Corruption of and by democracy

My article “Cognitive Corruption and Deliberative Democracy” has now been published in the journal Social Philosophy and Policy, in an issue dedicated to corruption.

I may be wrong, but I believe it’s the first thing to defend deliberative democracy with the argument that citizens “take off their party hats”. In other words, if we have a random cross-section of (say) 200 or so citizens, debating the pros and cons of a policy, they are more likely to try to argue the merits of the case, rather than being driven by what their party would like, what would put opposing parties in a difficult position, and so on.


Picture (unrelated): Sándor Molnár, “Dragon Slayer” (1966), in the Hungarian National Gallery (from my recent trip to Budapest)

When he read this paper, Mike Munger – a classical liberal/libertarian opposed to deliberative democracy – said “I don’t like this paper, because it makes me think positively about deliberative democracy”. Praise indeed!

The article also redefines corruption, not as “misuse of public office for private gain”, the standard definition, but “neglect of public duty for non-public gain” – a broader idea which also includes many historical understandings which the standard definition excludes. (“Office” comes from the Latin officium, meaning duty.)

The article is partly historical, looking at ideas of what I call “cognitive corruption” (corruption of judgement) in the work of Machiavelli, Hobbes, Bentham and Mill. They have some really juicy insights.


A key idea is that many commitments – including commitments to parties – can corrupt our impartiality. Parties are probably inevitable in modern democracies, at least for the time being, but in some respects they seriously weaken democracy and rationality.

Here’s eight key ideas from the paper:

1) cognitive corruption—the corruption of judgment;
2) auto-corruption, and impartiality potentially being corrupted by having a
stake in something;
3) corruption not as misuse of public office for private gain, but neglect of public
duty for non-public gain;
4) corruption for party gain;
5) a system of party corruption;
6) the arbitrariness of party policy positions, with decisions often made on inauthentic
grounds rather than being driven by the force of the better argument;
7) deliberative democracy as a non-hierarchical method of making decisions
where citizens remove their party hats; and
8) the importance of getting the right dispositions, not just the right institutions/

The paper is in the Winter 2018 issue of Social Philosophy and Policy, but was only published recently.


Combining history and philosophy

LloydInterpCambridge University Press has just published my chapter on the need to interpret Thomas Hobbes historically and philosophically, in an important new book edited by Sharon Lloyd. I contrast two prominent interpreters of Hobbes: Jean Hampton, a philosopher, and Quentin Skinner, a historian. I show, surprisingly, that Skinner actually uses philosophical analysis better than Hampton to recover what Hobbes thought.

In short, both historical and philosophical analysis are needed. Yet the methodological literature in history of political thought (and history of philosophy) typically sees history and philosophy as essentially separate.

Unfortunately, the publishers managed to mangle my point by changing the title of my chapter at the last minute, without my permission. The title had been:

Methodologies of Interpreting Hobbes: Historical and Philosophical

But someone at Cambridge University Press unilaterally decided to change the italics:

Methodologies of Interpreting Hobbes: Historical and Philosophical

This makes it sound as if there are two methodologies for interpreting Hobbes, when I was arguing that there is one, which should combine historical and philosophical thinking.

I complained two months ago but nothing has yet happened. It’s too late to change the printed book, but I’ve asked for the website and PDF to be corrected.

A surprisingly positive review of a Straussian book on Hobbes

Readers who know my aversion to Leo Strauss (see here) may be surprised by my surprisingly positive review of Devin Stauffer’s new book on Hobbes, on Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews (link).


Stauffer, an Associate Professor at UT Austin, argues that Hobbes was trying to subvert his readers’ religious attachments – but not by saying so directly. Rather, the argument is esoteric: Hobbes’s real views can only be grasped if we read between the lines. For example, some of Hobbes’s ‘defences’ of religious views were so bad that they would subtly draw attention to the opposite view.

I’m not convinced, and my review raises five challenges to Stauffer’s interpretation. Still, I don’t reject Stauffer’s book: it is definitely plausible. Indeed, it’s the best Straussian interpretation I’ve seen – way better than anything Strauss wrote.

Underpinning my critique is is the need to interpret texts ‘scientifically’, by comparing alternative interpretations, looking at what fits and doesn’t fit one’s interpretation, standing outside of the interpretation and asking what it would take to be right, and so on. I discuss those ideas elsewhere on my blog, in relation to my paper ‘History of Political Thought as Detective-Work’, originally called ‘History of Political Thought as a Social Science’, here, and in exploring the place of uncertainty in history of political thought, here. I’m actually most explicit about the scientific nature of textual interpretation in a chapter I wrote called ‘The Irrelevance of (Straussian) Hermeneutics’. Please email me if you want a copy, at Adrian.Blau -[at]-


A five-week US tour

I’m in the US for five weeks, giving the following papers:

Columbia, Wed Oct 3 – ‘How (not) to use history of political thought for contemporary purposes’.USUKflag2
Stanford, Fri Oct 12 – ‘The logic of inference of thought experiments in political philosophy’.
Berkeley, Tue Oct 16 – ‘Hobbes’s failed political science’.
Association for Political Theory conference, Bryn Mawr/Haverford, Sat Oct 20 – ‘Post-truth politics and the rise of bullshit’.
Arizona, Thu Oct 25 – ‘The logic of inference of thought experiments in political philosophy’. (I’m also teaching a class on ‘Corruption and conceptual analysis’ on Mon Oct 22.)
University of Texas at Austin, Fri Nov 2 – ‘The logic of inference of thought experiments in political philosophy’.

My top 10 Hobbes articles

On the European Hobbes Society website, I’ve posted a list of my top 10 Hobbes articles. It’s open for comments there if you want to suggest your own list, or challenge any of my suggestions!



Visiting Professor at Charles University in Prague

The Charles University

From Wednesday I will be spending a few days as a Visiting Professor at Charles University in Prague, the oldest university in the Czech Republic and one of the oldest in Europe.

I’m working hard while I’m there:

Wed March 16: lecture on ‘Passions, Corruption and the Maintenance of Institutions:
From Machiavelli to Today’.

Thu March 17: seminar on ‘How (Not) To Use History of Political Thought/Philosophy for Contemporary Purposes’.

Fri March 18: Hobbes seminar. Part 1: ‘Interpreting Hobbes Philosophically and Historically: Different Questions, Different Answers?’ Part 2: discussion of my chapter on ‘Reason, Deliberation and The Passions’ in the just-published Oxford Handbook of Hobbes.

Sat March 19: ‘Academic Essays’ workshop for students and staff.

(Details here.)

I will also see two Mozart operas (Don Giovanni, and Cosi fan tutte), in the Prague Estates Theatre – where Don Giovanni was premiered in 1787.

Let me know below if you have any suggestions about where I should go or what I should do/eat/drink. I’ll be back in Prague again in September for the ECPR conference so can tick more items off the list then!

Laughing at history

Here’s a video of my standup comedy routine, for the second ‘History Showoff’ comedy night, at the Star of King’s pub near King’s Cross on 27 May.

The following people or things were harmed in the course of this routine:

  • AmericansAdrian Blau at HistoryShowoff2
  • Canadians
  • Montesquieu (“completely mediocre in every way”)
  • Benjamin Franklin
  • the truth
  • my reputation

My next set is on July 9th at the Bloomsbury Theatre near UCL (details here). Tickets cost £6.60 and profits go to charity.

My review of Sharon Lloyd, ed., ‘Hobbes Today’

The journal History of Political Thought has published my pretty critical review of Sharon Lloyd’s edited book Hobbes Today (Cambridge University Press, 2013).

HobbesTodayReviewing this book led me to write a paper on how (not) to use history of political thought for contemporary purposes (see here). While reading the book, I felt that some chapters used Hobbes well, some needed to make changes, and some did not convince at all. More generally, many authors seemed too keen to claim that Hobbes is still relevant. Instead of trying to show that Hobbes is relevant today, authors needed to test this claim – to ask how relevant he is. That would have allowed a more nuanced analysis of Hobbes’s contemporary relevance. The current book simply fails to convince – or so I argue in my review.

Empowering students to be critical

Students often struggle to criticise what they read: many feel that they are not qualified to do so, or not knowledgeable enough.

I try to empower my students to be more critical. Yesterday, I sought to plant this intuition by using the analogy of Hobbes’s state of nature, where the weakest can kill the strongest while they sleep. So too with essays: even students with little experience or knowledge can criticise what they read, because even the cleverest writers leave gaps in their defences.

Killed in his shleep

Killed in his shleep

Hobbes himself recognises this: most ordinary people can spot some errors of reasoning (Elements of Law chapter 5), and even ‘the ablest’ can draw ‘false conclusions’ (Leviathan chapter 5). Hobbes, indeed, is one of the ablest at producing false conclusions!

Now obviously, it doesn’t go far enough simply to give students this intuition – that brilliant scholarship can be criticised, just as strong people can be killed in their sleep. We should also show students how to do this, and give examples of good and bad practice. But hopefully the above analogy will help to give some students more confidence to be critical.


My review of the new edition of Hobbes’s Leviathan (post updated)

Malcolm Leviathan edition Here is my review of Noel Malcolm’s stunning three-volume critical edition of the English and Latin versions of Hobbes’s Leviathan.

This superb edition was based on 25 years of erudite scholarship and careful detective-work by Malcolm. But the edition is not user-friendly. I believe that the publishers should also produce a one-volume version of the English Leviathan only, with a new introduction more geared to non-experts. I’m calling this a ‘critical student edition’, because it would in effect combine Malcolm’s critical edition with Richard Tuck’s ‘student edition’.

My review is published in the fall 2013 issue (volume 2:2) of the Journal of Early Modern Studies, a fine new journal edited at the University of Bucharest.

Other reviews of Malcolm’s edition have been written by Elliott Karstadt and by David Runciman. And for an audio interview with Malcolm, see here on my blog.

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.

Teachers who inspired me as an undergraduate, part 4: Mark Goldie

This is my fourth and final post about teachers who inspired me as an undergraduate.

Mark Goldie taught me just once, for a supervision on Hobbes, but had a lasting impact – not because he inspired me to study Hobbes (my love for Hobbes came later) but because of how he taught me. If I remember rightly, the supervision itself lasted 90 minutes rather than an hour, and Goldie pushed me hard on my understanding of Hobbes. But what had most effect on me was his astonishingly detailed and constructively critical comments on my essay. He read the essay with great care, and then wrote pencil numbers in the margins and typed out a comment for each number.

Mark Goldie, with the first six volumes of his feedback to students

Mark Goldie, with the first six volumes of his feedback to students.

This was the only time in four years of my undergraduate education that anyone commented in detail both on the substance of my argument and also on how I wrote the essay itself. I clearly took Goldie’s comments seriously: my notes contain responses in four different pens, implying that I probably read through his comments four times.

You can see Goldie’s feedback below. Some comments are very blunt, and he has since told me that he wouldn’t have done this unless he thought I would respond appropriately. And of course, the comments were also explained in the one-on-one supervision process.











When I started teaching, I used Goldie’s approach for feedback. Alas, I have sometimes given blunter feedback, and have not been as sensitive as Goldie to how different students would respond. I’m still learning about teaching!

Goldie didn’t entirely stop my quirky, bizarre essays: that got kicked out of me in Oxford by Adam Swift, Mark Philp, Clive Payne and Anthony Heath (the last of whom told me to remove all adjectives from my writing!). But Goldie started me on the right track. My undergraduate teaching wasn’t nearly as good as what our students get at KCL – Cambridge basically taught me to teach myself, which is not a bad education I suppose – but Goldie was a shining exception to the norm. Thank you Mark Goldie!

You can read the other three posts in this series here (Stefan Collini), here (Stuart Corbridge) and here (Quentin Skinner).

Hobbes on the 1838 Papal Index

The Papal ‘Index of Prohibited Books’ was a list of books banned by the Vatican for being immoral or theologically wrong.

Below you can see the 1838 edition of the Index, which shows Hobbes’s Leviathan being banned in 1703. Curiously, they’ve banned the Latin translation of 1668, not the original English version of 1650. To cover themselves, a few years later they banned all of his other writings too.

Papal Index 1838Hobbes on Papal Index 1838










Thanks to Professor Dr Winfried Schröder of Marburg University for allowing me to take these pictures.




Rejection letter for Hobbes’s Leviathan

Read a spoof rejection letter for Hobbes’s Leviathan at Paul Sagar’s extremely funny blog, ‘Rejection Letters of the Philosophers’. The blog also features spoof rejection letters for Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, and Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality. Superb stuff.

Cognitive corruption in Parliament

Philip Hensher, writing in the Independent, gives an important and unusual take on corruption. He’s discussing the ‘charade’ by which some MPs accept money for making Early Day Motions: these MPs know that Early Day Motions achieve nothing, yet imply otherwise. Hensher states:

When innocent outsiders are given the impression that something is being done for them, it hardly matters whether they have paid any money or not. They are being wilfully deceived. Corruption does not start with the handing over of sums of money.

I don’t know about ‘innocent’ outsiders, and I don’t agree that it ‘hardly matters’ whether or not they’ve paid money. But the more important point is Hensher’s penetrating comment that we shouldn’t restrict the idea of corruption to exchanges of money.

He’s discussing what I have called ‘cognitive corruption’ – the distortion of judgement. This was once a fairly common notion of corruption. For example, Thomas Hobbes often talks about corruption in terms of failures of reason, e.g. a judge not seeing that accepting a bribe will lead to a state of nature, or inappropriate passions, e.g. a judge feeling sorry for a defendant and ruling in the defendant’s favour – being corrupted by pity, as Hobbes puts it.

envelopeHensher is discussing something different: being corrupted by faulty information. Here, the corruptor is the person who provides the faulty information. Hensher’s point is that MPs who accept money for making Early Day Motions are corrupt in two senses: they distort the judgement of someone (cognitive corruption) who then gives them a bribe (political corruption).

Obviously, what matters most in these cases is the political corruption, but it’s important to realise that political corruption happens for a reason, and one reason is cognitive corruption. And in these case, let’s be thankful for the cognitive corruption, since the bribers are wasting their money on something which isn’t going to affect policy.

Noel Malcolm interview on the new edition of Hobbes’s Leviathan

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).

Noel Malcolm

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.

An odd portrait of Thomas Hobbes

Weird Hobbes portrait

A rarely seen portrait of Thomas Hobbes, from Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire.

It’s from 1676, when Hobbes was in his late 80s.

What is it like to be Leo Strauss?

Last year, I published a critique of Leo Strauss. Strauss was an important and influential thinker who is controversial in two ways. He’s a conservative, and may have influenced many neoconservatives in the Reagan and Bush administrations. I don’t care about that. What I do care about are his historical interpretations, especially his claims that writers like Plato and Machiavelli hid secret messages in their texts using odd techniques which Strauss often seems to have been the first to spot. I have no problem with the idea that some people have written esoterically, but I do doubt the particular claims that Strauss makes. Near the end of my paper, I wrote a little satire, mimicking Strauss’s approach and parodying his style to ‘prove’ that Thomas Hobbes hid secret messages about the music of Beethoven – even though Hobbes died 91 years before Beethoven was born. While writing the satire, though, I suddenly saw what it might have been like to be Leo Strauss. I had been finding lots of astonishing parallels between Hobbes’s writings and Beethoven’s music – it was starting to get freaky. And suddenly, a thought started to flash into my head: ‘Is it possible that Hobbes was actually writing about Beethoven?’ I didn’t even finish this thought: of course, Hobbes could not have been writing about Beethoven. But that moment showed me how easy it is to read too much into a mere coincidence. Strauss and his esoteric bookshelves, by Adrian Blau And this is where Strauss goes wrong. There is a natural human bias to look for evidence which fits one’s ideas, or to interpret things to support one’s ideas. Psychologists call this confirmation bias. If you think you don’t suffer from this … well, I’m very happy for you, but you’re probably not going to be the next Sherlock Holmes. Scientific methods arose in part to counteract biases such as confirmation bias. Scientists shouldn’t just look for evidence which fits their theories: they should question their evidence, test their theories, compare different explanations, and so on. If he had applied such principles, Strauss would not have made many of the claims he made. What is it like to be Leo Strauss? I can’t say for sure, but one brief moment, I might just have known.

Did Hobbes think that reason is the slave of the passions?

Many writers have argued that for Thomas Hobbes, reason is the slave of the passions. I think this is seriously misleading. It’s misleading of Hume to have argued that reason is the slave of the passions. And worse, it’s misleading to ascribe the view to Hobbes. Or so I argue in my chapter in The Oxford Handbook of Hobbes, ed. A.P. Martinich and Kinch Hoekstra (forthcoming, 2013).

I’ll post a link to the article when it’s ready.