The Metahistory of Liberalism

Three Research Articles (Under Review). Expected Completion Date: Summer 2023.

In the last decade, innovative histories of Western liberalism have emerged. A burst of enthusiasm for Germaine de Staël, Benjamin Constant, and Tocqueville led them to occupy central roles in these histories. It has become commonplace to argue that these figures form a distinct French liberal tradition going back to Montesquieu. This tradition, we are told, offers a welcome corrective to a still predominantly Anglo-American take on the historical development of liberalism. Yet Tocqueville showed little interest in Constant, and early nineteenth-century French liberals did not recognize Montesquieu as the father of French liberalism. Based on these two observations, this research project examines how, when, and why the French liberal tradition was invented. 

Early versions of the French liberal tradition, I explain, often served to justify preferred conceptions of liberalism as a political doctrine. Based on this distinction between tradition and doctrine, I suggest an updated contextualist approach to liberalism – the Metahistory of Liberalism. Metahistory sees the history of liberalism as a still-ongoing process of reinvention of liberal traditions in light of shifting conceptions of liberalism. It also invites us to unbox thinkers such as Constant or Tocqueville from the ‘liberalism’ case in which they have been relegated over time, and rediscover them, for example, as theorists of public opinion and popular sovereignty.