Liberating Judgment: Fanatics, Skeptics, and John Locke's Politics of Probability

Liberating Judgment: Fanatics, Skeptics, and John Locke's Politics of Probability

Liberating Judgment: Fanatics, Skeptics, and John Locke's Politics of Probability

Liberating Judgment: Fanatics, Skeptics, and John Locke's Politics of Probability


Examining the social and political upheavals that characterized the collapse of public judgment in early modern Europe, Liberating Judgment offers a unique account of the achievement of liberal democracy and self-government. The book argues that the work of John Locke instills a civic judgment that avoids the excesses of corrosive skepticism and dogmatic fanaticism, which lead to either political acquiescence or irresolvable conflict. Locke changes the way political power is assessed by replacing deteriorating vocabularies of legitimacy with a new language of justification informed by a conception of probability. For Locke, the coherence and viability of liberal self-government rests not on unassailable principles or institutions, but on the capacity of citizens to embrace probable judgment.

The book explores the breakdown of the medieval understanding of knowledge and opinion, and considers how Montaigne's skepticism and Descartes' rationalism--interconnected responses to the crisis--involved a pragmatic submission to absolute rule. Locke endorses this response early on, but moves away from it when he encounters a notion of reasonableness based on probable judgment. In his mature writings, Locke instructs his readers to govern their faculties and intellectual yearnings in accordance with this new standard as well as a vocabulary of justification that might cultivate a self-government of free and equal individuals. The success of Locke's arguments depends upon citizens' willingness to take up the labor of judgment in situations where absolute certainty cannot be achieved.


The achievement of liberal self-government is by no means inevitable. It is a complicated, contingent, and ultimately provisional undertaking. This observation might seem commonplace, yet it is also commonly ignored. Enchanted by the belief that liberal democracy is the result of the effortless proliferation of universally accepted principles, its supporters have underestimated the difficulty of fostering stable and just communities both at home and around the world. They have failed to see that government based on free and equal participation cannot simply be decreed, and have thus overlooked the many ways in which such polities can falter. Perhaps such overconfidence was predictable. in the wake of international liberal ascendancy, it has been tempting to assume that everyone embraces the same political aspirations.

Yet this costly self-assurance is not only the result of the proliferation of regimes claiming to be liberal democracies. It also stems from the way in which modern liberalism has come to understand itself as primarily a set of political axioms that can be universally endorsed. All rational individuals, it is assumed, can agree on a set of basic commitments: a hostility toward tyranny, a faith in toleration, an insistence on representative government and the separation of powers, a commitment to free inquiry in the arts and sciences, a conviction that the common good is served through regulated private ownership, and most importantly, the belief that governments are human creations that derive their legitimacy from the consent of the governed. These commitments seem so familiar that it is difficult to imagine that anyone could object to them. in the context of such a consensus, it would seem that liberal democracy could be justified and sustained simply by the articulation of its principles.

By assuming that political justification rests solely on abstract principles, however, we have tended to overlook the dangers and excesses to which liberalism is especially vulnerable. We have ignored the ways in which liberal institutions can foster the very conditions that threaten their continued viability—conditions characterized by isolating egoism, thoroughgoing materialism and secularism, and the uncritical pursuit of a narrowly self-interested freedom. Such conditions can undermine shared political commitments, breeding both debilitating skepticism and violent fanaticism.

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