John Gray gives up on finding universal foundations for liberalism (my 1990 review of Liberalisms: Essays in Political Philosophy)

I think this might be the first book review I had published outside of student magazines. It appeared in the May 1990 issue of Quadrant. Stylistically I have evolved – fewer adverbs now and more care to avoid cliches (‘rests on his laurels’), archaic words (‘hitherto’) and the universal male (‘open to man’). But intellectually I still share the views of my young self, believing in liberal societies without thinking that liberalism can be derived from a single foundational principle or that liberalism suits all countries.


Liberalisms: Essays in Political Philosophy, by John Gray; Routledge, London, 1989.

Over the last decade and a half John Gray, an Oxford academic, has been one of the most stimulating liberal theorists. Writing with great intellectual energy, he has produced influential books on John Stuart Mill and Friedrich Hayek, a text entitled simply Liberalism for the Open University in England, which articulates the basic ideas of the philosophy with remarkable clarity and brevity, and numerous articles on liberal thinkers and topics, many of which are collected in the volume under review.

One reason that Gray is of interest is that he never rests on his laurels. As this book’s essays (which are collected in the order of their original publication) show, he has continually revised his ideas as to which arguments constitute the most plausible foundations for  the liberal philosophy.

The most dramatic example of the shifts in Gray’s thinking can be seen in the contrast between the two essays on Mill, which are the first and last of the book’s reprinted articles. The first, written in 1976, has evident (though never unqualified) sympathy for what it calls Mill’s “radical liberalism”. The last, published in 1988, is a powerful attack on some of the pillars of Mill’s thought-his indirect utilitarianism, his conception of individuality, and his theory of progress.

By the 1988 essay it is fairly clear what Gray’s next intellectual move will be. Having discussed most of the justifications for liberalism, and advocated several of them, he comes to the conclusion that the “project of defining liberalism and giving it a foundation” is a “failure”. Indeed it is not just a failure, but a “debacle” as well. To make clear the nature and scale of this debacle Gray includes a twenty-five page postscript; a postscript to liberalism as well as the book.

In the postscript Gray argues that it has been distinctive of  liberal  thinkers  to attempt to found liberalism, the priority of liberty, in universally valid principles. Liberalism was not to be merely one of the political options open to man, but a moral necessity. To explain why this cannot be so, Gray assesses (and I will try to summarise as briefly as possible) what he sees to be the three main arguments for liberalism having a claim to universal validity:

The argument from ignorance.  Liberal  theorists have argued that because human knowledge and under­ standing are limited, we should adopt the practices which promote their expansion. Liberalism, which allows the free exchange of ideas and in­ formation, would best facilitate the expansion of  knowledge and understanding. But, as Gray says, this argument rests on the presupposition that expanding knowledge is invariably a good thing. The expansion of technological understanding, especially but in no sense limited to the military, must be considered a decidedly doubtful benefit. Even increasing awareness of other cultures is not an undoubted good, since it may undermine people’s confidence in their own culture without any corresponding enrichment being derived from the awareness of other cultures. In any case, there is probably no way of calculating the gains and losses to human well-being from the growth in knowledge. As a result we lack the evidence on which to base the definite judgement that would be re­ quired to make this ground a foundation of liberalism.

The argument from agreement. Also known as contractarianism.   Any society needs to impose conditions on its people which facilitate peaceful co-existence, as opposed to what might exist under the “state of nature”. A social contract, because based on agreement, is seen as one way of legitimising such conditions. Liberal contractarian theorists have argued that such a contract should be made behind a “veil of ignorance”, behind which the parties would be un­aware of their actual status in life. This should be so because otherwise the parties to the contract might choose not what was rationally in the interest of their nation, but instead seek to privilege their own positions. Contractarians argue that behind this veil rational people would  pick liberal principles  as the terms of the social contract, since these would be most likely to protect those values and interests the individual would regard as important.

However, all contract theories suffer from similar problems, and Gray reiterates the familiar criticisms. For example, it would be impossible to found a society, coming from the “state  of  nature”, with a contract because the language needed for forming agreements, and contracts themselves, are already social practices. In other words, contractarianism presupposes what it is intending to create.

 An equally serious objection is that we have few reasons for believing that people would make the choices liberal contractarians say they would. Contractarianism as outlined above is a contract between abstract persons; for any real person the only values which really matter are those he in fact upholds, which may not be liberal. These people could legitimately decline to enter into the social contract, as the moral validity of an agreement rests not in the mere fact of agreement, but in the circumstances in which it was made.

The argument from flourishing. This is based on the view that only in a liberal society can human beings  flourish fully. An assumption of this argument, Gray suggests, is that there is in the human species a common nature or essence which can best be realised in a regime of individual liberty. Even if we presume this to be true, there is no reason to suppose that it would automatically lead us to liberalism. Early exponents of such theories of human essence, such as Aristotle, came to high­ly illiberal conclusions. If a man’s choices are injurious to the realisation of his nature, what right has he  to complain if his liberty is curtailed for the sake of his flourishing? Furthermore, many possible types of essence – such as those of a courtier, a warrior or a pious peasant – cannot be realised in the context of a liberal society.

Within their limits, I find find these arguments formidable. But these limits are severe. When Gray talks about “failures”  and “debacles” and the possibilities of a “post-liberal perspective” we could be forgiven for thin king that the liberal intellectual tradition is in danger of collapse – after  all,  what  else could happen to a structure with no foundations?

But such a collapse is beyond Gray’s ambition. The purpose of his argument is actually quite narrow – to  end the belief that liberalism is a philosophy  of universal application. Consequently, only those aspects of liberalism which are the direct result of this false belief are affected by Gray’s critique.      

This is what Gray means, I think, when he says that post-liberal theorising will have a “prophylactic” ef­fect. It will serve to challenge the intellectual and moral pretensions of those liberals whose views are based on a belief that they should be universally applied. In particular, Gray has in mind American left-liberals such as Ronald Dworkin, but his criticisms are equally applicable to libertarianism

So where does Gray think political philosophy should be heading? Unfortunately, the postscript section on political philosophy “after liberalism” is both brief and sometimes con­fusing. Nevertheless by com­bining it with other sources we can get a reasonable outline of Gray’s views. The last sentence of his book is actually a good place to start. In it he speaks of his hypothetical post-liberal theorist having the possible aim (possible because it is not essential to have an aim) of the protection of “historical inheritance of liberal practice from the excesses of inordinate liberal ideology.”

Why Gray thinks it desirable to protect this historical inheritance can be gleaned from a sympathetic essay on the conservative thinker Michael Oakeshott (included in the volume under review) and from his brilliant article “The Politics of Cultural Diversity”, which appeared in the Novem­ber 1987 Quadrant. In both, Gray suggests that the task of political theory is to find politi­cal forms best suited to our situation as inhabitants of a society marked by cultural diversity. Many of these forms will be ideas and  practices often associated with liberalism. The free market is an economic framework which al­lows diverse choices to be ac­commodated. Tolerance is a necessary disposition for living in the same community with people whose views and ac­tivities are different and dis­agreeable. Limited govern­ment will be favoured to prevent the state encroaching on areas properly left to freely chosen activity. 

The writings of liberal theorists  on  these and many other topics will be an important part of “post­ liberal” theorising.What will be different about post-liberal theorising is that it will be based not on a unive­rsally applicable philosophy, but on the needs of the community as it exists at this moment in history. At the present time in Western societies, this theorising will inevitably place a heavy emphasis on individual freedom. But by not regarding individual freedom as necessarily paramount, post-liberal theo­rising will be able to deal with the multiple other aspirations held  by modernWesterners in a less intellectually convoluted fashion than liberalism has hitherto been able to do.

The main drawback of Gray’s book is that he does not do much more than hint at how we might go about the monu­mental task of theorising modem society; of discovering which values and institutions are most suitable for culturally diverse nations. Gray’s writings on liberalism, along with his often devastating critiques of Marxist thought (which will be greatly expanded in his forth­coming work Against  Marx) have done much to  clear away the debris of  the  last  century and a half of political  theoris­ing. I now look forward to reading John Gray’s  contribu­tion to the task of rebuilding.

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