Hobbes and History

Hobbes and History

Hobbes and History

Hobbes and History


Popularly known as political philosophy, much of Thomas Hobbes' work can be read as historical commentary, this text explores the relation of Hobbes' work to history as a branch of learning, taking up such questions as the philosophy of history.


Tom Sorell

This is not a book about Hobbes’s place in history, but rather his relation to history as a branch of learning. It is a complex relation. Hobbes’s first publication was a translation of a work of history—Thucydides’s account of the Peloponnesian wars. One of his late major writings, Behemoth, was a work of history of his own—an account of the English Civil War. Some of his minor writings were also works of history, though they often broke the conventions of their ostensible genre. As for his best-known works, although they purport to take up perennial questions about the state, they can be read as commentary on events that were then very recent history. And these same works and others take up questions in the philosophy of history, notably the Baconian question of how histories—both natural and civil—compare with the corresponding branches of science or philosophy. Finally, there are many places in Hobbes’s writings where he ponders or experiments with the rhetorical possibilities of written history. All of these uses of, and preoccupations with, history are taken up in what follows. There are ten papers, divided into two sequences. The first five are concerned with Hobbes’s view of the nature of history, which can be reconstructed from his uses of history as much as from his comments about its nature and method. The second five take up works of history that Hobbes either wrote or is closely identified with.

Hobbes on history

Karl Schuhmann’s opening essay summarizes Hobbes’s views under his division of histories into natural and civil, and his revision of the traditional tripartite structure of natural, human and divine histories. Hobbes was condescending toward natural history, comparing it very unfavourably to natural science. Considered as a sort of great list of observations and findings, natural history often seemed to Hobbes to be unreliable. Many ‘facts’ recorded in natural histories were nothing of the kind, and even when an experiment or observation had been made by oneself or in one’s presence, the real work of natural science—tracing it to its probable causes—had still

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