It is a commonplace amongst scholars that the young Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716), a seventeenth-century polymath, once referred to Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), the author of Leviathan (1651), as a ‘supernominalist’. The term has featured prominently in recent studies of Leibniz’s early thought by Stefano Di Bella and Massimo Mugnai. It is generally taken to reflect Hobbes’s supposedly extreme position on the so-called ‘problem of universals’. Conventionally, this debate is described as a battle pitched between ‘realists’ and ‘nominalists’. On the one hand, ‘realist’ referred to those thinkers who believed that universal concepts like ‘man’ or ‘blue’ exist independently of particular men and blue things. On the other hand, ‘nominalist’ indicated someone who thought that these terms are merely names that we use as a shorthand for things. As for what a ‘supernominalist’ might be, that is less clear.
The epithet first appeared in 1956 with the publication of L. E. Loemker’s landmark first edition of Leibniz’s Philosophical Papers and Letters. It is a translation of an observation made by Leibniz in the preface to his 1670 edition of the Italian humanist Marius Nizolius’s Of True Principles and Philosophical Reasoning Against Pseudophilosophers (1553). In Loemker’s translation of the preface, Leibniz remarks that William of Ockham (1287–1347), the pioneer of medieval nominalism, ‘himself was not more nominalistic than is Thomas Hobbes now, though I confess that Hobbes seems to me to be a supernominalist.’ In reality, Leibniz’s claim was more cryptic. He merely observed that Hobbes was ‘mihi plusquam nominalis videtur’. That is to say that Hobbes seemed to him to be ‘more than a nominalist.’ Far from classifying Hobbes as an extreme nominalist, Leibniz simply suggested that the label did not quite fit. This gnomic observation came after Leibniz had said of nominalism in general that: ‘Nothing is truer than this opinion, and nothing is more worthy of a philosopher of our own time’.
In the context of the controversial European reception of Hobbes’s nominalism over the preceding decades, this was comparatively glowing praise. In the ‘Third Set of Objections’ to René Descartes’s Meditations on First Philosophy (1641), Hobbes had hypothesised that if we reasoned through universal names, ‘then our reason will capture nothing of the nature of things, but only their definitions’. But Hobbes nonetheless insisted that this nominalist reasoning was grounded in a material reality because names arose from the imagination, and the imagination itself was the result of the motion of external bodies on the senses.
However, Descartes and his followers interpreted Hobbes’s nominalism as a deliberate attempt to introduce a kind of arbitrariness into philosophy. As Descartes put it: ‘Who doubts that the French and the Germans are able to think clearly about the same things, even if the terms they devise for them are quite distinct? […] For if he admits that the words mean something, why does he not want our reasoning to be about the something they denote, rather than merely about the words?’ It was precisely this concern about the instability of common standards of meaning that made the problem of universals central to seventeenth-century philosophy. If words were separated from things, then what was truth but a name?
As Noel Malcolm has pointed out, this reading of Hobbes struggles to account for his stated commitment to rooting his logic in a materialist metaphysics. Yet this criticism became the put-down of choice for treatments of Hobbes’s nominalism in England and abroad. In the hugely influential Port-Royal Logic (1662), the French Jansenists, Antoine Arnauld (1612–1694) and Pierre Nicole (1625–1695), introduced the very same criticism in almost identical words to Descartes’s statement, in response to ‘false notions affirmed by an Englishman’.
Leibniz’s altogether more cautious and deferential approach to Hobbes’s nominalism suggests that it is incorrect to claim either that his comment belongs to this polemical tradition, or that Leibniz thought Hobbes was dangerously mistaken in his nominalism. Rather, it demonstrates that Leibniz remarkably agreed with Descartes about the unsettling consequences of Hobbes’s arguments, but nonetheless thought that Hobbes might have a point.
This realisation helps us make sense of Leibniz’s later 1677 Dialogue Concerning the Connection Between Things and Words. In this work, Leibniz brings to life (in conversation between ‘A’ and ‘B’, following the pattern of Hobbes’s own dialogues) the arguments of the 'Objections' in far more radical terms than Hobbes ever would. Although this radical arbitrariness is ultimately refuted in the dialogue, Hobbes’s essential contention against Descartes—that reasoning depends on names, rather than things—is upheld. In this sense, the young Leibniz’s ‘plusquam nominalis’ epithet can be regarded as a ‘Hobbist’ rehabilitation of Hobbes’s ‘more-than-nominalism’, rather than—as it has sometimes been taken—a pointed critique of it.
Aidan Fusco read Ancient & Modern History at St. Hugh’s College, Oxford, 2015–18. The ideas presented in this blogpost reflect his PhD research on 'Hobbes and Language' for an LAHP AHRC studentship at University College London.