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

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The liberal ‘greats’

The story of liberalism, as that of all ideologies, combines social and intellectual fashions and currents with the contributions of remarkable individuals. I have contended that it is a methodological and factual error to condense the range and complexity of liberal history to that of a few people. But it would be equally wrong to ignore the crucial role these ‘celebrity’ thinkers have played in contributing to liberal discourse and in setting down signposts through which broader publics can acquire access to liberal ideas. Because it is quite common to see the complex liberal semantic field reduced to its ‘heroic’ figures, that reduction has itself had a profound impact on the understanding and reception of liberalism. It is often not what liberalism has actually been that seems to count, but the way general perceptions of liberalism have impacted on the rhetorical and imaginative power surrounding liberalism through its most salient exponents.

That very specialized liberal intellectual tradition has been largely constructed by philosophers and through university courses and ‘classic’ historical and literary texts as part of a canon. But it is also the case that proto-liberals such as Locke have been co-opted into a later liberal tradition, when many of their intentions and concerns would not be recognized as liberal. For that reason Locke does not figure in this chapter, even though such co-optations develop their own logic and play an important part in the re-invention of cultural memory. Accordingly, this chapter explores the views of some major thinkers and philosophers who shaped and refined liberal thinking since the early 19th century, when liberalism emerged as a distinct ideology. Some of their theories began as philosophical exercises in formulating ideal-type liberalisms. However, unlike much recent philosophical liberalism—to be discussed in —they became part of liberalism’s historical and empirical trajectories. That was due in no small measure to the way these thinkers engaged extensively with the political issues of their day.

We begin with four British thinkers who between them illustrate a markedly consistent thread in the development of liberal thought, combining aspects of layer one with layers three and four—a thread that was taken up by other liberals, and unravelled by others still. This emphasis can be justified by a common denominator that notably changed the course of liberalism by opening up the broader potential of its ideas. Some would argue that since then alternative versions of liberalism are mostly rearguard and defensive moves, purist attempts to distil an unsullied or ‘authentic’ liberal essence, if not outright usurpations of the label. On the other hand, those alternative versions often decry the proponents of layers three and four as betrayers, or at least distorters, of what they regard as liberalism—Hayek, as we shall see, is one such instance.

Previous: The precise and the fuzzy
Next: John Stuart Mill (1806‒73)