The Metaphysics of Liberalism
by Mark English
I have long felt that there was something problematic about the modern concept of religion, but have only recently started to articulate these concerns and to draw out their potential implications for understanding the rise and decline of Western liberalism. My focus here is a particular tradition of 20th-century liberal thought.
As a label for sets of beliefs (especially those involving a supernatural realm and/or beings) and associated customs, rituals and institutions in various cultures, the term ‘religion’ is clearly useful. But it often involves looking at things from the outside as it were (as an anthropologist might). What’s more, the boundaries between practices or beliefs deemed to be religious and practices or beliefs deemed not to be religious will inevitably be arbitrary to a large degree.
There is also the issue of essentialism. The tendency to hypostatize concepts has been a significant feature of Western thinking at least since Plato; and research in linguistics and developmental psychology has demonstrated that we have a natural tendency to imagine that something substantial, even perhaps definable in terms of an essence, lies behind nominals.
Those who want to say that some kind of higher reality or essential truth lies behind the various religions would claim, of course, to be basing their views on assessments of actual beliefs and practices. My point is that having the word ‘religion’ in its modern sense alters the way we see these various beliefs and practices. It predisposes us to see unity in diversity.
In a recent post at Secular Right I alluded to the religious essentialism of Ludwig von Mises who, whilst lacking any specific religious affiliation and characterizing myths about the fate of the soul as “rather crude representations,” nonetheless claimed that neither reason nor science is able “to refute cogently the refined tenets of religious creeds.”
“History can explode many of the historical narrations of theological literature,” he wrote in Theory and History. “But higher criticism does not affect the core of faith. Reason can neither prove nor disprove the essential religious doctrines.”
Such (or very similar) views are still extremely common and they can and do motivate political positions. Mises would not have written about human freedom in the way he did had he not held these views on religion.
Speaking as he does about “the refined tenets of religious creeds” and “essential religious doctrines”, he is clearly embracing a form of essentialism which is predicated on a modern (or liberal) understanding of the concept of religion, one which owes much to the culture of the Renaissance and the influence of Neoplatonism. Such a view (whatever its merits) is, however, quite incompatible not only with Hebraic and many Judaic traditions but also with those forms of Christianity which are tied most closely to Biblical sources.
Philosophically speaking, I take a nominalist line, and though not identifying with any particular religious tradition, I have a higher regard for these non-Greek and largely anti-metaphysical strands of thought than for the syncretic intellectual tradition (heavily influenced by Plato, Aristotle, Stoics and Neoplatonists), which dominated the medieval church and subsequently put its stamp on so much post-medieval thinking. In more general terms, I have come to be very skeptical about the effectiveness of discursive reason when it operates outside of scientific or broadly empirical contexts.
Why do these conceptual and historical questions about metaphysics and religion matter? Because, I suggest, the implications and ramifications for political and other kinds of thinking are profound.
Take Mises. His (classical) liberalism is intimately related to, and arguably derives from, his metaphysical views on human nature and human freedom. During the middle decades of the last century, he was closely involved with a group of (mainly European) liberal conservative thinkers – amongst them Alexander Rüstow, Louis Rougier, Wilhelm Röpke, Walter Lippmann and Friedrich von Hayek – whose ideas influenced not only the intellectual but also the economic and political climate of the post-World War 2 world. The majority of these thinkers shared similar metaphysical views to those of Mises.
It was Rüstow who coined the term “neoliberalism” apparently. He used it to refer to a new, modified version of liberalism which he envisaged (as did Lippmann, Rougier, Röpke and others) as rejecting a strict application of laissez-faire principles. Others in the movement (e.g. Mises, Hayek and Jacques Rueff) remained closer to the classical liberal tradition.
Lippmann’s book, The Good Society, formed the main basis for discussion at an international colloquium (Colloque Walter Lippmann) which was held in Paris in August 1938 and organized by Rougier. This meeting brought together for the first time the nucleus of what later became the Mont Pèlerin Society.
Progressive liberals, of course, took a different political path but they too were (and are) committed to many similar metaphysical ideas, about human rights for example.
Lippmann articulated his views about the importance of myths in The Good Society, referring to the question of inalienable rights. He speculated that the classical liberals of the 17th and 18th centuries, having argued with some success for legally enforceable rights, convinced themselves “that the legal rights enforceable in the courts were in essence superhuman.”
“They taught,” he wrote, “that the laws merely declared inalienable and therefore unalterable rights with which men had been endowed by their Creator…” This was the “great myth” by which a new social order was made possible. Even Hayek, who of all the European neoliberals was closest in spirit to the relentlessly anti-metaphysical Vienna Circle, saw religion as a “necessary myth”. But Lippmann, like Mises, went further and came to see such myths as containing profound insights into the realities of existence.
In a later book, Essays in the Public Philosophy (1955), Lippmann argues strongly against the “prevailing philosophers” who, as he put it, “have ceased to believe that behind the metaphors and sacred images there is any kind of independent reality that can be known and must be recognized.” Friedrich Nietzsche and Jean-Paul Sartre were particular targets.
Lippmann was concerned to defend not only an objective order of truth but also an objective order of values which for him had a spiritual or metaphysical (and not just a social or historical) foundation. The acceptance of such an order, accessible to human reason, was a necessary bulwark against Jacobinism and the tyranny of mass democracy.
Clearly such views are deeply intertwined with an intellectualized and hypostatized notion of religion which, as I have argued, the modern sense of ‘religion’ (as a super-ordinate term covering diverse phenomena in various cultures) facilitates. Religion has come to be seen not just as a ‘family resemblance’ concept, a convenient label for vaguely similar cultural phenomena, but as something in itself, accessible to reason and transcending specific creeds.
This mode of thinking is profoundly metaphysical in the traditional sense of the word. It draws on – or at least recapitulates – certain Western theological and philosophical modes of thought that are at odds not only with many actual forms of religious belief and practice, but also with the basic principles of science and empirical inquiry.