Words and Things in the Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes

Lead Research Organisation: University College London
Department Name: History


Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) was one of the most influential and controversial philosophers in seventeenth century Europe. His magnum opus, Leviathan (1651), is widely regarded as the most influential work of political philosophy written in English, and through the 1668 Latin edition it has had a tremendous influence on continental political philosophy as well. Leviathan remains a canonical text for historians and political scientists alike for its contribution to the theory of natural rights, social contracts, and political representation. In the field of intellectual history, Hobbes has acquired a special prominence, and was indeed one of the first subjects of the 'contextualist' method of historical writing through the work of Quentin Skinner. Yet this widespread interest in Hobbes' political thought has often led to the anachronistic impression that Hobbes was primarily, if not solely, a political philosopher. This does not reflect his seventeenth century reputation. Indeed, Hobbes was already in his sixties when Leviathan was published, and by that time had acquired a formidable reputation as a natural philosopher, logician, geometer, and translator. This was Hobbes as he was known to Galileo, Mersenne, Descartes, and Leibniz.
In continental Europe, Hobbes was particularly notorious for his confrontation with Descartes and his followers over the role of language in mediating between the mind and the world. It is precisely this aspect of Hobbes' thought with which I am concerned. Dubbed by Leibniz as plusquam nominalis [more than a nominalist], Hobbes argued that 'reasoning depends on names', and that truth and falsehood were 'properties of speech, not of things.' These remarks generated considerable international controversy. In what would become a familiar complaint against Hobbes, Descartes asked 'if [Hobbes] admits that words mean something, why does he not want our reasoning to be about the something signified, rather than merely about words?' The prevailing concern was that the distinction between right and wrong, or reality and fiction, could be dismissed as mere linguistic convention on Hobbes' account. Antoine Arnauld and Pierre Nicole devoted a section of their hugely influential logical textbook, La Logique, ou l'Art de Penser (1662), to refuting Hobbes' claims about language, referring to them as 'false opinions promoted by an Englishman.' Seth Ward went so far as to suggest that Hobbes' pronouncements on language were intended 'to teach that nothing is good or bad in itself.'
Given the substantial attention paid to Hobbes' nominalism by his contemporaries, it is surprising that this aspect of Hobbes' thought remains largely unexplored by historians. As Cees Leijenhorst has noted, there remains no clear historical account of the character or development of Hobbes' conception of the relationship between words and things. It is because of this lacuna that there has been an unhealthy reliance in the historiography on polemical interpretations provided by Hobbes' contemporaries. A recent example of this trend can be found in The Early Modern Problem of Universals (2017), where Hobbes' nominalism is considered in two articles by Stewart Duncan and Stefano Di Bella. Both scholars begin from Leibniz' premise that Hobbes was a 'super-nominalist' (Leroy Loemker's dramatic translation of plusquam nominalis), and attempt to find passages in Hobbes' De corpore (1655) conformable to that description. This is a problematic methodology. It seems patent that the question for Hobbes scholars cannot be 'was Hobbes a supernominalist?', a term which he did not use and could not have anticipated. Instead, Hobbes' own intentions in advancing a linguistic account of reason, truth, and perception must be recovered. By contextualising Hobbes' most notorious texts on language within specific seventeenth century debates on the relationship between words and things, I would aim to provide a clear historical account of his nominalism.


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