February 19, 2005

A Hobbesian choice

The anonymous blogger at G as in Good, H as in Happy points out a mistake in a New York Magazine column by Kurt Anderson:

Each of us has a Hobbesian choice concerning Iraq; either we hope for the vindication of Bush’s risky, very possibly reckless policy, or we are in a de facto alliance with the killers of American soldiers and Iraqi civilians. [emphasis added]

As GH observes, Anderson almost certainly meant a Hobson's choice rather than a "Hobbesian choice". GH wonders whether Anderson's dilemma is strictly a Hobson's choice, which has traditionally been taken (as the OED puts it) to mean "the option of taking the one thing offered or nothing".

Her full measure of scorn, however, is reserved for the substitution of Hobbesian:

How on earth can Hobbes, author of Leviathan and other works that intended to show the English the dangers of democracy and demonstrated the need for absolute sovereignty in society, be the reference here?

Perhaps Anderson was thinking of Hobbes' observation about the inadequacy of unilateral action to yield a state of peace:

For as long as every man holdeth this right, of doing anything he liketh; so long are all men in the condition of war. But if other men will not lay down their right, as well as he, then there is no reason for anyone to divest himself of his: for that were to expose himself to prey, which no man is bound to, rather than to dispose himself to peace.

Or perhaps Anderson had some vaguer notion that Hobbes described individuals as powerless to reach any just outcome at all, facing a set of unattractive choices because of "the ill condition which man by mere nature is actually placed in".

But here we're discussing whether Anderson's substitution is a classical malapropism, a mere "humorous confusion of words that sound vaguely similar", or an eggcorn, where the substitution represents a plausible but historically incorrect re-analysis of a familiar word or phrase.

The key linguistic point is that Hobson's blocks Hobbesian here. Even if there is a valid and coherent reason for Anderson to see his choice as a "Hobbesian choice", he can't use that phrase without taking literate readers aback, and leading some of them to make fun of him. Unless, of course, he can convince them that the whole thing was a clever pun all along.

In April of 2003, Peter Wood at NRO discussed a lawyer's use of the same phrase in oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court, in the (affirmative action) case of Gratz v. Bollinger. Wood writes that

I understand that lawyers arguing before the Supreme Court have only a few precious minutes, and many of those are taken up with answering questions. Thus they have to give pithy answers and sometimes depend on sly allusions that may convey a lot to the Court but can puzzle laymen. Mr. Payton appears to be a master at this kind of coded communication.

And therefore he may have intended to combine this erudite reference to Thomas Hobbes with his comic-strip namesake, the skeptical plush toy tiger whose shares the adventures of Calvin, the six-year-old boy with the hyperactive imagination. In the strip, the dubious Hobbes repeatedly gets into the transmorgifier with Calvin knowing it will propel them into mischief and disaster. The Hobbesian choice, in this context, is to assume unwanted adult responsibility -- and I can understand why Mr. Payton would object to that. He would rather transmogrify unqualified kids into college students.

As I said, if you use a phrase like that, people are going to make fun of you. However, it seems to me that Peter Wood is not being fair and balanced here. In order to use the Hobbesian slip to mock advocates of affirmative action, Wood attributes it to John Payton, who argued the case on behalf of the University of Michigan. And indeed Payton used the phrase first, according to transcript at www.oyez.com:

JUSTICE SCALIA: You don't have to be the great college that you are. You could be a lesser college if that value is important enough to you.

MR. PAYTON: I think uh that decision uh which would say that we have to choose uh would be a Hobbesean [Hobson's] choice here.

But Kirk Kolbo, who argued the case on behalf of Jennifer Gratz and Patrick Hamacker, takes the Hobbesian ball and runs with it in his closing remarks, using the phrase six times in his final 100 words:

With respect to the Hobbesean [Hobson's] choice that Mr. Payton has talked about, they have resolved a different Hobbesean [Hobson's] choice. The University has decided that they are willing to lower their academic standards to get their critical mass.

They've resolve that Hobbesean [Hobson's] choice that way. But they've resolved the other Hobbesean [Hobson's choice] how to get those objectives and stay selective, they've resolved that Hobbesean [Hobson's] choice on the backs of the constitutional rights of individuals like Jennifer Gratz and Patrick Hamacker. They are the ones who are paying for the Hobbesean [Hobson's] choice that the university has resolved by the use of a two-track admissions system.

Wood says that "diversity's defenders came across as stridently self-righteous and pretty sloppy about the details. Mr. Payton's aversion to making a 'Hobbesian choice' captures that perfectly." But Kolbo's repeated accomodation to Payton's error was hardly a model of terminological precision. It reminded me of Pat Buchanan's accommodation to Ali G's talk about Saddam Hussein's "weapons of mass destruction or whatever, or as they is called, BLTs".

In any event, it seems that there is a sporadic tendency to use Hobbesian choice to mean a choice among flawed alternatives, especially where basic principles come into conflict. I'd call this a "citational eggcorn".

[Update: John Lawler points out by email that if I had looked a little further down Google's list of hits for {"Hobbesian choice"}, I would have found at #17 an explicit explanation of the folk etymology behind the eggcorn:

George's current dilemma is a classic Hobbesian choice, which is no choice at all, the name of which derives from Thomas Hobbes' belief that man must choose between living in a state of nature (a life which is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short") or suffering under an arbitrary and absolute government.

In fairness to Hobbes, he does hold out the hope that collective action can establish the rule of law, and therefore the possibility of justice. Anyhow, this reference adds plausibility to the idea that other authors of Hobbesian slips are making a similar semantic reanalysis.

It's a curious coincidence, by the way, that Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan was published in 1660, the very year of the OED's first citation for "Hobson's choice":

1660 S. FISHER Rusticks Alarm Wks. (1679) 128 If in this Case there be no other (as the Proverb is) then Hobson's choice..which is, chuse whether you will have this or none.


[Update #2: Chris Waigl has additional information and interesting thoughts over at serendipity, including a link to an ADS-L posting by Arnold Zwicky, and a discussion of the French phrase choix cornélien.]

[Update 3/6/2005: Anderson says it was a clever pun all along. ]


Posted by Mark Liberman at February 19, 2005 07:57 AM