Philosophy Political Philosophy Politics

What is Liberalism? A Philosophical Overview

Liberalism is a term, like conservatism, often employed in political discourse that few people have an actual understanding of. It is often asserted liberalism is about “freedom” and “individualism” and is positioned against the “authoritarianism” of “conservatism” and “monarchy” and “fascism.” While there are traces of individualism in liberal political theory, liberalism cannot be divorced from its actual historical setting and consciousness which informed it. Liberalism is the political theory of modernity, rooted in a techno-scientistic and materialist understanding of nature, from which other variants emerge: progressivism, socialism, and communism.

If you read the eminent liberal forefathers, sometimes called the “classical liberals,” you will not find them united in a common theme of freedom of speech (actually absent in all until you reach John Stuart Mill who defends free speech on epistemological grounds rather than political ones), limited government, the rule of law, or the primacy of the individual. What you find in Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Baruch Spinoza, to John Stuart Mill, John Rawls, and Jurgen Habermas, is the common belief that politics should principally be about “freedom from harm.” This, the liberal political philosophers past and present argue, is the aim of human life and the task of human politics. This is contingently tied to the New Science of Francis Bacon and the materialism of the mechanical scientific theories of the Scientific Revolution of early modernity. In short, liberalism is a political theory that conceptualizes man and cosmos in material terms and that science and technology can alleviate the physical ailments of humankind and be utilized to build, the words of Francis Bacon, “an empire of man” centered on economic prosperity and personal security and comfort.

The achievement of this world of economic prosperity, personal security and comfort, differs from thinker to thinker inside the liberal tradition. Concerns for hearth and home, family life, God, spiritual and aesthetic matters, are no longer part of the liberal vision of political life is it often is in conservative political philosophy. Instead, the aims of liberal politics are all “practical.” In other words: materialist in nature. Some believe that a scientific free market and individual incentive is the best way to achieve this world of economic prosperity and human security and comfort. Others believed it was the responsibility of the state to take a proactive role in securing prosperity and global peace. This tends to be the dichotomy of “classical” vs. “modern” liberal. The classical liberal favors a relatively free market and individual incentive and action within the scientific framework to achieve prosperity and peace. The modern liberal favors state action and state bureaucracies within the scientific framework to achieve prosperity and peace. (Going further, historicizing the theory of scientific materialism leads to socialism and communism in the Marxist understanding.)

Liberalism is less a uniform political theory as it is a mentality toward life which ends up influencing politics. Liberalism is a worldview that sees human nature and the cosmos 1) in purely material terms; 2) contingent to its material vision of life understands the highest good in life to be in material terms (non-harm, comfort, prosperity, etc.); 3) and believes that science and technology is the most efficient means to achieve a life of material prosperity and comfort. The legitimate purpose of government, then, is the actualization of material prosperity and comfort. In essence, liberalism is the materialistic and scientific worldview that informs politics and human life which aims at the gradual improvement of human life in material terms through a myriad of techno-scientistic ways.

As can be discerned from a political perspective, liberalism seeks to construction of a new world based on policies and laws that maximize scientific and technological advancement and the fruits of scientific and technological progress. Liberalism is, therefore, intrinsically progressive by nature as it seeks to progress human life from its current conditions to a better condition.

Lastly, as it is conventionally understood in the consciousness of public politics, liberalism is about improving human life (understood materialistically) through a combination of scientific and technological policies that combines a relatively open (commercial and technologically dominated) free market, global cooperation, government regulation and oversight, and individual choice (where possible) in what brings maximum bodily comfort, pleasure, and prosperity and what prevents maximum bodily harm, distress, and poverty. In its impulse to create a new world, liberalism was associated with its ubiquitous moniker of reform and association with oppressed classes of people who needed improvement or liberation from the constrictions imposed on them by past prejudice, oppression, and cruelty.

When the new world of science and technology began creating the modern world we have today, liberalism as a worldview and vision became more specified in the creation of derivative political theories that emanated from the liberal outlook. This general attitude and worldview of liberalism as we’ve been describing with its abstract and broad conception of politics eventually codified itself into progressivism and socialism as the two most specific outgrowths of the liberal worldview, with Marxism as a very specific outgrowth of socialism. Progressivism, with its emphasis on techno-scientistic managerialism, was the logical outgrowth of politicized liberalism. Socialism, eventually giving birth to Marxism, was the historicized outgrowth of the general features of the liberal vision of the world in its materialist and scientific understanding of man and existence. Liberalism and its derivatives was opposed by conservatism, which sought (as we explained in this post) the preservation of the medieval and Renaissance social orders now threatened by liberalism’s impetus of new world creation.

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Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.

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