The Tragedy of Liberalism

An Alternative Defense of a Political Tradition

By Bert van den Brink

Subjects: Political Philosophy
Series: SUNY series in Social and Political Thought
Paperback : 9780791446706, 280 pages, August 2000
Hardcover : 9780791446690, 280 pages, August 2000

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Table of contents


Part 1: Liberalism, Pluralism, and Tragedy


Chapter 1. Liberalism and Moral Pluralism


Pluralism and How (Not) to Defend Liberalism

Chapter 2. The Tragedy of Liberalism

Two Views of Tragic Liberalism

A Working Hypothesis

Part 2: Political Liberalism Versus Liberal Perfectionism


Chapter 3. Political Liberalism: Justification Through Public Reason

John Rawls: Political Liberalism

The Two-Stage Path to an Overlapping Consensus: A Critique

Chapter 4. Liberal Perfectionism: Autonomy and Pluralism

Joseph Raz: Liberal Perfectionism

The Limits of Perfectionism

Rephrasing Some Key Concepts of Liberal Thought

Conclusions to Part 2

Part 3: Deliberative Democracy as a Way Out?


Chapter 5. Discourse Theory and Moral Character

Preliminary Remarks on Deliberative Democracy

Jürgen Habermas: Theoretical Foundations of Public Deliberation

Discourse Ethics and the Limits of Formalism and Proceduralism

Discourse Ethics, Moral Character, and Pluralism

Chapter 6. Law, Democracy, and Deliberation

Law and Deliberative Democracy

The Limits of Deliberative Democracy

Another Revision of Key Concepts of Liberal Thought

Conclusions to Part 3

Part 4: Liberal Community, Mutual Recognition, and Citizenship Virtue


Chapter 7. Liberal Community and the Normative Potential of Tragic Conflicts

Christoph Menke's Typology of Tragic Conflicts

Toward an Understanding of Liberal Community

Chapter 8. Struggles for Recognition and Tragic Conflicts

Axel Honneth's Theory of Recognition

Struggles for Recognition and the Tragedy of Liberalism

Chapter 9. Vulnerability and Responsibilities of Liberal Citizenship

Vulnerability and Responsibility

Virtues of Liberal Citizenship

Conclusions to Part 4

Part 5: Liberalism and Multiculturalism


Chapter 10. Multiculturalism and Cultural Authenticity

How (Not) to Talk About Multiculturalism

A Liberal-Communitarian Perspective: Charles Taylor

Chapter 11. Two Liberal Views of Multiculturalism

Jeremy Waldron's Cosmopolitan Alternative

Will Kymlicka's "Group-Differentiated Rights" Approach

Conclusions to Part 5




A defense of liberalism, understood as a perfectionist doctrine that presupposes an ideal but controversial notion of human well-being.


Drawing on recent developments in liberal theory, Bert van den Brink develops an alternative defense of liberalism. He argues that liberal theorists should admit that their doctrine is not neutral with regard to conceptions of the good life—that it in fact fosters ideals of personal autonomy and a pluralist environment. These ideals generate irreconcilable, tragic conflicts between liberal and nonliberal ideals, and it is only by taking these conflicts seriously that liberals can learn of the unwanted consequences of liberal doctrine, effectively rebut critics, and react adequately to the complex pluralism of contemporary societies.

Bert van den Brink is a Research Fellow on the Faculty of Law at Tilburg University, The Netherlands and coeditor of Bürgergesellschaft, Recht und Demokratie.


"…an excellent review of contemporary liberal philosophy. " — CHOICE

"Offering a fresh and original perspective on recent debates over the foundations of normative political theory, van den Brink's analyses of Rawls, Raz, Habermas, Taylor, Honneth and Kymlicka (among others) are subtle, sophisticated, and state-of-the-art. His sensitivity to the vulnerabilities of having 'illiberal' commitments in liberal society is nicely balanced with a firm commitment to liberalism's core value of personal autonomy. " — Joel Anderson, Washington University in St. Louis