Is There Such a Thing as Liberalism?

21 Pages Posted: 15 Jan 2014

Date Written: November 13, 2013


Most attempts to make sense of liberalism as a unified tradition have focused on its theoretical foundations or normative commitments. This paper rejects that approach by advancing two related claims: (i) the unity of liberalism amounts just to a roughly and readily identifiable political tradition, whereas (ii) its philosophical foundations are conceptually irreconciliable, despite some genealogical common ground. So the aim of the paper is not to advance any normative position regarding liberalism, but just to map liberal theory and liberal politics onto each other. In the first section I argue that we can make sense of the existence of a liberal tradition in politics despite the deep disagreements on the nature and justification of liberalism in philosophy. Then, in the second section, I canvass a new — part-conceptual and part-genealogical — account of the key theoretical fault-lines between liberals, and show that those faultlines are unbridgeable. My analysis points towards the conclusion that liberalism as a unified political tradition is an ideological construct; but I also aim to show how that shouldn't lead us to underestimate the importance of articulating its philosophical foundations, insofar as normative political theory can inform real political decisions, up to and including our overall allegiance to a political tradition.

Keywords: liberalism, liberal legitimacy, political realism, political idealism, ideology

Suggested Citation

Rossi, Enzo, Is There Such a Thing as Liberalism? (November 13, 2013). Available at SSRN: or

Enzo Rossi (Contact Author)

University of Amsterdam ( email )

Department of Political Science
Oudezijds Achterburgwal 237
Amsterdam, 1012 DL


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