Listen to an 18-minute interview with historian Noel Malcolm, covering his awe-inspiring new Clarendon edition of the English and Latin versions of Leviathan, Hobbes’s best-known work of political philosophy.
Malcolm starts the interview by summarising his new views about why Hobbes wrote Leviathan (from 2.35 to about 4.50). Malcolm’s analysis, alongside exciting research by historian David Scott, is giving us new ideas about why Hobbes wrote Leviathan, which may in turn cast new light on some of what Hobbes meant.
Malcolm also gives a stimulating account of Hobbes’s views on religion (from 9.00 to 15.15).
Malcolm briefly discusses an important question: should philosophers be historians? Malcolm says no, but gives two reasons why philosophers nonetheless benefit from historical research. First, a philosopher may claim that a particular argument (say, Hobbes’s account of the relationship between liberty and authority) was made for philosophical reasons, when the argument may actually have been intended as a contribution to a local political debate (from 8.10 to 8.35, and from 16.15 to 16.35).
It’s not clear to me, though, that this objection will trouble philosophers. Malcolm would need to show that a scholar can misunderstand Hobbes’s argument if she misreads his intentions. There are places where this is true and places where it is not, and unsurprisingly Malcolm doesn’t go into that kind of detail in the interview.
Second, Malcolm notes that words may not mean what we think they mean, and we may need to place them in their context if we are not to be led astray (from 16.00 to 16.15). One example, which he touches on earlier, is ‘atheist’, which had different meanings in the 17th century to now. That strikes me as a much stronger reason why philosophers should read work by historians.
One issue which is not discussed, unsurprisingly, is whether historians should be philosophers. That is a question I explore in an article I’m currently writing.