The Conditions of Liberty and the New Civilizational Discourse


Robert Nichols


This paper attempts to track a transition in civilizational or modernization discourse in the twentieth century.  I argue that early twentieth century theories of modernization were largely indebted to a nineteenth century language of historical-anthropology that envisioned human societies as locatable along a linear developmental model (from savagery and barbarism to refined civilization), ranked according to their approximation of a single human purposiveness or telos.  During the twentieth century, however, this model was largely displaced by a new language, one which is purportedly neutral as to the ‘higher’ purposiveness of humanity and thus more amenable to a plurality in the forms of life.  I argue, however, that this latter model reinscribes many of the same features as its earlier foil by deploying an ‘ideal theory’ of the human subject and making the minimum conditions of liberty— rather than its telos— the new standard of civilized societies.  The work of Isaiah Berlin is deployed as a key example in this transition from one discourse to another.


Robert Nichols is a Killam Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Alberta.  He completed his PhD (2009) at the University of Toronto, where he was a Trudeau Scholar in the field of Political Philosophy.  Nichols’ areas of research specialization include 19th and 20th century continental philosophy, as well as the study of imperialism and anti-imperial resistance in the history of political thought.


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