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PhilSoc Members Weekend 2022

Organisers Ryan Meade and Sam Livy

17 & 18 September / Rewley House Lecture Theatre and on Zoom

Is Liberalism Obsolete?

Call for Speakers

The aim of the Members' Weekend will be to present a range of responses to the question Is Liberalism Obsolete?, with the hope of understanding liberalism's origins, the common themes among its advocates, its positive contributions to individual and social wellbeing, and its negative impacts. The Weekend hopes to explore whether the various strains of liberal political philosophies are essential to living a good life in society or have exhausted themselves such that social theory should not set liberty as a central premise of justice. We fully expect that there will be different views of what liberalism is, and to start the Weekend, there will be a panel discussion by the speakers on defining liberalism.

The concept of liberalism comes in many forms, but the common theme places liberty as the framing reference for thinking through society, justice, fairness, equality, law, political orders, economic organisation, and who we are as humans. Liberalism is generally seen as springing from Hobbes, Locke, and the cultural and intellectual revolution of the Enlightenment though some argue it has deeper roots in the nominalism of Ockham. It became the dominant political philosophy of the utilitarian vanguard in the age of Mill and Bentham as well as the long run of first wave feminist thinkers such as Wollstonecraft and Stanton. In the Twentieth Century it became in varying degrees the rallying cry of a diverse spectrum of bedfellows from social democrats to free market economists to human rights advocates. Leading liberal thinkers of the past century such as Rawls and Nozick have become part of the canon of political philosophy.

Liberalism is generally seen positively as contributing to the rise of democracy and empowerment of the individual, but it has also raised questions on whether making liberty a fundamental political principle has emphasized the individual to the detriment of the community. A central tension among liberal theorists is what are the limits of liberty. One of the main arguments against liberalism is that it inevitably leads to an individualism that devalues others. Its critics argue that the paradoxical outcome of maximizing rights has led to a suppression of rights. A collection of thinkers left, right, and centre have begun to theorize a 'post-liberal' social order.

We also recognise that liberalism seems to be a predominantly western philosophical phenomenon. It has never taken hold in other parts of the world. Although billions of people take liberal principles and its democratic sidecar as an essential 'given' for society, others find placing liberty and the individual at the centre of society confusing if not abhorrent. The Weekend welcomes discussion of liberalism from all perspectives.

This question interfaces with nearly all aspects of philosophy, including epistemology, metaphysics, and ethics. If you would like to present your views on the topic question, please consider giving a talk. Please briefly explain your understanding of liberalism or a strain of liberalism at the start of your talk.

The following are some starter questions for you to consider. These questions do not embrace the full scope of the Weekend and we encourage creativity.

  • Is liberty the fundamental principle for social organising?
  • What are the limits to liberty?
  • Are there any rights which are absolute?
  • Are rights natural or a social convention?
  • Is liberty a constituent aspect of justice?
  • How does liberty square with equality?
  • What are the metaphysical assumptions of liberalism? (Do you agree or disagree with them?)
  • To what extent was nominalism a precursor to Hobbes and Locke?
  • What role does Descartes play in the development of liberal philosophy?
  • Can we properly speak of a social contract?
  • Can we properly speak of a pre-political individual?
  • What is the connection between neoliberal economics and liberal political philosophy?
  • Does the mind-body problem speak in any way to individualism?
  • Which is primary: the individual or the community?
  • Are the premises of liberalism in concert with or opposition to human nature? (to the extent you hold that there is a human nature)
  • Can pragmatism be combined with liberalism to regulate individualism?
  • Does liberalism require democracy?
  • Does democracy require liberalism?
  • Is liberalism compatible with socialism?
  • If not liberalism, then what?
  • Is there a language problem with the terms liberalism, classical liberalism, neoliberalism, postliberal?
  • Does liberty have a goal?
  • Is the act of choosing an end in itself?
  • Is liberal democracy a fiction?
  • Is liberalism a political programme or a philosophy or both?
  • Is Rawls' Original Position thought experiment useful?
  • Can critiques of Rawls 'veil of ignorance' methodology be overcome?

The selected speakers will open the Weekend with a panel discussion on defining liberalism, and end the Weekend with a short panel summary followed by 30 minutes of questions. Presentations should last for around 25-30 minutes (approx. 3000 – 3500 words), to be followed by 15 minutes of questions.

Don't worry if you have not spoken at such an event before. We are not looking for experts, just good communicators who are prepared to do a little research and present a cogent and passionate argument, which is philosophical in character.

This will be a hybrid event, allowing viewers worldwide and speakers worldwide to participate. Please indicate if you will present in person or online.

If you are interested in speaking at our Members' Weekend, please contact the Secretary ( secretary@oxfordphilsoc.org) to indicate your interest by 30 April, including a working title and brief outline of your talk in 100-200 words.