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  • Two Views of Liberalism
  • Marc F. Plattner (bio)
Enlightenment’s Wake: Politics and Culture at the Close of the Modern Age. By John Gray. Routledge, 1995. 203 pp.
An Intellectual History of Liberalism. By Pierre Manent. Translated by Rebecca Balinski. Princeton University Press, 1994. 128 pp. Originally published in French in 1987.

For liberal democracy, this is the best of times and the worst of times. Its “ideological hegemony,” as reflected both in authoritative international agreements and in the number and power of the regimes that fly its banner, is greater than it ever has been. At the same time, even the most established democracies appear to be afflicted by a profound political malaise. And in the realm of serious thought, as reflected in the work of those with a claim to the title of philosopher, the status of liberal democracy has perhaps never been more precarious. Such, at any rate, is the impression conveyed by these books by two of Western Europe’s leading younger political theorists, John Gray of Britain and Pierre Manent of France.

Both authors have devoted much of their scholarly careers to an exploration of the liberal tradition. Manent is the editor of Les libéraux and the author of Tocqueville et la nature de la démocratie. Gray, the author of Liberalisms: Essays in Political Philosophy, Post-liberalism: Studies in Political Thought, and Beyond the New Right: Markets, Government and the Common Environment, informs us in the preface that his current book completes “a decade’s thinking about liberalism, its grounds, scope and limits” (p. vii).

Both these authors see their inquiries into the liberal tradition as [End Page 169] being inquiries into the nature of modernity itself. For Manent, “for almost three centuries this political doctrine constituted the principal current of modern politics in Europe and the West” (p. xv). For Gray, liberalism is at the core of “the Enlightenment project” that has shaped all of modern Western thought, including that of conservative thinkers who viewed themselves as opponents of the Enlightenment. Gray proclaims from the outset his view that this project “was self-undermining and is now exhausted” (p. viii). Manent, who also speaks of the democratic, or liberal, or modern “project,” leaves the reader with little doubt that he too sees it as radically problematic.

Beyond these important areas of agreement, however, these two books are utterly unlike each other in almost every respect. Although each consists of ten chapters, Gray’s draws mostly on previously published essays that fit together uneasily, and sometimes even seem to be in mutual contradiction. Manent’s volume, by contrast, is a seamless whole that develops a unified analysis. Manent’s approach is quiet and reflective, while Gray’s is lively and noisily polemical. Having begun as a liberal, Gray informs us that he subsequently moved on to a historicist postliberalism, then toward traditional conservatism, and now to a “strong value-pluralism” that does not “privilege”—indeed, seems to denigrate—liberal or Western “values.” There is no sign that Manent’s thinking has undergone any such dramatic shifts. One gets the impression that it is precisely his dissatisfactions with liberalism that have led him to reflect upon it so determinedly and to seek to understand the nature of the dilemmas in which modernity has become embroiled.

Enlightenment’s Wake opens with two essays that attack the “new liberalism,” by which Gray means the Anglo-American academic political philosophy of the past two decades whose central figure is John Rawls. Gray’s assessment of this school is extremely harsh. He writes of its “political nullity and intellectual sterility”; its “degenerate research program”; and the “absurdity” of a philosophy that pursues practical political agreement but is “elaborated at a vast distance from political life in the real world” and derives from the “unexamined intuitions of the U.S. academic nomenklatura.”

Yet Gray’s whole approach remains profoundly influenced by recent Anglo-American academic philosophy. Most of his references are to this literature (until his concluding essay, where Nietzsche and Heidegger suddenly burst upon the scene). More important, he conceives philosophical argument as a war of positions—a kind of chess match, where various “moves” are tried out...

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