Situating Liberalism in the modern world - PhDData

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Situating Liberalism in the modern world

The thesis was published by Wemyss, Robert, in September 2022, University of Stirling.


It has become commonplace to argue that the liberal-communitarian debate, which has characterised Anglo-American political thought for the last two decades, has now been exhausted. However, there is little consensus over who actually had the better of the debate or alternatively, how, and even whether, it is possible to synthesise some of the key insights of the two conflicting schools of thought. In this thesis, it will be argued that this can partly be explained by the fact that the debate was largely misconceived in the first place. This is due firstly to the fact that the ideological differences within the two camps are so vast as to render the terms virtually meaningless as binary categories. Secondly, some of the key protagonists on both sides of the debate actually display some of the same faults. This will be shown by juxtaposing Rawls’s political liberalism with Sandel’s civic republicanism. While these two projects are usually regarded as antithetical, it will be shown that both enterprises are similarly flawed due to their mistaken assumption that it is possible to transcend the foundationalism / anti- foundationalism dichotomy by legitimising normative political theory with reference to perceived historically shared understandings alone rather than metaphysical foundations. The thesis will then consider Habermas’s communicative ethics, which offers a different account of how to redeem normative political theory without presupposing metaphysics. It will be argued that, while Habermas is correct to resist the post-modernist critique which rejects the possibility of universalist conceptions of morality per se, he fails to assuage the criticisms of a diverse array of liberal sceptics who dispute the possibility of dispensing with metaphysical foundations altogether. The thesis will conclude that Rawls’s, Habermas’s and Sandel’s normative projects are all weakened by their underestimation of the level of ideological competition, which all strands of the liberal tradition confront in the public sphere.

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