Hobbes and Performatives*

Gershon Weiler

Professor J. W. N. Watkins argues in his Hobbes' System of Ideas that Hobbes' theory of moral predicates must be interpreted in terms of Austinian performatives. In this paper I shall argue two points. First, that Watkins' thesis is false. Second, that Hobbes' own doctrine, which asserts that things are made good or just by being declared to be so by the sovereign, is inconsistent.

Watkins begins with brief exposition of Hobbes' theory of moral language as stated in the Leviathan.

But whatsoever is the object of any mans Appetite or Desire; that is if, which he for his part calleth Good: And the object of his Hate, and Aversion, Evill; And of his Contempt, Vile and Inconsiderable. For these words of Good, Evill, and Contemptible, are ever used with relation to the person that useth them: There being nothing simply and absolutely so; nor any common Rule of Good and Evill, to be taken from the nature of the objects themselves; but from the Person of the man (where there is no Common-wealth;) or, (in a Common-wealth,) from the Person that representeth it; or from an Arbitrator or Judge, whom men disagreeing shall by consent set up, and make his sentence the Rule thereof.


* I am indebted to Mr. Stanley Benn for most helpful discussions of some of the ideas in this paper.