On Uses of Intellectual History: Past and Present in the Critique of Liberalism

For the final post in our symposium on Duncan Bell’s Reordering the World, a reply from Duncan himself. Here he responds to the commentaries from Dan Gorman, Inder S. Marwah, Lucian Ashworth, Kathy Smits and Richard Devetak. You can also read Duncan’s original summary post here. 

Before turning to the substance of the comments, I’d like to reiterate my thanks to The Disorder of Things for hosting this symposium, to Nivi Manchanda for co-ordinating it, and especially to the respondents for writing such sharp and incisive responses. It has been a pleasure to read them, and I have learnt much from each one. I am delighted that Daniel, Inder, Luke, Kathy, and Richard found value in Reordering the World. But rather than dwelling on points of agreement – and I agree with almost all of what they say! – I’ll use this brief reply to sketch out some thoughts on a few of the questions they raise.

Daniel offers an insightful exposition and assessment of the main lines of argument in the book. He also notes various ways in which the analysis could be extended. Thus, he writes that we need ‘more studies connecting the imperial histories of the settlement colonies with those of the dependent Empire (including India) and of Britain itself.’ Moreover, he observes that I focus chiefly on the production of ideas rather than on their popular reception. These are good points, and identify avenues for future work. For example, a comprehensive analysis of the discourse of settlerism in the nineteenth century and beyond would need to expand the interpretive aperture considerably, incorporating (among other things) the voices of settlers and of indigenous peoples. Kathy makes a similar point about how visions of the family and of religion could be integrated. I make no claims to exhaustiveness. My aim was much more limited: to trace and analyse elite metropolitan discourse about liberalism and empire, with a particular emphasis on justificatory arguments about settler colonialism. Daniel also notes the disjunction between the popularity of schemes of colonial union (and especially imperial federation) among political and intellectual elites in Britain and the settler colonies. Those in the imperial core, he contends, had a very poor understanding of the demands and desires of the colonists, and how they imagined their relationship to Britain. As he puts it, “Settler societies were connected to Britain, but not its mere extensions.  This was the fundamental category error made by many Victorian proponents of Greater Britain.” While I agree that it was chiefly a metropolitan British discourse, and that many advocates of union were ignorant of conditions in the colonies, it is worth noting that there were significant pockets of support in the settler world. Branches of the Imperial Federation League sprouted throughout Australia, the Cape, Canada and New Zealand, and numerous prominent politicians and intellectuals advocated variations on the theme.[1] However, they were a minority, albeit a vocal one.

Luke writes: “I could not but continue to make connections between the book’s discussion of the links between liberalism and settler colonialism, and the ongoing realities of those links to the society that I am living in.” I am glad to hear that Reordering the World prompted such reflection – it is, I take it, one of the virtues of the history of political thought that it can illuminate connections between past and present, without reducing those connections to caricature (a subject I return to below). In a sobering account of Canadian politics, Luke surveys the gross injustices that continue to affect the indigenous victims of the settler colonial state, and the ways that successive administrations, while making some welcome gestures, have largely left unresolved the fundamental questions of sovereignty and land dispossession that continue to structure the polity.[2] He also acknowledges the “unsettling” character of my argument about how the emergence of “Anglo-American” liberalism was bound up with the creation of what I term the second settler empire. If the book manages to unsettle some assumptions about settlerism, I will have achieved part of my task. Introducing novel perspectives, and challenging existing narratives, seems to me one of the most valuable ways that intellectual history can contribute to contemporary thinking.

The thorniest question posed in the symposium concerns exactly this point. What are the methodological benefits, limitations, and implications of contextual intellectual history? Richard, Inder and Kathy, all ask how historical work can shape contemporary understanding. Does historical analysis provide a ground for critiques of liberalism or an impediment to them? Richard makes a bold case for the pivotal importance of historical work, rightly criticizing the tendency of IR theorists to “become detached from history in the search for transcendental or generalizable truths.”[3] He acknowledges that while Reordering the World foregrounds historical contextualisation, theoretical and normative argumentation are not absent. They are threaded through the text. It is fair to say that the balance varies between chapters, with some – for example “What is Liberalism?” and “The Dream Machine” – concentrating more explicitly on the theoretical and political implications of the historical interpretations than other more strictly historical essays. I hope that the cumulative effect, though, is one that prompts reflection on the contemporary world and sheds light on issues of interest to political theorists and IR scholars as well as historians.

Kathy poses the following important question: “What,” she asks, “does this historicization mean – both broadly for what we do when we ‘do’ political theory, and particularly, for what liberals argue now?” She sketches two possible answers. The first concentrates on the value of ideal theorising, suggesting that while historical research can be of great value, there is still an important role for the kind of normative political philosophy practiced by liberal egalitarians (and others) in the wake of Rawls. There is, then, a fruitful division of intellectual labour. While I agree that there is a vital – indeed inescapable – role for idealisation and abstraction in political philosophy, I am sceptical about how such abstraction and idealisation often function in theoretical argument. Charles Mills, for one, has shown that much is lost in privileging the ideal – in particular, he argues that mainstream liberal political philosophy has routinely ignored or downplayed questions of racial domination. This is no accident, he suggests, but rather a predictable result of producing theories divorced from, and even blind to, the historical processes and practices – imperialism, slavery, structural racism – that have shaped the contemporary world. It is a feature, not a bug. Political theory, he contends, often fails to adequately grasp the character of the injustices it purports to address.[4]

While Mills has levelled a powerful philosophical challenge at ideal theorising, Katrina Forrester demonstrates the value of the history of political thought in illuminating the issue. In a very insightful essay, she argues that by the mid-1970s questions of racial injustice and reparations for slavery were excluded conceptually from mainstream liberal egalitarian philosophy, despite their high-profile in the general political discourse of the time. This was chiefly the result of rejecting historically-oriented conceptions of justice, and especially those associated with Robert Nozick. Instead, and following Rawls in particular, liberal philosophers came to focus on current distributive patterns and how these could be assessed and potentially adjusted. The emphasis shifted, that is, from “why certain parties had come to own more of the global social product” – an inescapably historical question – to “how it should now be shared.” This theoretical reorientation had significant consequences. “Freeing justice theory from historical argument,” she writes, “might have allowed for very demanding forms of domestic and global egalitarianism, but that egalitarianism in theory was bought at the cost of ignoring historical and structural injustice in practice.”[5] This is an excellent example of how intellectual history can shed light on contemporary political theory, demonstrating how certain features and trends arose in the first place, and what this entailed in terms of inclusion and exclusion. Work of this kind can help induce a degree of reflexivity that is often lacking.

Such arguments highlight the importance of historically-sensitive political theorising. (This is, of course, one of the central claims of the welcome burst of theorising in a “realist” vein). Thus, one reason to take history (including intellectual history) seriously is that it warns against problematic forms of abstraction. Moreover, it can identify or help to understand, the roots of problems that need to be addressed today. The contributors to an edited collection that I am working on, Empire, Race, and Global Justice, do just that. (Forrester’s essay will be published in it). Writing from a variety of perspectives, they argue that the dominant political theory approaches to global justice tend to ignore or misunderstand the very historical conditions, and above all imperial and racial domination, that produced key features of the world they seek to change. (Some of the contributors also argue that the liberal theoretical frameworks in which most arguments for global justice are grounded are themselves unintentionally complicit in reproducing historical patterns of imperial and racialised domination). Theorising about contemporary politics is greatly enriched by attentiveness to history, including the history of visions of imperial order.

Kathy’s second response is to suggest that we look at how liberal political thought was adapted and recoded by the subjects of empire, often for use against the imperial state. She cites the work of Duncan Ivison and Chris Bayly as exemplary.[6] I concur. Disaggregating liberalism, insisting on its mutability, elasticity, and internal diversity, encourages exactly this kind of inquiry. Here there are interesting parallels with work that explores how human rights arguments have been mobilised in a critical fashion.[7] Recognizing this kind of discursive reworking is essential for the task of decolonizing liberalism.

I think that Richard and Kathy’s comments offer a partial response to Inder. But there is much more to be said (indeed far more than I can say here). Inder is right to see Reordering the World as pitched at the junction of intellectual history and political theory. My view is that this is a highly productive interface, albeit one that is sometimes tricky and frustrating to negotiate. Inder regards them as two distinct disciplines, each with its own norms and questions. Thus he can ask “the political theory question” of the book, namely the question of “critical purchase” – what are we to do with the historical knowledge produced? How can it translate into critique?  What, in particular, does it say about justice? In my view – and here I follow Michael Freeden, among others[8] – the boundaries of political theory are more expansive and fluid, encompassing a wide variety of approaches, methodologies, intellectual personae, source materials, and types of question. Political theory, on this account, includes within its wide embrace historical studies of various kinds, normative philosophical exercises, and interpretive work interrogating political practices, norms and values. In other words, I see it overlapping or intersecting with both history and social science, not as a separate and distinct enterprise.[9] Justice is one topic among many. Critique is one objective among others. Thus I don’t think that there is a political theory question, so much as an array of questions that we can ask about political life, past, present and future. Some of those demand detailed historical investigation, some will need to be addressed principally through rigorous philosophical argumentation, others still will require systematic empirical analysis. The most complex require all of these and more.

What, though, of critique? There is nothing inherently critical in intellectual historical work. It can be pursued for numerous reasons, and its findings can be put to use for conflicting political ends.[10] An important strand of the field played a significant ideological role in bolstering Cold War liberalism, especially in the United States –  as I point out in Chapter 3 it was no coincidence that the Journal of the History of Ideas was the only academic journal to receive funding from the CIA-backed Congress for Cultural Freedom. Nor do I think that all intellectual historical work is of equal utility for political theorists – some of it (much of it) is written with a different scholarly aim in mind. It is valuable in its own terms, as a contribution to historical knowledge. But certain forms of intellectual historical work are beneficial – even essential – for effective critical political (and IR) theorising. The history of political thought can enable and constrain engagement with contemporary problems. It can enable it insofar as it helps to identify new questions and perspectives, or felicitously reframes existing ones. Inder puts the point well, suggesting that it can delineate new “problem-spaces.” Call this an elucidatory function. In this book, I attempt to do so by (among other things) arguing for the centrality of settler colonialism in the formation of modern “Anglo-American” liberalism, including putatively anti-imperial variants of it. This argument, I take it, has significant critical purchase – it directs attention to an issue that is often ignored, and that (as Luke and Daniel make clear) has important practical ramifications. Another example of this – highlighted by Daniel, Kathy and Richard – concerns the way that British conservative Eurosceptics have drawn heavily on long-standing imperial-racial themes, and in particular visions of the “Anglosphere,” to argue about Brexit.[11] Elsewhere, I have tried to unsettle standard genealogies of the “democratic peace thesis” by locating arguments about perpetual peace in the context of discourses of imperial order and racial supremacy.[12] Intellectual historical work can also constrain insofar as it (hopefully) cautions against the dangers of over-generalisation. It can help to develop a clearer understanding of the objects of inquiry and critique. One implication of insisting on the internal variability and elusive character of liberalism is that sweeping generalisations about the liberal tradition are usually unhelpful. Many critiques of liberalism – as with critiques of other political traditions – attack one-dimensional caricatures, mistaking the part for the shape-shifting whole.

Another implication of intellectual historical work on liberalism is that it can allow us to identify certain strands that may (though this is not inevitable) provide the basis for a decolonized, emancipatory project. Such a task requires jettisoning much of what has been thought of as liberal, but doing so in such a way that builds on key liberal principles. I make no claims to do this in the book, but I have learnt much from attempts to do so by Duncan Ivison, James Tully, and Charles Mills, among others. I don’t want to suggest that the only worthwhile critical task is to refashion liberalism – far from it! – but (as Mills insists) it is surely an urgent one given the pervasiveness of liberalism in modern Western political thought and practice.[13]

Finally, it is impotent to acknowledge the limitations of intellectual historical work. I would disagree with Inder’s provocative claim that the history of political thought, for all its virtues, doesn’t “in a certain sense…argue.” I would counter that it argues through contextualising. But the type of arguments it produces are only one element of the project of political critique. The history of political thought is an important part of political theorising, but it isn’t a substitute for systematic theoretical and ethical engagement. Rather, I think that it can work in constructive dialogue with other forms of inquiry to produce rich and incisive accounts of political life.

Thanks once again to all those involved in the symposium. It has been a pleasure.


[1] To give just one example, Julius Vogel, one of the key figures in late nineteenth century New Zealand, was an ardent imperial federalist. He even wrote a utopian science fiction novel outlining his vision: Anno Domini 2000, or, Woman’s Destiny (1889). I offer a reading of the text in my forthcoming book, Dreamworlds of Race, which explores fantasies of “Anglo-Saxon” racial domination.

[2] For an excellent reworking of the concept of dispossession, see Robert Nichols, “Theft is Property! The Recursive Logic of Dispossession,” Political Theory (2017, on-line first).

[3] See also his interesting essay, “’The Battle is all There is’: Philosophy and History in International Relations Theory,” International Relations (2017, forth.).

[4] Mills, “’Ideal’ Theory as Ideology,” Hypatia, 20/3 (2005).

[5] Forrester, “Reparations, History and the Origins of Global Justice” in Duncan Bell (ed.), Empire, Race and Global Justice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, forth.). Also relevant here is Sam Moyn, “The Doctor’s Plot: The Origins of the Philosophy of Human Rights,” in the same volume, and Moyn, “The Political Origins of Global Justice” in Joel Isaac et al (ed.), The Worlds of American Intellectual History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017). Mills would most likely add that “white ignorance” was also an important contributing factor: Mills, Black Rights, White Wrongs: The Critique of Racial Liberalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), ch. 4.

[6] Ivison, Postcolonial Liberalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002); Bayly, Recovering Liberties: Indian Thought in the Age of Liberalism and Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011). For a characteristically insightful analysis, see Andrew Sartori, “C. A. Bayly and the Question of Indian Political Thought,” Modern Asian Studies, 51/3 (2017).

[7] See, for example, Fuyuki Kurasawa, The Work of Global Justice: Human Rights as Practices (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

[8] Freeden, Ideologies and Political Theory: A Conceptual Approach (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996); Freeden, The Political Theory of Political Thinking: The Anatomy of a Practice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

[9] Quentin Skinner’s methodological writings were intended as a contribution to interpretive social inquiry, not simply the interpretation of historical texts. I discuss this in Duncan Bell, “Language, Legitimacy, and the Project of Critique,” Alternatives, 27/3 (2002). See also the discussion in Jeremy Adelman, Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013), chs. 16-19. Mark Bevir offers an especially strong version of this claim.  “Intellectual history is not just a sub-field of history. Intellectual history is the basis of all the human sciences. Properly to understand social life just is to refer to the intentionality of the relevant actors. Properly to explain intentionality just is to place it in the relevant historical context. Thus, all the human sciences necessarily depend on intellectual history.” Bevir, “The Logic of the History of Ideas – Then and Now,” Intellectual History Review, 21 (2011), 105.

[10] The same is true of even the most self-consciously critical modes of scholarship. On the appropriation of Deleuze and Guattari (among others) by the Israeli Defence Forces, see Eyal Weizmann, Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation (London: Verso, 2007). See also James Der Derian, Virtuous War: Mapping the Media-Industrial-Military-Entertainment Network, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 2009). Anthropologists, too, have long fallen prey to the phenomenon (I discuss this briefly in Chapter 4).

[11] I discuss this briefly in chapter 8. But see also Bell, “The Anglosphere: New Enthusiasm for an Old Dream,” Prospect Magazine (February 2017).

[12] Bell, “Before the Democratic Peace: Racial Utopianism, Empire, and the Abolition of War,” European Journal of International Relations, 20/3 (2014).

[13] Mills, Black Rights/White Wrongs, ch. 2 (“Occupy Liberalism”).


2 thoughts on “On Uses of Intellectual History: Past and Present in the Critique of Liberalism

  1. Pingback: What We’re Reading: Week of 18th September | JHIBlog

  2. Pingback: Nightcap | Notes On Liberty

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s