Leviathan was arguably the most important work of the seventeenth century philosopher Thomas Hobbes. In this seminal philosophical text, Hobbes deconstructed the political ideology upon which the foundation for the society in which he lived was constructed. Condensed and interpreted simply, Hobbes’s philosophy posited that the state was a superstructure, a composite organism made up of many individual parts.
Those constituent parts were its inhabitants, its citizens, who were bound together by aspects of shared identity and the agreement about their commonalities. Hobbes viewed this organism of the state as being unstable and highly vulnerable in its native state, however. “[C]ommonwealths," he wrote, are “imperfect," and even when they are stabilized, they are “apt to relapse into disorder…." (248). “[T]here may be principles of reason [to] be found out," Hobbes continued, and he proposed some of these principles in his political philosophy, which retains relevance to contemporary society.
Societies, wrote Hobbes, are susceptible to internal chaos because of the competing and disparate needs of the individual organisms who are subject to the whims of their own passions and needs, whether actual or perceived. Among these passions and needs, Hobbes enumerated several, including the abstractions of “appetite, desire, love, aversion, hate, joy, and grief" (50). Individuals are also governed, Hobbes argued, by what he referred to as “the desire of ease" (81), which the reader may understand as individuals trying to make the realization of their passions and needs as easy as possible, exerting the least amount of effort necessary. In addition to these needs, Hobbes identified many others, including the basic material and tangible needs that every human being must fulfill in order to survive. Among these types of needs, Hobbes mentioned “food, air, medicine, or any other thing without which [an individual] cannot live" (164).
The pursuit of needs, Hobbes reasoned, inevitably creates conflicts among the constituents of a state or society. Either because of limited resources or the perception of limited resources, constituents fight to protect and advance their individual interests, even if reason and logic dictate that cooperation advances both individual and group survival, not the least reason being that the passion that propels one to pursue his or her own desires typically causes “a man [to] abandon the protection that might be hoped for from his own industry, and labor" (81). For these reasons, Hobbes proposed that “a common power" was necessary “to keep [the individuals] in awe" (130). That common power was a government, and the government, in turn, was headed—literally, in Hobbes’s metaphoric symbology of the Leviathan—by a single figure in who power was invested by tacit social agreement. In a democratic society, that social agreement would be forged by means of election. Whether all of the individual organisms voted for the commanding authority was an irrelevant consideration; the social contract was that the constituents would accept the individual as a representative endowed with special powers and the right to guide them.
Fast forward more than three hundred years to the work of contemporary philosopher Jean Hampton, who engages the same issues first posited by Hobbes in Leviathan. Hampton opens her essay “Should Political Philosophy Be Done Without Metaphysics?" by invoking the spirit of Plato. The excerpt from Meno quotes the ancient philosopher telling his audience that “[T]he belief in the duty of inquiring [about] what we do not know will make us better…braver and less helpless than…not… discovering what we do not know, nor [rejecting] any duty of inquiring after it…." (Hampton 791). Hampton, perhaps, becomes better, braver, and less helpless and helps the reader become the same by fulfilling the duty of the philosopher—and indeed, the citizen—by inquiring after the relationship between the state and the polis and the respective responsibilities of each. To explore these relationships, Hampton embarks upon an ambitious recapitulation and analysis of the trajectory of Rawls’s political philosophy in his seminal works. Hampton’s proposition in writing this article is to explore the idea of a political philosophy as advanced by Rawls and, by extension, to do so in contrast to a metaphysical philosophy.
Her point of departure is Rawls’s contention that “political philosophers in modern pluralistic societies with constitutional democracies must make reference to our history and the shared experiences of our community to forge…an ‘overlapping consensus’ on a conception of justice" (792). While she acknowledges that Rawls’s ideas about the notion of consensus are fascinating and despite the fact that Hampton admits that she even offers a “partial endorsement" of his political philosophy as she has observed its evolution, she ultimately determines that “we should reject [Rawls’s] recommendation to do only political and not metaphysical theorizing about the structuring of our political institutions…." (792). Eventually, Hampton will advance her own argument and philosophy, which is distilled as follows: The duty of the philosopher is to do both political and metaphysical theorizing about the structuring of our political institutions and our social institutions as well.
It is hardly surprising that Hampton’s analysis of Rawls’s political philosophy, distinct from a metaphysical philosophy, eventually incorporates a consideration of Hobbes. After all, it is Hobbes upon whom Hampton confers the honor of being “the man who began modern political philosophy" (807), and rightfully so. Hobbes was, perhaps, the first philosopher to turn the academic gaze towards a consideration of how thought could—and furthermore, should—be applied to society and to action rather than the edification and expansion of conversation and its own contemplation. First, though, Hampton summarizes and explains Rawls’s concern and preoccupation with the role of the individuals who comprise society. The core concept of Rawls’s political philosophy is entirely democratic, as Hampton explains it. Rawls contends that the citizens of a society should strive to achieve a consensus, not only about their leader—as they would in a vote—but also about most, if not all, of the issues that concern them as a unit. While Rawls does not contest the importance of having an authoritative leader to guide the polis, he passionately argues that the leader should not replace or obscure the polis. His is a concrete philosophy, to be applied to the active construction and maintenance of the social experiment.
When she introduces Hobbes into her analysis, Hampton observes that Rawls finds Hobbes’s “political theorizing…still too metaphysical," though she herself does not (799-800). In fact, the bulk of her essay is devoted to advancing the idea that Rawls and Hobbes were talking about the same thing, namely, how to create a form of social order among groups of “people who are in conflict but desire [albeit unconsciously, perhaps] peace" (800). Furthermore, Hampton wishes to persuade the reader that Rawls’s and Hobbes’s political philosophies are not contradictory of conflicting in any way. Both are concerned, she insists “about the damage to societies which contestable human doctrines can cause" (800), and it is this concern that motivated Hobbes and Rawls. The fundamental difference in their philosophies about arresting and repairing the damage is that Hobbes believed “[s]tability…is something we pursue via polity and not via consensus on ideas," while Rawls commits himself to the value of consensus (801).
Hampton, to her credit, explores both notions, polity and consensus, fully. What is more, she finds merit in each of them, and she respects each philosopher without any disparagement. She approaches their ideas with the spirit of critical inquiry. Hobbes, she explains, believed that “Only a ruler with the power to have the last word is able to forestall [the inevitable] conflict…." (801) that arises when individuals act to advance their own interests, while Rawls believes consensus must be attempted, faithful in the power of the polity to resolve many problems on its own (801). Because of her scholarly openness, Hampton is able to not only notice the overlap between the political philosophies of Rawls and Hobbes, but to go a step further, taking her student and reader into that space that is shared between two philosophers centuries apart.
Ultimately, Hampton argues that political philosophy should try to work towards consensus, as per Rawls’s philosophy, but should respect the literal and symbolic authority invested in the representative the polity has elected through a social contract. “I find myself moved enough," Hampton writes, “to believe that whatever else political philosophy ought to involve, it should sometimes be political" (809; emphasis added). Herein lies the strength of Hampton’s essay; she has not only bridged the parallel divide between two philosophers, but she has also rendered a powerful observation and challenge about the very nature of philosophy and its rights and responsibilities. Rawls’s and Hobbes’s political philosophies are not mutually exclusive; on the contrary, they are complementary. As she concludes, “the activity of philosophy is itself based upon substantive metaphysical beliefs about the nature of human beings" (814), and those metaphysical beliefs should then lead to conscientious action, action that is taken by the collective that is the polis. To answer the question that she posited in the opening of her essay, no, political philosophy should not be “done" without metaphysics. Political philosophy, Hampton concludes in her incisive analysis of Rawls and Hobbes, should not be developed without a consideration of metaphysical ideas, nor should it be applied without a consideration of metaphysical ideas. Philosophy, as a discipline, Hampton contends, should be comprised of both thought and action; furthermore, it should be carried far beyond the realm of contemplation and activated in the actual world in which philosophers live as just another member of the polis.
Hampton, Jean. “Should Political Philosophy Be Done Without Metaphysics?" Ethics 99.4 (1989): 791-814.
Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. New York: Touchstone, 1962.