Problems and solutions of change in conceptions of the rule of law in the seventeenth century: evolution or revolution?
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The Rule of Law is one of the most important, and most contested, political concepts. The ideas of thinkers—who are frequently taken to be responsible for canonical statements relating to the Rule of Law—are frequently used to illustrate the existence of similarities and differences that both identify what the Rule of Law is and delineate the conceptual boundaries of the concept. In citing these thinkers, the underlying assumption is that the Rule of Law can be seen as a single, diachronically conceivable, concept that has evolved over time. I question both of these practices. Considering Rule of Law conceptions in a superficial sense—by considering only thinkers’ accounts in the absence of their authoring context—fails to appreciate nuances and inflections that can fundamentally alter perceived similarities or differences; where various canonical accounts can no longer be seen as reflecting the same ideas, the assumption of a single, evolving, idea of the concept of the Rule of Law as drawn in contemporary conceptual discourse cannot be sustained. I conduct a contextualist examination of two accounts frequently associated with the idea of the Rule of Law: Hobbes’s Leviathan and Locke’s Two Treatises of Government. To place these in context, I adopt a problem / solution approach. I consider their texts as reflecting solutions to problems that existed in their societies at the time they were writing. To expose the associated problems, I consider pamphlets that were popular at that time. By clearly identifying and associating the Rule of Law solutions with the relevant societal problems, a more nuanced appreciation of the accounts is achieved. By identifying inflections in Rule of Law solutions, it becomes possible to disambiguate between superficially similar ideas. By disambiguating in this way—and by illustrating superficially similar accounts are fundamentally different in their nature—I argue there is no necessary conceptual connection between the Rule of Law accounts provided by Hobbes and Locke. I also argue that this difference is sufficient to show that, at least between these two ‘canonical’ accounts, the assumption that the Rule of Law has evolved cannot hold; change across Hobbes’s and Locke’s conceptions of the Rule of Law has occurred not by evolution, but by revolution.