Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Freedom in Hobbes's Ontology and Semantics: A Comment on Quentin Skinner

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Freedom in Hobbes's Ontology and Semantics: A Comment on Quentin Skinner

Article excerpt

In the contextualist methodology that Quentin Skinner has championed throughout his career, "the history of thought should be viewed not as a series of attempts to answer a canonical set of questions, but as a sequence of episodes in which the questions as well as the answers have frequently changed."1 Bringing this methodology to bear on the work of a single thinker, Skinner argues in his recent book that in a short span of just over ten years Hobbes, stung by the work of radical and parliamentary writers, went through just such a radical shift in his thinking about the meaning of political liberty.2 While describing Hobbes as concerned throughout that period with the single "question of human liberty," he maintains that his 1651 "analysis of liberty in Leviathan represented not a revision but a repudiation of what he had earlier argued" in his 1640 manuscript, The Elements ofLaW) and indeed his two editions of De Give in the mid 1640s.3 In upholding this thesis he describes my claim that there is "no evidence of any significant change" in Hobbes's theory between those works as an example of the sort of position he rejects.4

I think that the methodology articulated by Quentin Skinner, John Dunn, and others is of enormous importance; that it yields fruit in application to the development of Hobbes's thinking about liberty, as Skinner shows; and yet that there is a limited sense - perhaps more limited than I originally envisaged5 - in which no significant change takes place in Hobbes's thinking over the 1640's. In defending this viewpoint I hope to underscore a more general lesson: that the conceptual shifts tracked in contextualist analysis may sometimes be "semantic" rather than "ontological" Jn character. They may be changes in how certain words and concepts are defined over the recognized constituents of social and political reality rather than a change in the accepted account of those constituents and their relationships. I do not think that Skinner need differ from me on this issue but I believe that it may be useful to make the distinction.

My paper is in three parts. In the first, I describe Hobbes's unchanging account of the ways - particularly, the power-relevant ways - in which people relate to one another in private association and in the public world of the commonwealth: I call this, his political ontology. This ontology is fairly clearly present in Leviathan and De CiVe, as I shall indicate, and the main aim of the section is to demonstrate its presence in Elements as well. With that ontology set out, I then go on in the second section to show that what shifts between Elements and Leviathan^ as Skinner's argument demonstrates, is the semantics of the word "liberty" and its cognates. Despite having the same picture of social and political reality in his different works, Hobbes varies on the question of how to define liberty and more specifically on whether the definition allows us to describe the members of a commonwealth as free. Skinner's work provides a persuasive argument for a development in the semantics of freedom but not - as he may be happy to agree - for any change in the ontology that that semantics presupposes. Finally, in the third section of the paper, I argue that the break in Hobbes's thinking comes in De CiVe, not just in Leviathan^ and that Skinner is mistaken to present the former work as transitional in character.


In the brief compass available the best way to set out Hobbes's view of how people relate in power-relevant ways within the private and public worlds may be to itemize the crucial propositions that he endorses. I will set out eight such propositions in the form they assume in Elements^ and then add some brief comments on the evidence for their appearance in the later works as well.

1. There are two forms in which someone may be the slave or servant of another; in one the slave is bound by corporal restraints, in the other by contractual bonds. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.