The Myth of Liberal Individualism: Conceptions of Collectivity and Social Agency in Contemporary Liberal Theory

Dissertation, Columbia University (1997)

Colin Bird
University of Virginia
This dissertation is concerned with the notion of 'liberal individualism' which has served as an important organizing assumption in recent and contemporary debates about liberalism in the Anglo-American tradition. It focuses on, and rejects, two assumptions central to the idea of 'liberal individualism.' The first assumption is that there is some theoretical methodology of 'individualism' which distinguishes the liberal tradition of political theory from its historical competitors. The dissertation reveals that this assumption, which was particularly important in defining the trajectory of liberal ideas after World War II, does not survive critical scrutiny. The second assumption is the claim that liberal individualism is a morally and theoretically univocal and unified conceptual edifice. The dissertation argues, to the contrary, that the family of theories traditionally picked out by the category of 'liberal individualism' are actually systematically unstable and possibly seriously incoherent. So not only does the argument explore the ways in which the category of liberal individualism has distorted the debate about liberalism, it also suggests that it has concealed some fundamental difficulties inherent in the tradition of liberal thought
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