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Liberalism versus Conservatism



This course deals with the clash between liberal and conservative conceptions in political philosophy. The often-acclaimed victory of liberalism has led many to believe that any defensible political theory must be a variant of liberalism (‘we are all liberals now’). Nonetheless, liberalism has to confront expressions of unease at many points. In actual politics, conservative viewpoints are widespread and, if anything, still gaining ground. This raises several questions: what are the philosophical doctrines that are used to defend and justify liberal and conservative viewpoints? In what way and to what extent do they actually clash with each other? We will study these questions in two parts. In the first part of the course, we study several historically important forms of liberalism as they develop different ideas of toleration and respect for individual rights, liberty and autonomy, and grounds of justified state interference in the private life of citizens. In the second part, the conservative critique of liberalism is presented, as it develops from classical Burkean conservatism to present-day communitarianism. We pay attention to the conservative disposition towards politics, its ideas of society, authority and the good life.

Methods of Instruction

Lectures and seminar discussions.

Study material

(approximately 700 pages)

  • John Locke, Two Treatises of Government and A Letter Concerning Toleration, ed. by Ian Shapiro (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003). ISBN 978-0300100181

  • Isaiah Berlin, Liberty, ed. by Henry Hardy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. ISBN 9780199249893

  • Joseph Raz, The Morality of Freedom (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986). ISBN 9780198248071

  • Roger Scruton, The Meaning of Conservatism (3rd, revised edition)(South Bend, Indiana: St. Augustine’s Press, 2002), ISBN 9780198277583

  • Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, ed. by J.C.D. Clark (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2001). ISBN 978-0804742054

  • Michael Oakeshott, On Human Conduct (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975). ISBN 9780198277583

  • John Stuart Mill, On Liberty and Other Essays, ed. by John Gray (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991). ISBN 978-0199535736

  • James Fitzjames Stephen, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1991). ISBN 978-0226772585

  • Collection of articles, available in digital library or online.

N.B. With respect to these books, we will be reading only passages. A copy of each of these books is available on hold in the library.


Written assignment and final paper.


Tuesday 7 September till 19 October, 15.00-17.00 hrs. in 1A03 (except 21 September: no meeting)
Friday 10 September till 1 October, 13.00-15.00 hrs. in SA23 (except 24 September 1A11) and
Monday 20 September, 13.00-15.00 hrs. in SA23 and
Thursday 14 October, 9.00-11.00 hrs. in 1A47