Print this chapterPrint this chapter

Political Philosophy: Unit 2 The state of nature

2.1 Unit overview

Political philosophy is centred on the study of the state: what it is, what it should do, and what justifies its existence. To help think about these questions, some philosophers start by trying to imagine what life would be like without the state: in other words, in the ‘state of nature’. This unit explores the fascinating question of how human beings would behave if they were not constrained by government and the law. Would there be peace and harmony, or war? How can we know?

In this unit you will:

  • be introduced to the idea of the state of nature
  • consider the different accounts of the state of nature provided by Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau
  • come to see the ways in which assumptions about human nature influence philosophers’ accounts of the state of nature
  • develop your own views about the plausibility of different accounts of human nature.

As in all the units to follow, you will also become acquainted with some technical terminology, learn some important philosophical distinctions, and reflect on the methodology of political philosophy.

This unit begins by looking in detail at the question of why political philosophers are interested in considering what life would be like in a ‘state of nature’, without government.

You will then be guided through the views of Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, in turn, looking both at extracts from primary texts and at discussions of their views in the main course textbook.

Alongside the optional reading activity, there are three types of activities in this unit.

  • Quizzes that will help you understand the views of these thinkers. In particular, it will help you to see the ways in which assumptions about human nature lead to different views concerning the state of nature. This is split into four short sections, one each on Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau and a final one considering them all together.
  • Reflection activities that will help you consolidate your thoughts.
  • A discussion concerning the plausibility of the different accounts of human nature and the state of nature.

You should answer the quiz questions on Hobbes as soon as you have finished the reading assignments on Hobbes. Similarly for Locke and Rousseau. On completing the Rousseau quiz, you should answer the final section of the quiz.

You will be prompted to make notes after the completion of each short quiz, to help prepare you for the discussion activity. Please try to start this activity by the evening of day 4 so as to maximise the time for discussion.

By the end of this unit you will have an understanding of:

  • the idea of the ‘state of nature’
  • the differing accounts of the state of nature provided by Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau
  • the way in which assumptions about human nature inform philosophers’ accounts of the state of nature.

In doing these things you will be engaging in:

  • various thought experiments
  • conceptual analysis
  • causal reasoning

You may find some of the primary sources difficult to understand. Don’t worry. I still find many of them tough too, 25 years after I first read them. Often the language is hard to understand because it is written in an unfamiliar form of English from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. If you are having trouble understanding the primary text, skim-read it and then move on to the Wolff textbook. If you are still having difficulty, get onto the forums and tell people what the problem is. If there is something you don’t understand, then someone else might be able to help. Your tutor is there to help too, but can only help you if he or she knows you are having a problem!

Out of curiosity, you might want to look at a ‘translation’ of passages from Locke into modern English, produced by the philosopher Jonathan Bennett.

This forms part of a series of such translations produced by Bennett.

If you want to check these versions against the originals on which we shall be concentrating, the readings from this unit are in Chapters 2 and 3 of Locke’s Second Treatise on Government.

Locke's book is available online. Here are the links to the editions made available online by the Liberty Fund and by the Constitution Society.