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Agonistic Liberalism

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 June 2009

John Gray
Politics, Jesus College, Oxford University


In all of its varieties, traditional liberalism is a universalist political theory. Its content is a set of principles which prescribe the best regime, the ideally best institutions, for all mankind. It may be acknowledged — as it is, by a proto-liberal such as Spinoza — that the best regime can be attained only rarely, and cannot be expected to endure for long; and that the forms its central institutions will assume in different historical and cultural milieux may vary significantly. It will then be accepted that the liberal regime's role in political thought is as a regulative ideal, which political practice can hope only to approximate, subject to all the vagaries and exigencies of circumstance. Nonetheless, the content of traditional liberalism is a system of principles which function as universal norms for the critical appraisal of human institutions. In this regard, traditional liberalism — the liberalism of Locke and Kant, for example — represents a continuation of classical political rationalism, as it is found in Aristotle and Aquinas, where it also issues in principles having the attribute of universality, in that they apply ideally to all human beings.

Research Article
Copyright © Social Philosophy and Policy Foundation 1995

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1 Hampshire, Stuart, “Justice Is Strife,” Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Assoaation, vol. 65, no. 3 (11 1991), pp. 2425.Google Scholar

2 There have, of course, been positivist exponents of the Enlightenment project who were in no sense liberals; it was against the greatest of these that John Stuart Mill directed his brilliant and unjustly neglected polemic August Comte and Positivism. I ignore these positivist followers of the Enlightenment project because their form of thought is atavistic and politically irrelevant. For the same reason, I pass over Marxist versions of the Enlightenment project.

3 See my Liberalisms: Essays in Political Philosophy (London and New York: Routledge, 1989), ch. 10, pp. 231–33Google Scholar. Rawls summarizes his later views in his book Political Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993).Google Scholar

4 I refer, of course, to the thought of Michael Oakeshott. For a provisional assessment of Oakeshott's thought, in which its debts to a formalist and legalist tradition of liberalism are judged to be its principal weaknesses, see my Post-Liberalism (London and New York: Routledge, 1993), ch. 4.Google Scholar

5 See my essay “Berlin's Agonistic Liberalism,” in my Post-Liberalism, ch. 6; and my Berlin (London: Fontana Modern Master, Harper Collins, 1995), ch. 6.Google Scholar

6 Raz, Joseph, “Multiculturalism: A Liberal Perspective,” in Recht in een Multiculturele Samenleving, ed. Huls, N. J. H. and Stout, H. D. (Zwolle, The Netherlands: W. E. J. Tjeenk Willink, 1993).Google Scholar

7 Raz, Joseph, The Morality of Freedom (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986)Google Scholar, ch. 13.1 have considered the idea myself in my Post-Liberalism, ch. 20.

8 Raz, , The Morality of Freedom, p. 325.Google Scholar

9 Ibid., p. 327.

10 Williams, Bernard, “Conflicts of Values,”Google Scholar in Williams, , Moral Luck (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), p. 72.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

11 Raz, , The Morality of Freedom, chs. 7 and 8.Google Scholar

12 Berlin, Isaiah, Four Essays on Liberty (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 130n.Google Scholar

13 Rawls, John, Political LiberalismGoogle Scholar, ch. 8.1 have criticized this view in my Liberalisms (supra note 3), ch. 9, “Liberalism and the Choice of Liberties.”

14 Hampshire, Stuart, “Liberalism: The New Twist,” New York Review of Books, vol. 40, no. 14 (08 12, 1993), p. 46.Google Scholar

15 I have given an interpretation of Mill's comprehensive moral theory, and of its relations with his liberalism, to which I still hold, in my Mill on Liberty: A Defence (London: Routledge, 1983).Google Scholar

16 It should go without saying that common cultural forms need not, and for anyone of liberal disposition should not, be integralist, in seeking to force on cultural minorities the choice of assimilation or ostracism; but I have spelled this out in my Berlin (supra note 5), ch. 4.

17 The liberalism of Joseph Raz is akin to agonistic liberalism in having this communitarian dimension. On this, see my Berlin, ch. 4.

18 I have in mind, of course, Sandel, Michael's Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982).Google Scholar

19 Berlin, Isaiah, The Crooked Timber of Humanity (London: John Murray, 1990), p. 80.Google Scholar

20 Ibid., p. 85.

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23 On the absurdist aspects of Fukuyama's analysis, see my Post-Liberalism (supra note 4), ch. 17. For Fukuyama, 's view, see his book The End of History and the Last Man (New York: The Free Press, 1992).Google Scholar

24 Wittgenstein, Ludwig, Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics, ed. Anscombe, G. E. M., Rhees, R., and von Wright, G. H. (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1956).Google Scholar

25 See Rorty, Richard, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), Part 1.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

26 Raz, , The Morality of Freedom (supra note 7), pp. 198200.Google Scholar

27 I have discussed the relevance of the East Asian models, and the irrelevance of the Western model, to the transitional post-Communist states in my essay “From Post-Communism to Civil Society: The Reemergence of History and the Decline of the Western Model,” Social Philosophy & Policy, vol. 10, no. 2 (Summer 1993), pp. 2650.Google Scholar

28 I have discussed the self-defeating effects of Western liberal individualism in my book Beyond the New Right: Markets, Government, and the Common Environment (London and New York: Routledge, 1993).Google Scholar

29 Berlin, Isaiah, “Herzen and Bakunin on Individual Liberty,”Google Scholar in Berlin, , Russian Thinkers (London: Penguin Books, 1978), p. 94.Google Scholar

30 Berlin, Isaiah, “The Originality of Machiavelli,”Google Scholar in Berlin, , Against the Current, ed. Hardy, H. (New York: Penguin Books, 1982), pp. 7475.Google Scholar

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