Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Science and The Liberal Tradition

So far so good (or bad, depending on how one feels about the way science has corroded the underpinnings of religious and moral beliefs). But there's more to modernity than Spinoza, Newton and Hume; more, that is to say, to modernity than the idea that nature is all, that mathematics is the only language it understands, and that the normative claims of Reason are unsustainable--reason alone cannot tell us how we ought to live.

What we want and need to understand is the connection (for there must be one) between the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries and the rise of political liberalism and free-market economies in the 18th and 19th centuries. By 'liberalism' I mean the once revolutionary idea that the best governments are those that govern least, restricting themselves to the maintenance of (secular) law and order, a stable currency, and the advancement of learning. (That's not what the word 'liberal' means now, at least in the U.S., where the egalitarian idea got a grip on the imagination long before liberalism was invented. The egalitarian fire now burns more brightly in the liberals of today, who largely inhabit the Democratic party, than in the old liberals who now call themselves Republicans.)

It is immediately obvious, first of all, that the Protestant Reformation (or revolution) made liberalism and modernity possible. (Or, more figuratively, it was the blood of religious warfare in the 16th and 17th centuries that fertilized the European soil . . . ) For example: when the protestant churches (most of them anyway) of the 16th century democratized the interpretation of scripture,they unwittingly established the great principle of modern, democratic societies: no one has privileged access to the idea of the good or the truth--if any--about how people should to live.

Eighteenth century liberalism led, in the 19th century, to constitutional democracy in the U.S. and parliamentary democracies (of a sort) in England and France. (See, Louis Hartz, THE LIBERAL TRADITION IN AMERICA.) The richly interesting question is this: how did the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries help to make the liberal revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries possible? The by-now conventional answer to this questions seems to me to be correct, though very much in need of a new look and new vocabulary.

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