Hobbes May Have Been Wrong; He Was Not Dumb

A commenter in another thread claims that someone like Hobbes is talking "nonsense" with his contract theory:

"They make this claim [it's not clear what "this claim" is here], but that is not what happened, and to claim it is 'as if' it happened is utter nonsense -- on par with claiming that the state of affairs [in a robbery] is 'as if' you gave me all your stuff, so I'm not a thief, and really do own these things."

It strikes me that others may misunderstand Hobbes's argument in a similar fashion, and so it might be worth pulling my response to the top level. Let's begin by looking at several examples where we use "as if" that aren't nonsensical:

1) Two people meet by accident and fall in love. Later, they say, "Do you remember that night? It is as if we were meant to meet!"

2) Four bridge lovers meet by accident on a cruise. They wind up playing together the whole vacation. One of them says, "It is as if we had planned this!"

In these cases, what they mean is, if we had known of and been fully informed about the opportunity to have these relationships, and had a chance to deliberately choose them, we would have done so.

By contrast, in the case of the thief, it is certainly false that if the victim had been presented with a chance to agree to the arrangements, he would have agreed. So it is not "as if" he had given the thief all his stuff at all. That is simply a lie, not a metaphor.

Clearly, Hobbes's claim is of the former sort, and he offers a formidable argument as to why this is so (the war of all against all). He says it is as if we had formed a social contract, because, considering the case he presents, it would be rational for us to make such a contract, given the chance. Of course, Hobbes does not deny that there are people (for him, irrational people) who would reject this contract. It is those very people whom he is trying to convince by writing Leviathan, after all.

The argument also mistakes Hobbes's argument as being from the sovereign to the people (similar to the thief's argument to the victim), as if it were the sovereign writing, saying "It is as if you agreed to let me rule you." But it is not, or not primarily that; it is primarily an argument from one subject to another. And even more so, it is an argument from a man who had lived through the horrors of civil war and wished to avoid them in the future. It was an argument as to why, finding themselves with a sovereign, all subjects should regard this situation "as if" they had agreed to it, since, in fact, if presented with the choice, Hobbes argues, they all should agree to it.

Hobbes is often seen as defending "absolute monarchism," but this is nonsense: the exiled royalists recognized the Hobbes's offered them no support, and would have likely killed him in France if they could have. The royalists correctly understood the point of Hobbes's work: now that the revolutionaries were sovereign, it was the royalists' obligation to submit to them.

If you think this makes no sense, think again: the argument is no different in structure from one that says, "Don't switch which side of the road you drive on; but if you just did make the mistake of switching, for heaven's sake don't make the mistake of switching back!" In other words, regimes can be good and bad, but what is really bad are civil wars fought to switch regimes. Now, Hobbes may be wrong here: perhaps civil wars aren't so bad or some regimes are worse than he thought. But his argument makes perfect sense.

It is one thing to argue that Hobbes was wrong: the sovereign may not be necessary to prevent life from being "nasty, brutish and short." But his argument is not the sort of juvenile rubbish the commenter, and various others, make it out to be.


  1. Well, in fairness, supporters of the state on grounds of Hobbesian social contractarianism usually make the same error.

    They assert the existence of an [at least implied] actual social contract, not something "like" a social contract.

    I don't reject Hobbes's arguments because I take them literally instead of as an "as if" claim.

    I reject them because rather than seeing the "social contract" as something that ends a war of all against all, I see it as a weapon -- a weapon on par with the introduction of gunpowder, or chemical weapons, or the atom bomb -- of the emergent political class in its war on everyone else.

    1. Gunpowder that was invented in China without the help of science, no less!

    2. Silas, do you really think a culture has to have developed something recognizable as science to invent things? If so, ALL cultures have science, and the term just becomes synonymous with "human ingenuity."

    3. That's not my argument. My problem is with your more general classifier, which I think works like this:

      Not required for science:
      - Falsifiability (your comments on Popper)
      - Reproducibility (your comments about unique events)
      - Reductive models (re reductionism)
      - Accumulation of hard-to-find, useful knowledge (re gunpowder)

      Required for science:
      - Belief in (a Western?) God
      - Reference to Aristotelian theoria

      It just seems ... well, stacked against anyone you don't like. I'm genuinely curious why you seem to use this concept of science.

    4. Anonymous5:44 PM

      This is just my own opinion, but I've always thought of science as the logic of a particular area or discipline, not necessarily the practical application. If one takes this view then one can certainly invent something without having science serving the role of a real contributor. After all, many inventions and such happen purely by accident. The practical application typically only initiates or confirms/denies the logic of it, or the science of it.

      So, I think that using the term "human ingenuity" as a synonym for "science" is far too broad. Science has far more to do with actually understanding the how the world around us operates, even if that involves our own practical applications.

    5. Well, Silas, that would be incorrect.

      You are confusing three categories of things:

      1) The cultural pre-conditions that allowed science to evolve;
      2) The metaphysical assumptions required to think science is sound (which may be missing in many, many scientists, because they simply don't push their thought that far); and
      3) What is necessary for someone to actually practice science successfully.

      Your list is a muddle of the three, plus some extraneous things (like the nature of history) dragged in.

      And what does whether I *like* someone have to do with this? My real list, rather than your off-kilter version of my list, IS stacked: it is stacked against ideas I think are false, and stacked towards those I think are true!

      Is that very surprising?!

    6. Tom, but you don't deny the theoretical basis of gunpowder because the state uses it, do you?! That a class you don't like can *use* Hobbes's argument says nothing about whether the argument is sound.


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