Hobbes and the Birth of Civil Science
One of Hobbes’s most provocative claims is that he is the first to articulate a true civil science. I argue on the basis of internal and external textual evidence that De Cive sheds a unique light on this statement and deserves careful study in isolation from his other works. Hobbes argues there that Socrates initiated a sea change in politics in which a mode of governing by divine mystery falls before the withering philosophical critique of his dilettante heirs. Afterward, regimes are forced to defend their power with rational arguments, and neither statesmen nor philosophers have been able to replace the old consensus with a solid foundation. Hobbes means to be the first to do so. The new civil science Hobbes proposes, lacking any physics or psychology on which it could be based, turns out to be a science of power modeled closely on the metaphor of repairing an artifact. The craftsman must possess adequate, not complete, knowledge of the parts and their interactions to repair or improve an artifact; the civil scientist likewise can perform his craft with just a working knowledge of human beings and their interactions. Just as the artisan depends on a prior understanding of the purpose of his artifact in order to judge its quality, the civil scientist must also presuppose some goal to be achieved that is not supplied by the scientific method itself. Hobbes provides arguments that internal political stability ought to be the scientist’s goal, but these are not scientific arguments on his terms. Contrary to Hobbes’s reputation as advancing a vision of science as complete, I show that his science turns out to be progressive and open to future revision. It must nevertheless maintain the appearance of certainty, as post-Socratic political instability is above all a conflict of ideas, and that battle can only be won by science rendering the final verdict in every argument. Hobbes’s definitional method appears to yield certain conclusions, but actually admits of improved definitions and therefore improved conclusions. It preserves the appearance of certainty while accommodating change and progress in human knowledge. Civil science breaks down the commonwealth into individuals and arrives at an abstract understanding of them sufficient to achieve its goal. It then shapes those individuals so that they fit together well. Human beings need to be oriented away from problematic transcendent interests and taught to recognize cosmopolitan mutual humanity and to cease categorizing others according to prejudicial pre-scientific categories. All human interactions, down to basic familial bonds, have to be reinterpreted according to the only reliable model of human interaction: consent to dominion. Hobbes borrows the language of natural law in order to package this teaching, which he justifies primarily on grounds of narrow self-interest, but then also as moral principles and divine commands in order to satisfy different readers. So shaped, individuals can be reassembled without disturbing existing peaceful relations to produce the internally stable, rational commonwealth.