Owen Phillips

Owen Phillips's picture



I hail from Shelburne, Ontario, Canada. Before joining the department in the fall of 2018, I studied Classics and Anthropology at McMaster University (2009-2013; 2013-2015) and Classics at Princeton University (2015-2018). 

My dissertation is entitled “The Law is the Public Conscience: A Defence of Hobbesian Liberalism.” It elaborates a Hobbesian conception of public reason. That is to say, I not only elucidate how Hobbesian political theory is a kind of political liberalism but also show the ways in which this conception is more compelling than its philosophical rivals (in particular, the views of Rawls and Gaus). The former task requires making explicit how the problems of Hobbesian anarchy are exacerbated by moral conflict and, further, how the solutions Hobbes sketched (namely, his institutions of government as well as his idea of the state) are not anti-pluralist. In this light, one sees that this political theory is a pluralist response to pluralism. The latter task consists in articulating the distinctive features and implications of this conception of public reason and explaining why they are valuable.  According to this conception, public reason (i.e., the rule of mutual justifiability that is the core of Hobbesian natural law) mandates a legal order in which “the law is the public conscience” (Leviathan 29.7). In this order, the legislature is the author and the editor of public morality: over time and through its laws, this body spells out and can revise the imperatives of this morality — that is to say, the determinate dictates of public reason, clarifying what one must do for others and must not do to others. Further, only government agents have the authority to force compliance with these imperatives. This is the sole end for the sake of which these agents, and they alone, are permitted to coerce citizens; no one may coerce others without government authorization, which must accord with public reason. The Hobbesian conviction here is that such a legal system is justifiable in a diverse society because it appeals to practical commitments that all rational, reasoning individuals share, commitments that run deeper than their disagreements about how to live and how the world should be.

My secondary project is about the philosophy of history – in particular, the methodology of intellectual history. The focus of my attention here is the complex relationship between what a past thinker meant and what the implications of their arguments are. This research, influenced in part by pragmatist philosophy, informs the analysis of my dissertation.

Dissertation committee: Prof. Ian Shapiro (supervisor, chair); Prof. Bryan Garsten; Prof. Stephen Darwall.


  • Political Theory