Rooms with shifting views

Ideologies and Political Theory

October 2, 1998

Since Bryce Gallie, in an article written in the 1950s, highlighted the essential contestability of political concepts there has been much analysis of the processes by which varied, decontested meanings are bestowed on shared notions such as justice and democracy. Michael Freeden's thesis is that concepts attain particular meanings through association with their neighbours, and that ideologies are to be understood as combinations of core, adjacent and peripheral concepts. These conceptual permutations account for the internal diversity of ideologies, the boundaries between them, and also the difficulty at times of discerning those boundaries.

One of Freeden's preferred metaphors in explaining the flexibility of ideological discourse is that of a room of furniture. Liberty is a core concept of liberalism, and equality is central to the language of socialism, just as a kitchen features a sink and a bedroom somewhere to sleep. But there is opportunity to add other items and to shift the furniture around, and the significance we attach to a bed will depend on whether we surround it with theological tomes or erotic gadgets, or perhaps a combination of these or other items. And what do we call a room if, choosing to sleep in an armchair, we instal a cooker and sink in the space once occupied by the bed?

The cultural and logical factors shaping the arrangement of the conceptual furniture are analysed in a number of case studies. Freeden is at his best on liberalism, about which he has written so well elsewhere, because of his insistence that rationality and sociability have always featured alongside liberty in its mutual proximity of core concepts. My preference is to trace the liberal emphasis on responsible citizenship beyond J. S. Mill, his starting point, to its republican roots in an anti-aristocratic demand for a roughly even distribution of private property. Such an approach makes the case for placing equality closer to the epicentre of the ideology more plausible than Freeden concedes, and also underlines the problems he identifies of distinguishing the conceptual constellations of market and other variants of modern socialism from those of left liberalism. His sense of how the concepts of liberalism have been clustered nevertheless enables him to make some shrewd observations about Ronald Dworkin, one of the few contemporary thinkers to locate equality at its core.

Freeden is also effective in demolishing the characterisation of conservatism as an affirmation of the benefits of the status quo, though I am not persuaded by his suggestion that the preoccupation of so many conservatives with the proper management of change has relegated authority and inequality to the second league of adjacent concepts. His discussion of feminism and environmentalism is briefer than that of their principal rivals. Yet in assessing whether they are dense enough - have assembled sufficient conceptual furniture - to constitute separate ideologies, Freeden illuminates more clearly than most commentators the characteristics of these recent patterns of ideas.

The book's strength is in its provision of a research strategy, by far the best available, for mapping the complex terrain of ideological discourse. But there is more. One of his objectives, unsurprisingly, is to defend the study of ideologies as a reputable branch of political theory, and he does so in part by toppling political philosophers from the lofty perch they like to occupy. In a brilliant chapter on philosophical liberalism, he is critical of American thinkers such as John Rawls for covertly engaging in their own form of ideological decontestation, and for constructing conceptually pure though historically crude variants of the ideology - communitarianism, for instance - only to knock them down with scant regard to the nuances of liberal morphology.

Freeden does not claim that mapping the components of ideologies is superior to the activity of political philosophy: indeed, his contention is that the two enterprises are equally valid aspects of political theory. He does suggest, however, that the former task is likely to dissuade us from embracing the extremes of either relativism or universalism; and in portraying contemporary political philosophers as, in effect, ideologists in disguise - and clumsy ones at that, as they recklessly tear concepts from their cultural roots - he conveys the impression that they are not well equipped, and certainly less so than someone attuned to the complexities of ideological morphology, to consider the normative issues that concern them.

This is a dense though wonderfully rich book: every sentence is carefully measured, and each page bulges with insight. Freeden not only discloses, more successfully than any of the numerous other commentators on the subject, the analytical skills needed to probe the components of ideological morphology, but in challenging political philosophers to seek a more adequate context for their reflections he re-opens the question of what political theory ought to be about.

Robert Eccleshall is professor of politics, Queen's University, Belfast.

Ideologies and Political Theory: A Conceptual Approach

Author - Michael Freeden
ISBN - 0 19 8532 3
Publisher - Clarendon Press, Oxford
Price - £45.00
Pages - 592

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