Politics in Hobbes' mechanics: a case study in the sociology of scientific knowledge

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Virginia Tech


A case study in the sociology of scientific knowledge is presented involving an examination of the development of Thomas Hobbes' mechanics in light of Hobbes' political views and the political context. Hobbes provides a good subject for research in the sociology of scientific knowledge for at least two reasons. First, Hobbes is a good case for examining the interaction between science and the broader political context. Given the controversial nature of Hobbes' political writings (supposedly grounded in his mechanics and aimed at resolving contemporary political problems), the possibility that political considerations entered into the production and reception of Hobbes' mechanics deserves attention. Second, applying new perspectives in the sociology of scientific knowledge can be shown to provide an unexpected payoff in helping resolve persistent disputes among intellectual and political historians regarding the interpretation of Hobbes' work. Specifically, a number of confusions about the relationship between Hobbes' political philosophy and his mechanical philosophy can be cleared up by recognizing that his political views may have influenced his mechanics. The perspective of a general sociology of scientific knowledge provides an appropriate tool for overcoming the reluctance of many political and intellectual historians to examine the social roots of a scientific theory. Hobbes' goal of providing a political philosophy to resolve political turmoil, within the context of Hobbes' participation in discussions on mechanics and mechanical philosophy , resulted in the particular mechanical approach Hobbes embraced.