Book: Liberalism: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)

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Liberalism as history, ideology, and philosophy

There are three ways of handling the variety of encounters with liberalism. We could do what many have done and still do: plump for one of the characterizations of liberalism as correct while dismissing the others without much ado as false or mistaken. Whatever we think of such a truth-seeking perspective, it does not allow for flexibility or pluralism in approaching liberalism. Instead, we could try to identify the most typical, or most common, of the liberal variants and appoint it as the benchmark for what is meant by liberalism. We then run the risk that its supporters might misrecognize what they believe liberalism is, and we might sacrifice the subtlety and quality of which liberal ideas are capable by subjecting it to the changing views of majorities. Alternatively, we could offer a map on which to place, locate, and trace the features of different liberalisms, both shared and distinct. Such a map might enable us to comprehend how various liberalisms are cobbled together. With this map in hand, we could assess the contributions and shortcomings of key liberal variants while appreciating the range and power of liberalism as a whole. That will be the method advanced here. The following chapters will analyse the selective preferences people display in their accounts of liberalism, without necessarily endorsing any of them. But, as will be noted in , we also need to be alert to the eventuality that liberal positions are often misappropriated.

Liberals have always seen themselves as part of a tradition of thinking about the relationship between individual and society, and they can claim an impressive pedigree in advocates of natural rights and tolerance such as John Locke (1632–1704) and champions of liberty such as John Stuart Mill (1806–73). Consequently, one well-established method of investigating liberalism approaches it as a historical story about how individuals and societies progress. ‘Progress’ is the operative word here, as the underlying assumption is that the liberal project entails the continuous improvement and refinement of the human condition, in the course of a gradual and steady process. But whereas liberals have their own unequivocal narratives about the path travelled by liberalism, scholars of liberalism may give rival and rather different accounts of what they think happened on that journey. They may disagree sharply over what the main liberal ideas and the key liberal innovations are. They may differ on whether liberalism peaked in a particular era or not; whether it has weakened as a viable theory or become increasingly resourceful; whether it has betrayed its roots or has strengthened them. Liberalism has changed unevenly in the course of its history. It has accrued various layers of argument over time that have loosely added to its characteristics. Anticipating the discussion in , we can provisionally suggest that liberalism has consisted historically of five temporal layers (see ).

Some of those layers have also disappeared or been overshadowed in several cases. At any point a different layer may be ascendant or in decline and, as a consequence, remarkably diverse conclusions can be reached concerning how liberalism has navigated among them.

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