What is Liberalism?
247 West 37th St, 5th Floor
New York, NY 10018
While for many in the United States liberalism is understood as a loose category of political identification—whose definition has shifted significantly and not always transparently over the past century—fewer people are familiar with liberal political philosophy despite its overwhelming influence on political discourse both left and right. Our public language and discussions are often littered with the ideas, ideals, phrases, and thoughts of the liberal philosophical tradition: the social contract; individual rights; the state-of-nature; private property; self-determination, autonomy, representation. All of these concepts and more find their initial articulations, at least as coherent political doctrines, in the writings of classical liberal thinkers like Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. But what is the relationship between liberal political philosophy and the modern state? How did liberal ideas become institutions? What are the connections between classical liberal thought and liberalism as it is widely understood in the United States? How should we understand liberalism in distinction from “neoliberalism”? What, in a word, is liberalism?
In this class, we will study both key foundational texts as well as more contemporary debates to begin to answer these questions. We will read Hobbes’ Leviathan, as well as brief excerpts of his lesser known Behemoth, Locke’s Second Treatise, and Rousseau’s The Social Contract as well as excerpts from his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality. In our final week, we will examine some excerpts from John Rawls A Theory of Justice, as well as selections from the many debates around Rawls, from Robert Nozick on the libertarian right to G.A. Cohen on the socialist left. We will seek to situate liberalism today by looking to critical theorist and social philosopher Jurgen Habermas and the economist and political thinker Amartya Sen and their reactions to Rawls and the liberal tradition as well as definitional ideas about neoliberalism from Phillip Mirowksi and David Harvey. The class will be an opportunity for students not only to study these key texts but also to come to a deeper and more rigorous understanding of liberalism, how it has changed over the years, the position it occupies in contemporary society, and what, if any, future it holds.
Course ScheduleMonday, 6:30-9:30pm
September 17 — October 08, 2018