Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

On the Clarendon Edition of Hobbes's Leviathan: A Response

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

On the Clarendon Edition of Hobbes's Leviathan: A Response

Article excerpt

I am extremely grateful to Kinch Hoekstra, Sarah Mortimer, David Scott, Monica Brito Vieira, and Jon Parkin for their essays, and also to Quentin Skinner and Richard Bourke for organizing the symposium from which these four papers took their origin. To receive such attention from such a range of experts is a great privilege. I am taken aback, however, by one thing in Hoekstra's paper: the statement that my "Introduction" to Hobbes's Leviathan is in danger of becoming a sacred cow. Such a development is something I neither expect nor want in relation to my work; indeed, I shall be grateful for any constructive butchery that is applied to it. Since Hoekstra has wielded the cleaver rather more than his fellow authors, this brief response is inevitably directed most of all towards his paper. If I pass over all the extravagantly complimentary things he has also written, it is not because I think them obviously true, and still less because I am not thankful for them, but merely because they do not seem to require any specific reply from me.

First, a general comment on the nature of what I have done. My edition of Leviathan is not a free-standing project; it constitutes three volumes of the Clarendon Edition of Hobbes's complete works, which is expected to fill twenty-seven volumes in total. The guidelines of the edition ask editors of individual works to write introductions of two kinds, textual and general. The former discusses such matters as the manuscripts, if they exist; the printing history; the choice of copy-text, and the nature of the textual problems that have arisen in the course of the editorial work. The latter is meant to be confined to discussing relevant factual matters, such as the biographical and political or historical contexts in which the text was written. Long-term Rezeptionsgescbicbte is excluded; so too is general interpretation of the meaning or philosophical significance of the work-not because such an approach is unimportant, but because, on the contrary, it is so important that it requires entire monographs. The edition is meant to provide the starting-point for future interpretative work, not an authoritatively final interpretation (were such a thing ever possible). And a natural consequence of this is that the editorial introduction is not expected to engage closely with the "state of play" in the modern interpretative secondary literature-which is just as well, since a text in itself, if correctly edited, may last for many decades, whereas any discussion tied to current interpretations will seem badly dated within one or two.

This concentration on the immediate biographical and historical context is of course artificially confining. The intellectual context of a work may be more important in many ways for its interpretation; but to start exploring all the intellectual influences which may have shaped Hobbes's writing on, say, political theory or metaphysics is to open the flood-gates to a huge range of materials and ideas that cannot possibly be treated within the narrow confines of an editorial introduction. So the notion of "biographical context" here is largely limited to those aspects of Hobbes's life that shaped the planning and writing of the book itself; it cannot embrace all the earlier influences that may have helped him to develop the ideas which the book expresses.

Because of this artificial narrowing of the scope of such an editorial introduction, the danger arises that whatever the editor writes will be taken to imply that the immediate context has some privileged status as a "key" to the real meaning of Hobbes's work. I have tried as best I can to guard against this assumption. Towards the end of the contextual account in my "General Introduction" I offer the following cri de coeur.

But such considerations, like all the tactical political considerations mentioned above, are of secondary importance. The primary fact is that Hobbes was setting out a theory about the need for sovereign rule, the nature of that rule, and the threats to it. …

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