Liberal Languages: Ideological Imaginations and Twentieth-Century Progressive Thought

By Michael Freeden | Go to book overview

CHAPTER ONE
Twentieth-Century Liberal Thought:
Development or Transformation?

IN THIS CHAPTER I seek to investigate how liberalism was portrayed throughout the twentieth century in dedicated liberal literature, that is, works primarily devoted to an exposition of the basic tenets of liberalism. On the surface many, though not all, of these works present themselves as “second-order” overviews of liberal theory and ideology. Sometimes, as with the Rawlsian family of arguments, they intend both to offer a novel interpretation of liberal principles and, in parallel, reflect given cultural understandings unconsciously and unintentionally. On the whole, though, writers about liberalism have tended to elucidate a tradition rather than depart from it. But this raises a fundamental methodological problem: When does a “secondary” text become a “primary” one? The response to that is: When we interpret it as itself an act of interpretation, and when we acknowledge that the role of the political theorist incorporates not only prescription and its investigation, but also interpretation and its investigation. The analysts, chroniclers, and popularisers of liberalism become pivotal to our understanding when we query its status as a transcendent moral position and explore it instead as a diverse and flexible set of readings concerning the epistemology of the political.

Whatever else liberalism is, it is a cultural artefact, consciously intended to be adopted by large social groups. But rather than explore the Ideen geschichte of liberalism in time-honoured conventional manner on a unidimensional sequence, we need to draw conclusions from the variable presentation of historical liberal narratives, or from their juxtaposition with non-narrative justifications of liberalism. The history of liberalism this century, and indeed in previous centuries, is not merely the reflection of its development, or evolution, or change, or perchance regression. It is not a single story to be told. We now recognise that all current theories are located in time as well as in space. But when we say that, we are not engaging in the simplistic assertion that “context counts.” Contexts are multitemporal and multispatial even with respect to one family of beliefs such as liberalism, and they generate both deliberate and unintentional meta-assumptions quite irrespective of whether liberalism itself contains views on universalism or relativism or, as we have now come to appreciate, multiculturalism. Moreover, individual liberals, and conventional so

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