Jacob Levy as an Historian of Political Thought

But what is it for? Historians of political thought are often confronted with this question, perhaps more often than we would like. It’s also a harder question to answer than many of us would like to admit. Most of the authors we study lived in political circumstances wholly different from our own and dealt with problems and questions incomparable to those we wrestle with today. Unless we were smart enough to specialize in twentieth-century thinkers, it is hard to distill any relevant normative claims from the authors we study. In fact, many of us do exactly the opposite: we devote our careers to contextualizing past thinkers in their specific time and place. This helps to underscore the distance between our own concerns and those of past thinkers, and hence (implicitly) the irrelevance of these thinkers for answering today’s political questions. Of course, one might argue that this is exactly what makes the history of political thought useful. By de-familiarizing canonical thinkers and texts, we underscore the contingency of today’s political norms and ideals. But try explaining that to empirically-minded political scientists, or, even more dauntingly, to a grant-giving organization.

Luckily, however, once in a while a book comes out that proves historians of political thought can and should participate in a more explicit fashion in contemporary political debate. Jacob Levy’s Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom is such a book. It can plausibly be classified as a work of history: one of its primary goals is the reconstruction of a more or less forgotten tradition of thought Levy calls ‘pluralist liberalism’. (Not pluralist in the sense of cultural or moral pluralism, but in the more old-fashioned British sense of favorable to intermediary organizations such as churches.) The bulk of the book is devoted to showing how this tradition came into being in the eighteenth century and further developed in the nineteenth. In response to the growth of state power, proto-liberal thinkers such as Montesquieu started defending traditional interest groups and organizations such as the nobility and the churches. They did so not out of nostalgia but for good liberal reasons: because such traditional institutions could act as bulwarks against central power and hence protect individual freedom. This mode of thinking did not disappear in the wake of the democratic revolutions of the late eighteenth century, Levy shows. Rather, the idea that intermediary bodies were necessary to stave off despotism became a central tenet of belief to some of the most prominent liberal thinkers of the nineteenth century, such as Alexis de Tocqueville.

Throughout the book, Levy contrasts and compares this pluralist liberalism with another and more familiar brand of liberal thinking, a liberalism that sees intermediary groups – groups that are often organized on the basis of illiberal principles – not as a protection of but as a major threat to individual freedom. As a result, this kind of liberalism has tended to see the state as a friend rather than an enemy of freedom. Levy describes this liberalism, somewhat confusingly, as ‘rationalist’ – by which he means not that it prioritizes reason but that it opposes arbitrary and irrational distinctions and prioritizes equality before the law. The contrast between the two traditions, Levy explains, is perhaps best illustrated by the differences between Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill. While Tocqueville was greatly preoccupied with the danger posed by an overweening government to freedom, he was less appreciative of the potentially tyrannical nature of traditional institutions such as Victorian marriage. Mill, on the other hand, was very much preoccupied by these localized forms of oppression. But unlike Tocqueville, he had a blind spot for the dangers posed by the expansion of state power, especially imperial state power.

So far, so good. But Levy does not simply present us with the results of a historical excavation. Instead, his book is also and indeed primarily normative. In Levy’s view, pluralist liberals have something important to say about problems we are still confronted with today. While we are obviously no longer in danger of being ordered around by an absolute king, as Montesquieu and his contemporaries were, he argues, the problem of state power has not simply gone away. The abuse of government power is still very much an issue, even though that threat is more likely to come from majoritarian tyranny than from royal despotism. Moreover, contemporary liberal theorists, who are the heirs of rationalist liberals rather than of their pluralist counterparts, tend to be rather blind to this problem. By ignoring pluralist liberalism, Levy maintains, we have therefore cut ourselves off from an important resource for thinking about these problems.

This is exciting stuff, and I found myself agreeing with much that Levy has to say about the contemporary relevance of the pluralist liberals. That the danger of despotism has not simply disappeared in the wake of the democratization of our political systems will be clear to anyone who has observed how specific minorities such as Muslims are treated in both Europe and North America. And that contemporary liberal political theorists tend to have a rather limited set of solutions for these problems is equally clear. Levy’s book therefore illustrates how historians of political thought, by unearthing forgotten intellectual traditions, are capable of throwing new light on contemporary political problems, of steering the conversation into new and more fruitful directions.

At the same time, however, Levy’s book also brings into focus one of the main problems that follow from this approach. If pluralist liberalism was indeed largely forgotten in the wake of the triumph of rationalist liberalism – and I agree with Levy that this was indeed the case – it leads one to wonder why this was so. Perhaps there are good reasons this way of thinking was pushed to the background? Perhaps John Stuart Mill was onto something when he came to the conclusion that any despotism is preferable to local despotism? I am not necessarily saying that I think that this is true. But it is a question that needs to be addressed if we are expected to take pluralist liberalism seriously as a doctrine that is still relevant for today’s world.

Annelien de Dijn – Annelien de Dijn is a Senior Lecturer in Political Theory at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands as well as a NIAS Senior Research Fellow (2015-2016). Her research focuses on the history of political thought in Europe and in the United States, from 1700 to the present.  She has a particular interest in the fraught and contested history of freedom in the West. She has held visiting appointments at Columbia University, Cambridge University, the Remarque Institute at NYU and U.C. Berkeley. A past recipient of Fulbright and B.A.E.F. fellowships, Dr. de Dijn was educated at the University of Leuven in Belgium and at Columbia University.