The State Without Sovereignty: Authority And Obligation In Hume’s Political Philosophy


Abstract: Hume has no theory of sovereignty. As a result he is frequently supposed to lack a proper theory of politics, providing only a political sociology incapable of addressing the central normative significance of political obligation in thinking about the modern state. This is a serious mistake. Hume addressed himself directly to the question of political obligation, but his argument was predicated upon a prior reconfiguration of our thinking about the nature, role and power of philosophy. In coming to appreciate this prior reconfiguration, in particular via a re-examination of Hume’s indirect engagement with Locke’s earlier juridical political theory, we can properly appreciate Hume as advancing a radically innovative theory of political obligation. What emerges is the possibility of a theory of the state without sovereignty. As well as thereby revealing Hume to be a major and highly original post-Hobbesian theorist of the state, we are invited to consider whether present political theory would do better by adopting Hume’s recommended philosophical reconceptualization.