Ten Theses on Liberalism

When I was first exposed to liberalism as a political philosophy, I was told that its founders were Spinoza and Locke, two thinkers who have always struck me as having rather little in common, except some common foes — especially a repressive state, be it based on religious or secular grounds. 


Liberalism is less an ideology than a meta-ideology, namely, that the good society allows people as much as possible to decide matters for themselves.

Liberals thus place greater value on independence of mind than the particular positions to which it leads people.

A society of liberals may recognize each other as fellow liberals while disagreeing on most substantive matters.

The proper opposite of ‘liberal’ is not ‘conservative’ but ‘authoritarian’.

The history of liberalism lacks a substantive focus that is conveyed across time, as each generation faces its own obstacles to the exercise of liberty.

It would be difficult to track liberalism in societies that lack a strong sense of self individuation and ownership because one would not be able to identify the relevant sense of ‘independence’ that the liberal values in persons.

Tolerance for a liberal is not an end in itself but rather a background virtue against which agreement and disagreement can be openly expressed.

Liberalism’s main political challenge is to expand the sphere of tolerable diversity, understood in terms of participants, positions and outcomes.

The sociology of liberalism begins by assuming that individuals spontaneously differ and so various changes of mind are always required to generate any stable social consensus, which is itself always presumed to be temporary.

Modernity places a positive value on liberalism, though history suggests that it is by no means clear that liberalism can be fostered and maintained by purely liberal means.


Dedicated to Carl Gombrich, who queried the nature of liberalism on Twitter.

Categories: Outflanking Platitudes, Rethinking The World, Social Theory

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2 replies »

  1. …and on the face of it who would quibble with such values and positions? The knowing sociologist would contextualise these and suggest that they are exercised often within a power/knowledge context. Poverty and social exclusion can make positions such as tolerance irrelevant to the everyday misery many endure in liberal societies. That is not argue that we do away with some of those theses but to admit that from certain subject positions they look like comfortable bourgeois theses argued from the safety of the coffee house from which many sprung. A nice summation and useful starting point for discussion,

  2. Yes, but think of it this way: Critical theorists would be out of a job if liberals weren’t such hypocrites! All of critical theory’s positive normative ideals — such as they are — are parasitic on liberalism, but unfortunately liberals don’t live up to their own hype.

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