Liberalism as an intellectual movement of ideas has been a pre-eminent force in the history of political thought, establishing itself since its conception in the early nineteenth century as 'the outstanding doctrine of Western civilization'.1 Liberalism, though, should not be identified with a single tradition; it does not constitute a clear-cut body of either doctrine or practice but comprises a number of conflicting historical forms. Ideologies, as Clifford Geertz has written, are cognitive maps 'of problematic social reality'.2 This cartographical metaphor seems especially appropriate for describing the different and sometimes contradictory variants of liberal ideology. These variants, like maps, represent the historical landscape in their own ways, and for different purposes. Their representations can be accurate, but, like maps, are always incomplete, emphasising some features and neglecting others. Changes in the core features of these variants of liberalism are inevitable, as the variants themselves are constantly subjected to the forces of historical transformation.
This is one of the strongest arguments in favour of placing liberalism in its proper historical context. For it is only when liberalism is seen as an evolving, and therefore changing, ideology that historical differences fall into place. A hermeneutic approach, which explores the existential nature of understanding whilst recognising it as embedded in tradition, is one way of interpreting such changes in liberalism. The value of this approach is that it does not claim to present a systematic theory; rather, it recognises several overlapping but competing constructions of liberalism rooted in distinctive traditions. It attaches meaning to these traditions and to the