Liberalism: Patrick Deneen Begins

Again, I highly recommend following this course: Deneen is uniformly worth reading.

He opens with a very important point: "We are to liberalism as fish are to water: we swim in its currents without necessarily ever stopping to consider what water is."

Liberalism is so much a taken-for-granted assumption in our culture that we hardly notice it. So, the right and left in America don't even question the supreme value of "autonomy": they merely disagree on how to best realize it. And when someone who was at one point , say, a libertarian, rejects liberalism as a whole, people tend to be certain he must have just switched to some other form of liberalism. (E.g., "Callahan has become a progressive.")

And almost right away, Deneen gets at the heart of the matter:
Thus, Locke and Paine reject the idea that tradition, custom, inheritance, or generational ties are a constitutive part of our natures. Rather, we can only understand our true nature by stripping the human creature bare of all these conventional and unchosen accumulations, and at least conceptually putting us into an ahistorical situation of 'the state of nature.'

This is what I mean when I say liberalism is based upon a metaphysically flawed understanding of human beings. If Locke and Paine could really strip away tradition, custom, inheritance, or generational ties what was left would not be a free human being capable of making unencumbered choices, but a mental cripple who could not choose anything.

11 comments:

  1. If Locke and Paine could really strip away tradition, custom, inheritance, or generational ties lefte would not be a free human being capable of making unencumbered choices, but a mental cripple who could not choose anything.

    Given that this is correct, I don't quite get the claim that liberalism is to our culture like water is to a fish. Clearly we haven't gotten rid of tradition, custom, and so forth.

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    1. Josiah, as Oakeshott pointed out, the rationalist is never able to achieve what his theories say he should achieve. Locke and Paine themselves were working within a tradition: they just try to deny that they were. In fact, right in this post, I note that they could not really do what they were hoping to do.

      I know of a good book that explains Oakeshott's views on this very well…

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    2. …I don't quite get the claim that liberalism is to our culture like water is to a fish.

      I think this would be because it is so embedded in Americans' psyches.

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    3. "I know of a good book that explains Oakeshott's views on this very well..."

      Haha, Gene, that makes me laugh because of its cheekiness. I think that readers should know (if they aren't curious enough) that this book is "Oakeshott on Rome and America"... by Gene Callahan (hmmm, I think that he runs this blog, too!)

      I'm 110 pages into it, and yes: it is *damned* good. In fact, it is slowly incorporating its way into my intellectual tradition as I think, read, and study it more. Thanks for once again for getting me "plugged in" on a great intellectual tradition!

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  2. I think this would be because it is so embedded in Americans' psyches.

    Imagine there was an ideology, let's call it nudism, that says people shouldn't wear clothes. Now suppose I show you a society where everyone wears clothes, and I tell you that in this society not only is nudisim the reigning ideology, but that it is so deeply embedded is people's psyches that they don't even consider that they just take it for granted that no one should wear clothes. Wouldn't that seem odd to you? And if it would seem odd, is that because you yourself have fallen prey to the nudist mindset? Or might there be a more plausible explanation for your bafflement?

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    1. Josiah, you do understand that by "liberalism" Deneen and I both mean liberalism in the political theory sense, in which both the Republican and Democratic parties are liberal? So for instance, a test of whether someone is a liberal would be, "Do you think the Declaration of Independence is a statement of the highest political ideals?" If they answered "yes," they are a liberal. And what, about 99% of our politicians would answer yes?

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    2. I'm a liberal, you're a liberal (the organization's website listed in your profile screams it), and almost everyone in America and Europe is frackin' liberal. The places where you'd find these concentrations lessened would be in African countries, Asian countries, and former Soviet bloc countries. Communitarianism (not communism) is still very strong in those nations. One American politician who I would call a communitarian is Rick Santorum.

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    3. Wouldn't that seem odd to you? And if it would seem odd, is that because you yourself have fallen prey to the nudist mindset? Or might there be a more plausible explanation for your bafflement?

      Yes, it would, but that's nothing like the situation with liberalism!

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    4. There's a semantic problem here that I had honestly never thought about. I have sometimes described my political views as Humean-Burkean-Oakeshottian-Callahanist (which, hilariously, makes it sound like an obscure Communist tendency). But it never occurred to me that this makes me not a liberal (I mean liberal in the broader sense, of course, not in the sense of "Anglosphere centre-left"). I thought it made me simultaneously a conservative and a liberal. But I don't have a rigorous definition of "liberal" that I've been working with. It seems patent that I'm not a Continental throne-and-altar conservative, much less a conservative the way a Wahhabist or a Christian Dominionist is a conservative. I've been in the habit of calling that difference "liberal". Now I realise that I'm not sure what "Oakeshott is not a liberal" would mean.

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    5. Yes, Greg, these terms are all fuzzy at the edges! I am a "liberal" at least in the sense that I don't think there are better options on the table at present! And Oakeshott was more liberal than, say, Russell Kirk.

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  3. Okay, if modern American liberals are indeed liberals (which I agree they are), they why do some conservatives call them "socialists"?

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