The liberalism trap: John Stuart Mill and customs of interpretation

New York, NY: Oxford University Press (2023)
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Abstract

The Liberalism Trap identifies a methodological problem in contemporary political theory: focus on liberalism has become an interpretive custom directing engagements with politics. Though scholars have long analysed the meaning, merits, successes or failings of liberalism, little attention is paid to how such preoccupations shape the way we study political questions and texts. Evaluating the effects of these preoccupations is what motivate the book. To interrogate those effects, Philips turns to John Stuart Mill-the so-called father of modern liberalism. As she argues, Mill's canonical status as a liberal is habitually substituted for his political arguments such that the now standard association of Mill with liberalism conditions how and why he is read. Offering a comparative reading of Mill's proposals concerning gender, class, and empire, Philips instead recovers a thinker motivated not by ideological certainties, but by a politics of uncertainty. In so doing, she draws into view the complex strategies that Mill employs across his work on domestic and imperial questions, strategies obscured by his liberal mantle. Her recovery of Mill's uncertain politics sets into relief the interpretive costs of reading through liberalism. That even the paradigmatic liberal is unduly constrained by this label ought to give us pause. Taking a break from liberalism, Philips shows that we gain a more nuanced account of Mill's politics, and critical and evaluative distance from our own customs of interpretation. With these interventions, The Liberalism Trap integrates an innovative reading of a canonical thinker with a methodological critique of interpretive practices in contemporary political theory.

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