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Research Stories

Hobbes: He’s Just Misunderstood [Research Stories]

Andrew Hori

–This post is written by UHP student Andrew Hori, who served with Thomas Josephson (another UHPer) as research assistants to Prof. Christov this semester.

If I were to tell you that those textbooks that you used for that Introduction to International Affairs classes were partially wrong, would you believe me? I’m sure that a statement like that requires some explanation. Anyone that’s taken a course in political science, international affairs, philosophy, or even just Origins and Evolution of Modern Thought for that matter, are probably familiar with the work of Thomas Hobbes. Among his contributions to ethics and political philosophy, Hobbes is probably known best for his theory of an absolute sovereign established through a social contract and his conception of the natural state of the individual in his Leviathan. According to this theory, individuals are in a constant state of war and anarchy that persists until they establish an absolute sovereign over themselves. 

So how does this apply to your international affairs textbooks? Well, in short, it doesn’t! The school of realism in international affairs characterizes the international realm as a realm that is anarchic in its natural condition. States act like individuals in the Hobbesian state of war—they are constantly driven by fear and a need to protect themselves from each other. What is often misunderstood is that Hobbes probably never intended for this conception of the state of the individual to be applied to the international realm. While it may be perfectly valid for scholars to characterize the international realm in this way, to associate this theory with Hobbes is inaccurate.

This is Professor Christov’s argument in a nutshell. In order to put this idea to the test, Professor Christov, Thomas Josephson (another RA), and I are examining hundreds of documents relating to international affairs, realism, and anarchy, in order to gain a comprehensive understanding of how scholars may have misappropriated Hobbes since the 1950s. In addition to having the opportunity to explore the scholarship on international affairs theory, this experience has been invaluable in learning about what research often entails. When you are trying to create an original argument that disagrees with decades of scholarship, it sometimes feels like you are wandering in the dark until you bump into something that helps you find your way. And for much of the time, that’s what it felt like as we sifted through hundreds of documents across several databases. While it was rewarding to find those articles that misappropriated Hobbes, it was also quite frustrating when I realized how commonly he was misperceived. Regardless of whether you believe this argument is up to you. But the next time Hobbes is brought up in your international affairs or political science class, don’t be afraid to bring up this objection!