Freedom in Hobbes's Ontology and Semantics: A Comment on Quentin Skinner
Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol 73, 2012, pp 111-26
17 Pages Posted: 6 Dec 2015
Date Written: 2012
The development of Hobbes’s thinking about freedom illustrates a general thesis: that the conceptual shifts tracked in contextualist analysis may sometimes be 'semantic' rather than 'ontological' in character; they may be changes in how thinkers apply certain words and concepts to the social world, as they conceive of it, rather than changes in their conception of that world. Quentin Skinner has provided an illuminating account of the shifts in Hobbes’s thinking about freedom, thereby illustrating his own contextualist approach, but under minor, albeit independently interesting revisions, the account bears out this claim about semantics and ontology. Hobbes maintains a continuing picture of the political world throughout his development, insisting that the relation between sovereign and subjects is analogous in important ways to the relation between master and slaves, at least when the slaves are bound by words rather than chains. What changes in that development is the definition he chooses to give to ‘freedom’, ‘liberty’ and their cognates, not his conception of the role of sovereign and subjects or of the relationship between them.
Keywords: Hobbes, Skinner, freedom, contextualist
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