Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Liberalism and The Myth of Atomism

Thinkers like Charles Taylor have linked “Atomism” to liberalism while making their case that liberalism is not conducive to community-building. To answer the complaints against liberalism from such thinkers, Douglas J. Den Uyl and Douglas B. Rasmussen have written a paper, “The Myth of Atomism.”

The Myth of Atomism” is basically a critique of two essays by Charles Taylor—“Atomism” and "Cross Purposes: The Liberal-Communitarian Debate.”

Den Uyl and Rasmussen show that “atomism—as a doctrine which holds that individuals have no relationship to one another as members of an association that is essentially related to their commonness—is not to be found in the core of liberalism, even under an ontology of individualism.” They point out that “atomism” is a social pathology—it is not a description of liberalism or even a pathology especially characteristic of it.

Here’s an excerpt from the final section of the paper by Den Uyl and Rasmussen:
We have argued for three theses in the paper. First, “atomism” as used by Taylor is a confused conceptual tool and one whose uses for understanding liberalism is extremely limited, if applicable at all. Second, the applicability of “atomism” is ironically more consistent with certain forms of collectivism than with liberalism. Third, Taylor’s own proposed way of navigating the difference between liberalism and communitarianism is, in the end, a form of communitarianism and not an alternative at all. 
“We have also noted that there is indeed a social pathology that can be termed “atomism.” This is where individuals are disconnected from one another. We noted politically that atomism is possibly more characteristic of collectivist political orders than liberal ones. On a conceptual level, this pathology is not the result of any particular ontological position. Rather, it is primarily the result of assuming that all ethical principles are of one type—that is, of failing to distinguish between condition-setting principles (metanorms) and condition-seeking principles (norms).  
This paper, "The Myth of Atomism", makes me think of the book by Den Uyl and Rasmussen, The Norms of Liberty: A Perfectionist Basis for Non-Perfectionist Politics,  in which they offer answers to a whole range of arguments from the critics of liberalism while presenting a new conceptual foundation for political liberalism.

In the book's chapter two, “Liberalism and Ethics,” the authors point out that “liberalism is driven by the need to socialise rather the atomize.” (Page 30). They answer the critics of liberalism in the book’s Part III, (Chapter: “Communitarian and Conservative Critics”). But here the discussion focuses mainly on the ideas of Alasdair MacIntyre whose views on liberalism are similar to that of Charles Taylor.

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The Myth of Atomism
Author(s): Douglas J. Den Uyl and Douglas B. Rasmussen

The Review of Metaphysics, Vol. 59, No. 4 (Jun., 2006), pp. 841-868 

Related: 

The Crisis of Liberalism and The Metanormative Solution

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