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Liberalism

DOI
10.4324/9780415249126-S035-1
DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-S035-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 21, 2021, from https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/liberalism/v-1

2. Political philosophy

In philosophy, ’liberalism’ is not just the name of a loosely organized and quarrelsome family of substantive political opinions. It refers also to a heritage of abstract thought about human nature, agency, freedom, and value, and their bearing on the functions and origins of political and legal institutions.

That heritage takes its rise in early modern English political philosophy – most notably in the work of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke §10. It is also the political philosophy of the European Enlightenment, represented in its most philosophically articulate form in the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, François-Marie Arouet de Voltaire, Henri-Benjamin Constant de Rebecque and, a little later, Immanuel Kant. In the nineteenth century, philosophical liberalism is represented, first, in the utilitarian theories of Bentham and J.S. Mill, and later in the ’Idealism’ of T.H. Green.

Inevitably, because of our proximity, it is harder to identify canonical works of twentieth-century liberalism. There was a long period in the twentieth century in which liberal philosophers seemed to lose their taste (or their nerve) for grand theory on the scale of Hobbes or Kant, a period during which they seemed to pride themselves on the piecemeal, analytic and unsystematic character of their thought. In a Cold War context, these were regarded as healthy signs of being ‘non-ideological’. That phase seems to have passed, and more confident versions of philosophical liberalism have re-emerged in the work of late-twentieth-century writers like F.A. von Hayek §3, Robert Nozick §2, Ronald Dworkin, Joseph Raz and, most importantly, John Rawls §4.

Some will quibble about one or two of the names on this list. Was Hobbes really a liberal? Was Rousseau? We should remember, however, that ‘liberalism’ has never been a label over which any group has exercised collective control. As a result, the term is at the mercy of its most casual users, and indeed the attempt to define ’liberalism’ is undertaken most commonly not by its practitioners but by its opponents, with predictable caricatural results.

Even so, the challenge is not just to correct misrepresentations. The philosophical positions that we most plausibly identify as liberal often represent distinctive expressions of ambivalence about human nature and political life, rather than dogmatic formulae in a liberal catechism. We have seen this already in the values and principles which constitute liberalism in the political sense: liberals disagree about property, economic equality and the role of the state. At the more philosophical level, liberals disagree about the nature of value, the meaning of freedom and the connection between individual and social purposes.

What follows is an attempt to lay out some of those positions and controversies. But defining liberalism is, on the whole, a frustrating pastime. There are many ways of mapping this philosophical landscape, and there is no substitute for grappling with the disparate detail of the theories propounded by particular liberal philosophers.

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Citing this article:
Waldron, Jeremy. Political philosophy. Liberalism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-S035-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/liberalism/v-1/sections/political-philosophy-9.
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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