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Hobbes on opinion, private judgment and civil war

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The precise relationship between Hobbes's political philosophy and his late history of the English Civil War remains something of a puzzle. Given his well known doubts about the epistemological status of history, Behemoth or the Long Parliament is often treated as little more than a procrustean effort at forcing complex historical events into the bed of abstract theory that he had developed earlier. On this view, even Noam Flinker, who offers one of the few studies devoted to a close reading of Behemoth, argues that Hobbes intended the work to be self repudiating, and that the dialogue form and the apparent confusions of one of the participants were meant to point readers to ‘the less rhetorical logic of the Leviathan’.

Others, more impressed by Hobbes’s pragmatic intentions than his methodological pretensions, note that a primary motive for his political arguments was a horror at first of the prospect and then of the reality of civil war. They thus emphasize the significance of Behemoth for Hobbes and his interpreters. Robert Kraynak, for example, argues that it ‘is a work of primary importance’ in completing the ‘history of civilization which is the logical beginning point of Hobbes's thought’, and that a complete understanding of his political theory is impossible without his analysis of the way in which ‘doctrinal politics and disputative science’ had created political chaos in England. This interpretation correctly emphasizes the role of ideas, as opposed to economic interests, in his explanation of civil conflict. It also rightly notes didactic continuities between Behemoth and his earlier work. However, I argue below that it overestimates the extent to which Hobbes treats the general idea of opinion as an eliminable product of ‘artificial’ historical relations rather than as a permanent feature of human psychology and action. Thus, it discounts the extent to which his understanding of the relationship between opinion and civil war was a product of his philosophy rather than of a ‘history of civilization’.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: University of Idaho.

Publication date: 01 January 1992

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