“For one man calleth Wisdome, what another calleth feare”

Discussions of Hobbes’s views about language seem to proceed on two separate paths. (Neither of these paths is terribly busy, I’ll grant you, but they both seem to be there.) On the one hand there are discussions of Hobbes’s general philosophy of language — signification, nominalism, and the like. On the other hand there are discussions of what Hobbes says about language in his moral and political philosophy — on what he says about ‘good’ and ‘evil’, for example. But it seems to me that these two discussions should be more closely tied together.

One interesting text for starting to think about the link between the two is the final paragraph of chapter 4 of Leviathan. There Hobbes discusses moral language, including the names of virtues and vices. This discussion contributes to the moral and political projects of the book, while also being part of a general account of the workings of language. It uses the terminology of that general account, in particular its notion of signification.

The names of virtue and vices, and others like them, are, Hobbes says, of “inconstant signification”. Moreover, they are words,

which besides the signification of what we imagine of their nature, have a signification also of the nature, disposition, and interest of the speaker; such as are the names of Vertues, and Vices; For one man calleth Wisdome, what another calleth feare; and one cruelty, what another justice; one prodigality, what another magnanimity; and one gravity, what another stupidity, &c. And therefore such names can never be true grounds of any ratiocination. No more can Metaphors, and Tropes of speech: but these are less dangerous, because they profess their inconstancy; which the other do not.

Signification is Hobbes’s central semantic notion. And here he makes two claims about the significations of ‘justice, ‘wisdom’, and the like. They have inconstant significations, but they also have double significations.

Roughly, the first signification is about the thing, and the second signification is about the speaker. Suppose we take one of Hobbes’s examples – “one man calleth Wisdome, what another calleth feare” – what are the significations? The two speakers are describing, I take it, something that could be described in either way. Perhaps they are describing someone’s motives for action, in avoiding a confrontation. The first speaker says the retreat was done from wisdom, the second that it was done from fear. So “wisdom” in the mouth of the first speaker signifies this motive (and similar motives in other cases in which the speaker applies the same name). This is the first signification. “Wisdom” also signifies the speaker’s “nature, disposition, and interest”. The relatively more cautious speaker calls this wisdom, while the less cautious one calls it fear. And their uses of “wisdom” and “fear” are signs of these differing mindsets. Moreover, the two significations have a further relation, in that the “nature, disposition, and interest” of the two speakers are a significant part of why they disagree about whether to describe the particular case using ‘wisdom’ or ‘fear’. Here is one reason to call the significations inconstant — they are inconstant between speakers, because of their different mindsets.

Still, people use words in odd ways all the time, and we do not usually take this to undermine the use of those words. If I confused ‘continent’ and ‘compliment’ and announced that Antarctica is a compliment, or for that matter if I confused ‘compliment’ and ‘complement’, this might cause some small confusion or amusement, but would not cause widespread problems. Hobbes clearly thinks that something different is going on with talk of virtues and vices, however. Why?

Well, one difference would lie in the double and inconstant signification happening all, or almost all, the time. That would cause far more confusion. It might indeed happen inevitably, as the internal differences in us cause us inevitably to use the external language differently. And perhaps there is also the suggestion, from Hobbes, that there is just not, or usually not, a correct signification against which to judge the various uses — there’s just the variety.

Anyway, this seems like an interesting starting point. In some future posts I hope to develop this in various ways: looking at other readings of the above passage, at the well-known passages about good and evil, at ways in which Hobbes suggests such problems might be avoided, and at ways that worries about signification continue to be present later in Hobbes’s political philosophy.

[Cross-posted from Modsquad.]

Published by Stewart Duncan

Associate Professor, Department of Philosophy, University of Florida