I. The Origins of Liberalism.

(Author’s note: beginning a deeper read.)

Liberalism, using that term in its classical sense, assumes that most adults are autonomous and rational individuals, or that autonomy and rationality is their ideal state. The term originated from the Latin liber, meaning free.

Freeing the intellect.

The Gutenberg Press (1445) made it possible for the first time for individuals to read the Bible for themselves, and not depend on an intermediary such as a priest. This seemed reasonable to more and more people, and during the 1500s, the Protestant Reformation ensued.

With the authority of the Roman Catholic Church substantially weakened, the intellectual ground where liberalism would appear grew fertile.

Arguably, the liberal mindset began with René Descartes (1596 – 1650). With the Cartesian method of doubt, the philosopher’s abstract intellect razed all its (?) former beliefs to the ground. Ideas were suspended or set aside or seen as provisionally false if there was even the slightest possibility they could be false.

The purpose of this exercise: to find a proposition immune to doubt. Something that would be known for certainty.

The philosopher could then build anew on this foundation.

Descartes believed he found the right foundation. Cogito, ergo sum (“I think; therefore, I am,” although Descartes never penned those exact words).

The abstract intellect could then decide that only propositions that were rationally provable or able to be grounded on this solid bedrock of formal reason (logic, mathematics, physics) were admissible as knowledge.

Thus arose classical rationalism, and Western philosophy’s turn from the metaphysics and philosophical theology that had dominated for centuries to the epistemology that would dominate until the 1800s.

To the former, the existence of God was a given. Divine perfection underwrote logic as well as morality.

To the latter, God’s existence was as subject to logical proof as anything else.

Logic was suddenly epistemically prior to God. Few at the time noticed the door this opened first to skepticism and then to agnosticism and atheism.

Or, eventually, to large scale indifference to the matter.

As the scientific revolution progressed, experimental testing replaced pure Cartesian reason. The sense was growing that outside science was nothing but superstition and the stuff of poetry.

The Enlightenment and the Coming of Modernity.

Thus proceeded the Enlightenment: doubt tradition; doubt authority — especially ecclesiastical authority. All rested on unprovable and untestable assumptions. Use your individual mind. Rest your judgments on reason, replicated evidence in the emerging sciences (William Whewell would coin the term scientist in the 1830s, thus replacing natural philosopher), or on the concrete lessons of life.

Thus by the mid-1800s, what Auguste Comte would call First Stage thinking, based exclusively on faith in theistic pronouncements by ecclesiastical authorities, was mostly dead outside enclaves of believers who were being marginalized.

Second Stage thinking, dominated by abstract philosophical systems and theological proofs, was being replaced in the intellectual, cultural, and commercial centers by the emerging Third Stage of civilization. Its guiding forces were science, technology, commerce, public education, and a firm belief in human progress: all products of the later Enlightenment which gave the credit to the secularized reason of the freed, autonomous human intellect.

The result we call modernity: a state of affairs which looks to the above for both its rational and its moral consensus. Defenders of modernity point to the actual progress being made in every area, and standards of living being increased everywhere modernity penetrated.

Human beings as creatures of reason were free, within an expanding community of other free human beings.

Man could reshape the world in his image, as Utopian writers like Sir Francis Bacon had imagined long before in works like The New Atlantis (orig. 1626) which contained the germ of the modern research university.

The Third Stage consensus about what kind of world this is and how we fit into it was not limited by belief in, e.g., gods. It did not look to churches or monarchs or philosophical or theological systems. Its humanism saw us as becoming more and more akin to gods (an idea Comte actually promoted: a religion of humanity).

Political Consequences.

Before 1800, this had had political consequences. Political Cartesians, if you will, placed public institutions under the cold microscope of Reason, razing to the ground those that failed to measure up to the new standard. French revolutionaries got rid of their monarchy. Jacobinism developed around the idea that human beings freed from tradition and from a monarchy could organize and decide for themselves rationally what institutions best served human needs.

The result, as we know from history, was a bloodbath, and arguably the first modern empire, when Napoleon came to power in 1799.

A far more modest Jacobinism would begin to take root across the English Channel in the 1800s. It called itself utilitarianism, primarily a moral philosophy which understood the good as happiness. It meant by happiness pleasure and the absence of pain. Individuals and institutions should promote the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number. Autonomous individuals should be free to pursue happiness in their own ways, so long as they caused no harm to others. John Stuart Mill gave us the most significant and comprehensive expressions of these ideas in his essays On Liberty (1859) and Utilitarianism (1863).

Modernity and Capitalism.

Adam Smith had penned The Wealth of Nations (1776) — although Smith considered himself a moral philosopher, having earlier written his foundational work The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) underlying Wealth. The moral foundation Smith had takenfor granted would be set aside as unimportant except to philosophical idlers. Capitalism, its name still uncoined (Karl Marx would do that also in the 1800s), slowly became conscious of itself as the industrial revolution took on a life of its own and became modernity’s centerpiece.

Capitalism’s defenders would learn to argue that “market forces” left to themselves would determine production and distribution of goods and services, and prices and wages. Capitalists would debate among themselves how much regulation of commercial activity was necessary, with some holding that a completely free marketplace would be a self-regulating system needing no outside regulation whatsoever (Adam Smith would not have agreed).

Hence the emergence of classical liberalism as a fairly comprehensive and dominant public philosophy. Its major defenders were Third Stage thinkers by default. They looked to empirical science as the key to truth about the world. Speculating about a world beyond this one was, again, idle. Third Stage thinkers trusted results, not theory. They believed that science, technology, commerce, and education would bring about morally better humans.

Not all defenders of economic liberty were secularists. Frederic Bastiat, author of The Law (1849) was not. Others, such as Max Weber, sought to employ the Protestant mindset in the service of enterprise (cf. his The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, orig. 1905), a work to which we shall refer again.

But Third Stage secular thought was rapidly pushing aside Second Stage theism offstage, as it were — and philosophy itself. Both were being “privatized.”

The twentieth century had arrived. The abstract intellect of Descartes — which became John Locke’s tabula rasa and Immanuel Kant’s rational will — became the homo economicus or utility maximizer or “sovereign consumer” of Third Stage “economic science.”

What could go wrong? 

(To be continued. Stay tuned to this frequency.)

About Steven Yates

I have a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Georgia and teach Critical Thinking (mostly in English) at Universidad Nacionale Andrés Bello in Santiago, Chile. I moved here in 2012 from South Carolina. My most recent book is entitled Four Cardinal Errors: Reasons for the Decline of the American Republic (2011). I am the author of an earlier book, around two dozen articles & reviews, & still more articles on commentary sites on the Web. I live in Santiago with my wife Gisela & two spoiled cats, Bo & Princesa.
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