. New York: Appleton-Century Crofts.

Hobbes, Thomas (1968 [1651]) Leviathan, ed. C.B. Macpherson. London: Penguin.

Hobbes, Thomas (1969 [1650]) The Elements of Law, Natural and Politic, 2nd ed., ed. Ferdinand Tönnies. London: Frank Cass.

Kant, Immanuel (1991 [1795]) Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch. Kant’s Political Writings, 2nd ed.,trans. H. B. Nisbet, ed.Hans Reiss, 93–130. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kant, Immanuel (1996 [1797]) The Metaphysics of Morals, ed. Mary Gregor. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kavka, Gregory (1986) Hobbesian Moral and Political Theory. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

McNeilly, F. S. (1966) ‘Egoism in Hobbes’. The Philosophical Quarterly 16 (64): 193–206.

Oakeshott, Michael (1975a) Introduction to Leviathan. In Hobbes on Civil Association, 1–79. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.

Oakeshott, Michael (1975b) The Moral Life in the Writings of Thomas Hobbes. In Hobbes on Civil Association, 80–140. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.

Oakeshott, Michael (1975c) On Human Conduct. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Raphael, D.D. (2004) Hobbes: Morals and Politics, 2nd ed. London and New York: Routledge.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques (1987 [1755]) Discourse on the Origin of Inequality. In Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Basic Political Writings, trans. Donald A. Cress, 25–81. Indianapolis: Hackett.

Tuck, Richard (1989) Hobbes. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[1]  Leviathan is cited by chapter and page number of the 1968 MacPherson edition, the original pagination of the 1651 ‘Head’ edition is shown in square brackets. De Cive is cited by chapter and section number, and The Elements, by part, chapter, and section number.

[2]  McNeilly’s (1966) paper is a critical appraisal of Gert’s (1965) argument.

[3]  A similar argument is advanced in Oakeshott (1975a, 1975b) and Raphael (2004).

[4]  Kant (1996 [1797]), Chap. III, § 62 of ‘Public Right’, VI:352–353; Kant (1991 [1795]), ‘Third Definitive Article of Perpetual Peace’, VIII: 358–359.


New article: Glory and the Evolution of Hobbes’s Disagreement Theory of War

Arash Abizadeh (2020): Glory and the Evolution of Hobbes’s Disagreement Theory of War: From Elements to Leviathan, in: History of Political Thought, Vol. 41, No. 2, pp. 265-298

The centrality of glory, contempt and revengefulness to Leviathan’s account of war is highlighted by three contextual features: Hobbes’s displacement of the traditional conception of glory as intrinsically intersubjective and comparative; his incorporation of the Aristotelian view that revengefulness is provoked by expressions of mere contempt; and the evolution of his account between 1640 and 1651. An archeology of Leviathan’s famous Chapter Thirteen confirms that Hobbes’s thesis throughout his career was that disagreement is the universal cause of war because prickly, glory-seeking humans view its expression as a sign of contempt: although Leviathan abandons Hobbes’s previous argument that war is primarily rooted in vainglorious individuals pursuing domination, Leviathan’s ‘glory’ argument for war is a descendent of the older ‘comparison’, not ‘vanity’, argument.

Online Colloquium (4): Oliver Eberl on Hobbesian Internationalism

This online colloquium has been established to discuss Silviya Lechner’s recent book, Hobbesian Internationalism: Anarchy, Authority and the Fate of Political Philosophy. We began with an introduction to the text by Dr Lechner, followed by responses from W. Julian Korab-Karpowicz and Chiayu Chou. We now have a response from Oliver Eberl, before finishing with a reply by Silviya Lechner next week. Many thanks to Palgrave Macmillan for supporting this colloquium.


Silviya Lechner’s careful analysis of the different versions of the state of nature in Thomas Hobbes oeuvre of is a piece of impressive scholarship. She contributes a necessary correction to the dominant understanding of the Leviathan which assumes that there is one single idea of a state of nature. It is therefore highly meritorious that she differentiates three versions of the state of nature in The Elements, De Cive, and Leviathan.

Instead of discussing the proposal for a ‘Hobbesian internationalism’ outlined in the book, which represents a kind of Kantian Hobbesianism, my commentary will focus on the broader idea of the state of nature and how it is used in political philosophy. To begin with, I refer to the description of the state of nature Kant gives which is based on Hobbes’s premises. With a Kantian reading of the state of nature in mind, I would like to raise a methodological and a substantial critique of the legitimation of the state that Hobbes and other state of nature-theorists present. Hobbesian Internationalism advocates ‘analytical hermeneutics’ as a method, by understanding context as ‘philosophical framework or system’, unlike the method of ’intellectual context’ advanced by Quentin Skinner (13). While this proposed approach may be methodologically well justified and furthermore legitimated by the European philosophical tradition, I think that it misses an important point about the genealogy and history of the state and our thinking about it. To think about the state only as a philosophical framework without accounting for its history puzzles me as an approach, because it treats the emergence of the state always as a solution—and never as a problem. I would therefore call my reaction a ‘contextual historical discontent’ in the reception of traditional European theories of the state.

Kant learned from Rousseau that historically states have emerged through a struggle of violence and bondage. This is why Kant continuously argued for the democratisation of states and the transformation of absolutist monarchies into republics. For this argument, he used the state of nature as a starting point. But in his description of the international state of nature, which is a relation between states, he clearly argued that it is the current constitution of the states that is problematic. This is what he said about the European states in Perpetual Peace:

Just as we now regard with profound contempt, as barbarous, crude, and brutishly degrading to humanity, the attachment of savages to their lawless freedom, by which they would rather struggle unceasingly that subject themselves, thus preferring a mad freedom to a rational freedom, so, one would think, civilized peoples (each united into a state) must hasten to leave such a depraved condition, the sooner the better; but instead each state puts its majesty […] just in its not being subject to any external lawful coercion at all […]; and the difference between the European and the American savages consists mainly in this: that whereas many tribes of the latter have been eaten up by their enemies, the former know how to make better use of those they have defeated.[1]

In this passage Kant clearly compares American savages with European states. The ironic use of ‘savages’ for European states cannot obfuscate the fact that Kant speaks of the American peoples and that he does this in a distinctly pejorative way: They are ‘barbarous, crude, and brutishly’, they have a ‘lawless freedom’ or a ‘mad freedom’, they are in a ‘depraved condition’, and have ‘eaten up their enemies’. Native Americans, or rather the cliché of the American “savages”, serve as an example to illustrate the state of nature between European states.

It is notable that in the above argument Kant used as a logical template Hobbes’s and not Rousseau’s description of the state of nature. Politically, however, he was closer to Rousseau’s republic and his idea of a social contract. Thus, the state of nature for Kant is a state of war marked by constant insecurity rather than permanent violence. At the same time, Kant recognises the actual tendency of states towards violence and their tendency to war, colonialism and unfreedom. The question that I wish to raise in this relation is, why should we drop this critique of the state and its authority from a historical standpoint? And why should we neglect the references of Kant and Hobbes to America when describing the state of nature?

In the book, Lechner also stresses the double meaning of the state of nature: ‘It may mean either a condition where the civil state has not yet emerged (prospective meaning) or one where an existing state has collapsed, as in the case of a civil war (retrospective meaning)’ (10). In Leviathan Hobbes famously described the state of nature as a condition for humans in nature, as their living environment. This is a condition without common power. ‘In such condition, there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.’[2]

This passage sounds much more like a description of the life of indigenous peoples in the Americas, than as a description of a European country in civil war: Why should buildings, navigation, knowledge of the face of the earth, the idea of time and arts, or letters be lost in a civil war? Why would life be solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short? And why would there be no society? Instead of explaining why a civil war is a threat to life and safety, it seems that Hobbes equates state and society with European civilization. Civil war is a threat to the civilized way of life and this threat is symbolized by the situation of native Americans. In the frontispiece to De Cive, Libertas is visualized as the “savage” liberty of indigenous people, hunting humans and living in a state that resembles the description of a state of nature in Leviathan.

When Hobbes asks where and when such a condition could be seen, he answers that ‘savage people in many places of America […] live at this day in that brutish manner’. He furthermore argues that ‘men that have formerly lived under a peacefull government use to degenerate’ in civil war.[3] I conclude from this that Hobbes and his contemporaries refer to native Americans when they describe the human past before the advent of the state. This implies that Europe and America started out at the same level: The early inhabitants of England looked very similar to the contemporary Americans, as the drawings of the early Pictes from Theodor de Bry in Thomas Hariot’s 1588 A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia show.[4]

A fallback into the state of nature means loss of civilization—or erasing the difference between European and “savage” societies. In my view, the power of Hobbes’ state-of-nature argument is that it reveals the Eurocentric fear of a regression into a stateless society, which in turn would mean becoming “savage” again.[5] The colonial picture of the native Americans serves as a blueprint for such a fallback. This identification of the state with society and civilization leads to the problematic strain of European history and reality: to discourses of colonialism, war, and racism.

Several scholars raised these concerns before, whereby they are more or less critical of the state—ranging from more anarchist to liberal viewpoints. [6] In conclusion, I would like to argue that political philosophy needs to stay critical of the idea of the state. Kant gives one example: he describes how the ‘common power’ not only solves problems but also creates severe violence and unfreedom. The historical process of state creation and violence go hand in hand. We would neglect this fact if we think of the state only as a solution to the problem of a state of nature, a problem whose formulation reflects our colonial prejudices.    

Dr Oliver Eberl, Leibniz University Hannover

[1]  Immanuel Kant, Practical Philosophy, trans. and ed. Mary J. Gregor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 326, AA 8:354. 

[2]  Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. C.B: Macpherson (London: Penguin, 1985), 185–86.

[3]  Leviathan, 187.

[4]  Thomas Harriot, Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia, The Complete 1590 Theodor de Bry Edition, with a new Introduction by Paul Hulton (New York: Dover Publication, 1972). See also Ioannis D. Evrigenis, Images of Anarchy. The Rhetoric and Science in Hobbes’s State of Nature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).

[5]  I develop the idea of a transformation of the colonial prejudices against ‘barbarians’ and ‘savages’ into the ‘state of nature’ in more detail in my habilitation manuscript Naturzustand und Barbarei. Begründung und Kritik des Staates im Zeichen des Kolonialismus (2016, TU Darmstadt).

[6]  Charles W. Mills, The Racial Contract (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1997); J.G.A. Pocock, Barbarism and Religion, Vol. IV: Barbarians, Savages and Empires (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2005); Philip Manow, Politische Ursprungsphantasien. Der Lev-iathan und sein Erbe (Konstanz University Press 2010); Pat Moloney, ‘Hobbes, Savagery, and International Anarchy’, American Political Science Review 105, no. 1 (2011): 189–204; Karl Widerquist and Grant S. McCall, Prehistoric Myths in Modern Political Philosophy (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press 2017); James C. Scott, Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States (New Haven: Yale University Press 2017); Alberto Toscano, ‘“By Contraries Execute All Things”. Figures of the Savage in European Philosophy’, Radical Philosophy 2, no. 4 (2019): 9–21.

Online Colloquium (3): Chiayu Chou on Hobbesian Internationalism

This online colloquium has been established to discuss Silviya Lechner’s recent book, Hobbesian Internationalism: Anarchy, Authority and the Fate of Political Philosophy. We began with an introduction to the text by Dr Lechner, followed by a response from W. Julian Korab-Karpowicz. We now have a response from Chiayu Chou, which will be followed by a response from Oliver Eberl, and then a reply by Silviya Lechner. Many thanks to Palgrave Macmillan for supporting this colloquium.


In her erudite and detailed book, Hobbesian Internationalism: Anarchy, Authority and the Fate of Political Philosophy, Silviya Lechner provides a deep and comprehensive reading of Hobbes’s political philosophy by analyzing differences between Hobbes’s earlier works and his conclusive views in Leviathan. Lechner convincingly reveals the “the middle course” (28) that Hobbes adopts between theorists who believe that state authority is based purely on moral principles and those who equate authority to de facto power. This is because, contrary to the predominant view that the Hobbesian state of nature is a lawless condition, Hobbes actually emphasizes the role of natural obligation, which compels subjects to obey the laws of nature.

Beginning with an analysis of Hobbes’s concept of authority, Lechner progresses from discussing the “anarchy” in the state of nature to the “anarchy” in international relations. In particular, this book traces how later realists have interpreted and used Hobbes’s notion of the state of nature in the realm of international relations. Based on the “middle course” normative approach, Lechner challenges both the orthodox interpretations of Hobbes’s political philosophy of the state and the realist reading of Hobbesian international political theory in two stages. First, Lechner emphasizes two moral relations that are often underappreciated or ignored in realist readings of Hobbes, namely the laws of nature and the covenant. Second, by analysing the development of Hobbes’s ideas from his earlier works, which emphasized the laws of nature, to Leviathan, which emphasized covenant relations, Lechner goes further to constitute a Hobbesian international political theory that is based on Hobbes’s notion of covenant as a relation of trust and Kant’s account of international right (chap. 7). Assuming that these observations are accurate, Lechner is defending the normativist reading of Hobbes’s accounts of international relations (125–28) by agreeing that “morality has a place in international relations thus ruling out moral scepticism” (125). This results in a reconstructed model of international relations, namely Hobbesian internationalism, which implies “a Kantian theory of international relations superimposed on the fundament of Hobbes’s political philosophy” (140). Specifically, this unusual combination[1] “begins with Hobbes’s conception of the juridical state, transforms it into an argument for an international authority animated by Kant’s principle of international right, and complements it with Hobbes’s conception of covenants of mutual trust” (141).

One general point made in this argument pertains to the nature of “moral relations,” which are claimed to govern both the domestic and international state of nature. Specifically, a difficulty of reading Hobbes lies in the “fundamental antinomy of Hobbes’s thought in the following terms: Hobbes’s inquiry begins with natural law. Therefore, natural law theorists rightly consider him as one of their own. But Hobbes ends with the solid construction of a positivistic conception of the state. Therefore legal theorists rightly appropriate him” (Bobbio 1993, 118). Expressed differently, this controversy centres on the question of “what kind of bindingness there is here” , because, as May (2013, 5) indicates, Hobbes clearly claims that “all the laws of nature bind only in foro interno in conscience, not in foro externo.” This claim has already caused much interpretive difficulty. Although such difficulties need not be elaborated here, this interpretive difficulty may facilitate clarification of my following argument. In short, on the one hand, Hobbes’s claim appears highly “positivistic,” in the sense that the laws of nature seem unable to regulate civil laws (Watkins 1965; Skinner 1964). On the other hand, Hobbes appears to genuinely endorse the normative force of the laws of nature. He even extrapolates them to the international level by equating the laws of nature with the law of nations.

To some extent, Lechner’s book can be understood as an effort to resolve the aforementioned difficulty. The elegance with which she tackles this interpretive controversy is undoubtable. However, by indicating that “the state, as an inherently coercive public authority, has no alternative” (16), Lechner cannot avoid the positivistic answer that “both covenants and the laws of nature, as normative relations in the state of nature, remains uncertain” (106).[2] If this is the case, then the extent to which this normativist understanding of international relations can replace the traditional realist reading of Hobbes warrants scrutiny. In other words, the role and status of the moral relations that are said to govern both domestic and international relations remain unclear because of a dilemma: on the one hand, if moral relations can be effective in the absence of public authority, then the state of war can be avoided, and sovereignty need not be instituted; on the other hand, if no moral relations can function without a common power, then a Hobbesian supra-Leviathan is the logical conclusion. Furthermore, if the normative status of these moral relations and its relation to authority are unclear, then the nature of Hobbesian Kantianism, which is primarily based on the Hobbesian juridical state and a trust-based covenant, may also be unclear.

Nevertheless, in my opinion, this difficulty is not so much an omission of Lechner’s book as a reflection of the so-called “sovereignty dilemma” (159, quoting Flikschuh 2010). By “sovereignty dilemma,” Flikschuh implies that “given their moral status, states ought to submit under a supra-state public authority. Given the grounds of their moral status they cannot do so, but must treat themselves and one another as juridical sovereign agents”. Thus, “states must fall back on juridical self-enforcement within the loose framework of a non-coercive league” (Flikschuh 2010, 13). The point underlying this sovereignty dilemma is the distinct moral status of the sovereign state. From a Hobbesian perspective, independent juridical states ought to establish a super-Leviathan for an impartial and public authority to adjudicate disputes; however, this could only be true if the distinct role and status of the juridical state is neglected. Kant elaborates on this insight clearly in his mature political work, The Metaphysics of Morals. Kant, similar to Hobbes, conceptualizes states as being constituted by specific “structures” that an “individual agent ought to observe in pursuing their private ends” (103). Such structures cannot simply be replaced by an international framework of global organization nor can they be reduced to parallels with any individual in the state of nature.

As Lechner insightfully indicates, Hobbes and Kant remind us of the distinct moral importance of the state, which tends to be underemphasized given the trends of globalization and private security in modern society. In some respects, we may say that Kant’s international political theory provides an answer to the question that Hobbes’s theory of the state begins to ask.

Dr Chiayu Chou (National Chengchi University, Taipei, Taiwan (R.O.C))


Bobbio, Norberto (1993) Thomas Hobbes and the Natural Law tradition, trans. D. Gobetti. Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press. 

Chiayu Chou (2013) Rethinking Hobbes and Kant. London & New York: Routledge.

Flikschuh, Katrin (2010) “Kant’s Sovereignty Dilemma: A Contemporary Analysis,” The Journal of Political Philosophy 18, no. 4: 469–93.

Hobbes, Thomas (1994) Leviathan, ed. E. Curley. Indianapolis: Hackett.

May, Larry (2013) Limiting Leviathan: Hobbes on Law and International Affairs. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pogge, Thomas (1988) “Kant’s Theory of Justice,” Kant-Studien 79, no. 4: 20733.

Taylor, A.E. (1938) “The Ethical doctrine of Thomas Hobbes,” Philosophy 13, no. 52: 406–24.

[1]  To clarify, this combination has been noted by numerous scholars (Taylor, 1938; Pogge, 1988; Chou, 2013).

[2]  Because both normative relations are uncertain in the state of nature, covenants “can be stabilized through coercion by the civil state. The laws of nature as general rules of conduct are burdened by epistemological uncertainty which […] can be overcome by public reason that supplies a public language” (106).