Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Hobbes and Philosophy of Education

Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_329

Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) is generally regarded as the founder of English moral and political philosophy. His most important work was Leviathan (1651), in which he offers a version of contract theory. One way in which obedience to the Sovereign can be attained, according to Hobbes, is by education (Marshall 1980). However, Hobbes may be interpreted here as offering a form of governmentality* as his form of education can be seen as a method for ensuring that people come to accept the authority of the Sovereign.

Hobbes’ political theory is based upon a kind of contract theory in which, to avoid a life in the state of nature, a stable society or Commonwealth must be established. This society, outlined in Leviathan, requires people to relinquish to the Sovereign (a person or persons) their right to decide what is in their best interests. The Sovereign, imbued with reason, makes the laws which must be obeyed, except in the case of self-defense. But why should people obey the Sovereign? First, according to Hobbes, because it would be unjust – i.e., doing something which one had forgone the right to do. But, second, if people were correctly educated, then reason would dictate to them why they should obey the Sovereign.

The Sovereign is judge of what is necessary for the peace and defense of the State, including being the judge of what hinders or disturbs these ends, of the ways of obtaining these ends, and of the opinions men hold. Actions proceed from opinions according to Hobbes, and, if peace is to be obtained and maintained, then men’s opinions must be well governed. Thus, the Sovereign has the duty and the power not only to decide what “doctrines and opinions are averse, and what conducing to peace,” but also to ensure “what men are to be trusted … in speaking to the multitudes of people; and who shall examine the doctrines of all books before they be published. For doctrine repugnant to peace can no more be true, than peace and concord can be against the law of nature” (Leviathan, EW, III, p. 169).

On obedience to the Sovereign and education, Hobbes appears to generate a paradox. On the one hand, he argues for absolute power, absolute obedience, censorship, and the suppression of opposed beliefs and teachers thereof, and on the other hand, he states explicitly that it is the duty of the Sovereign to educate the people on political matters. Education, it might be thought, might be incompatible with absolute obedience, censorship, and the suppression of opposed beliefs and persons holding or teaching such beliefs. If education could lead to such beliefs, then instead of obeying, the Sovereign subjects might revolt. Hence, education could lead to a state of war. Yet peace is the overriding concern of Hobbes’ political theory. There is something of a paradox then as what is said about the duty of the citizen, namely, obligation, which seems to be inconsistent with the duty of the Sovereign, namely, education; if the Sovereign desires peace, then one cannot educate, whereas if one desires education, then one cannot ensure peace.

Hobbes states explicitly that the Sovereign does have duties of an educational nature in these areas. Thus, while the Sovereign is responsible primarily for the safety of people, “safety” is not to be interpreted as “bare preservation” but rather as “general providence,” “…contained in public instruction both of doctrine and example.” As it was contrary to the Sovereign’s duty to relinquish any aspect of his power and authority, so also was it against his duty, “to let the people he ignorant, or misinformed of the grounds, and reasons of those his essential rights; because thereby men are easy to be seduced, and drawn to resist him…” (Leviathan, EW, III, p. 323).

However, instruction, teaching, and learning can all take place without being educational (that is, if one holds a concept of “education” which does not cover any change whatsoever in behavior). In order to decide whether this instruction was educational, we would need to know more about Hobbes’ specific proposals.

When he discusses the particular details of what should be taught as part of the Sovereign’s duty, he mentions such things as: not to be in love with any form of government which they see in neighboring States, not to be led by fellowmen, not to dispute the Sovereign’s power, to honor their parents, and not to harm others (ibid., p. 326), but it is unclear whether Hobbes is talking about the development of favorable attitudes, which is compatible with development through fear of adverse consequences, or of favorable attitudes to be developed from and as a result of reasoning.

This ambiguity reoccurs in a similar passage (ibid., p.327):

they ought to be informed, how great a fault it is to speak evil of the Sovereign representative, whether one man, or an assembly of men, or to argue and dispute his power; or any way to use his name irreverently, whereby he may be brought into contempt with his people and their obedience, in which the safety of the commonwealth consisteth, slackened …

In order that people can “…hear those their duties told them and the positive laws, such as generally concern them all read and expounded” [loc cit), Hobbes suggested that a special day should be set aside for this education. Laws and duties are to be told and read - hardly education. Yet, on the other hand, they are to be expounded and the people must come to know and understand “the grounds and reasons of these his essential rights” (ibid,). That sounds more like education.

Hobbes believed that Leviathan revealed knowledge of man and his social organization which was of a scientific kind – but we must know what Hobbes meant by scientific. Here, he was influenced by the physician Harvey who had in turn been influenced by Galileo (Watkins 1973). An idea common to all three was that if we are to understand something, we must first take it apart or resolve it. In Galileo’s hands, the motion of a projectile is broken down or resolved into principles of horizontal and vertical motion: for Harvey, it is literally dissection. Starting from sensible wholes, one proceeds by dissections to the discovery of activating principles or causes. Once the nature of the sensible whole has been ascertained, then the whole is literally put together again or recomposed. It is essentially this view of science, − resolve, idealize, compose – that underlies Hobbes’ thought. Science, he says (De Corpore, EW I, p.26.):

…is the knowledge we acquire, by true ratiocination, of appearances, or apparent effects, from the knowledge we have of some possible production or generation of the same; and of such production as has been or may be, from the knowledge we have of the effects.

The method of “true” ratiocination (loc cit.) “is either compositive or resolutive, or partly compositive and partly resolutive. And the resolutive is commonly called analytical method as the compositive is called synthetical.”

Analytical method is seen by as the method by which one comes to understand and to arrive at definitions (ibid., p.69):

For example, if there be propounded a conception or idea of some singular thing, as of a square, this square is to be resolved into a plane, terminated with a certain number of equal and straight lines and right angles. For by this resolution we have these things universal or agreeable to all matter, namely, line, plane (which contains superficies), terminated, angle, straightness, rectitude and equality; and if we can find out the causes of these, we may compound them altogether into the causes of a square (and) …by resolving continuously we may come to know what those things are.

Thus, the analytical method is concerned to arrive at definitions. We understand what things are when we have the definition. The method is to subsume particular under universal and universal under universal, and thereby arrive at universal terms of the widest generality, e.g., “body” and “motion.”

Synthesis for Hobbes is the deduction of the consequences from certain primary propositions which essentially are the definitions arrived at by analysis. To this extent, there are explicit parallels to logical and geometrical systems.

In presenting his views, Hobbes placed greater emphasis on deduction and composition than either Galileo or Harvey who were more concerned, perhaps, to give a detailed account of how they had arrived at their primary propositions. Galileo had been more concerned with logical or mathematical deduction; Harvey, however, believed that in piecing a biological whole together, some account should be given of its biological history and thus presumably of how changes and adaptations in a species had assisted in its survival or even in its flourishing.

It is this latter aspect of composition which Hobbes appears to take from Harvey and which makes his account of political organization in Leviathan not strictly deductive from his primary principles. Hobbes’ starting point is a sick society. He resolves, idealizes, and composes to arrive by a genetic-historical-deductive trail not at a sick society but, rather, at a regenerated society – the Commonwealth.

Apart from his genetic-historical trail of composition, considerable weight is thrown on the primary propositions or definitions. Hobbes says that a person who refuses to accept these primary propositions is in the position of refusing to be taught (Leviathan, E.W.III, p. 73f). These propositions can be explained, or they can be “caused” by the senses (e.g., motion can cause us to acquire the concept of motion). The primary propositions are also like imperatives. Hobbes believed that people really knew these imperatives even if they were not aware of them. The teacher has to make the primary propositions and imperatives clear, and if these procedures were followed, then obligation to obey the Sovereign would occur through education.

Whether or not we agree with Hobbes’ Commonwealth, or with his view of education, it is clear that he is offering an account of how citizens can be obliged to follow the laws of society. For Foucault, traditional political philosophy, theories of the State, and studies inspired by Marxism concerning class domination give us answers to the question, “Who exercises power?,” but such answers require at the same time a further resolution. He argues that simultaneously we must answer the accompanying and intertwined question “How does it happen?”. His answers to this question are to be found in his account of governmentality (Foucault 1979).

In his accounts of governmentality, Foucault places much stress upon the subject’s refusal to be subjected. But, given that power can only be exercised upon a free agent, and not upon a slave in chains, and that for Foucault, freedom must be continuously exercised if it is not to be lost, then the liberty of the subject is an important presupposition of the exercise of freedom. Thereby, one can see why refusing to be subjected or subordinated must be associated with attaining and maintaining liberty. Foucault’s genealogy of liberty, from the heretical practices of dissenting religious sects in the time of the Reformation to the Enlightenment, may then be seen as establishing the historical importance of insubordination as a means of preserving liberty. As the liberty of the subject is a presupposition of exercising freedom, it becomes also a presupposition of ethics for Foucault. Somewhat paradoxically it would seem, insubordination, or refusing to be subjected, becomes a necessary aspect of ethics.

In his response to Kant’s “What is Enlightenment?” (Foucault 1984), Foucault sees enlightenment itself as being an attitude toward the present. According to Foucault, what we have lost in Kant’s message of Enlightenment is his message of maturity and its attainment through the critical use of reason. While Foucault disagrees here with Kant’s universal notion of reason, he agrees that theory must be critical. He also applauds Kant for addressing actual features of the period of his existence and designating a form of modernity where self-awareness and norms must be created out of themselves. To accept the authority of others here was for Kant to be in a state of immaturity and to accept a form of self-imposed tutelage. Maturity required knowledge therefore of the self and whether one was subjected in forms of tutelage. Foucault also applauds Kant’s challenge to know and to exercise reason publicly (an audacious stand in the times of Frederick II).

Enlightenment for Foucault and Kant requires then both self-awareness and a certain attitude toward the authority of others. For Kant it was immature and unenlightened to accept that authority and to be subjected, to be in a position of self-imposed tutelage.

Foucault was often dismissive of Hobbes. What he did not seem to acknowledge, however, was that Hobbes had offered a theory of governmentality an answer to Foucault’s “how” question. Of course, the account offered by Hobbes of an education system designed to impose tutelage and suppress insubordination and different beliefs was anathema to Foucault.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.The University of AucklandAucklandNew Zealand