The Metahistory of Liberalism

Three Research Articles. Expected Completion Date: Summer 2023.

In recent years, new historical accounts of the Western liberal tradition have emerged. This project investigates the origins of the practice of designing liberal traditions and what it can teach us about the history of liberalism.

I take France as a case study. In the last decades, it has become commonplace to argue that Constant and Tocqueville form a distinct French liberal tradition going back to Montesquieu. 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, I examine how the French liberal tradition was invented in France in the 1860s and to what purposes.

Early versions of the French liberal tradition, I explain, 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 the liberal doctrine. This approach, I contend, can help us to revisit the chronological, geographical, and conceptual boundaries of liberalism.