Field 2020

Title: "A Puzzle for Hobbes’s Conception of Political Unity"

Sandra Field


In my paper, I explore a dilemma of social ontology which arises in Hobbes's defence of unitary absolute sovereignty. Hobbes's transformed the standard ways of understanding politics in the early modern period. Many thinkers in his time understood the normative form of political society to be a 'mixed constitution': in such a constitution, a stable and just political order is brought about by balancing the power of various elements of the polity against each other. Hobbes vehemently rejects this standard view, proposing instead that the normative form of politics is a unitary constitution under an absolute sovereign.

This generates a dilemma of social ontology. The dilemma was originally posed by his contemporary critics, and has recently been resurrected by Kinch Hoekstra. Hobbes famously conceived all forms of sovereignty as popular. On his view, sovereignty is constructed by the unification of the many individual wills of subjects within a commonwealth. This allows him to defend all forms of sovereignty, whether democratic, aristocratic, or monarchical, as equally enacting the will of the people. But this argument appears to undermine his criticism of mixed constitutionalists. If it is possible to combine multiple wills of individual subjects into sovereignty, why could it not equally be possible to combine the wills of the various political bodies of a mixed constitution? The puzzle of social ontology, posed sharply by Hoekstra, is how the two cases are relevantly different; Hoekstra takes Hobbes to be simply inconsistent.

To the contrary, by drawing attention to the structures of the concrete power (potentia) of the sovereign generated in the respective cases, I will offer a principled account of the varying possibility of constituting a single political will out of diverse human and institutional elements.

Draft Paper

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