Thomas Hobbes and the Early Modern ‘Ordinary Language’ of Free Will  

Giovanni Gellera (University of Lausanne)

9 November 2018, 4 – 5.30 pm

Venue: Room G.11, School of History, Classics and Archaeology, William Robertson Wing, Old Medical School, Teviot Place

In the debate ‘On Liberty and Necessity’ with Bishop Bramhall, Thomas Hobbes writes that he “desire[s]the reader to take notice that the common people, on whose arbitration depends the signification of words in common use, among the Latins and the Greeks, did call all actions and motions whereof they did perceive no cause, spontaneous.” (Questions, paragraph 8). Hobbes implied that his own understanding of ‘will as the last appetite’ and of ‘voluntary as spontaneous’ was closer to the “usage of common people” than Bramhall’s libertarian views. Was Hobbes right?

In this paper I investigate one type of source that Hobbes might have referred to: the English-Latin and Latin-English dictionaries published in England between circa 1550 and circa 1700. By ‘ordinary language’ I mean a language which is philosophically informed but which is not used by professional philosophers. By ‘free will’ I mean the general problem of free causation in anthropology and moral philosophy.

In the dictionaries there is evidence that Hobbes was ‘fundamentally right’ to invoke ordinary language against Bramhall — save some specific philosophical questions on which the dictionaries are silent. I will conclude by discussing some related questions on the interplay of academic and “lay” philosophy, of technical and ‘ordinary’ language, and on the influence of scholasticism (and of its abandonment) on the differences between liberum arbitrium and free will.

Giovanni Gellera is a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Lausanne. He received his PhD from the University of Glasgow in 2012. He has published widely on the history of early modern philosophy and is co-editing (with Professor Alexander Broadie) a manuscript treatise by James Dundas, the Idea Philosophiae Moralis from 1679.

This event is organised jointly with the Intellectual History Research Group.

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