The Fantastic Mr. Hobbes


Thomas Pfau in The Immanent Frame:

Some readers of Minding the Modern have been surprised to find my account so firmly critical of Thomas Hobbes on will and personhood. Now, it is both incidental and inevitable that my reading challenges recent attempts to claim Hobbes as a precursor of modern liberalism and individualism. Long before me, of course, a wide and diverse array of thinkers (Hannah Arendt, Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, John Milbank, Louis Dupré, Michael Oakeshott) had probed the conceptual weakness of modern Liberalism, particularly its propensity to expire in an omnipresent state, putatively enlightened and benevolent as it orders and controls individual and social life at every level. If my reading of Hobbes casts doubt on some of modern Liberalism’s cherished axioms and aspirations, this only points to a certain lack of discernment among those who would identify Hobbes as a heroic precursor of an enlightened, secular, and liberal politics, of whose lasting benefits they remain unshakably persuaded. That said, political theory is not a principal concern of Minding the Modern, whereas putting analytic pressure on modern philosophy’s assumptions about human agency, rationality, and volition very much is.

It is presumably because Hobbes’s assumptions here have been assimilated by a fair number of twentieth-century political philosophers that some readers of Minding the Modern have homed in on this part of my narrative with such neuralgic intensity and exculpatory zeal. The dominant strategy here is to blunt my critical account of Hobbes on personhood with references to the supposedly unique situation and constraints within which he developed his theory of human agency and political community. Thus Mark Alznauer insists that “Hobbes’ theory of agency is an answer to problems that emerged in the seventeenth century, … [and] this is a new question.” Only by subscribing to a radically particularist, nominalist view of history can one suppose that a theory of agency can, let alone should, be tailored to its putatively unique historical circumstances. For my part, I very much doubt that human nature abruptly changed in the year 1651 any more than “on or about December 1910,” as Virginia Woolf so breezily proposed.

More here.