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Online Colloquium (4): Dyzenhaus on 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 began with an introduction to the text by Professor Boucher, followed by responses from Howard Williams and Eleanor Curran. We now have a response from David Dyzenhaus (Toronto) and will finish with a reply by David Boucher. Many thanks to Oxford University Press for supporting this colloquium.

Response from David Dyzenhaus

In Appropriating Hobbes, David Boucher provides a fascinating account of the ways in which Hobbes has figured in the thought of later political and legal theorists. But for those like me who turn to his book to further illuminate our understanding of this great philosopher’s political and legal thought, the book will prove disappointing. Its most striking feature is Hobbes’s absence from most of the text. Hobbes is of course mentioned frequently. But his arguments as he himself made them figure hardly at all, though perhaps most of all in the chapter on which I shall focus in this comment—‘Hobbes among the Legal Positivists: Sovereign or Society’.

Boucher might well retort to the disappointed that where we go wrong is in supposing that there are arguments as Hobbes himself made them. He suggests that Hobbes is a kind of blank screen onto which we project our preconceptions or ‘prejudices’ in Gadamer’s sense, that is, our prior judgements about the point of political theory. If he were right about this claim, it might seem at first plausible to focus on what people have made of Hobbes, without much regard for Hobbes himself. But only at first. For if this methodological claim were true, there would be little point in engaging in the debate between those who have made use of Hobbes, because that engagement would also be with a chimera. We would be no less projecting our prejudices onto these appropriators of Hobbes than we would onto Hobbes himself.

Boucher, of course, does not fully accept his own suggestion. He agrees with Gadamer that we cannot wholly remake texts in our own image. Indeed, Gadamer’s point about prejudice as pre-judgement is that such judgements are always provisional. It is through their engagement with the text in a way that is always open to finding out that the text brings us up short, resists our interpretation, that the hope of an authentic interpretation lies.  But the way he approaches the reception of Hobbes’s thought largely neglects Gadamer’s point.

Another response might be that among the classic political philosophers. Hobbes’s political thought is peculiarly open to appropriation.  I think something like this thought underpins Boucher’s project. But that response is ambiguous between two views: the first that Hobbes’s political thought is so riven with contradiction that later interpreters can make of it what they will; the second that Hobbes gives a particularly rich and insightful account of modern politics, one that contains arguments that while made in his own political and social context remain highly pertinent to our own.

I think the second view sometimes tempts Boucher as he does spend some time both on correcting misappropriations and remedying neglect of what Hobbes in fact said. Indeed, it even tempts Quentin Skinner, who, as Boucher notes, argues that there is a real Hobbes out there, but one whose thought can be reduced to context-bound, political advocacy. For Skinner often departs from this stricture about context and engages fully with the merits of Hobbes’s arguments as arguments in political philosophy, and not as mere political advocacy, and he even occasionally hints at their relevance for our present concerns. My claim here is not that Hobbes’s arguments have some transcendent quality. Rather, as Thomas Nagel recently pointed out, it is important not to exaggerate the distance of figures such as Hobbes from us on the basis that it is not clear that they are speaking the same language as us. It ‘isn’t’, he says, that they speak our language, but that we speak their language, because our world has been significantly formed by them’.[1]

However, Boucher manages for the most part to avoid succumbing to this temptation, with the main exception his chapter, ‘Hobbes among the Legal Positivists’. But even here so little is provided by way of Hobbes’s account of the laws of nature and their role in the construction of a civil society in which legal subjects interact within the public order of the sovereign’s enacted law that the reader will come away with little sense of Hobbes’s highly nuanced critique of the common lawyers’ conception of law. In neglecting this aspect of Hobbes’s thought, Boucher perpetuates the strange inattention of Skinner to the details of Hobbes’s picture of the appropriate functioning of the modern legal state.

A singular omission here is Gerald Postema’s fine work, Bentham and the Common Law Tradition (OUP, 1989). Even more striking, given the place of Michael Oakeshott in his book, is Boucher’s neglect of Oakeshott’s wonderful, Hobbes-inspired essay ‘The rule of law’ in which Oakeshott shows how Hobbes’s political and legal thought provides a conception of legality that, he claims, ‘hovers over the reflections of many so-called “positivist” modern jurists’.[2] And it is clear that the jurist he has in mind is Hans Kelsen. Oakeshott’s insight in this line is profound. While Hobbes and Kelsen are not often linked, and while Kelsen never acknowledged any debt to Hobbes, both saw clearly what follows once one makes the decision to try to explain law as a matter of authority rather than as a matter of unmediated coercion. They understood that to explain law as a matter of authority is to explain it as a matter of de jure authority and so they focused on the way in which legality plays a crucial role in transforming might into right.

Kelsen (as ‘Kelson’) barely receives a mention in Boucher’s book. But had he pursued this insight, he might have seen how problematic his claim is that for Hobbes ‘law is made … by the sovereign and not by the judges and lawyers’ (158). For in Kelsen, as in Hobbes, the sovereign is an institutionally complex entity in which subordinate judges play a role in the exercise of sovereignty through interpreting enacted law in light of their understanding of the laws of nature. The ‘Science’ of the laws, Hobbes said, is ‘the true and onely Moral Philosophy’ and Oakeshott observed that they amount to ‘no more than an analytic break-down of the intrinsic character of law, … the jus inherent in genuine law …’. That science, as Hobbes understood things, underpinned his discussion of the themes not only of Boucher’s ‘Hobbes among the Legal Positivists’, but also of the themes in the surrounding chapters on law—3, 5 and 6. More attention to Hobbes’s actual arguments would, in my view, have made this study of the appropriations of Hobbes an even more worthwhile undertaking.

Professor David Dyzenhaus (University of Toronto)

 

[1]  Thomas Nagel, ‘How they Wrestled with the New’, (2016) 63: 14 New York Review of Books 7, his emphasis.

[2]  Michael Oakeshott, ‘The Rule of Law’ in Oakeshott, On History and Other Essays (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1999), 129, 175.