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  Roger Smith, Lecture 8, ‘liberal’
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Roger Smith, Lecture 8, ‘liberal’

Roger Smith, Some Key Philosophical Words in English

Lecture 8, ‘liberal’


A. Individual and cultural meanings.

The looseness of contemporary usage, but the word opposes ‘conservative’ in one direction and ‘radical’ in the other. The culture of English-language societies since 1689 (‘The Glorious Revolution’) and 1776 (The American Declaration of Independence): ‘liberty’, presupposing individual autonomy (‘agency’), tolerance and the rule of law.

i) ‘the liberal arts’, ‘liberal education’ – the arts of a ‘gentleman’, appropriate for ruler or statesman, based till late 19th century on ‘the Classics’. Bildung in German universities: US ‘liberal arts’ colleges.

(Cardinal) John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University (lectures 1852) – ‘Liberal Education is simply the cultivation of the intellect, as such …’

ii) the qualities of a free man – generous, open-hearted, tolerant and merciful;

‘liberal quantity’ of something.

iii) lack of restraint in beliefs, attitude, speech, e.g. ‘liberal opinions’. Like ‘либеральный’.

iv) freedom from narrow prejudice – linked to ideals of freedom of speech and democracy.

The case of the ‘liberal’ Anglican Church (‘broad church’).


B. Liberal politics.

Link to individualism – persons ‘natural’, social entities contingent and historical.

v) ‘classic’ political liberalism, characterised by:

(1) Individualism – e.g. J. S. Mill, On Liberty (1859); Lord Acton, ‘Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely’.

(2) Associated with ‘Reform’ – in opposition to conservative prejudice and interests; new situation caused by rise of working-class politics and socialist institutions, leading to ambiguity about democracy.

(3) Belief in economic base of personal autonomy.

(4) ‘Liberal’ in morals, especially after 1960s.

In Britain, ‘liberal’ person different from ‘a Liberal’, a member of a political party.


C. Contemporary usage polemical.

Origins of ‘neoliberal’ politics in 1920s, reacting to the rise of central state welfare, Fascism and Bolshevism, and state controls and planning in Britain and US in war-time.

The Austrian school of economics – Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973) and F. A. Hayek (1899-1992), who went to the LSE (1931) and Chicago (1950) – The Road to Serfdom (1944), and The Conditions of Liberty (1960). The election of Mrs Thatcher (1979) and Ronald Reagan (1980) – the use of state power to attack ‘welfare’ and destroy ‘socialism’ and make the rich, richer.


D. Standard criticisms of being ‘liberal’.

False concept of the individual as not an intrinsically social being.

Reluctance/inability to understand and intervene in social structures and power, especially with failure to resist Fascism. Linked to the Marxist critique. How to resist politics of destruction of liberal life?

Historical association with advocacy of democracy failed to address rise of oppression by irrational majority. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1835).

For conservatives, lack of recognition of ‘sacred’ social phenomena.


Conclusion: the lecture course as liberal performativity!