The Early Modern Foundations of Classic Liberalism

Jeffrey Collins

in The Oxford Handbook of the History of Political Philosophy

Published in print May 2011 | ISBN: 9780199238804
Published online September 2011 | e-ISBN: 9780191728365 | DOI:

Series: Oxford Handbooks in Philosophy

 The Early Modern Foundations of Classic Liberalism

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The term “liberalism” is of nineteenth-century vintage, but only the most pedantic historian would limit its use to that period. By then, David Hume and the utilitarians had undermined traditional accounts of rights and contract, and “liberalism” largely denoted a reforming mode of political economy. Nineteenth-century liberals were heirs more of Adam Smith than of John Locke, and in this sense the term “liberalism” post-dated the development of “classic,” natural-rights liberalism. Two schemas have tended to structure the historical interpretation of the seventeenth century. “Proto-liberalism” is presumed to be the victorious foe either of Christian political theology, or of antique republicanism. This article explores liberalism's theoretical fundaments, including a dedication to monopolistic sovereignty; belief in the artificiality of political order; an atomistic individualism; dedication to natural equality and popular sovereignty; deployment of the juridical language of rights and contract; a privileging of stability as the primary end of politics.

Keywords: John Locke; liberalism; political economy; proto-liberalism; monopolistic sovereignty; political order; atomistic individualism; natural equality; popular sovereignty; contract

Article.  11905 words. 

Subjects: History of Western Philosophy ; Social and Political Philosophy

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