How to Do Things with a Social Contract
Peter Gratton (Memorial University of Newfoundland)

March 22, 2022, 8:00pm - 9:30pm
Faculty of Arts, Monash University



  • Australian Research Council


Monash University

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Social contract theory begins in Hobbes in modernity in a Real Politik attempt to negotiate political difference and delineate a politics capable of dealing with human being, and it comes to be summed up in Rawls by a very different attempt to remove any metaphysics or ontology from its account, all the better to detail abstracted norms that could be universalized for any given community. Born as something of a stopgap measure in Hobbes—better to accede to the sovereign than the brutal life we would have otherwise—by Rawls’ time, the contract no longer answers to base human instincts and drives, but is a means of enjoining a reconciliation with the state of things. If the contract’s philosophical status has been at issue for centuries—is it ontological or normative, metaphysical or metatheoretical?—its linguistic status has been just as puzzling. Most books on the matter call the contract a “metaphor,” but in fact the contract, as guaranteeing all other contracts, plays no such role. Nor is it a constative utterance, since, of course, that the social contract exists is less than clear anytime one states the fact. What I want to show is that hidden behind the rationality of every contract is the structure of a Leviathan found in Hobbes and then brought all through social contract theory. No matter their differences, since social contracts are performative and since they must have force of law, there is no contract theory that does not, in the end, provide ample place on the stage for performance of sovereignty, which, as we’ve seen time and again, is no giant to be tied down by lilliputian laws and rules. Rawls is correct when he says rationalist philosophers look for rationality in political institutions and find them mirrored back at them, since the contract ultimately is a rationalist fable disavowing the continuing Leviathans whose existence has been the real story of political modernity. Key thinkers discussed will be Rousseau, Arendt, and Mbembe.

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March 22, 2022, 8:00pm +10:00

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