Field 2020

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

Sandra Field


The distinction between sovereignty and government has received renewed attention in recent times. In the hands of neo-Hobbesians such as Richard Tuck, the distinction offers a neat solution to democracy's woes. For first, regardless of all the complex operations of modern government, a political order's democratic credentials can be determined by assessing whether there is underlying absolute democratic sovereignty. And second, even if this democratic sovereign normally is 'sleeping', it may wake up and hold government to account, with its characteristic form of action being mass plebiscitary decision.

In this paper, I offer both a textual and a conceptual critique of the distinction. Textually, the 'sleeping sovereign' only makes a strong appearance in Hobbes's earlier writings; it is strikingly absent in Leviathan. Tuck would dismiss this omission as a mere matter of political prudence on Hobbes's part. However, to the contrary, I argue that in fact Hobbes drops it with good reason. In my forthcoming book, I show that Hobbes's later political writings lay out a new account of concrete human power, according to which power is relationally constituted in actual quotidian interactions. In this paper, I argue that this new account of concrete power reveals a profound problem with 'sleeping sovereignty'. A sovereign must have a certain degree of concrete power if it is to retain its sovereign status; I argue that a 'sleeping sovereign' would be likely to lack the requisite degree of power, making it either toothless or a cause of conflict in the polity.

This paper grows out of a single section of the originally planned paper. The originally planned paper focussed on a puzzle that Hoekstra identifies for Hobbes regarding political unity. Hoekstra suggests that Hobbes does not ultimately solve the puzzle, so much as he simply sidesteps it, by allowing mixed constitutionalism at the level of government, but insisting on unmixed authority at the level of sovereignty. Sovereignty, on Hoekstra's account, 'recedes into the role of an abstract first mover'[1]; there is little practical difference between the models of governance of Hobbes and the mixed constitutionalists. However, on my account, the distinction between sovereignty and government should be treated with suspicion; Hobbes's absolutist views of sovereignty do mark a profound difference, both theoretical and practical, between him and the mixed constitutionalists.


[1] Kinch Hoekstra (2013), 'Early Modern Absolutism and Constitutionalism', Cardozo Law Review 34 (3), 1098.

Draft Paper

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