Monday, March 24, 2003

Liberalism: A Primer

Since I just posted something on the terminology of the Anglosphere, I thought it might be helpful to explain some other terms I've been tossing around for the last several days. Maybe this will provide me with an out from this particular rut, at least for now.

Liberalism can refer to an ideology (that is, an organizing body of ideas about political positions and actions) and a philosophy; these two usually (though not always) go together. In the latter case, what is meant is an argument about the reality of the human condition, or the worthiness of any particular organization of human possibilities, or both. To be a philosophical liberal is to hold to the truthfulness and value of recognizing the individual as a rational actor, a rights-bearing entity, a naturally (or divinely, or both) created being whose original condition is (or ought to be) characterized by personal liberty. Liberalism takes many forms; it can be grounded in a beneficent God and/or natural world (as in the case of Locke, who saw human independence as a righteous inheritance), in a kind of empirical nominalism (as in the case of Hobbes, who saw human independence as a desperate psychological fact), in a sense of historical pluralism (as in the case of Mill, who saw human independence as the only reasonable response to the ineliminable presence of diversity and disagreement), or in a form of rationalism (as in the case of Kant, who saw human independence as the concomintant of the structure of the phenomenal world). Of course, most of the time philosophical liberals do not attach themselves to just one camp, but draw upon several to support their convictions. The one substantive commonality however, generally speaking, is that liberalism, by taking human liberty as a universal (if not always realized) fact, constructs itself in opposition to efforts to collectivize the already-existing individual; it is, in short, defensive, or negative.

Liberalism, however, as Michael Walzer argued in a wonderful piece titled "On Negative Politics," can also refer to an attitude towards, or theory about, political reality; that is, as an adjective. As he wrote: "Liberal, in this sense, is properly used as an adjective: liberal monarchist, liberal democrat, liberal socialist, and insofar as the major religions are political in character, liberal Jew, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, and so on. In these formulations, the adjective expresses our fears, the noun, our hopes. This isn't a universally necessary usage, for liberalism is also....a substantive politics....But liberalism as an adjective, expressing fearfulness and negativity, is likely to be useful anywhere. I cannot imagine a political regime that I would not want constrained in at least some of the ways that [liberalism] suggests." Understood in this way, one may be liberal in how one chooses to theorize about the uses, abuses, applications and directions of political things, without necessarily granting liberal ideology final, or even superior, philosophical explanatory or justificatory power in how one accounts for the existence or value of political things. I think this is where I and many others stand.

Communitarianism, nationalism, republicanism and so forth are hardly all identical philosophies; all have distinct philosophical (not to mention historical and methodological) genealogies and provenances. All, however, overlap (or at least potentially overlap) in the sense that they see the reality of the human condition, or the worthiness of any particular organization of human possibilities, or both, in terms other than those of human liberty, autonomy, independence and so forth. Rather, they recognize the embeddedness, particularity, and connection which grounds our ability to conceive of political possibilities, assess them, and respond to them. In innumerable ways, drawing on anyone and everyone from Aristotle to Aquinas to Rousseau to Hegel, this network of philosophies constructs community, nationality, and/or citizenship (or discipleship, for that matter) as positive, or at least potentially positive, features of human life. The problems which arise from this turn away from natural or rational universalism and towards an engagement with the values and norms of specific, culture-bound collectivites are numerous; the question of exactly what constitutes such a "collectivity" in the first place being only the first. But for people like me, a morality which doesn't have a home outside of a distant act of divine will or natural discovery isn't much of a morality at all. Which is not to say that the proven importance of assessing such "homes" (communities, nations, etc.) in a liberal fashion has been lost on us; it hasn't, and hence we use labels like "liberal communitarianism," "liberal nationalism," and "liberal republicanism," as confusing and as much in need of philosophical reflection and critique as those positions may be. Whether any of this justifies the development of an "Anglosphere" is, of course, far from certain. But at least this primer may grant some clarity in how at least some of us find ourselves thinking about and debating this war, and its aftermath.