Alan Wolfe is a “public intellectual.” I’ve always found this term to be confusing, as it’s not like so many thinkers have gone out of their way to prevent their ideas from going public. Even Theodore Kaczynski mailed in his manifestos.
But it makes a little more sense when one realizes that a public intellectual is, more often than not, someone who serves as a publicist for ideas. In Alan Wolfe’s case, the idea he sells is liberalism.
His most recent missive on his behalf of his client is entitled The Future of Liberalism. According to K. Anthony Appiah, it diverges from traditional discussions of the subject by identifying liberalism not as a set of principles or an ideology, but as a tendency — a temperament, if you will. Of course, Russell Kirk made much the same claim for conservatism. So one can’t help but wonder what Wolfe is up to.
It seems that Wolfe identifies seven liberal dispositions: a sympathy for equality, an inclination to deliberate, a commitment to tolerance, an appreciation of openness, a disposition to grow, a preference for realism, and a taste for governance.
I hear liberalism also adds three inches.
This is a clever bit of rhetoric he is employing. By treating liberalism as an inclination, he makes it difficult to argue against or critique. Even John Rawls eventually got around to laying out a basis for his version of liberalism, even as it necessitated hollowing out the classical liberalism which he used as the foundations for his thought.
But you can’t argue against character. And, crucially, unlike Kirk, Wolfe shoehorns normative aspects into nearly every one of his contentions for realism.
Now, if I were to follow Wolfe’s approach, then based on his claims for it, I might be inclined to judge liberalism as tendentious, sanctimonious, callow and insipid. But, being a liberal sort myself, I don’t think those attributes define liberalism as such.
I just think they define Alan Wolfe.
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