Hobbes on reason, deliberation and the passions

Oxford University Press has now uploaded an online-first version of my forthcoming chapter in The Oxford Handbook of Hobbes, ed. A.P. Martinich and Kinch Hoekstra, which will hopefully be in print in 2014. Here is the link. Email me if you have problems accessing the full chapter.

My chapter covers the relationship between reason, deliberation and the passions in the work of Thomas Hobbes. I reject the common view that Hobbes depicts reason as the slave of the passions, as implied by scholars such as Stephen Darwall, Susan James, Michael Oakeshott, and Paul Rahe. The relevant passages seem to have been read out of context, and the claim does not fit Hobbes’s account more generally. 

I also reject the view that reason governs the passions, as suggested by Bernard Gert and Quentin Skinner. Again, the textual evidence for this position seems to have been overstated.

Hobbes eyes

The key conflict, rather, is between our real good and apparent goods, i.e. between our passion for self-preservation and passions such as vainglory and ambition. Hobbes is not entirely clear, though, about which of these will dominate when they clash. (That’s the part of the chapter I’m least happy with. I laid out the possible conclusions and suggested that the evidence was ambiguous. I hope that in the future, I or others can find a better answer; but perhaps Hobbes simply was not clear, in his head and/or with his pen, about what he thought here.)

I also reject the view that Hobbes thought reason could operate during deliberation, as suggested by scholars such as Michael Losonsky, Christopher Tilmouth, and to some extent, John Rawls and David Van Mill. There is almost no textual evidence for this claim, I suggest, and again it does not make sense in Hobbes’s system.

But reason can operate before deliberation, as suggested by Stephen Darwall, David Gauthier, and Jean Hampton. Reason thus informs deliberation by altering imagination and opinions, e.g. making fear of violent death more likely to be the final appetite in deliberation.

Rather than reason being the slave of the passions in Hobbes, I suggest, it is the counselor of the passions, in Hobbes’s work. The analogy is not perfect but it fits Hobbes’s account better than the slave metaphor.

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  1. Anonymous

     /  December 24, 2013

    Upon reading many of your Hobbes-related articles, a cheeky blog post request from a humble politics student: any chance for a dissection on why you find Hobbes interesting, both personally and for political science in general? (Not that the two are mutually exclusive…)

  2. Interesting questions – and I’m keen to hear your own answers too.

    I didn’t especially take to Hobbes as an undergraduate. I didn’t even revise him for finals: too hard, and too much to read! I think it was Quentin Skinner’s book ‘Reason and Rhetoric’ (1996) that really opened me up to Hobbes. But I finally got deeply into Hobbes by chance: preparing for a lecture on changing conceptions of corruption from 1500 to the present day, I idly wondered if reading Hobbes might help explain some of the changes; this turned out not to be the case, but I found that he had a fascinating idea of corruption, and in trying to find a good angle for a paper on this, I finally got to grips with him.

    I would now say that I love the ‘detective-work’ that goes into trying to piece together Hobbes’s ideas; I admire his great originality and his staggering breadth and depth of insight; and the secondary literature is often of very high quality, with lots of new insights and discoveries still being made. I also feel more at home with Hobbes than with much of my earlier work. But there is nothing unique to Hobbes about any of this, and lots of scholars get the same buzz from other writers or other topics.

    As for your second question, I would particularly recommend two excellent accounts of contemporary insights that we can take from Hobbes, in the superb chapters by Gerald Gaus and by Aaron James in ‘Hobbes Today’, ed. Sharon Lloyd (CUP 2013).

    What are your thoughts on your two questions?

  3. Anonymous

     /  December 29, 2013

    I don’t know. Never know what to think of Hobbes. Very cautious to judge his works as simple, which is what I thought initially. I think social contract theory is very interesting. Still, always trying to find out what I’ve missed in Hobbes – many academics put so much emphasis on him I feel I’m missing something out!

    But as for what Hobbes does for me personally? Not sure again – the very cynical instinct I get from Hobbes is interesting. So much power to the state – obviously given the history I can see why he might have thought so but really? Did he honestly think that or was he testing out a workable theory?

    I’ll definitely have a look at the Skinner – thanks!


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