The concept of ‘liberalism’ or ‘liberal culture’ is central to modern social and political thinking, as it is to the content and conduct of the humanities generally. At different times, both the provenance and authenticity of liberalism as a coherent philosophy or ideology have been contested, as has the desirability of liberalism’s principles and institutions. Today, liberalism is once again under threat, and many of its structuring principles and institutions – individualism, pluralism, internationalism, secularism, freedom of speech, free trade, representative democracy, and the rule of law – face escalating challenges in one country after another. As the middle class, the core constituency of liberalism, experience stagnation and frustration in the Global North, can the emerging middle class in the Global South still be considered agents of liberalisation?
In 2020, the Humanities Research Centre is inviting scholars from all over the world to explore the history and philosophy, politics and prospects of liberalism. We will begin by asking what exactly is liberalism – or should we be talking about ‘liberalisms’ in the plural? Is there a set of internally consistent ideas that adds up to what we can call ‘liberalism’ and, if there is, how did liberalism develop in the lead up to the early nineteenth century, when select people and parties first began characterising themselves as ‘liberal’? Scholars are invited to explore fictional and non-fictional texts, along with other historical and contemporary socio-cultural phenomena, which can be identified as sites in and through which the liberal subject has been projected and cultivated. How does liberalism balance the desire for individual freedom with the need for collective authority? Is freedom of expression in the humanities and the creative arts only possible within a liberal culture – or is liberalism, at some level, antipathetic to the arts? Can liberalism explain and engage the emotions? Can it accommodate illiberalism? Have extreme forms of liberalism, like neo-liberalism, with its stress on self-interest and its reduction of all values to those of the market place, disrupted or destroyed the development of a liberal future?