Hobbes and Language

When first reading the Leviathan, I found Hobbes’ preoccupation with labelling every single word, providing very specific definitions and pointing out the differences between words a nuisance. However, as I learned more about where he was coming from I began to feel pity for him and understand his obsession with definitions and nomenclature.

During Hobbes’s time (1558-1679), I can only imagine the confusion and ambiguity with words. Dictionaries and encyclopedias did not become popular until the 18th century and many of the terms used today were not coined yet. To a modern audience many of these concepts or words seem obvious, but that is only because they have been shaped and moulded into their current definition during the centuries of their use.

For Hobbes however, the clarity of language is so bad that he cannot even begin to present his argument without defining the words he chooses to use. It is similar to how Newton had to invent calculus to explain his physics theories, doing double the work because that type of math had not been invented yet. This made me think that language has not always been the same but is constantly evolving and perfecting itself, and we owe the complexity and breadth of the English language to authors like Hobbes, or Shakespeare, for taking the trouble to define its words.

Hobbes’ frustration really comes out through the pages of the Leviathan, in particular with what he refers to as the “School”, whether he refers to philosophers of the institution of the church. I appreciate how he points out the absurdity of language because as a student reading other old works, unfamiliar or vague words is usually the biggest obstacle in understanding something. Luckily for us we have dictionaries so it is simply a problem of vocabulary, but for Hobbes and his audience of the time there was nowhere to go and look up the meaning of a word.

Historically, I think the Leviathan offers great insight into the state of language in the mid 17th century and the problems scholars, early pursuers of science and politicians were confronted with when trying to express themselves or understand each other through language.

2 Thoughts.

  1. That’s an interesting point about the historical necessity of clarifying the vocabulary in the text. As someone who is so clearly opposed to anarchy, it’s as if by giving absolute definitions to these words Hobbes is at least trying to prevent linguistic anarchy…

  2. Wow, this is a very insightful blog post!

    When reading Leviathan, I was also relatively annoyed and confused as to why Hobbes spent so much time providing definitions and explaining concept after concept in great detail. At first I thought that they really broke up the flow of his argument and detracted from the book as a whole, but after reading your post and doing a bit of research, I really changed my mind.

    It is always important to consider the circumstances of a writer’s life, their audience, and the time period they were writing in before judging their work. You really reminded me of this, and I too feel a little bit of pity for Hobbes now.

    I’m very glad they have dictionaries nowadays so authors no longer have to define all the words they are using 🙂

    Iva

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