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This article investigates the impact of Locke's philosophy of language on his political thought. It argues that certain aspects of his linguistic theory have a devastating impact on his vision of civil society. There are three ways in which the Lockean commonwealth is threatened. First, Locke's belief in the sovereign and constitutive power of words impedes the toleration that he holds so dear. Second, his fear that men break the compacts that make language work throws into doubt the possibility of the trust that generates and sustains political society. Third, his radical thesis of semantic instability undermines the foundations of community: sociability, the 'social contract' and culture. While Locke's politics might, in the light of this analysis, appear impossible, I end by suggesting that these tensions capture the ineliminably problematic character of political life.
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Keywords: Language; civil society; communion; compact; semantic instability; sociability; toleration; trust

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Queens' College, Cambridge, Email: [email protected]

Publication date: 01 January 2005

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