Political Theory 39 (5):571-599 (2011)

The principles of liberal political theory are often said to be “freestanding.” Are they indeed sufficiently detached from the cultural setting where they emerged to be intelligible to people with other backgrounds? To answer this question, this essay examines the Indian secularism debate and develops a hypothesis on the process whereby liberal principles crystallized in the West and spread elsewhere. It argues that the secularization of western political thought has not produced independent rational principles, but transformed theological ideas into the “topoi” of a culture. Like all topoi, the principles of liberalism depend on other clusters of ideas present in western societies. When they migrate to new settings, the absence of these surrounding ideas presents fundamental obstacles to the interpretation and elaboration of liberal principles. The case of Indian secularism illustrates the cultural limitations of liberal political theory rather than showing its universal significance.
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DOI 10.1177/0090591711413545
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