Monday, October 31, 2011

A note on Liberalism Via Alexander Meiklejohn and Lionel Trilling

Here is a nice description of the Liberal both believing and doubting by Alexander Meiklejohn, which I have been quoting for years from his book Education Between Two Worlds and which provides a striking contrast to what might be called the Conservative cast of mind shown in the argument from caution (unintended consequences)and in the argument from tradition, both Burke's:

"...Liberalism both believes and doubts, and “…indicates a pattern of culture which criticizes itself... It has customs and standards of behaviour. But it also has...the attitude of...questioning its own dominant beliefs and standards... The liberal both believes and doubts...and... if an individual or a group will hold fast both to custom and intelligence, then its experience will inevitably be paradoxical and divided against itself. The being who seeks intelligence is a divided personality.”

I lean towards this more mind-based notion of Liberalism. For its content has shifted from its origins as a laissez faire doctrine more in common with libertarian ideas of freedom from government and economic freedom to, over the 20th century, more "progressive" ideas about the virtue of government, the need to regulate commerce and the felt obligation to provide a citizenry with a decent social safety net, and thus having more in common with Democratic Socialism.

I believe in the social safety net as a hallmark of a just society and in that sense agree with it as a specific content of political Liberalism as we understand it today, apart from it as a habit of mind, as described by Meiklejohn. And if that's what's meant by Liberalism's morality being located in its search for justice then I agree. For Meiklejohn argued that the doctinal legacy of human fellowship from a philosophically outmoded Christianity is the proper understanding of the moral foundation for the political order promised by democracy.

In these senses, "generosity" captures the open mindedness of both believing and doubting and the humanity evident in a social safety net and a commitment to helping the poorest amongst us. The content and boundaries of the net and of the helping hand are always a matter of debate but the underlying commitent is there regardless.

Back to Liberalism's habit of mind: Trilling himself says, in line with Liberalism holding fast to belief and doubt, his misson is "putting under some degree of pressure the liberal ideas and assumptions of the present time" and urges the necessity of the "essential imagination of variousness and possibility, which implies the awareness of complexity and difficulty."

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