Calvin, Hobbes, and Boyle


My sophomore year of college I took a class called Introduction to STS. STS stood for Science Technology Studies and the best description I can really give you about what STS is is that it is a mix of philosophy and science that analyzes the ways that technology affects soceity and the world around us. The field then uses that analysis to make predications and statements about the future of technology, philosophy, and science. It’s an interesting field of study.

And in this class my professor broke it down into four sections. In each section we would take a book and have a larger theme attached to it (Experiment, Control, Software and Algorithm). We would a read large book on those topics and then consume a bunch of extraneous material that centered around and accented the ideas of the author’s book.

That semester I transferred late into the class and so we were midway through the section called Experiment and we were reading The Leviathan and the Air Pump written by two Princeton professors Shapin and Schaufer. This book focused on the 17th century debate between Thomas Hobbes and Robert Boyle about what science and experimentation truly were and what they should be.  I had missed a lot of the class and thus the readings so I didn’t have the framework my professor had been working toward while I binge-read The Leviathan and the Air Pump so when we got around to discussing The 17th century pieces The Leviathan (Hobbes) and New Experiments (Boyle) I was sitting in lecture extremely tired, my brain groggy from too much talk about the formation of science, glancing through these philosophical documents, listening to my professor, and I got this idea. It was that Hobbes and Boyle, these two arguing philosophers, were kinda like Calvin and Hobbes (by Bill Waterson) the comic characters from the newspapers. Then something in my head clicked and I started making all of these connections between Calvin and Boyle and Hobbes and Boyle.

So, this is my theory about how the Calvin and Hobbes comics are a 20th century repackaging of the debate between Hobbes and Boyle over science and experimentation during the 17th century. First I’ll be covering the debate between the two, then discussing what the world has to say about Calvin and Hobbes and their origins, talking about why I think that the world is wrong, and finally arguing why Calvin is Boyle and Hobbes is Hobbes before talking about why I think this is all important (just a warning this is going to be a long one so hopefully you all can bear with me as I discuss this).

The Debate:

In the 17th century this thing called ‘Science’ was taking form. For hundreds of years prior various intellectuals had been conducting experiments, observing the world, and creating theorems and formulas in which to interpret the natural world. However, this time things were different. Before, these intellectuals could take any idea and pursue it validly in the academic world. In those ages things such as alchemy, astrology, and humourism were just as valid academically as physics, medicine, and chemistry are today.

Now today, astrology, humourism, and alchemy are generally to be considered the domain of fairy tales, outdated medicinal theory, and Medieval Fiction. That distinction is due to the emergence of what could generally be considered ‘science’. Many factors slowly brought about this change and it certainly wasn’t a light switch flicking on that brought us from trying to make gold from lead and pee to creating penicillin. No, it was a gradual process with key steps such as the development of the Royal Society, the Periodic Table, Pasteurization, and other scientific milestones that brought us into this wonderful world that we lived in filled with a myriad of technologies.

In the 1660’s there was a very important debate about the nature of this burgeoning ‘science’. The principal supporters on each side of the debate were the Political Philosopher Thomas Hobbes and the Natural Philosopher Robert Boyle. In the 1660s in his work The New Experiments Robert Boyle had described and spoken about his device called the Air Pump; this device was described as being able to create a vacuum. Additionally, in 1660 Boyle and other natural philosophers or experimenters founded the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge.

In response to the formation of the Royal Soceity and to the popularity of Boyle’s Air Pump Thomas Hobbes a political philosopher revised one of his treatises called the Leviathan (this is his 1668 version) and amongst his other writings he criticized Boyle’s experiments and the Royal Society that he had helped to create. This began a long running debate that has remained active throughout the centuries about how science should go about being done.

Boyle believed that the formulation of ‘matters of fact’ should be derived from experimentation and then ideas about the world and theories should arise from the matters of fact that experiments provided the world with. Hobbes disagreed at a fundamental level. For one, he did not believe that Boyle’s experiments were accurate or reliable, nor did he even believe they were necessary. He was a proponent of the description of ‘matters of fact’ based on ‘obvious experiments,’ observation of the natural world.  Hobbes’ hatred of the Royal Soceity was rooted in the idea that it was a corrupt institution that was controlled by the Aristocracy (which in truth it sort of was). Hobbes supported the idea of the “lay university” where the common man could become educated, but ultimately, he came to believe that even this ‘lay university’ was ultimately unnecessary because man should be able to gain all knowledge about the world from natural obvious experimentation. He believed that there could/should be no ‘special space in which conduct experiments.

“If experiment is to be chained within the space of a secret society (The Royal Society) then it will serve the interests and become a slave of the soceity.” – Me paraphrasing Hobbes

Hobbes viewed his program of natural philosophy as superior. Even though Hobbes attacked Boyle viciously, Boyle had the support of the Royal Soceity around him as well as experiments to back up his claim. Boyle created hundreds of experimental devices, his air pump being the most famous of them. And though Hobbes criticized flaws in the design of Boyle’s air pump, Boyle’s philosophy allowed for the gradual development and improvement of experimental method as time went on (this is the beginning of the scientific method that we have today). Because Boyle had results and a lot of fancy technology while Hobbes had words and only observations, Boyle for hundreds of years has been the winner of this debate even though there is no official declaration of defeat on either side of the debate.

What the World Thinks:

Moving on to Calvin and Hobbes. The world thinks that Calvin is based off John Calvin (a 15th century theologian) and that Hobbes is based off Thomas Hobbes (the one I’ve been talking about). And in an interview in 1987 bill Waterson did say that he thought of them like that. Also, a quick google search’s top articles will give you 100 percent confirmation of this. Wikipedia and say so, so who would ever doubt those two sources?


What the world thinks is Wrong:

Waterson eventually did adopt the idea that Calvin and Hobbes were based off of those men, but that wasn’t until two years after he had begun making the comics (they were a huge success by the end of the first year). Actually, Calvin was supposed to be named Marvin, but Waterson’s his editor changed it, a change that Waterson had nothing to do with (this fact was revealed by Waterson’s biographer and life-long friend). He said that Hobbes might be a nod to Waterson’s Political Science department at the college where he got his Political Science degree, but this is an unfounded claim. But when you’re writing a satirical comic that got top billing in over 250 newspapers across the United States every week and when the other main form of cartoon is political cartoon how long can you honestly expect the political analysts to not make a connection? Waterson is a smart guy (you can see how smart by reading the comics). Is it too much to think that once this idea that has formed over two years of being a popular comic, people saying that this is one thing when it is really not…well who wouldn’t go along with that idea. It becomes a testament to the brilliance of the cartoonist.

However, when you really look at Calvin he doesn’t line up with John Calvin, but the world doesn’t routinely read through 17 century literature so no one is around to correct that surface deep connection. It’s just a nice bit of trivia that no one needed to fact check that Waterson was able to gain a tiny bit of prestige from.

Now let’s take a look at some facts:

It just fits better that these two comic characters would be Hobbes and Boyle and not Calvin and Hobbes.

Hopefully, I have either convinced or have begun to convince you of idea that Calvin and Hobbes isn’t about John Calvin and Thomas Hobbes and that the Calvin and Hobbes comic better fit the debate between Robert Boyle and Thomas Hobbes over experimentation and matters of fact.

Marvin is Boyle and Hobbes is Hobbes:

Boyle believed that experimental observation is the way that we come about deriving matters of fact. This can be seen in the comics by the way that Calvin Is always active and experimenting with the world around. His constant escapades down hills with his wagons and the sleds as well as his miniseries about his flying beanie.  Additionally, he always inventing strange devices: The transmogrifier, the Calvin Cloner, and the Transmorgifier ray gun to name a few. Meanwhile, Hobbes never invents anything. Instead, Hobbes’ knowledge and wisdom are derived from the world around him, by obvious experiments; he never invents, he merely observes the world around him and uses those observations in order to influence the way he views the world.

A common comic environment in which Calvin and Hobbes find themselves is when Calvin is doing homework and he asks Hobbes for help.  Hobbes then explains the math and science in rather nonsensical ways (Example: What’s a pronoun? A noun that has lost its amateur status!) but ways that might appear obvious to a natural observer (albeit a sarcastic one).

Calvin is a member of society. He goes (begrudgingly) to school (perhaps a representation of the Royal Soceity?) where he gains these matters of fact that Hobbes then comes into direct conflict with. Hobbes’ explanation of Calvin’s school work could be analogous to how Thomas Hobbes attacked the Royal Soceity he was never a part of.

Lastly Hobbes is a tiger, a symbol of nature. Hobbes the tiger also focuses his ideas on the natural world similarly to how the Philosopher Hobbes believed that trhough the observation of the natural world is how we derive matters of fact. While on the flipside Calvin day-dreams and experiments showing that the believes that the value of the world is gained from the creation of things that we then test and gain matters of fact from.

Why am I bothering to talk about any of this?

To some I might just be rambling, to others I might be attacking the legacy of one of their favorite comics and cartoonists. But, that’s not what I’m doing (in my opinion at least). So, what am I trying to say here?

17th century literature sucks. I can’t imagine most people have read it. But I have read the Leviathan and New Experiments and good bit of other 17th century literature. It is hard to get trhough. However, philosophy needs to be taught, and more importantly, two-sided philosophy needs to be taught. If there is only one dominant form of soceity you usually have a society that is dominated by a religion and that develops into indulgences, the protestant revolution, the Spanish Inquisition, and things like Young-Earth Creationism. When a philosophy dominates without something to conflict it, nothing is learned, a doctrine is memorized. But, when you see two conflicting philosophies going head to head routinely, the reader can have an internal dialogue in which they can decide for themselves what part of each program they actually support or agree with.

You don’t have a favorite out of Calvin and Hobbes, right? And you certainly don’t think that one way is right one hundred percent of the time or that one character was bad, and one was good? Of course not! That’s because you get exposure to the good and bad points of each view. That’s why there aren’t’ Calvinist and Hobbesian (within the realm of the comics) that think Calvin is right all the time and the Hobbes is wrong (and vice versa).

Calvin and Hobbes are accessible. It also teaches about this extremely important debate that was critical in forming how the world viewed science and experimentation. And I don’t know where you were taught philosophy, but I had to go to college and take a class on Science Technology Studies to get exposure to this debate and only under thirty people in my school are actually required to take the class (even though about sixty take it a year) Sixty out a school of thousands get exposure to this debate.

There needs to be a mainstream way to view philosophy where it is not obvious that you’re learning, subconscious philosophy if you will. That’s why Calvin and Hobbes is such an important comic. It isn’t about the funniness, it is about the depth that the comic gives the reader that made it one of the greatest comics. And that’s why I’m bothering to talk about this, because if after listening to this someone goes and rereads Calvin and Hobbes they might have a chance to get a little more out of it.

What better reason is there to do anything than that?

And even if I’m wrong, if Bill Waterson ever gets a hold of this and tells me that I’m wrong, it’s not going to change how I look at Calvin and Hobbes. Art is subjective, literature is subjective, and this interpretation of the comic is just as valid. Valid knowledge can still be gained from this view, even if it is wrong.