[hist-analytic] McPherson's Hobbes

Baynesr at comcast.net Baynesr at comcast.net
Thu Feb 11 16:27:39 EST 2010

First, I would mention that I will be commenting on recent posts; but 

I've been extremely taken with attempting to come to some resolution 

on Hobbes's view of the state of nature and a couple of other things. 

For example, almost all the commentators take him to be an atheist. 

Is suspect he was, but the textual evidence is not very strong. The 

same can be said of his "state of nature." Most everyone characterizes 

it as a state of murderous animals (well, pretty much); but I wasn't 

convinced. Then I get hold of a book by MacPherson, now pretty 

much forgotten, I guess. Here are a couple of comments on his 

contribution. What is behind some of these remarks of mine concern 

his take on freedom and nature in relation to the "initial position." 

MacPherson In his book The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: 

Hobbes to Locke, (Oxford, 1962) C. B. MacPherson presents a different 

 picture than is ordinarily supposed regarding what, according to Hobbes, 

the state of nature is. His account would render Hobbes’s conception closer 

 to Locke’s in that the state of nature does not exclude the existence of 

society. MacPhereson says, 

His [Hobbes’s] state of nature is a statement of the behaviour to which men as 

they now are, men who live in civilized societies and have the desires of 

civilized men, would be led if all law and contract enforcement…were removed. 

[MacPherson (1962) p. 22] 

What we should notice here is that, logically, this is to specify a state of nature 

counterfactually as what would (counterfactually) obtain in the absence of contract. 

This approach affords us an opportunity of seeing a number of issues in a very 

different light than would otherwise be possible. Throughout our investigation 

behind much of what is to be said is the status of sociobiological aspects of the 

state of nature. Do we regard the state of nature as an animal state and then 

attempt to deduce the details of the state of nature by invoking biological concepts, 

perhaps social Darwinism? It may turn out that society, as well as the behavior 

associated with “beasts,” represent merely a continuum of sociobiological phenomena. 

This is a distinct possibility. But even so, if we accept MacPherson’s proposal, then 

we are barred from applying sociobiological principles to the contractors in the 

initial position at the same level as we would apply them to, say, the social insects. 

Rousseau appears to put man in a state of nature close to the animal world in a 

number of respects. One is the role of pity in both worlds; but the point to note is 

that if MacPherson’s is the best proposal for understanding Hobbes, then 

sociobiology, and social Darwinism, would be difficult to establish as governing 

events represented by social contract theory. 

Steve Bayne 

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