The Fate of Nebuchadnezzar

Curiosity and Human Nature in Hobbes

In: Hobbes Studies

This paper makes a case for the centrality of the passion of curiosity to Hobbes’s account of human nature. Hobbes describes curiosity as one of only a few capacities differentiating human beings from animals, and I argue that it is in fact the fundamental cause of humanity’s uniqueness, generating other important difference-makers such as language, science and politics. I qualify Philip Pettit’s (2008) claim that Hobbes believes language to be the essence of human difference, contending that Pettit grants language too central a place in Hobbes’s psychology. Language is, for Hobbes, a technology adopted on account of curiosity. Further, curiosity is necessary not only for linguistic but also for scientific activity. Only after what he calls original knowledge has been gathered are names employed to generate the conditional propositions that constitute science. Finally, curiosity can resolve another puzzle of Hobbesian psychology that Pettit leaves unanswered: our tendency towards strife. Hobbes believes that insofar as human beings have an implacable hunger for knowledge of the future, we are unable to rest content with present gains and must always aspire to secure the best possible outcome for ourselves.

  • 2

     Quoted in A. A. Rogow, Thomas Hobbes: Radical in the Service of Reaction (New York and London: W. W. Norton, 1986), 191.

  • 3

    P. Pettit, Made with Words: Hobbes on Language, Mind and Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), 2.

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    Pettit, Made with Words, 26.

  • 13

    Pettit, Made with Words, 3.

  • 18

    Pettit, Made with Words, 15.

  • 30

    Pettit, Made with Words, 37.

  • 33

     See P. G. Walsh, “The Rights and Wrongs of Curiosity (Plutarch to Augustine),” Greece & Rome 35, no. 1 (1988), 73–85.

  • 45

    Barnouw, “Hobbes’s Psychology of Thought,” 527. Pace Pettit, who claims that “the natural mind that is common to beasts and humans is limited [….] it only develops its beliefs and forms its desires in an unregulated, non-intentional manner; those internal motions come and go without any intentional, desire-driven control” (Made with Words, 144).

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  • 49

    Barnouw, “Hobbes’s Psychology of Thought,” 528.

  • 57

    Hungerland and Vick, “Hobbes’s Theory of Language, Speech and Reasoning,” 95.

  • 70

    Pettit, Made with Words, 96.

  • 73

    L. Strauss, What Is Political Philosophy? And Other Studies (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 175.

  • 82

    Strauss, What Is Political Philosophy?, 193.

  • 85

    Pettit, Made with Words, 96.

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