Workshops in Political Theory: Hobbes and Smith

Primary version of this post, with visual content, at Barry Stocker’s Weblog.

I’m at Manchester Metropolitan University, in the Geoffrey Manton building, taking advantage of a big gap between the end of the conference and my train to London, to post on the event, I would have posted day by day, but despite assurances to the contrary at (the very friendly and helpful) conference reception, wifi was not working in the conference accommodation, a bit of a blot on a mostly very well run event. So a retrospective summary.

The event: Workshops in Political Theory, Sixth Annual Conference, September 2 – 4, 2009


Mostly I was participating in a workshop on Thomas Hobbes, except for this morning. As the Hobbes workshop wound up yesterday afternoon, I dropped in on the Adam Smith workshop this morning. The conference was very fragmented, the workshops were discrete events with no plenary session to unify the work being done. This is an annual event and I think it would be worth having a plenary to round things off in future. I guess the problem with that is the way participants alway start disappearing in some number starting with the penultimate session. Not everyone would be at the plenary, but it would be a good way of drawing together the strands for those still present.

Of all the people in the Hobbes workshop, I had the least background. Everyone else was a published academic in Hobbes study, or a graduate student writing a thesis at least partly on Hobbes. Much to my relief I survived largely unscathed. My knowledge of Hobbes’ ‘minor’ texts and the commentaries was weak compared with other participants, but sticking to what I know seemed to work well in my own presentation, and in commenting on other papers.

I’m not going to mention any names, just summarise the themes.

Senses, Passions, Reason and reasoning in Hobbes, and there was a a lot of discussion all round about the rationality of individuals, the rationality of politics, and the appropriate means of persuasion and reasoning in Hobbes. There was some discussion how far Hobbes could be seen as anticipating David Hume’s suggestion that reason is and ought to be the slave of the passions. That relates to discussion about the levels of sensation and cognition in Hobbes, from the most immediate to the most abstract.

Meta-ethics in Hobbes. The theoretical foundations of ethics for Hobbes. Discussion of subjectivism and objectivism in Hobbes, that is the relation between: subjective desire and aversion on one side: independent moral truths on the other side. A focus here was an apparent contradiction in Hobbes, between fear of death as the strongest subjective influence, and the influence of things like honour which may lead us to sacrifice life. One issue I brought up here, was the possibility of looking at Hobbes as someone concerned with the individual belonging at a deep level to the political community, in preference to any tendency to se Hobbes as just aggregating individuals under a sovereign

Another theme was natural law in Hobbes, so how far we can see Hobbes as a critic of Medieval natural law and how far we can see him as continuing that tradition. Hobbes is ostensibly very critical of Medieval Scholasticism, but he does also bring natural law into his theory. That is law based on a universal reasoning about right and wrong, which we might see as guided by God or in accordance with God’s commands, though distinct from purely religious commands. Hobbes both places the sovereign above any law and argues that the sovereign should be guided by natural law. There was some discussion of what might happen if the sovereign violates natural law, and how close Hobbes’ comes to Locke’s position in which rebellion is justified against a sovereign who violates natural law.

Another theme was how Hobbes was received in France from Pierre Bayle to Rousseau. Some particularly interesting points came up about how Hobbes was associated with the legal and political theory of Samuel Pufendorf, through Jean Barbeyrac, a commentator on, and translator of, Pufendorf. Hobbes was known through Barbeyrac’s translation of De Cive, which Rousseau clearly knew well. From this perspective, Rousseau’s reaction to Hobbes in The Discourse on Inequality can be seen as decisive for his whole political theory.

There was some discussion of how Hobbes’ theory related to the British history of the time, particularly the Civil War. This connected with discussion of the relation between religion and sovereignty in Hobbes, How far was Hobbes demanding that we conform to the religious requirements of the sovereign and how far the sovereign should leave subjects free in matters of religion in order to preserve civil peace.

My own contribution is something that I’ve explored in previous posts on Hobbes. Search the blog. Very briefly I was concerned with paradoxes in Hobbes, the ways in which he relies on terms which appear to exclude each other: natural law and positive (state made) law; sovereignty by consent and sovereignty by conquest; man as wolf and man as god; sovereignty based on fear and sovereignty based on agreement to covenant and so. I framed this with regard to Pascal, a philosopher of paradox, who looks as issues of sovereignty, law and violence.


I need a separate post to cover this, which I hope to put up tomorrow.

The part of that workshop which perturbed me was a paper on how Adam Smith apparently did not predict capitalism and was in contradiction with current free market libertarians (who are the same as the political establishment), and is not relevant to current economics. The paper gave some very useful information about how Smith was taken up by radicals in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, but the assumptions I summarised in the last sentence are wrong, and will return to that in the next post. The speaker correctly pointed out that Smith was driven by criticisms of state power and class privilege, by sympathy for labourers and a belief in independence of the individual rather than absolute freedom from independence, but drew the wrong conclusions. Another presentation discussed Smith’s ethics with regard to changing standards of fashion. At the most serious levels of changing fashion, intellectual systems and basic standards of behaviour, the process in which fashion changes converges with moral evolution. There was some discussion of ‘natural’ in Smith, that is how far ‘natural’ refers to description of reality and how much it refers to a moral ideal. Smith’s criticisms of slavery on economic grounds rather than moral grounds came up here.

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