The Making of Modern Liberalism

October 25, 2012

A glance at this book's index is enough to confirm that Alan Ryan's approach to this vast subject is essentially philosophical. The reader seeking historical information, say, on the contribution to modern liberalism of Gladstone or Lloyd George, Henry Sidgwick or Jo Grimond, will find not a single reference to any of them, and only a tiny sprinkling of mentions of T.H. Green and L.T. Hobhouse, thinkers whose contributions hold little interest for Ryan. On the other hand, readers with a deeper interest in the intellectual development of liberalism will be richly rewarded by the author's fascinating reflections on the manifold links between liberalism and the thinking of significant philosophers, some of them part of the liberal canon, others not normally considered in this connection at all.

Such readers can follow the index's copious guide to the relevant ideas of, among others, Aristotle, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Stuart Mill, as well as nearer contemporaries including John Dewey, Bertrand Russell, John Rawls and Isaiah Berlin, in all of whom Ryan finds stimulating points of contact with liberalism. The book, a collection of studies and essays first published over the past 40 years or more, shows the great strengths and some of the inevitable weaknesses of the genre.

The apparently missing dimensions of liberalism's history deserve further mention, to underscore the scope for lavish detail with which Ryan is able to handle the important themes he has selected for attention. As an eminent representative of the Anglo-American school of political philosophy, he has much more to say about English-language authors than others. There are, of course, lively discussions of relevant ideas from Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Hegel and even Jurgen Habermas, but there is very little about the central contribution of Max Weber to European liberalism, and the references to French thought are limited essentially to Alexis de Tocqueville's views on America. There is little on the key figure of Benjamin Constant, and nothing on the fact that, as "le libéralisme" in French means roughly what in English we call "laissez-faire", Anglo-French discussions of this subject are frequently sterile.

This selectivity, as noted, leaves the author ample space to explore his chosen themes in the multifarious and stimulating way they deserve. Part of the excitement comes from Ryan's talent for drawing an important idea into more than one context, and then pursuing all its implications to a series of conclusions, sometimes concrete, sometimes challengingly tentative.

Such trains of thought sometimes arise directly from something stated or implied by one or another of the thinkers Ryan has chosen to examine: for instance, some early observations by Mill on specific issues in the running of the East India Company may lead to a whole treasury of speculation about the fundamentals of liberty and liberalism. At other times, discussion emerges from one or other of the fundamental concepts to which Ryan devotes an essay - work, property, toleration or human nature itself - and it may be tossed around among the great philosophers for comment.

One of the features of the book which makes it seem like an extended seminar is the author's way of throwing open questions to the reader for a response, sometimes indicating that the eminent thinker under discussion had apparently not considered the question quite thoroughly enough.

For instance, in discussing some "familiar anxieties" about Isaiah Berlin's approach to pluralism and the distinction between this and relativism, Ryan praises Berlin's unexpected but highly relevant invocation of Machiavelli, while insisting that this picture of the latter is itself ambiguous. Pursuing the point about pluralism and freedom further, Ryan comments in a typically challenging way, "Berlin seems here to contradict himself in a way that Hume did not". The reader can only try to respond to the implied injunction: "Discuss".

By choosing to consider the rich interface between liberalism and philosophy (rather than, say, sociology or party organisation), Ryan has opened up a vast and exciting field for exploration and debate. The reader will find not only discussion of the manifold contributions of the great philosophers (biographical details where appropriate and available) but also insights into the deeper essence of liberalism as it developed through the centuries. Reference to the changing historical context allows liberalism not only to be confronted with other philosophies, from communitarianism to guild socialism, but also to be seen in the broader context of the times that produced it.

This is not the only way of studying the making of modern liberalism, but it is one that keeps us close to the heart of the subject.

The Making of Modern Liberalism

By Alan Ryan

Princeton University Press

736pp, £.95.

ISBN 9780691148403

Published 3 September 2012

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