What Came First, Modernity or Liberalism?

As part of our first, fully online Summer Seminar on the classical liberal tradition, Dr. Stephen Davies discussed the role of liberalism in the development of modernity, examining liberalism from a historical perspective, rather than a philosophical or economic one.

He opens by showcasing liberal ideas as a form of civilization.

There are in every civilization, in every part of the world, people who advocate the liberty principle, the principle that human life should be organized to the greatest extent around the principle of free relations, individual autonomy, personal choice, personal self-direction, and restrictions and restraints on the use of power, force, and coercion.

-Dr. Stephen Davies
Dr. Stephen Davies

From there, he addresses the history of classical liberalism as he poses an age-old question: what came first? Is liberalism the cause of the modern world, or is it a consequence of modernity? “Does liberalism create the modern world and bring it into existence?” He asks. “Or is it that the way the modern world comes about produces liberalism as a kind of side effect, or product?”

To Dr. Davies, the answer it simple, it’s both.

According to Davies, liberalism was not built directly by the intellectuals or the thinkers, but rather campaigns surrounding particular issues. He notes that these campaigns would begin with a broader idea, which would then lead people to take a particular kind of viewpoint and explore and flesh out more refined ideas from there.

This process would create a positive feedback loop, where ideas generate action and those actions then generate more ideas.

In this case, ideas are as much a consequence or a secondary phenomenon as they are a primary one.

-Dr. Stephen Davies

Dr. Davies explains that throughout history, there have been three types of conversations and ideas that have been interwoven and argued against each other:

  • Liberalism and liberty
  • Conservatism and skepticism, or limits
  • Radicalism and egalitarianism

Within these spheres of conversation, there are some thinkers with ideas that are compatible with liberalism, or that have similar, overarching ideas with liberalism, while there are others whose ideas are clearly not compatible.

It is here that Dr. Davies believes we have been able to become such a modern, liberal society. He believes that within these different circles we have allowed for intellectual debate and those discussions have, in some cases, spurred political conflict and ultimately fostered change.

Liberalism, as it emerges, has a huge impact on the form and direction that modernity takes… Since the 1770s, what has happened is that you’ve had the emergence both of the modern world and also of liberalism. And the two things can be thought of, in some ways, as two facets… of a single, complex process.

-Dr. Stephen Davies

You can watch Dr. Davies’s full lecture and the rest of the IHS Summer Seminar on our YouTube channel. For more information on Summer Seminars, graduate and faculty programs, and funding opportunities, visit TheIHS.org.

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