Reading Thomas Hobbes: Peter Fitzpatrick ‘s gentle deconstructionist style

Chapter 2

Reading Thomas Hobbes

Peter Fitzpatrick’s Gentle Deconstructionist Style

James Martel


This chapter will focus on Peter Fitzpatrick as a reader, and particularly as a reader of Hobbes, a canonical figure who is himself deeply concerned with language and the act of reading. In her book Wayward Contracts, Victoria Kahn calls Hobbes ‘metalinguistic’ in his approach to reading and interpretation (2004: 135). She tells us that Hobbes is deeply aware not only of how powerful language is in structuring political life but also of how language is itself the basis for politics, the building block of our collective lives. In this essay I will argue that Fitzpatrick himself shares this ‘metalinguistic’ dimension with Hobbes. In Fitzpatrick’s own case, such a particular interest in language leads to what I call his gentle deconstructionist style of reading, entailing a deeply careful attention to the rhetorical ‘bones’ of texts as well as the mechanics of interpretation. His style is ‘gentle’ because he has an almost Talmudic reverence for texts: Fitzpatrick appreciates and follows rules of grammar and syntax; he seeks meaning and connection and even logic in the linguistic constructions he engages with. Like Hobbes himself, Fitzpatrick is above all interested in what reading does to a text, how the act of reading is not a neutral unfurling of meaning but a part of how meaning is produced. And, like Hobbes, Fitzpatrick sees reading as reflecting and responding to the rhetorical and grammatical architecture of the text itself. By reading Hobbes according to the same methodologies that Hobbes himself both calls for and demonstrates in his texts, Fitzpatrick is able to recast Hobbes as speaking against the sort of positivist orthodoxies that are usually attributed to him. By appreciating texts qua texts, Fitzpatrick manages to read a text like Leviathan as if anew, despite the centuries of interpretive baggage that it has accrued.

Hobbes as Reader

To begin this argument, let me lay out Hobbes’ own methodologies as a reader. Hobbes demonstrates his methodologies and understanding of reading throughout the pages of Leviathan but principally in the second half of the book, in Parts III and IV.1 The very fact that such instruction takes place so deep into the text, long after we have begun reading the text in a more ordinary way, itself suggests how reading, for Hobbes, is not merely the neutral experience of a text but an art, a method that we can practise well or badly.

In chapter 43, right at the end of Part III, Hobbes very famously claims that when it comes to reading,

it is not the bare Words, but the Scope of the writer that giveth the true light, by which any writing is to bee interpreted; and they that insist upon single Texts, without considering the main Designe, can derive no thing from them cleerly; but rather by casting atomes of Scripture, as dust before mens eyes, make every thing more obscure than it is; an ordinary artifice of those that seek not the truth, but their own advantage.

(1651/1996: 415)

Here, Hobbes is displaying a particularly rhetorical sensibility as regards reading. To speak of ‘the Scope of the writer’ and ‘the main Designe’ suggests exactly the sorts of rhetorical constructions of texts that, as a scholar of classicism, Hobbes knew intimately. While some scholars claim that Hobbes turned his back on the traditions of classical humanism, we see the lingering effects of his classical training in the way that Hobbes approaches and produces his own text (see, for example, Strauss 1952).2 The notion of a text having a ‘Scope’ and a ‘Designe’ that offers a key to interpretation over and above any one ‘atome’ (i.e. passage) of text reproduces the classical notion that we find in authors such as Aristotle, Cicero, and Quintilian whereby the rhetorical construction of a text constitutes its ‘meaning’; in this view, such constructions tell us how we are to interpret and interact with (or read) the text overall.

Hobbes also tells us that ‘the foundation of all true Ratiocination, is the constant Signification of words’ – that is, the way we interpret or think about words – is the key to all reasoning, all knowledge (hence Hobbes’ deliberate mistranslation of nosce te ipsum as ‘read thyself’ instead of ‘know thyself’) (1651/1996: 269, 10). Such interpretation, he goes on to tell us, ‘dependeth not (as in naturall science) on the Will of the Writer nor (as in common conversation) on vulgar use, but on the sense they carry’ (ibid.: 269). This idea of ‘sense’ seeks on the specific level what an understanding of the ‘Scope’ and ‘Designe’ of the text reveals at the more general level. Interpretation for Hobbes seems to be an adjudication between the particular sense of a term or phrase in the context of the larger structuring of a text (and to an extent that, as we have seen, can be independent of the ‘Will of the Writer’). In their act of interpretation, readers should seek to discern how one part of the text fits in with that overall pattern, what these words can be said to ‘mean’ in the context of the book’s scope and design (revealing the ‘constant Signification of words’).

In describing his method of reading, Hobbes has a very complicated relationship to metaphor and other tropes, once again displaying an ambivalence towards (but, crucially, not a rejection of) his own training as a classicist. In much of the reading that he engages with throughout Levia-than (principally reading of Scripture), Hobbes attacks poor readings of metaphors. Thus, for example, when he discusses the term ‘Spirit of God’ in chapter 34 he tells us that it is a mistake to take such metaphors too literally – that is to say, to forget that these are only metaphors. He battles against reading the term ‘Spirit of God’ as it appears in Scripture as actual examples of divine presence or possession. He tells us:

In the Book of Judges, an extraordinary Zeal, and Courage in the defence of Gods people, is called the Spirit of God . . . And of Saul, upon the newes of the insolence of the Ammonites towards the men of Jabeth Gilead, it is said . . . that The Spirit of God came upon Saul, and his Anger . . . was kindled greatly.

(1651/1996: 272)

Here, Hobbes seems to denude the metaphor of all of its poetry and, indeed, its metaphorical nature in so far as it exposes many biblical passages as meaning only very ordinary things (such as ‘getting angry’ or ‘being zealous’).

Yet Hobbes demonstrates a real appreciation for metaphors in so far as they are, at least potentially, more legible as tools of representation than other words might be. In one well-known passage, Hobbes tells us that

one man calleth Wisdome, what another calleth feare; and one cruelty, what another justice. . . . And therefore such names can never be true grounds of any ratiocination. No more can Metaphors, and Tropes of speech [serve as the grounds of any ratiocination]: but these are less dangerous, because they profess their inconstancy; which the other [names] do not.

(1651/1996: 31)

In speaking of the way that metaphors ‘profess their inconstancy’, Hobbes is alluding to the way that this trope potentially exposes itself as being merely a sign, a representation (hence his ability to ‘read’ Scripture by denuding metaphor of any but the most minimal of meanings). In so far as signification is itself the grounding of ratiocination for Hobbes, an explicit awareness of the metaphorical nature of language in general is critical to avoid misattributing meanings to words. By ‘profess[ing] their inconstancy’, metaphors are (however paradoxically) helping to express the ‘constant Signification of words’; by pointing to their own representational status (and hence ‘inconstancy’ as a source of truth), metaphors point us back to the ‘constant’ fact of signification itself, the process of producing meaning via the interpretation of signs.

In this way, we see that Hobbes’ method of reading involves an explicit awareness of signification itself, over and above any one term or passage (or ‘atome’ of text). We get our sense both of a particular passage and of the scope of a text when we understand that text as being explicitly rhetorical in its construction, that is to say when we avoid various forms of linguistic ‘idolatry’ – as Hobbes considers it – wherein the fact of figurality is obscured or overwritten by some (necessarily false) claim to truth or perfect, clear meaning.3

Fitzpatrick as Reader (Of Hobbes)

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