The Social Contract (Contract of Government)

Johann Sommerville

in The Oxford Handbook of the History of Political Philosophy

Published in print May 2011 | ISBN: 9780199238804
Published online September 2011 | e-ISBN: 9780191728365 | DOI:

Series: Oxford Handbooks in Philosophy

 The Social Contract (Contract of Government)

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  • History of Western Philosophy
  • Social and Political Philosophy


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Social-contract theories flourished in Europe in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, had roots extending far further back, and continue to be influential today. John Rawls revived one type of contract theory in the mid-twentieth century, while another featured in the work of Robert Nozick. One kind of theory centers on a real or hypothetical contract between individuals to establish a political society—a contract of society. Another focuses on a contract between the society or people, on the one hand, and the ruler or government, on the other—a contract of government. In the heyday of theorizing about the social contract, it was the contract of government that received most attention. When people joined together to form political societies, they proceeded, authority must at first have been in the hands of the whole community, since no one had any greater right to exercise it than anyone else. Some contractualists have used the social contract to cast light on what must always and everywhere be true about states. They include Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, and Rawls.

Keywords: Europe; social contract; government; John Rawls; Robert Nozick; authority; Thomas Hobbes; Jean-Jacques Rousseau; Immanuel Kant

Article.  6235 words. 

Subjects: History of Western Philosophy ; Social and Political Philosophy

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