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.