Larry Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual The Origins of Western Liberalism (ii)

Hmm, it’s been a while since the first part of this posting. I remember being excited on picking up a copy of this book on a sunny day in a wonderful bookshop far from here, and the speed with which I read it as the weather deteriorated. Since then various things have intervened in my life, and only now am I in a position to return to a topic broached in this blog in October 2015. While Siedentop’s argument is fascinating and gives prominence to neglected aspects of the Western tradition, three things concern me about it.

The first, and least important, is a kind of conceptual clunkiness. For example, various beliefs held in medieval times are attributed to ‘the clergy’. Yet for most of this period they were not a group with a specific intellectual formation, and in some ways the clerical body was co-terminous with society. Siedentop makes use of the concept of ‘feudalism’, but this is scarcely used by non-Marxist historians these days, and cries out for explanation. Some of this awkwardness comes from Siedentop’s reliance on dated works. For example, he acknowledges being crucially indebted to Fustel de Coulanges fro his first chapter; Benjamin Constant is drawn on for the second. Admittedly, this book is far from a doctoral dissertation where familiarity with current scholarship is to be demonstrated, but a serious study developing powerful new arguments should be better informed as to the state of play.

I am also uneasy at an implication that ideas are autonomous from their surroundings. Important things happened in the period discussed in this book, and I wonder whether the discovery of lands far from Europe and the industrial revolution had more of an impact than they are given credit for. It is clear, for example, that the impressive social thinking of Victorian Britain was a reaction to the circumstances of that time.

Finally, the book is implicitly a celebration of modern western liberalism. Not surprisingly, it had been enthusiastically accepted by people of this persuasion; those whose positive reviews are excerpted in the prefatory pages and back cover are a roll call of what an English friend calls the great and the good. An impressive genealogy is supplied for a system to which the author adheres. It may be correct, but that does not mean that the system is s good one.

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