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Philosophy of the Social


No Letters: Hobbes and 20th-Century Philosophy of Language

W.P. Grundy
Philosophy of the Social Sciences 2008 38: 486 originally published online 15
September 2008
DOI: 10.1177/0048393108323862

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Philosophy of
the Social Sciences
Volume 38 Number 4
December 2008 486-512
No Letters 2008 Sage Publications
Hobbes and 20th-Century hosted at
Philosophy of Language

W. P. Grundy
University of Cambridge, UK

The author argues that Thomas Hobbes anticipates a set of questions about
meaning and semantic order that come to fuller expression in the 20th
century, in the writings of W.V.O. Quine, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Donald
Davidson, Jacques Derrida, and Richard Rorty. Despite their different points
of departure, these 20th-century writers pose a number of profound questions
about the conditions for the stability of meaning, and about the conditions
that govern the use of the term language itself. Though the more recent
debate benefits from a set of philosophical tools unavailable in the seven-
teenth century, the author further argues that Hobbes performs a number of
maneuvers in his texts from which his 20th-century successors would profit.

Keywords: Hobbes; language; meaning; analytic philosophy; Wittgenstein


Since the classical characterization of man as the the idea

that man is distinguished by his possession of language has been common-
place. The questions subsequent philosophers have asked involve how (not
if) meaning, signification, reference, synonymy, intention, and other lin-
guistic processes work. Many of the major philosophical voices of the 20th
century challenge precisely that ancient dogma. W. V. O. Quine, Ludwig
Wittgenstein, Donald Davidson, Jacques Derrida, Richard Rorty, and others
initiate a new form of philosophical interrogation, an interrogation into the
conditions of language, by which I mean not only the conditions of linguistic

Received 15 February 2007

Authors Note: I wish to thank Raymond Geuss, Martin Kusch, and Simon Schaffer for dis-
cussion of the ideas in this article. I am also grateful to Daniel Garber and Paul Lodge for the
opportunity to present an early version of the argument to the Oxford Seminar in Early Modern


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Grundy / Hobbes and Philosophy of Language 487

utterance,1 but, more fundamentally, the conditions for using the word lan-
guage itself. Moving beyond questions of how the words of language refer,
this new form of interrogation pushes the question a step backward, or
downward, and asks whether language itself is a term with a referent: if
we want to persist in calling the human being the animal that has language,
what exactly are we saying that this particular kind of animal has?
It is a form of questioning that cuts across 20th-century philosophy and
that bridges traditional gaps between English-, German-, and French-
language traditions. Davidson, for example, concludes in A Nice Derange-
ment of Epitaphs that there is no such thing as a language, not if a lan-
guage is anything like what many philosophers and linguists have
supposed (Davidson [1986] 2005, 107); the later Wittgenstein treats the
word language not as a super-concept but as a term on the same level
as our more humble words (PI 97); and Derrida argues that linguistic
meaning is in a continual state of postponement and deferralit is forever
unrealizable.2 In a study of Derrida and Wittgenstein as deconstructive
philosophers, Henry Staten draws the following conclusion:

The deconstructive critique of language could even be phrased as a denial

that there is language. Not, of course, a denial that we speak and write, that
we have dictionaries and Berlitz schools and so on, but a denial that there is
any boundary of essence between what we call language and what we think
of as nonlanguage. (Staten 1985, 21)

Statens point is familiar from Wittgensteins Philosophical Investigations.

What we call language has not the formal unity that [we] imagined, but
is [a] family of structures more or less related to one another (PI 108). In
making these claims, neither Staten, nor Wittgenstein, nor Derrida, Quine,
Davidson, or Rorty, wishes to deny commonsense intuitions about when
and where we apply the word language. Rather, they are denying a spe-
cific essentialist picture of what language isthe idea that language can be
defined and analyzed as a determinate set of practices and that those prac-
tices can be definitively distinguished from the other patterns and institu-
tions that constitute human life.
In this essay, I want to pursue the idea that Thomas Hobbes anticipates
many of the thematic concerns reflected in this particular strand of 20th-
century philosophy.3 Of course, my aim is not to collapse nearly 400 years
of history into a singular set of philosophical themes. I do not want to
understate the particularity of Hobbess intellectual context, nor of the dis-
tinctive philosophical vocabulary of the 16th and 17th centuries.4 I take
those caveats to be beyond dispute. I examine these ideas in Hobbess work

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488 Philosophy of the Social Sciences

rather in the following spirit, that while many of the linguistic themes that
troubled Hobbes may have been more fully and more subtly addressed in
the 20th century, his texts, and especially Leviathan, contain a series of
maneuvers from which his 20th-century successors would profit.
Though Ian Hacking (1975, 23) argues that Hobbes does not have a
comprehensive theory of meaning, there are nevertheless compelling rea-
sons for reading Leviathan as a text in the philosophy of language. A small
literature has developed around exactly such an enterprise.5 As a text in the
philosophy of language, Leviathan prefigures the 20th-century tradition of
texts and thinkers that I have cited. As a text in the philosophy of politics,
Leviathan goes beyond Quine, Davidson, Wittgenstein, Derrida, Rorty,
and others in linking questions of semantic stability to the logic of power
to the logic of the publique sword. It is in that double spiritthe func-
tioning of Leviathan as a reflection on language and the functioning of
Leviathan as a reflection on powerthat I want to examine Hobbess
understanding of linguistic activity. More specifically, I assess the way in
which Hobbes understands a type of relation especially significant to 20th-
century thinkers, namely the relation between language and temporality
and the role of power in stabilizing that relation. According to Hobbes, in
the state of nature we would have no Letters and no account of Time
(Hobbes 1996, 13/89). In what sense, if any, are these two ideas connected?
In the following discussion, I have three aims. First, I sketch the prob-
lem of languagethe problem of what a language isas articulated by the
20th-century figures cited above. Second, I turn primarily to Leviathan, but
also to other Hobbesian texts, with the specific intention of identifying
points of contact between his understanding of language and those more
familiar to 20th- and 21st-century readers. Third, I show the way in which
Hobbes ties a resolution of the problem of language to a resolution of the
problem of power and politics.
Before pursuing those aims, I also want to add one note of clarification.
It is not my present intention to defend the tradition in the philosophy of lan-
guage that I recount here. Though I have sympathies with many of the
figures and texts that I describe, my discussion is rather meant to acknowl-
edge the significance of that tradition to contemporary philosophy and to
trace one of its central themesthe delimitation of languageto a set of
overlapping themes in the texts of Thomas Hobbes. My aim here is primar-
ily historical rather than programmatic. Furthermore, the discussion that fol-
lows should not be read as suggesting more general claims about the deep
nature of analytic philosophy. The points of contact that I trace between
Thomas Hobbes and 20th-century philosophy of language are specific

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Grundy / Hobbes and Philosophy of Language 489

claims about the figures and texts that I discuss rather than a more general
reading of linguistic philosophy as such.


As Hobbes tells us in Leviathan, the state of nature is a condition of both

surfeit and privation. In the absence of stabilizing political structures, human
life is characterized by an abundance of countersocial traits: Competition,
Diffidence, and Glory (Hobbes 1996, 13/88). But it is equally characterized
by lackby the absence of the artifacts of communal life: no Culture of the
Earth; no Navigation; nor use of the commodities that may be imported by
Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing
such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no
account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society (Hobbes 1996, 13/89).
Passages such as this ask us to think of both nature and political society as
global conditions. The imbrication of physical, epistemological, technologi-
cal, literary, and social resources appears in the passage as a collective
framework. And their absence is a collective absencethe absence of a
global framework in which it is possible for human beings to cultivate the
commodities of life. We might compare the globalism of Hobbess remark to
Wittgensteins observation in Philosophical Investigations that to imagine a
language means to imagine a form of life (PI 19) and that the speaking of
language is part of an activity (PI 23). Hobbes presents the structures of
social life as a matrix of elements that includes (but is not limited to) lan-
guage, technological innovation, historical awareness, fear, and power. Above
all, Hobbes asks us to reflect on Commonwealth as a habitation for both the
body and the mind. It is true, for Hobbes, that physical threats to the human
body diminish in the face of a common power.6 But it is also true that
Commonwealth creates a social and technological environment that enhances
our capacity for the knowledge of natural and social reality.7
The question left unresolved in the passage is then what the specific rela-
tions between the individual elements of social life are. Hobbes leaves
unclear, in particular, what kind of connection he wishes to make between
language and time. Is the relation between the phrases no account of
Time and no Letters one of juxtapositiona pairing of loosely related,
but ultimately separable, features of social life? Or is the relation more
intimatea pairing of features that penetrate one another to such a degree
that the absence of strategies for recording and managing time present deep
barriers to the availability of language?

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490 Philosophy of the Social Sciences

Though the passage does not in itself provide a clear account of the rela-
tion between language and time, it nevertheless anticipates a thematic con-
nection fundamental to many projects in 20th-century philosophy of
language. In the 20th century, the relation between linguistic meaning and
temporal stability is not only a question of the durability of meaning. It is a
question of the possibility of meaning. Derrida argues, for example, that our
very concept of a language, as transmitted down through the Western tradi-
tion, depends on the possibility of temporal repeatability. In Speech and
Phenomena, he writes,

A sign is never an event, if by event we mean an irreplaceable and irreversible

empirical particular. A sign which would take place but once would not be
a sign; a purely idiomatic sign would not be a sign. (Derrida 1973, 50)

Insofar as we (in the Western tradition) have a concept of language, we under-

stand by that concept a set of signs connected across space and time, exhibit-
ing an underlying regularity of use and meaning. Though Derridas own aim
is to overcome the tradition he here describes, his analysis of temporality and
signification is nevertheless a candid portrait of what Wittgenstein might call
our dominant mythology of symbolismthe mythology of a pan-temporal
super-order (PI 97) structuring our everyday experience with words,
signs, and practices. Wittgensteins own aim is to replace the idea of a super
order with the idea of an everyday orderan order shaped by ordinary prac-
tices of instruction and action, of approval and disapproval. Hobbess inno-
vation is to unearth the ways in which even that everyday conception of order
is essentially politicalto show that our experience of order, whether lin-
guistic, cognitive, or social, is shaped by both visible and invisible principles
of constraint, coercion, fear, and violence.
In linking meaning to the ordering of time, our concept of language
depends on a set of overlapping dichotomies: outsideinside, particular
universal, wordidea, bodyintellect, empiricaltranscendental, difference
sameness, realideal. The second term in each pair reflects the aspect of
meaning believed to stand outside of historical time; the first term reflects
the aspect of meaning that occurs within it. Derrida continues the above
remark by exploiting different variations of that basic dichotomy:

A signifier (in general) must be formally recognizable in spite of, and

through, the diversity of empirical characteristics which may modify it. It
must remain the same, and be able to be repeated as such, despite and across
the deformations which the empirical event necessarily makes it undergo. A

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Grundy / Hobbes and Philosophy of Language 491

phoneme or grapheme is necessarily always to some extent different each

time that it is presented in an operation or a perception. But, it can function
as a sign, and in general as language, only if a formal identity is necessarily
ideal. (Derrida 1973, 50)

The above passage tells us two things in particular. First, according to tra-
ditional Western metaphysics, a system of signs must be constituted by
more than merely empirical application. It must be underpinned by a sys-
tem of ideal, nonempirical meanings that transcend the idiosyncrasies of
particular language events.8 Words must, that is, be more than the mere spa-
tial and temporal dimensionality of their bodily shells. Second, a system of
signs must be characterized by samenessa sameness of meanings at the
ideal levelto overcome the diversity of empirical factors that contextual-
ize individual graphical and phonic events. In both cases, the possibility of
linguistic meaning depends on counteracting changes in time.
In a recent book, Samuel Wheeler (2000) identifies a set of themes
common to Quine, Wittgenstein, Davidson, Derrida, and Rorty.9 One of
Wheelers principal themes is their shared insistence on the embodiment of
words and signs and their corresponding rejection of disembodied concep-
tions of meaning. Insistence on embodiment is at the same time an insis-
tence on the historical and temporal conditions of language events.
Remarking on Davidson, Derrida, and Quine, Wheeler writes,

On my reading, the basic thought common to [them] is that any language con-
sisting of any kind of marks, whether marks on paper or marks in the soul, is
no better than words. The marks that constitute intentions, then, are also mate-
rial, and thus are present to us with something other than just an essence. . . .
If there were a part or aspect of the intention that carried the essence, that part
or aspect would itself have a materiality. (Wheeler 2000, 61-62)

Though in this passage Wheeler names Davidson, Derrida, and Quine, he

might also cite Wittgenstein, who equally insists on the materiality of lan-
guage events: We are talking about the spatial and temporal phenomenon
of language, not about some non-spatial, non-temporal phantasm (PI
108). For each of these writers, problems of meaning are inseparable from
the temporal patterns in which words are activated. If we want to under-
stand the semantic structure of our language acts, we must approach them
within these historical patterns, rather than outside of history, at a timeless
sublayer of ideal meaning.
According to Wheeler, what connects these different texts and thinkers
is a shared rejection of the self-presence of meaning in acts of language use.

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492 Philosophy of the Social Sciences

Wheeler argues that the metaphysical tradition of semantic self-presence

relies on the timelessness of what he calls the magic language:

[The magic language] is the language of nous, a language that is, in Wittgensteins
terms, self-interpreting. The magic language is the language in which we know
what we mean, think our thoughts, and form intentions. There is no question of
interpreting sentences in the magic language, since the magic language is what
interpretation is interpretation into. (Wheeler 2000, 3)

Connected to the fallacy of the magic language is the fallacy of meanings,

or of logoi. The idea of meanings and of logoi is the idea that individual
tokens of word use represent a still more basic semantic essence, invariable
across different times and places. Logoi have, according to Wheeler, taken
many forms in the history of philosophical thought: the Platonic Forms,
the senses that Frege thought words expressed, the meanings that the
logical positivists appealed to, the intentional entities of Husserl
(Wheeler 2000, 59). Each of these different models shares a commitment to
semantic items that are self-interpreting because their meaning is their
essence (Wheeler 2000, 60).
The rejection of disembodied conceptions of meaning, and their replace-
ment with everyday language events in historical time, raises well-known
dilemmas about what it means to be temporally present and what kind of
presence is characteristic of signs. Of those named, Derrida is perhaps the
most emphatic that the entire Western tradition of philosophical thinking is
in some ways based on a specific kind of temporal fallacy, according to
which linguistic meanings are fully formed, a-temporal items, capable of
being presented, and re-presented, in their entirety at different moments in
time (Derrida [1967] 1976, 1978, [1968] 1984). In seeking an insensible
level of meaninga level of self-interpreting, self-present meaningsthe
Western tradition effectively circumvents the material and historical condi-
tions of our communicative practices. Derridas concerns are anticipated
and echoed by a range of philosophers in the 20th century. While Derrida
explores the spatial and temporal assertability conditions for the term
sign, Wittgenstein, for example, explores the spatial and temporal asserta-
bility conditions for the more general term language.
For Wittgenstein, as for Derrida, our concept of language is tied to condi-
tions of temporal stability. After considering a community that exhibits no
discernible pattern in its practices, Wittgenstein concludes, for example,
There is not enough regularity for us to call it language (PI 207). But
the stability that Wittgenstein has in mind is the everyday stability of action

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Grundy / Hobbes and Philosophy of Language 493

and interaction rather than a form of stability secured outside of space and
time. We use the word language meaningfully only when we can set indi-
vidual events and encounters into a wider system of regularized practice.
Wittgensteins aim is to show the ordinariness of the concept of language
to show that it does not refer to an ideal and a-temporal substructure of sig-
nification but that it is a word we use under particular conditions to categorize
human behaviors in particular ways. The word language is of a kind with
our more ordinary words: Whereas, of course, if the words language,
experience, world, have a use, it must be as humble a one as that of the
words table, lamp, door (PI 97). One of the central conclusions of this
strand of 20th-century thought is that our practices cannot meet the condi-
tions of self-presence that an ideal and essentialist conception of language
sets down. It is in that sense that we might speak of the denial of language.


When Hobbes denies both Letters and an account of Time to the

state of nature, in what sense, if any, does he anticipate the denials of lan-
guage we find in the 20th century? At the outset, the two projects are dif-
ferent in one basic sense: although Hobbes denies certain forms of language
only outside the bounds of society, those I discussed in the previous section
deny language in principle. But that difference is not an obstacle to the
comparison I aim to make. Much like those in the 20th century, Hobbess
solution to the problem of linguistic order is based on a reconceptualization
of the notion of a language rather than on the discovery of a new kind of
item capable of securing meaning. It is in that sense that Hobbes moves
beyond these 20th-century projectsby showing (like them) that lan-
guage is a word for a complex system of everyday human interactions and
(unlike them) that the systematization of those interactions occurs accord-
ing to a logic of power. To adapt the thesis of Steven Shapin and Simon
Schaffer (1985, 100), and contrary to the reading of Ian Hacking, within
Hobbess overall attempt to show men the nature of obligation and the
foundations of secure social order, he developed a theory of meaning.
For the 20th-century philosophers discussed in the previous section, the
problem of language is about the reality of the things to which the word
language attempts to refer and about their particular modes of temporal
existence. Each of the writers cited above would deny that language refers
to a clearly definable and systematic set of principles, patterns, or practices
or that, as Wheeler writes, linguistic meanings are a form of a-historical

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494 Philosophy of the Social Sciences

logoi. Insofar as we can attribute a problem of language to Thomas

Hobbes, however, it cannot be that problemthe problem of the extension
of the word languagefor the simple reason that Hobbes does not use the
term language, in any systematic way, as part of his classificatory scheme.
In chapter 4 of Leviathan, for example, where Hobbes gives a lengthy
account of speech, signification, and communicative practices, his use of
the word language itself is incidental to his arguments. In relation to
Babel, he refers to the oblivion of [our] former language (Hobbes 1996,
4/25); he later speaks of how men abound in copiousness of language
(Hobbes 1996, 4/28). In neither case does Hobbes use the word language
as a technical genus term that systematizes the variety of our communica-
tive practices. The great majority of his remarks rather suggest an early
example of Wittgensteins later insistence on the multifaceted nature of lin-
guistic experience. Hobbess sensitivity to that variety is clear in the long
list of terms that he uses to differentiate between our many forms of lin-
guistic activityspeech, names, markes, signs, counsel, command, dis-
course, proposition, science. As with Wittgenstein, Derrida, and others,
Hobbess sensitivity to the many different ways in which we use language
can be seen as evidence of a particularist rather than an essentialist, or ide-
alist,10 attitude toward linguistic phenomena.11
Hobbess parsimonious use of the term language notwithstanding,
we must first be clearer on what Hobbes understands by the notion of
Letters, if we are to appreciate better the relation between language and
time in his philosophy. The word Letters is underdetermined by its appli-
cations in Hobbess texts. It can refer either to elevated notions of liter-
ary culture, of print technology, of literae humaniores; or it can refer to
more fundamental principles of meaning, reference, and signification. In
some remarks, Hobbes appears to favor the former interpretation. Here,
for example, he identifies Letters with a kind of official document or

The bounds of that Power, which is given to the Representative of a Bodie

Politique, are to be taken notice of, from two things. One is their Writt, or
Letters from the Sovereign: the other is the Law of the Common-wealth.
(Hobbes 1996, 22/156)

In other remarks, he appears to favor the latter interpretation. In the fol-

lowing passage, he specifically contrasts Letters with printing, with the
implication that Letters are involved in the deeper organizational principles
of human experience:

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Grundy / Hobbes and Philosophy of Language 495

The Invention of Printing, though ingenious, compared with the invention of

Letters, is no great matter. . . . A profitable Invention [ie Letters] for con-
tinuing the memory of time past, and the conjunction of mankind, dispersed
into so many, and distant regions of the Earth. (Hobbes 1996, 4/24)

On this second interpretation, Letters achieve many of the same ends as print-
ing, for example, the cultural and political integration of spatially discon-
nected peoples. But they also provide more localized benefits, for example,
the augmentation of personal and social memory.12 In both cases, however,
the principal role of Letters is synthetic. Letters bring order to the disorders
of time and space by documenting past forms of signification and by bring-
ing disparate speakers and writers into reliable patterns of communication.
The synthetic role of Letters is evidence that Hobbes sees language as an
essential tool in the conquest of time. But the interaction between language
and time is one of dialectics rather than one-way dependencetime itself
is also an underlying condition of language. To appreciate that interaction,
we must also be clearer on what Hobbes might mean by an account of
Time. Again, there are two different ways in which we might think about
an account of Time. First, as we see in the following passage from De
Corpore (1655; hereafter DeCorp), we can think about Time from a tech-
nological point of view. Here, an account of Time is what we produce
within our metrological patterns and practices:

Now, the greatest commodities of mankind are the arts; namely, of measur-
ing matter and motion; of moving ponderous bodies; of architecture; of nav-
igation; of making instruments for all uses; of calculating the celestial
motions, the aspects of the stars, and the parts of time; of geography, &c.
(DeCorp, 1.7)

Architecture, navigation, astronomy, chronometry, geographyall are

ways of moving through, manipulating, organizing, and guarding against
time. Second, we might think of an account of Time as synonymous, at a
more fundamental level, with our very awareness of Time. On this view, the
techniques by which we achieve order structure the ways in which we can
be said to experience time.13 It is that second sense of an account of Time
an accounting of Time as an expansion of our temporal possibilitiesthat
I want to address in the following paragraphs. The connections between
language and time in Hobbess writings have many forms. For my pur-
poses, I divide them into roughly three categories: first, the interaction of
language and time at the level of personal history; second, the interaction

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496 Philosophy of the Social Sciences

of language and time at the level of social history; and third, the interaction
of language and time at the level of linguistic historythe search, in his-
torical time, for a foundational act of meaning.
The role of language in the temporal experience of the individual human
being is evident throughout Hobbess writings. In Leviathan (1651), he
writes that the first use of names is as Markes, or Notes of remem-
brance (Hobbes 1996, 4/25). A decade earlier, in Human Nature (1640;
hereafter HN), he writes that a mark is a sensible object which a man
erecteth voluntarily to himself, to the end to remember thereby somewhat
past, when the same is objected to his sense again (HN, 5.1). And he cred-
its the invention of names with the drawing [of] men out of ignorance, by
calling to their remembrance the necessary coherence of one conception to
another (HN, 5.13). Later, in DeCorp, Hobbes writes, A name is a word
taken at pleasure to serve for a mark, which may raise in our mind a thought
like to some thought we had before (DeCorp, 2.4). And he describes
Marks as sensible things by which such thoughts may be recalled to our
mind as are like those thoughts for which we took them (DeCorp, 2.1).
Hobbess insistence on the links among language, remembrance, recollec-
tion, and the re-presentation of thoughts arises from his unflattering view of
mans native capacities for memory. How unconstant and fading mens
thoughts are, and how much the recovery of them depends upon chance,
there is none but knows by infallible experience in himself, he says
(DeCorp, 2.1). Whatsoever a man has put together in his mind by ratioci-
nation without such helps [as words], will presently slip from him, and not
be recoverable but by beginning his ratiocination anew (DeCorp, 2.1).
Memory itself is defined negatively, rather than positively: But when we
would express the decay, and signifie that the Sense is fading, old, and past,
it is called Memory (Hobbes 1996, 2/16).14 As the units of graphical and
audible language, Letters are thus one technology for enhancing these lim-
ited temporal horizons of the individual human being. The tools of lan-
guage create conditions for the retention of past thoughts and ideas or for
the recollection of events in the past, at which forms of classification and
differentiation are first established.
Letters also function, alongside other technologies, as a tool in social
memory. In the passage from Leviathan cited above, Hobbes links a tempo-
ral processthe continuing [of] the memory of time pastto a social
processthe conjunction of mankind (Hobbes 1996, 4/24). But Hobbess
attitude toward literary technologies of social memory is more guarded than
his attitude toward techniques of personal memory. Our mobilization of
names and definitions in the practice of science is an unambiguous good.15

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Grundy / Hobbes and Philosophy of Language 497

But, according to Hobbes, the use of words to construct cultural and histori-
cal narratives can often obstruct, rather than advance, the epistemic practices
of the individual. In the ideal case, Hobbes believes that history, both natural
and civil, should serve as the Register of Knowledge of Fact (Hobbes 1996,
9/60). But history is more typically a source of error and confusion. To orga-
nize ones life within the written or spoken historical framework of ones
community is to show an unwarranted faith in the words of man: So that
it is evident, that whatsoever we believe, upon no other reason, then what is
drawn from the authority of men onely, and their writings; whether they be
sent from God or not, is Faith in men onely (Hobbes 1996, 7/49). Faith in
men is a weak foundation for the literary construction of social memoryit
is, after all, our natural lack of faith in other men that motivates Hobbess phi-
losophy from the outset.16 Later in Leviathan, attacking the form of religious
historiography dominant in Western Europe, Hobbes asks,

What is all the Legend of fictitious Miracles, in the lives of the Saints; and all
the Histories of Apparitions, and Ghosts, alledged by the Doctors of the Romane
Church, to make good their Doctrines of Hell, and Purgatory, the power of
Exorcisme, and other Doctrines which have no warrant, neither in Reason, nor
Scripture; as also all those Traditions which they call the unwritten Word of
God; but old Wives Fables? (Hobbes 1996, 46/473; also see HN, 13.8)

The sense in which language can both advance and counteract the stabi-
lization of society and the pursuit of knowledge only underscores the power
of Letters as a tool for the social ordering of time.
According to Hobbes, these first two kinds of relation between language
and timeindividual memory and collective memoryare linked. In
DeCorp, for example, he claims that Letters advance the purposes of both
the individual and the social group at one and the same time:

Though some one man, of how excellent a wit soever, should spend all his
time partly in reasoning, and partly in inventing marks for the help of his
memory, and advancing himself in learning; who sees not that the benefit he
reaps to himself will not be much, and to others none at all? For unless he
communicate his notes with others, his science will perish with him. But if
the same notes be made common to many, and so one mans inventions be
taught to others, sciences will thereby be increased to the general good of
mankind. (DeCorp, 2.2)

As the passage shows, personal and social memory operate within a kind of
mnemonic hierarchy. The elementary instruments of languagenames,

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498 Philosophy of the Social Sciences

marks, signsenhance the temporal horizons of the individual human

being only so far. Techniques of social practice and communication, and
technologies for the collective organization of time, make possible the
richer forms of historical experience.
Finally, and most important to the purposes of this essay, we see in
Hobbess writings a third mode of connection between language and time,
namely to the historical properties of linguistic eventsto the pursuit of, in
Derridas terminology, an originary act of meaning. The notion of the ori-
gin is the notion of a primitive and incorruptible point of reference capable
of resolving disputes about the true meaning of a sign. Derrida specifically
rejects the notion of a semantic origin, of a linguistic archetype, arguing
instead that words and concepts are continuously corrupted by the traces of
their past applications, and of their relations to other words and concepts:

The trace is not only the disappearance of originwithin the discourse that
we sustain and according to the path that we follow it means that the origin
did not even disappear, that it was never constituted except reciprocally by a
nonorigin, the trace, which thus becomes the origin of the origin. (Derrida
[1967] 1976, 61)

According to Derrida, we appeal to the notion of an origin, to a words

timeless and definitive Ur-application, to neutralize the variabilities of con-
text. For Derrida, it is an aim that is fated to failure. Similarly, for Hobbes,
the pursuit of an origin serves to counteract what he alternately describes as
the inconstancy,17 ambiguity,18 arbitrariness,19 and equivocation of words.
In his discussion of covenants, he describes words as mere breath:
Covenants being but words, and breath, have no force to oblige, contain,
constrain, or protect any man (Hobbes 1996, 18/123).
The inherent ordinariness of words shapes Hobbess project into a partic-
ular kind of problematic about meaning. For Hobbes, words themselves have
no intrinsic value, and they are all too easily detachable from their original
points of application. In the following passage from HN, Hobbes specifically
links the concept of inconstancy to the concept of an originary meaning and
its loss: Many [words] are not of constant signification, but bring into our
mind other thoughts than those for which they were ordained (HN, 5.7).20
Failure to retain an origin, or to recover the act in which a meaning is
ordained, is the principal cause of ambiguity and equivocation: This
equivocation of names maketh it difficult to recover those conceptions for
which the name was ordained (HN, 5.8). According to Hobbes, meanings
are not perfectly transportable, as the model of self-presence suggests, but are

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Grundy / Hobbes and Philosophy of Language 499

rather subject to a range of local variables. Those variables include extralin-

guistic factors, such as action and gesture: There is scarce any word that is
not made equivocal by divers contextures of speech, or by diversity of pro-
nunciation and gesture (HN, 5.7).21 And they also include facts about the
speaker: And therefore in reasoning, a man must take heed of words; which
besides the signification of what we imagine of their nature, have a significa-
tion also of the nature, disposition, and interest of the speaker (Hobbes 1996,
4/31).22 The variability of factors associated with individual speakers, and
with individual contexts of language use, frustrates the very possibility of a
common set of ideal meanings.
Reflecting on these three forms of interaction between language and
timepersonal history, social history, and linguistic historywe can now
appreciate better the specific kind of crisis of meaning that Hobbes identifies.
Hobbess sense of the problem can be understood in relation to Rortys dis-
cussion of tertia. Tertia, according to Rorty, are the class of third entities that
stand outside of binary spatio-temporal relations between signs and their ref-
erents. Because those relations are stained with the particularities of location,
a wide range of philosophers have introduced forms of tertia to secure mean-
ing at a supra-spatial, and supra-temporal level. Rorty notes that, if we are to
overcome our reliance on such tertia, then we must at the same time rethink
what it means to have, or to learn, a language (Rorty 1991, 144). The rejec-
tion of tertia, in other words, changes the target of inquiry, from the identifi-
cation of tertiary meanings, logoi, intentions, decisive interpretations, ideas,
and so on, to the ways in which human beings actually interact in space and
time in the reproduction of their linguistic practices.
Hobbes introduces thoughts or conceptions as one candidate for
such a tertiary unit of meaning. Names ordered in speech (as is defined)
are signs of our conceptions (DeCorp, 2.5); Speech or language is the
connexion of names constituted by the will of men to stand for the series of
conceptions of the things about which we think (De Homine, 10.1);
Words so connected as that they become signs of our thoughts, are called
SPEECH (DeCorp, 2.3); The first use of language, is the expression of
our conceptions (HN, 13.2). In Leviathan, Hobbes characterizes Speech
as the connection of names and appellations whereby men register their
thoughts (Hobbes 1996, 4/24). In the same chapter, he says that the gen-
erall use of speech is to transferre our Mentall Discourse, into Verbal
(Hobbes 1996, 4/25). But in many of the remarks already cited in this sec-
tion, Hobbes foregrounds a basic set of deficiencies in mental events,
namely that they are, as he says, inconstant, ambiguous, and equivocal.
Their inherent tendency toward deterioration deprives mental events of the

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500 Philosophy of the Social Sciences

ability to stabilize meaning against space and time. If we think of mental

content as a form of imprinting on the mind, as Hobbes appears to do in
Leviathan (see, e.g., the passage quoted below as Hobbes 1996, 30/233),
then thoughts and conceptions suffer the same fate as material words. As
Wheeler notes above, Any language consisting of any kind of marks,
whether marks on paper or marks in the soul, is no better than words
(Wheeler 2000, 62).
In leading us to view mental content as a problematic candidate for origi-
nary meaning, Hobbes makes a different kind of argument than those I cited
above. For Wittgenstein, Derrida, and Davidson, for example, originary mean-
ing is impossible in principle, rather than merely in practice, or as a matter of
physiological deficiency.23 But the crisis of meaning, in relation to Hobbess
semantico-political project, can nevertheless be stated thus: in the absence of
a tertiary item to secure meanings across space and time, what kind of mech-
anism is capable of stabilizing our practices of speaking and writing? In the
next section, I argue that Hobbes offers a solution to the problem that has been
roundly overlooked by philosophers of language in the 20th century.


My argument thus far has been in the following spirit, that in claiming
that we would have no Letters outside of political society, Hobbes means
to say something about the unavailability of a semantics that stands outside
of the changing spatial and temporal conditions of human life. I said at the
beginning of the discussion that Hobbes attempts to resolve the problem in
a way that surpasses the attempts of his 20th-century successors and that his
innovation is to pursue a political solution where others have attempted a
straight solution. I want to conclude with some remarks on what a political
solution to the problem of Letters involves, as developed by Hobbes pri-
marily in Leviathan.
Saul Kripkes (1982) study of Wittgensteins Philosophical Investigations
is a useful place to begin when trying to understand solutions to problems
about meaning that are not, in his terms, straight. Kripkes distinction
between a straight and a skeptical solution to problems of meaning is well
known, and I do not want to discuss his account at length. It would be prob-
lematic, for a number of reasons, to frame the Hobbesian project in overly
skeptical terms.24 Kripke can serve as an instructive point of departure, how-
ever, if we want to appreciate the particular way in which a political solution
responds to the crisis of meaning by recasting the nature of the problem in

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Grundy / Hobbes and Philosophy of Language 501

alternative terms. For Kripke, the distinction between a straight solution and
a skeptical solution can be characterized in three parts. A straight solution (1)
accepts the framework in which the original problem is articulated, (2) seeks
a hitherto undetected argument capable of addressing the problem within that
framework, and (3) delivers a specific kind of candidate item, object, or
meaning. The skeptical solution differs in all three senses. It (1) rejects the
framework in which the original problem is articulated, (2) rejects arguments
that draw on the terms of that framework, and (3) delivers a therapeutic
response rather than a specific kind of item, object, or meaning (also see
Kusch 2006). In the context of Kripkes discussion, a skeptical response is
therapeutic, in the sense that we are cured of the mistaken desire to seek out
a specific meaning, or fact (or logoi, Form, idea, etc.), that might secure our
linguistic activity at a level outside of everyday interaction.
In giving a political solution to the problem of Letters, Hobbes too
rejects the notion that ideas, thoughts, or conceptions can serve to stabilize
meanings across space and time, and he instead redescribes acts of lan-
guage use within a new frameworka political framework. Although the
Kripkean solution uses the logic of everyday assertion and attribution, the
Hobbesian solution uses the logic of power, or of the publique Sword.
Hobbess particular way of exploiting a logic of power is to organize lan-
guage around the figure of the Sovereign, who becomes in Leviathan not
only a political archetype but also a linguistic archetype. In relation to his
role as interpreter of Scripture, for example, Hobbes presents the words of
the Sovereign as foundational. In chapter 33 (Of the Number, Antiquity,
Scope, Authority, and Interpreters of the Books of Holy Scripture),
Hobbes concludes that, in the absence of widespread supernaturall revela-
tion, the Sovereign alone is able to adjudicate matters of scriptural mean-
ing effectively:

The question is not of obedience to God, but of when, and what God hath
said; which to Subjects that have no supernaturall revelation, cannot be
known, but by that naturall reason, which guided them, for the obtaining of
Peace and Justice, to obey the authority of their severall Common-wealths;
that is to say, of their lawfull Soveraigns. (Hobbes 1996, 33/260)25

The passage ties the question of actionof what it is right to do, of how
one should rightfully obey the intentions of Godto an antecedent ques-
tion of meaningof how we come to know the meanings of the words that
express those intentions. But the political solution works by again inverting
that relationby showing how the problem of meaning is then resolved by

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502 Philosophy of the Social Sciences

the action-guiding effects of sovereignty. My purpose in the remainder of

the discussion is to show that Hobbess specific account of scriptural inter-
pretation is rooted in a prior articulation of the problem of linguistic mean-
ing as such.26
A straight solution to the problem of meaning might conceive of the
Sovereigns language as foundational because it contains the desired kind
of tertiary meaning. On that view, the Sovereigns words are authoritative
because they are uniquely self-present and self-justifying. Hobbes offers a
political solution, rather than a straight solution, however, because the lan-
guage of the Sovereign, when understood in the original framework, must
suffer the same problem as any language. The language of the Sovereign
will be as ambiguous, inconstant, equivocal, and arbitrary as the idiolects
of his several subjects, or of the inhabitants of the state of nature. The polit-
ical solution, in contrast, shows that terms such as Language or Letters
refer to the matrix of signs, persons, institutions, social relations and prin-
ciples of power within which conflicts about how to go on (PI 151-
155, 179-181, 323) are addressed and decided. In wielding the public
sword, the Sovereign serves as an origin by serving as a point of closure
he is uniquely capable of bringing disputes about meaning, or conflicting
searches for originary meanings, to an end.
In Hobbess philosophy, the problem of social disorder and the problem
of semantic disorder stem from a common source, namely the radical
equality of human actors and speakers in the state of nature. In drawing out
the ways in which Hobbes replaces a logic of originary semantics with a
logic of power, I want to focus first, then, on the idea of equality. It is well
known that Hobbess justification of political authority begins with the
basic equality of men in the state of nature. It is a view that Hobbes shares
with a number of thinkers in the 17th and 18th centuries. Locke understands
his own project within a similar framework of primitive equality (Locke
[1689] 1988), and Rousseau writes in The Social Contract that, in his orig-
inal state, every man is the sole judge of the proper means of preserving
himself, and consequently becomes his own master (Rousseau [1762]
1973, 182). The problem of equality is more multivalent for Hobbes than it
is for Locke or for Rousseau. In the state of nature, we are equal in the
three principal causes of quarell (Hobbes 1996, 13/88). But we are also
equal in a range of cognitive and linguistic abilities. For Hobbes, we are
equal in our capacity for reason (Hobbes 1996, 6/36, 42/356),27 in our nat-
ural curiosity to know about our environment (Hobbes 1996, 6/42, 8/57), in
our capacity for sensory experience, in our capacity for judgment (In the
condition of Nature . . . every man is Judge (Hobbes 1996, 14/98)), and

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Grundy / Hobbes and Philosophy of Language 503

in our capacity to use and to respond to marks and sounds. Though Hobbes
remarks that Nature hath made men so equall, in the faculties of body, and
mind (Hobbes 1996, 13/86), he nevertheless notes a still greater equality
in our rational and speech-making capacities: And as to the faculties of
mind, . . . he says, I find yet a greater equality amongst men (Hobbes
1996, 13/87).
It is clear in the vast literature on Hobbes that Commonwealth aims to
resolve the competing claims of originally equal men and women.28
Commonwealth discharges a parallel function, however, as a distinct type of
language space. Commonwealth centralizes the problem of semantics in
response to the multiple origins of language and meaning. Again, the need for
uniformity, both of action and of speech, arises from exactly such native
equality, from the equal claims of human beings to judge for themselves the
meanings of their words and the consequences they should have. But, for
Hobbes, it arises also from a deep suspicion of the idea that meanings can be
stabilized across time and space, absent an external mechanism for deter-
mining, in Wittgensteins sense, how to go on. In a number of ways,
Hobbes thus uses Commonwealth also as a means of resolving the forms of
linguistic disorder that arise from the original equality of language users. If
each individual idiolect fails to stabilize itself across long stretches of time, a
collection of competing idiolects only magnifies the problems of equality.
The role of Commonwealth as an artificially constructed language space
answers to the following question: how can a unitary and ordered space of
public discourse be shaped from the idiolectic activities of individual speak-
ers and writers? The question echoes throughout the 20th century, and it is
especially evident in Wittgensteins Philosophical Investigations. Throughout
the text, Wittgenstein describes attempts to create shareable language spaces,
as in the following encounter between a teacher and a pupil:

Perhaps we guide his hand in writing out the series 0 to 9; but then the possi-
bility of getting him to understand will depend on his going on to write it down
independently.And here we can imagine, e.g., that he does copy the figures
independently, but not in the right order: he writes sometimes one sometimes
another at random. And then communication stops at that point. (PI 143)

Wittgenstein typically leaves such cases open ended. He concludes the

above description, for example, with a statement of resignation: And here
too our pupils capacity to learn may come to an end (PI 143). He gives
a similar account in PI 208 and PI 211: I do it, he does it after me; and
I influence him by expressions of agreement, rejection, expectation,

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504 Philosophy of the Social Sciences

encouragement. I let him go his way, or hold him back; and so on (PI
208). As Wittgensteins remarks make clear, there is no simple way of
accounting for the continuation of action:

How can he know how he is to continue a pattern by himselfwhatever

instruction you give him?Well, how do I know?If that means Have I
reasons? the answer is: my reasons will soon give out. And then I shall act,
without reasons. (PI 211)

One of Wittgensteins most important contributions to the tradition I have

been describing is precisely this idea that we arrive at a point where we act
without reasons. In PI 212, he gives a very brief glimpse of a fuller
account: When someone whom I am afraid of orders me to continue the
series, I act quickly, with perfect certainty, and the lack of reasons does not
trouble me (PI 212). Lacking an extra-temporal, or extra-spatial, mean-
ing to stabilize the situation, Wittgenstein introduces into his own discus-
sion a new kind of logic, namely, a logic of fear and of power. The initially
unresolved language event is resolved by the brute asymmetry between
instructor and student.
Wittgenstein fails to pursue the idea in any depth, but Hobbes explores the
relation between language and power much more fully. Though there is no sin-
gle and conclusive statement in Hobbess writings about the foundational
character of the language of the Sovereign, the intersection of language and
power is clear in a variety of places. There are, for example, many more char-
acterizations of the Sovereign as a speaker and as a writer than as a punitive
figure: For he onely is properly said to Raigne, that governs his Subjects, by
his Word (Hobbes 1996, 31/245). Successions of authority are determined
by expresse Words, or Testament, which it is declared by him in his life time,
viva voce, or by Writing (Hobbes 1996, 19/136). And the Commonwealth is
administered by Writ, Letters, and Law (Hobbes 1996, 22/156). Hobbes
writes that to rule by Words, requires that such Words be manifestly made
known (Hobbes 1996, 31/246; also see 33/268), and he further specifies cer-
tain privileged individuals as specially qualified to communicate the voice of
the Sovereign: ministers (Hobbes 1996, 23/167; also see 42/367, 42/391),
judges (Hobbes 1996, 23/169), teachers (Hobbes 1996, 30/231). The connec-
tion between the privilege of these individuals and their role as speakers is
clear. They are such members of the Common-wealth, as may fitly be com-
pared to the organs of Voice in a Body naturall (Hobbes 1996, 23/169).
The idea that the Sovereign must use language is no great innovation.
What is important to see is rather the way in which the Sovereign offers a

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Grundy / Hobbes and Philosophy of Language 505

political solution to the problem of meaning. He resolves semantic disorder

not by furnishing a privileged semantic item but by creating the conditions
in which disputes about meaning come to an end. Hobbes attempts to bring
such disputes to an end by investing the Sovereign with a privileged form
of speech and writing. More important, however, he invests the Sovereign
with a privileged capacity to interpret the meanings of words and actions.
The authority of the Sovereign is both political and hermeneutical. In rela-
tion to Scripture, for example, the Sovereign decides not only which lin-
guistic artifacts are authoritativeThose Books only are Canonicall . . .
which are established for such by the Sovereign Authority (Hobbes 1996,
33/260)but, more important, he decides how those linguistic artifacts
should be understood:

For, whosoever hath a lawfull power over any Writing, to make it Law, hath
the power also to approve, or disapprove the interpretation of the same.
(Hobbes 1996, 33/269)

Combining the two roles, Hobbes demarcates the power of the Sovereign
as both legislative and interpretative:

The Interpretation of the Lawes of Nature, in a Common-wealth, dependeth

not on the books of Morall Philosophy. The Authority of writers, without the
Authority of the Common-wealth, maketh not their opinions Law, be they
never so true. (Hobbes 1996, 26/191; also see 42/355)

The concentration of hermeneutical and political powers within a single office

brings questions of the public language into line with questions of the public
sword, of Publique Authority, and of the Authority of the Common-
wealth. That convergence is clear in the following passage, which is espe-
cially suggestive of Derridas later interest in principles of textuality and

the Common-peoples minds, unlesse they be tainted with dependance on the

Potent, or scribbled over with the opinions of their Doctors, are like clean
paper, fit to receive whatsoever by Publique Authority shall be imprinted in
them. (Hobbes 1996, 30/233)

The passage says two things about the relation between language and
power in Hobbess project. First, it reminds us that the problem of private,
or mental, semantics will be no different from the problem of public, or tex-
tual, semantics (also see Part I: Writing before the Letter in Derrida

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506 Philosophy of the Social Sciences

[1967] 1976, 1-94). As Wheeler notes in the remark cited earlier, The basic
thought . . . is that any language consisting of any kind of marks, whether
marks on paper or marks in the soul, is not better than words (Wheeler
2000, 62). Second, precisely because the problems of meaning overflow
distinctions between private and public, the language of the Sovereign can-
not bring an end to linguistic disorder simply in virtue of its unique seman-
tic properties. Even with the power of hermeneutics, the Sovereign will
nevertheless suffer, according to Wittgenstein, from the regress of interpre-
tation: Any interpretation still hangs in the air along with what it interprets,
and cannot give it any support. Interpretations by themselves do not deter-
mine meaning (PI 198).29 What the Sovereign offers, rather, is the asym-
metrical power to determine how to go on.
While Wheeler, Wittgenstein, Derrida, and others all recognize the
iterated nature of semantic origins, none provides a clear mechanism for
countering the dilemma of inscription. Wittgenstein famously resolves
the problem of meaning by reducing it to the brute fact of action: If I
have exhausted the justifications I have reached bedrock, and my spade is
turned. Then I am inclined to say: This is simply what I do (PI 217).
But none of the 20th-century writers I have cited gives systematic atten-
tion to the role of power in resolving the iterability of interpretations or
in halting the continuous deferral of origins. Hobbess own insistence on
that connection is clear in the passages cited above. The problem of
imprinting is offset by the fact that it is now secured by political force
the language of the individual is stabilized by whatsoever by Publique
Authority shall be imprinted on him. As Hobbes writes in De Cive, the
speech acts of the Sovereign are taken as canonical: It belongs to
the same chief power to make some common rules for all men, and to
declare them publicly, by which every man may know what may be called
his, what anothers, what just, what unjust, what honest, what dishonest,
what good, what evil (DeCive, 6.9).30 But it should by now be clear
exactly why that sense of the canonical is expressive of a political solu-
tion. As a form of inscription, coercive imprinting cannot overcome
the failure of semantic origin. The maneuver that I want to highlight in
Hobbess account, and particularly as presented in Leviathan, is instead
that it is this sense of coercionthe organization of language around the
publique swordrather than of imprinting alone that creates the condi-
tions for semantic order. I have further tried to argue that those conditions
are conditions of closure rather than conditions of origin. Like those in
the 20th century who reject Ideas, or logoi, or meanings, as the underly-
ing datum of linguistic order, Hobbes shows that we misunderstand the

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Grundy / Hobbes and Philosophy of Language 507

structure of a language community when we search for those kinds of

entities behind our linguistic practices. As with Wittgenstein, Hobbess
strategy is to displace the attention of the philosopher of language, away
from the meanings of words, and onto the everyday interactions between
the types of organisms who speak, write, listen, and read.31

1. I associate that other kind of project with figures such as Paul Grice (1969), J. L. Austin
(1962), and John Searle (1969).
2. My use of Derrida in the following discussion is based primarily on the following writ-
ings: Derrida ([1967] 1976), Derrida (1978), and Derrida ([1968] 1984).
3. References to Hobbess texts are made according to the following patterns: For
Leviathan, all references are to the Cambridge University Press edition edited by Richard Tuck
(1996) and are given as (Hobbes 1996, [chapter number]/[page number in Tuck edition]). For
Human Nature, I refer to Hobbes ([1640] 1994). For De Homine, I refer to the translation by
Bernard Gert (1972). For De Corpore, I refer to Hobbes (1655). Citations for Human Nature, De
Homine, and De Corpore, are given as ([abbreviation of text], [chapter number].[section
4. There are a number of excellent philosophical and historical studies aimed at situating
Hobbess work within the social and political events of his time. See, for example, Martinich
(1999), Shapin and Schaffer (1985), Skinner (1966), Tuck (1979, 1993).
5. The most sustained attempt to assess Hobbess philosophy of language is Anat
Biletzkis (1997) book-length study, Talking Wolves: Thomas Hobbes on the Language of
Politics and the Politics of Language. Biletzki develops a reading of Hobbess writings, and
especially his texts Human Nature (1640), Leviathan (1651), and De Corpore (1655), that con-
nects him to the performative theories of language advanced by, among others, J. L. Austin and
Paul Grice. Biletzki draws on a number of studies of Hobbes, most specifically Ball (1985),
Barnouw (1988), Bertman (1978, 1988), Danford (1980), De Jong (1990), Hacking (1975),
Hungerland and Vick (1973), MacDonald Ross (1987), Minogue (1990), Nerny (1991). Also
see the discussions of language in Sorrell (1986) and Martinich (2005).
6. I have in mind here the following remarks: Hereby it is manifest, that during the time
men live without a common Power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which
is called Warre; and such a warre, as is of every man, against every man (Hobbes 1996,
13/88). Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of Warre, where every man is Enemy
to every man; the same is consequent to the time, wherein men live without other security,
than what their own strength, and their own invention shall furnish them withall (Hobbes
1996, 13/89).
7. The connection between social order and epistemic order in Leviathan has been amply
documented by Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer (1985). As Schaffer and Shapin write,
Solutions to the problem of knowledge are embedded within practical solutions to the prob-
lem of social order. Commonwealth is, in other words, a strategy both for regulating human
bodies and for regulating human minds: Within Hobbess overall attempt to show men the
nature of obligation and the foundations of secure social order, he developed a theory of
knowledge (Shapin and Schaffer 1985, 100).

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508 Philosophy of the Social Sciences

8. Saussures ([1916] 1983) Course in General Linguistics is the locus classicus for this
idea in the 20th century.
9. Wheeler emphasizes the following texts in particular: Quine (1960), Davidson
(1984), Wittgenstein ([1951] 1997), Rorty (1991), Derrida (1973). Also see Wheeler (2000)
and Staten (1985).
10. I do not mean to associate my use of the term idealist with the more specific tradition of
philosophy known broadly as Idealism (e.g., Berkeley, Kant, Fichte, Hegel, Green, Bradley). I
use it here, and in what follows, only as a general way of identifying theories of language that
cite nonmaterial entities in their accounts of meaning. As I show in this section, Hobbes too ties
meaning to mental entities, such as thoughts and conceptions, and my aim is to show why those
entities cannot themselves constitute meaning nor provide a stable basis for language.
11. Biletzki (1997) is especially sensitive to the variety of language acts that Hobbess iden-
tifies. Her principal example is Hobbess different use of the terms Mark and Sign to distinguish
between acts of private reference and acts of public communication. Biletzki reads Hobbes
through the lens of performative theories of language in the 20th century, and she argues that
Hobbes too insists on the things that language does, rather than on the thing that language is.
12. Also see Leviathan, chapter 4: Nor is it possible without Letters for any man to
become either excellently wise, or (unless his memory be hurt by disease, or ill constitution of
organs) excellently foolish. For words are wise mens counters, they do but reckon by them:
but they are the mony of fooles, that value them by the authority of an Aristotle, a Cicero, or
a Thomas, or any other Doctor whatsoever, if but a man (Hobbes 1996, 4/28-29).
13. This more robust sense of the dialectic between technics and phenomenology is evi-
dent, for example, in Crosby (1997) or Le Goff (1980). More recently, Peter Galison consid-
ers the way in which Einsteins theoretical achievements were linked to his everyday
experience with clocks and other technologies (see Galison 2003).
14. Hobbes draws a contrast between Memory and Imagination. The contrast he has in mind is
one of connotation rather than reference. Both refer to the same process, but Imagination suggests
the minds abilities where Memory suggests its deficiencies: So that Imagination and Memory, are
but one thing, which for divers considerations hath divers names (Hobbes 1996, 2/16).
15. We recall that Science is a technical term for Hobbes. Its role in the organization of
time is clear in Leviathan. In chapter 5, for example, he defines Science as the knowledge
of Consequences, and dependance of one fact upon another; by which, out of that we can
presently do, we know how to do something else when we will, or the like, another time
(Hobbes 1996, 5/35).
See also Tom Sorrells discussion in Sorrell (1986).
16. Our natural lack of faith in the intentions of others is recorded in Hobbess concept of
Diffidence. As Martinich notes, Diffidence is to be equated with distrust: Since a person P1
knows that a person P2 is in competition for objects, P1 knows that it is rational for P2 to try
to attack P1 preemptively in order to gain an advantage. This makes P1 diffident of P2
(Martinich 2005, 68-69; also see Hobbes 1996, 13/88).
17. The names of such things as affect us, that is, which please, and displease us, because
all men be not alike affected with the same thing, nor the same man at all times, are in the
common discourses of men, of inconstant signification (Hobbes 1996, 4/31); How fallacious
it is to judge of the nature of things, by the ordinary and inconstant use of words (Hobbes
1996, 25/176)
18. For the significations of almost all words, are either in themselves, or in the metaphor-
icall use of them, ambiguous; and may be drawn in argument, to make many senses; but there is
onely one sense of the Law (Hobbes 1996, 26/194); For all words, are subject to ambiguity;

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Grundy / Hobbes and Philosophy of Language 509

and therefore multiplication of words in the body of the Law, is multiplication of ambiguity
(Hobbes 1996, 30/240).
19. A name or appellation therefore is the voice of a man arbitrary, imposed for a mark
to bring into his mind some conception concerning the thing on which it is imposed (Human
Nature [HN], 5.2).
As Derrida separately argues in relation to Saussure, the temporal instability of words
arises precisely from the arbitrary character of the sign, which applies equally, for Hobbes, to
inner and to outer referents. In her study of Derrida, Christina Howells (1999, 49) writes,

In Saussures case, as so often in Derridas work, it is Saussure himself who provides the tools of
his own undoing. His two major theories, that of the arbitrary nature of the sign and that of the dif-
ferential nature of signification, prove to have implications that run entirely counter to his theses
about the priority and independence of speech. Saussure maintains simultaneously that there is a
natural relationship between signifiers (phonic and graphic) and signifieds in general, but that it
is unmotivated in any particular case. The lack of motivation for the individual sign points neces-
sarily to the conventional nature of signification: for communication to be possible, meanings must
be instituted. (also see Wheeler 2000, 18-19)

In relation to Hobbes, the arbitrary assignation of a sign to a thought, or conception, subjects

his theory of language to the same principles of convention and institutionalization of meaning.
Meanings must be motivated within, and determined by, specific patterns of historical practice.
20. Many of these passages are also discussed by Biletzki (1997) as evidence of Hobbess
performative, or speech act, approach to language and meaning.
21. It is therefore a great ability in a man, out of the words, contexture, and other cir-
cumstances of language, to deliver himself from equivocation, and to find out the true mean-
ing of what is said: and this is it we call understanding (HN, 5.8).
22. There are a number of similar passages that insist on features of the speaker: Univocal
are those [names] which in the same train of discourse signify always the same thing; but
equivocal those which mean sometimes one thing and sometimes another. . . . But this dis-
tinction belongs not so much to names, as to those that use names (De Corpore, 2.12); For
it is not the bare Words, but the Scope of the writer that giveth the true light, by which any
writing is to bee interpreted (Hobbes 1996, 43/415).
23. Saul Kripkes reading of Wittgensteins rule-following remarks brings out the princi-
pled, rather than practical, rejection of originary meaning (Kripke 1982; also see Kusch 2006).
It is worth noting, however, that P. F. Strawson, in one of the earliest reviews of Philosophical
Investigations, understood Wittgensteins remarks much as I am understanding those of
Hobbes, namely as the argument that deficiencies in human memory obstruct the practice of
following a rule (see Strawson 1954).
24. Kripke makes the distinction between a straight solution and a skeptical solution clear
in the following passages: Call a proposed solution to a skeptical philosophical problem a
straight solution if it shows that on closer examination the skepticism proves to be unwar-
ranted; an elusive or complex argument proves the thesis the sceptic doubted; A skeptical
solution of a skeptical philosophical problem begins on the contrary by conceding that the
sceptics negative assertions are unanswerable. Nevertheless our ordinary practice or belief is
justified becausecontrary appearances notwithstandingit need not require the justification
the sceptic has shown to be untenable (Kripke 1982, 66).
25. For reasons that will become clear, private episodes of revelation simply replicate all
of the semantic problems of indeterminacy and inscription that I am tracing. Furthermore, it

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510 Philosophy of the Social Sciences

would not be a sufficient objection to say (referring to this passage in particular) that, for
Hobbes, the language user can rely for his or her semantics on his or her own naturall rea-
son rather than on the guidance of the Sovereign. One of Hobbess principal justifications for
Commonwealth is that multiple actors endowed with individuated capacities for reason
inevitably produce a state of competition and disorder. Hobbesian natural reason, we might
say, is antithetical to an ordered language space rather than productive of it.
26. I also want to note that the problem of meaning in Hobbess writing eclipses the ques-
tion of cognitive dissent. It may be true, as many commentators have argued, that subjects of
the Commonwealth retain the ability to hold beliefs that differ from those of the Sovereign.
My argument is rather that the Sovereign achieves order by shaping the semantic content out
of which those beliefsany beliefsare constructed. In other words, the Sovereign achieves
a more profound measure of control by establishing the conditions for what the words and
images of private beliefs mean.
27. Hobbes excludes children from the class of rational creatures. Children are deficient in
their possession of reason, but, as Hobbes makes clear, they are not deficient in their capacity
for reason: Children therefore are not endued with Reason at all, till they have attained the
use of Speech: but are called Reasonable Creatures, for the possibility apparent of having the
use of Reason in time to come (Hobbes 1996, 5/36).
28. The natural equalities among men contribute to the essential instability of pre-political
life. Martinich (2005, 65), for example, specifically ties the equalities of body and mind to the
continuous possibility of violence: Hobbes says that in the state of nature, people are roughly
equal, in both physical strength and intelligence, in the only dimension that really matters,
ability to kill another person. Martinich argues that these natural equalities, and the ways in
which they counteract the aims of peace, necessitate the ninth law of nature: That every man
acknowledge other for his Equall by Nature (Hobbes 1996, 15/107). By driving us to
acknowledge the equality of others, the ninth law creates the conditions in which we can form
Commonwealth through symmetrical principles of alienation and retention. Inequality, both of
action and of speech, arises only after the creation of political society. As Hobbess writes,
The question who is the better man, has no place in the condition of meer Nature; where, (as
has been shewn before,) all men are equall. The inequality that now is, has bin introduced by
the Lawes civill (Hobbes 1996).
29. In the context of Wittgensteins work, one way of resolving the problem of interpreta-
tion at the level of the mental is to take meanings as primitive. On this view, meanings are self-
justifying and are not in need of a further source of interpretation. Such views emphasize
Wittgensteins claim in Philosophical Investigations (201), for example, that there is a way
of grasping a rule which is not an interpretation, but which is exhibited in what we call obey-
ing the rule and going against it in actual cases (see especially McGinn 1984).
30. Also see, The makers of civil laws, are not only declarers, but also makers of the jus-
tice and injustice of actions (Hobbes 1996, 42/386); It belongs to kings to discern between
good and evil (DeCive, 12.1).
31. Again, my account here is in broad sympathy with those, such as Bertman (1978) and
Biletzki (1997), who take a performative view of Hobbess philosophy of language.

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W. P. Grundy, PhD, is a member of the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the
University of Cambridge. He has published previously on Wittgenstein and Stanley Cavell, and
his research interests include the relations between theories of language and theories of politics.

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