Liberalism resists easy description. Whether it refers to a political ideology or to a political philosophy, it covers a broad swathe of ideas. The swathe of ideas it covers is so broad, in fact, that efforts to identify its essential and distinctive features almost always come off as hopelessly narrow. For example, in the 1980s it was fashionable for political theorists to propose that liberals, unlike conservatives and radicals, are committed to the idea that the state should be neutral between contested conceptions of the good life. However, this proposal in one fell swoop excludes Mill, Tocqueville, Hobhouse, Green, and many other influential members of the liberal camp. Rather than identifying a single unifying commitment, others have sought, more promisingly, to pick out family resemblance characteristics to zone in on the target. But once again, the exercise looks ill-fated. True, the more characteristics that are picked out, the less restrictive the resulting characterization of liberalism becomes, but, at the same time, the broadened characterization makes it harder to view liberalism as a distinctive tradition of thought, one that differs in deep and informative ways from rival political traditions such as conservatism or republicanism. It might be advisable, then, to speak of multiple liberal political traditions rather than a single political tradition of liberalism. Or perhaps liberalism should be understood as a single political tradition, but one that is not very unified, encompassing a variety of rival strands of thought. What can be said with confidence is that liberalism is a label that attaches both to a history of a fairly diverse set of political movements, and to the ideas and arguments associated with those movements, and to an ongoing research program in contemporary political philosophy. This volume introduces readers both to this history and to this research program. It certainly does not purport to be comprehensive. Any volume of this size on a topic as expansive as liberalism must be selective. The historical periods and topics discussed here reflect the predilections and interests of the editor. In selecting topics and contributors, I hope to convey the diversity and vitality of liberalism, but also to bring into view some of its blind spots.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Arts and Humanities(all)