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Pabst, Adrian (2013) Liberalism. In: Bruni, Luigino and Zamagni, Stefano, eds. Handbook on the Economics of Reciprocity and Social Enterprise. Edward Elgar, London, pp. 217-226. ISBN 978-1-84980-463-9. (doi:10.1002/9781444367072.wbiee236) (KAR id:37676)


Until the global economic crisis struck in 2008, liberalism was the dominant ideology of our time and undoubtedly the most influential political philosophy of the last 300 years or so. Its origins, evolution and meaning are deeply contested by liberal and non-liberal thinkers alike. Many contemporary historians and political philosophers claim that liberal thought first emerged in the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century and evolved into a distinct philosophical tradition during the Age of Enlightenment (e.g. Mesnard 1969; Kelly 2005, Paul et al 2007). Thus, key liberal figures such as John Locke (1632–1704), Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) and Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) opposed what they viewed as the unholy alliance between the Church, absolutist monarchs and the feudal capitalism of the landed gentry. They defended alternative ideas such as freedom of religion, tolerance, constitutional rule, individual property and free trade.

These antecedents were important, but – so the dominant narrative goes – liberalism’s evolution as an ideology and political movement only took off following the impact of the American and the French Revolution. Thereafter the liberal tradition was instrumental in the ‘three waves of democratization’ (Huntington 1991). The first wave saw liberal governments triumph in much of Europe and the Americas in the nineteenth and the early twentieth century. The second wave after 1945 rolled back some of the authoritarian regimes of the interwar period and also coincided with de-colonisation, while the third wave after 1974 overthrew the military dictatorships of Southern Europe and Latin America and later the Communist regimes of the eastern bloc. Based on the fundamental principles of liberty and the equal rights of all, most advocates of liberalism defend political freedom, economic opportunity, social emancipation and equality before the law (e.g. Gray 1995, 2004).

However, recent genealogical accounts suggest that the roots of liberalism go back to the late Middle Ages and the early modern age (Manent 1987; Dupré 1993). As a variety of theologians, philosophers and political theorists have argued (e.g. Milbank 1990; de Muralt 2002; Coleman 1999), notions such as individual subjective rights, popular sovereignty and national autonomy can be traced to shifts within theology, politics and law that were pioneered by key figures like John Duns Scotus (c1265/66–1308), William of Ockham (c1248/49–1349) and Francisco Suárez (1548–1617). Thus, core liberal principles are unintelligible without reference to late medieval and modern theological debates and ecclesial-political transformations. Similarly, modern categories such as the rule of the ‘one’ or the ‘many’ (associated with the political ‘right’ and ‘left’ since the French Revolution) and ideas like individual self-determination or the general will ultimately rest on nominalist and voluntarist theories that originated in the late Middle Ages (Pabst, 2010a). Even the values of liberality (e.g. fair detention and trial, presumption of innocence, habeas corpus, etc.) that liberalism purports to uphold were in reality the product of infusing Roman and Germanic law with Christian notions of justice and charity that liberals took over but did not invent (Milbank 2006). As such, the liberal claim to universal validity seems to be a secularised version of religious claims to universal truth.

These two rival accounts of the origins and meaning of liberalism show just how contested the liberal tradition is. This chapter discusses both liberal and non-liberal perspectives on liberalism. It begins by suggesting that there is no single essence that defines all visions of liberalism. Rather, one can identify four ‘family resemblances’ that characterise seemingly incompatible variants of liberal thinking. The second section outlines the main ideas of key early modern liberal thinkers, including Locke, Rousseau, Kant and J.S. Mill. The third section turns to alternative genealogies that trace the roots to the late Middle Ages and highlight profound continuities between Scotus, Ockham, Suárez, Machiavelli and Hobbes and contemporary liberal thinking (e.g. John Rawls). The final section explores recent debates, notably on social and economic liberalism as well as the much disputed notion of neo-liberalism.

Item Type: Book section
DOI/Identification number: 10.1002/9781444367072.wbiee236
Subjects: J Political Science > JC Political theory
Divisions: Divisions > Division of Human and Social Sciences > School of Politics and International Relations
Depositing User: Adrian Pabst
Date Deposited: 19 Dec 2013 14:03 UTC
Last Modified: 09 Mar 2023 11:33 UTC
Resource URI: (The current URI for this page, for reference purposes)

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