Hobbes, Thomas (1588–1679)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DA041-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2002
Retrieved July 04, 2022, from

9. The scientific status of Hobbes’ ethics and politics

The main lines of Hobbes’ political philosophy include the idea that the commonwealth is a solution to the ever-present threat of war in the passionate make-up of human beings, and that the commonwealth is made by delegating the right of nature to a sovereign power with unlimited power. This summarizes a theory worked out in very great detail, a theory Hobbes always regarded as ushering in the scientific treatment of morals and politics. What made the theory scientific? A number of answers get support from Hobbes’ writings. The scientific status of politics is sometimes said to be owed to its derivation, in some sense, from Hobbes’ natural science. Again, Hobbes’ use in civil philosophy of a method applicable to natural bodies and bodies politic alike is sometimes thought to be crucial to its scientific status. These answers are consistent with some texts but sit uneasily with others. First, although Hobbes thought that there was a way of approaching the principles of morals and politics from a starting point in the workings of sense and imagination (which were treated of by physics), he consistently denied that civil science had to be approached by way of physics. In chapter 6 of De corpore he says that people entirely innocent of physics, but who enjoy introspective access to their own passionate states, are able to see in themselves evidence for the truth of the theory of human nature in the civil science. Something similar is said in the Introduction to Leviathan. In the same vein there is the explanation of his having been able to publish De cive, the third volume in his trilogy, without having first expounded the principles of parts of philosophy that were prior to politics. Hobbes said that this was possible because civil philosophy depended on principles of its own. What ties together all of these remarks is a belief in the autonomy of civil science, a belief that is not seriously called into question by his saying that the two principal parts of civil philosophy were alike in applying a certain sort of method to the investigation of bodies – bodies politic on the one hand and natural bodies on the other.

When Hobbes says that each part of philosophy deals with bodies, he makes clear that the two kinds of bodies are ‘very different’ from one another. And there is no evidence that ‘body’, when applied in the phrase ‘body politic’, is supposed to mean ‘space-occupying thing existing without the mind’. In other words, there is no evidence that bodies politic are bodies in any more than a metaphorical sense. Finally, it is not clear that Hobbes thought that the scientific status of his politics was made more credible by an analogy between bodies politic and natural bodies. It is not as if he thought that natural bodies were well-understood scientifically, and that bodies politic might in principle be as well understood if the methods of physics were applied to them. On the contrary, Hobbes always thought that the properties of human artefacts, such as bodies politic, were much better understood than the properties of natural bodies, which had God’s inscrutable will behind them.

It would be a mistake, however, to think that civil science for Hobbes was primarily an exercise in the investigation of the properties of bodies. It was an exercise in putting our judgments about what we ought to do on grounds that were far more solid than pleasure and pain. Good and bad were a matter of what conduced or interfered with self-preservation or peace, not how it felt to do or get this or that. The core of Hobbes’ civil science is an attempt to recast the precepts of morality – the laws of nature – as instruments of peace, and to show how the ingredients of war are latent in any project for the pursuit of happiness. The scientific status of the doctrine of the laws of nature – the ground of its claim to be called moral philosophy – was its conforming to the pattern of a deductive system, based on two fundamental laws of nature and the rest derivative. Similarly with the deduction of the rights of sovereigns from the goal of peace. The scientific status of the argument for the inevitability of war consisted in its proceeding from principles about the passions. But these principles were by no means the property of physics or physicists; they were available in each person’s introspective self-knowledge.

Citing this article:
Sorell, Tom. The scientific status of Hobbes’ ethics and politics. Hobbes, Thomas (1588–1679), 2002, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DA041-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2022 Routledge.

Related Searches


Related Articles