Oakeshott and Hobbes

Oakeshott’s interpretation of Hobbes is the central subject of Noel Malcolm’s essay “Oakeshott and Hobbes.” Malcolm notices that there seems to be a discrepancy between Oakeshott’s hostility to rationalism, on the one hand, and his admiration for Hobbes, an archetypal rationalist if ever there was one, on the other. In the first instance, Oakeshott seems to overcome this self-contradiction only by misunderstanding Hobbes and overlooking the deeply rationalist strains in his thought—for example, his antipathy to prejudice and tradition, his faith in scientific method, and his preoccupation with certainty. But Malcolm does not leave it at that. He argues that Oakeshott ultimately admired Hobbes because he saw him as an exponent of a non-instrumental conception of the state. This noninstrumentalist or nonteleological interpretation of Hobbes raises questions of its own, and Malcolm takes us through the rich debate over it in the 1930s—between Collingwood, Schmitt, Strauss, and others. In the end, though, he finds the interpretation problematic, given that Hobbes seems to see everything as instrumental to civil peace or individual self-preservation. Once again, Hobbes appears to be more of a rationalist than Oakeshott’s interpretation suggests.

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