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The Incomprehensible Art of Thomas Hobbes

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The political philosophy of Thomas Hobbes is one of the cornerstones of modern liberalism. Resting on controversial doctrines of freedom, perception, human nature, and history, the foundations of Hobbesianism presuppose an emergence of reason from matter-in-motion that Hobbes never adequately explains. In this paper I explore the motivations and consequences of his neglect of fundamental philosophical problems through a series of ambiguous uses of key terms manifested his work: nature, necessity, and God in metaphysics and theology; freedom in politics; intelligible unity in epistemology; and imagination in ethics. These show up, respectively, in his doctrines of naturalism, political science, phenomenalism, and the state of nature. While it may be that Hobbes’s metaphysical ideas are finally incoherent, this only raises a further question: Might Hobbes have recognized that the goal of a liberal state—a common human war against death—can only be grounded on sketchy and inadequate metaphysics, to be suppressed and avoided so far as possible? Primarily through a reading of the Leviathan, I explore this question and tentatively propose that an affirmative answer is warranted.

Affiliations: 1: Department of Philosophy, Huazhong University of Science and Technology


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