Opening the Future: The Paradox of Promising in the Hobbesian Social Contract

By Bernasconi, Robert | Philosophy Today, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

Opening the Future: The Paradox of Promising in the Hobbesian Social Contract


Bernasconi, Robert, Philosophy Today


To breed an animal with the right to make promises-is not this the paradoxical task that nature has set itself in the case of man? Nietzsche

When at the beginning of modernity philosophers were seeking an alternative account of political authority to that provided, for example, by proponents of the divine right of Kings, many of them looked to place at the very basis of society the idea of a contract.' The language of contract was already widespread in political discussions and so was by no means the sole property of social contract theorists.2 However, even though the social contract was not anything anyone remembered, nor even anything that could be found recorded in history, the idea of such a contract caught on and continues to resonate. This is because social contract theory provides a framework for answering questions not only about the way societies are formed and legitimate governments are established, but also about the relation of individuals to the societies to which they belong. The social contract was not just one contract among others. It was sometimes called the original contract. But how original was it? The more original it was, the more difficult it was to explain its own origins. Did the contract rely on preexisting obligations or did it introduce the first moral obligations? Was it a form of words by which one had to abide or was it the agreement that constituted language in the first place? Did it bind one to a preexisting identity or did it produce that identity? Did it commit one to a specific future or was it only through the contract that there was a future at all?

On the standard interpretation, the social contract marked the moment when a collection of individuals agreed among themselves to form a societas in the sense of an alliance or partnership. They gave up their natural freedom for the sake of a more secure and more fulfilling freedom. In the process they exchanged an uncertain future for a less open but more definite future, one which they judged to be to their mutual benefit. In Hobbes, this future was defined as a condition of peace that made possible what he called "industry."' Although it is true that, in general, promises introduce restrictions that either tie one down to the performance of a specific act or establish an ongoing commitment, I shall try to show that this does not hold for the Hobbesian social contract. I shall argue that the role of the social contract is not so much to secure a specific future, as it is to open the future as such. I shall also suggest that the social contract bound an individual not only to others but also to him- or her-self. This means that, although the institution of promising in general obliges one to be true to one's word, the social contract establishes the conditions for promising to be possible, which includes the provision of language, as well as the securing of the identity of the individual. However, the primary issue, the one to which I will turn first and to which I will devote the most attention, concerns promising itself. For Hobbes, the promise to keep one's promises is the initial principle, the principle of all principles, and the social contract is, among other things, that promise.

The social contract so entirely exceeds that which precedes it that it cannot be reduced to a moment within a narrative. Because Hobbes's texts have largely been read as presenting a narrative, in part under the influence of subsequent developments in social contract theory, but also in part under the impact of certain directives within those texts themselves, there will be some tension not only between my reading and more conventional interpretations, but also within my reading. Hobbes's texts are not without ambiguity and, inevitably no single interpretation can accommodate all their facets. Contemporary Hobbes scholarship has perhaps tended to sacrifice what is most radical in the Hobbesian analysis for the sake of maximizing its overall coherence, but the result has been a version of the social contract that offers less to the philosophical imagination than the Kantian model. …

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