Online Colloquium (1): Introduction to Appropriating Hobbes

This online colloquium has been established to discuss David Boucher’s recent book, Appropriating Hobbes: Legacies in Political, Legal, and International Thought. We begin with an introduction to the text by Professor Boucher himself, which will be followed by weekly responses from Howard Williams (Cardiff), Eleanor Curran (Kent) and David Dyzenhaus (Toronto), and finally a reply by David Boucher. Many thanks to Oxford University Press for supporting this colloquium.

Contextualizations of Hobbes

The aim of Appropriating Hobbes is not to trace the changing fortunes of the interpretation of one of the most sophisticated and famous political philosophers who ever lived, but instead to take soundings here and there to determine his place in different contexts, the manner of his appropriation, and how his interpreters saw their own images reflected in him, or how they defined themselves in contrast to him. The main claim is that there is no Hobbes independent of the interpretations that arise from his appropriation in these various contexts and which serve to present him to the world. There is no one perfect context that enables us to get at what Hobbes ‘really meant’, despite the numerous claims to the contrary. He is almost indistinguishable from the context in which he is read. This contention is justified with reference to hermeneutics, and particularly the theories of Gadamer, Koselleck, and Ricoeur, contending that through a process of ‘distanciation’ Hobbes’s writings have been appropriated and commandeered to do service in divergent contexts such as philosophical idealism; debates over the philosophical versus historical understanding of texts; as well as in ideological disputations. In addition, Hobbes has been particularly prone to emblematic characterisations by various disciplines such as law, politics, and international relations. This book illustrates the capacity of a text to take on the colouration of its surroundings by exploring and explicating the importance of contexts in reading and understanding how and why particular interpretations of Hobbes have emerged, such as those of Carl Schmitt and Michael Oakeshott, or the international jurists of the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The methodological thrust of the argument is that text and context are inseparable and that Hobbes takes on the character and persona of those who appropriate him for purposes of exploitation, or denigration. Appropriating Hobbes begins with a brief introduction to Hobbes’s immediate historical context and the controversies to which he responded and to which he contributed. For the justification of the approach I have taken I refer to the body of literature broadly termed hermeneutics. The contention, in brief, is that epistemological hermeneutics does not adequately account for the situatedness of the interpreter and, like Hobbes himself, whose theory of interpretation from the Elements of Law is rarely noticed, holds out the hope of overcoming the difficulties of attaching the meaning a of text to the psychology of the author. Referring to Dewey, Heidegger, Gadamer, his disciple Koselleck, and Ricoeur, it is contended that the inevitable distancing of the text from its author, from its context and from its time, both facilitates appropriation, but also acts as an impediment to retrieving authorial intentions. It is contended that this does not require us to concede a fatal relativism to interpretation. In other words, interpretations are not arbitrary. They have to conform to recognizable conventions that regulate, but not determine, what a community of scholars regard as a contribution to a genre of interpretation.

The book begins with an exploration of philosophical idealism, which rejected the fundamental principles of that tradition of thought that claimed Hobbes as one of its most significant progenitors, utilitarianism. Philosophical idealism came to dominate British philosophy in the latter part of the nineteenth century and still held considerable sway in the early part of the twentieth. Idealists provided an important corrective to interpretations, especially in the 1930s, that Hobbes was both an absolutist and a proto totalitarian.

Hegel identified clear deficiencies in Hobbes’s ‘scientific empiricism’, but he admired his logic and emphasis on the subjective power of the will. In Hegel’s own characterisation of individual self-consciousness the importance of the master/slave relationship owes a great deal to Hobbes. He was, for Hegel, an original perceptive thinker who tried, but ultimately failed to raise ‘scientific empiricism’ to the level of philosophy. We cannot hold Hegel responsible for the relative lack of interest and hostility to Hobbes among the early British Idealists. It was in fact Green’s almost wholly negative assessment that led such thinkers as Bradley and Seth more or less to ignore Hobbes. We find in Bosanquet, however, an altogether more qualitative nuanced assessment. His famous characterization was that in Hobbes we find a will that is actual, but not general. The reassessment by idealism of Hobbes culminates in R. G. Collingwood’s appreciation. He claims that Hobbes’s greatest discovery was that language was not the device by which we communicate pre-existing knowledge, but was prior to it and without which knowledge could never come into existence. Collingwood reformulated Hobbes’s argument, but he is also responsible for establishing the autonomy of historical knowledge, along with Oakeshott, in the English-speaking world, against the proprietorial claims of positivism. Collingwood not only inspired Gadamer, but also Quentin Skinner, one of the foremost interpreters of Hobbes over the last fifty years. Skinner distances himself from philosophical idealism, but not from the philosophy of history of Collingwood. Skinner’s contextual history is Collingwoodian in origin.

Oakeshott and Skinner are both concerned to emphasise the importance of context in the interpretation of Hobbes. What is at issue is the appropriate context for work such as that of Hobbes. Skinner wishes to deny any special character to political philosophy that differentiates it from written interventions of other genres. They are, in his view, all ideological, and require for their elucidation the reconstruction of political debates, such as those surrounding the Engagement Controversy; the importance of rhetoric in persuasive argument; and, the extent to which citizens are free under an absolute monarch. The immediate historical context, Skinner claims, is the most important context if we are to achieve an adequate understanding of what Hobbes was doing in writing his tracts of political philosophy. Their character as works of political philosophy is irrelevant to such an endeavour. Oakeshott does not deny that placing Hobbes in his historical context may illuminate aspects of his thought that may otherwise remain obscure or unintelligible. Political interventions, or attempts to influence political outcomes, are nevertheless, in his view, incidental to philosophy, which is an enterprise released from considerations of conduct, and which has no practical bearing when it is consistent with its character as philosophy. Philosophy operates at a different and higher level of discourse from ideology, and requires a more inclusive context for its elucidation, and this is nothing less than the history of political philosophy as a whole, philosophically conceived.

The twentieth century was defined by an endless stream of books claiming that European Civilisation was in crisis, and the First and Second World Wars were seen to be symptomatic of these crises. Hobbes in relation to the twentieth-century crisis of civilisation is explored through the writings of Schmitt and Oakeshott. The nature of the crisis as they see it is explored, and it becomes evident that the pernicious elements that one perceives as the contributory factors in the decline, are what the other claims are the strengths which are being undermined by the crisis. Both Oakeshott and Schmitt are critics of liberalism, but whereas Schmitt sees parliamentary democracy as a weakness emanating from liberalism, Oakeshott believes that parliamentary democracy predates modern liberalism, and is one of the strengths of contemporary politics with the potential to resist the decline of civilisation. Individuality, pluralism, the secret ballot, and the rule of law are for Schmitt unnecessary constraints contributory to the depoliticization of the political, undermining the capacity of the sovereign to determine, or decide who are friends and enemies. Schmitt is the prophet of homogeneity, collectivism and power, whereas Oakeshott recoils at the very idea that the mentality of the masses may subdue that of individuality. The rule of law, authority and individuality provides the bulwark against the type of collectivist state Schmitt advocates. Both Oakeshott and Schmitt make much of the power of myth, and each presents anti-Pelagian remedies for their diagnoses. Each has a radically different conception of politics, and each a resolution to the problems of civilisation at odds with each other.

The classic foundational status that Hobbes has been afforded by contemporary international relations theorists is largely the work of Hans Morgenthau, Martin Wight and Hedley Bull. They were not unaware that they were to some extent creating a convenient fiction, an emblematic realist, a shorthand for all of the features encapsulated in the term. The detachment of international law from the law of nature by nineteenth century positivists opened Hobbes up, even among international jurists, to be portrayed as almost exclusively a mechanistic theorist of absolute state sovereignty. If we are to endow him with a foundational place at all it is not because he was an uncompromising realist equating might with right, on the analogy of the state of nature, but instead to his complete identification of natural law with the law of nations. It was simply subject-matter that distinguished them, the individual for natural law and the state for the law of nations. Anachronistic assumptions constantly permeate our understanding of ‘classic’ thinkers. Because international jurists do not figure prominently in contemporary histories of political thought, that does not mean that they were never of any significance, nor had anything of importance to contribute to the understanding of politics.

Hobbes, of course, has been identified as an important legal theorist and was a prominent interlocutor in debates on the source of obligation in the common law, and while customary international law was not capable of attracting sovereign authority, it did not mean that that there could be no moral constraints in relations among states. While justice and injustice are the creation of the sovereign, Hobbes narrowly confined those terms to the honouring of contracts. The content of the law does not determine our obligation to obey it, nor our judgment about justice and injustice, but instead it is whether we have broken faith with a covenant that determines injustices. Natural law has intrinsic to it moral concepts which differ from those of justice and injustice, namely equity and reason, which impose obligations upon the sovereign. Furthermore, the sovereign is not at liberty to enact superfluous laws. Whereas the definition of law is that it is the will of the sovereign is authoritative to those who are formerly obliged, the justification of particular laws has to be with reference to the common good. Here is a clear understanding in Hobbes between the problems of obligation and compliance. The positivists in international law, in partial conformity with naturalists, made obligation in international law dependent up the consent of the community, or society, of sovereign states, rejecting Hobbes’s reliance on the conflation of the law of nature with the law of nations.

Among philosophers and historians of political thought Hobbes has little or nothing to say about relations among states. For modern Realists and representatives of the English School in contemporary international relations theory, however, caricatures of Hobbes abound. There is a tendency to take him too literally, referring to what I have called the unmodified philosophical state of nature, ignoring what he has to say about both the modified state of nature and the historical pre-civil condition. They extrapolate from the predicament of the individual conclusions claimed to be pertinent to international relations, and on the whole find his conclusions unconvincing. There is, however, a much more restrained and cautious Hobbes, consistent with his timid nature, in which he gives carefully weighed views on a variety of international issues, recommending moderation consistent with the duties of sovereignty.  Hobbes’s detractors among Idealists (in the international relations sense), and admirers among Realists (not in the philosophical sense), in international relations, take what Hobbes has to say about the ideas of justice and injustice too narrowly. Justice and injustice relate only to the making and breaking of contracts, and as earlier indicated, the principles of equity and reason constitute moral constraints in addition to honouring compacts, including desisting from gratuitous violence.

In conclusion, the contention is that Hobbes is constituted by the interpretation imposed on him, making text and interpretation inseparable. That is not to say, again agreeing with Gadamer and Ricoeur, that we are compelled to accept that one interpretation is as good as another. We belong to a tradition of interpretation, and have no option but to begin with certain prejudices which we may modify, but not so completely that no one recognises the activity in which we are engaged. There are limits to what, as an intellectual community compelled to adhere to some standards, we are willing to accept as an interpretation, rather than a fabrication. There are contestations of interpretation and the possibility through them of the equivalent of Karl Popper’s refutations.

Professor David Boucher (Cardiff University and the University of Johannesburg)