Book #7: Two Faces of Liberalism, by John Gray

I’m catching up on a couple of books I finished earlier in the month — my ability to read is outstripping my ability to write. Or the chair by the window is more comfortable than my desk. One of these is probably the reason I’m lagging in writing about books.

Gray’s book Two Faces of Liberalism refers to the major split in liberal thinking between Enlightenment rationalism and consequent "univeralism" among liberals, and the notion that liberalism must treat all ways of life equally. Levy, Galston, and others have referred to this distinction as one of "autonomy" versus "diversity." Gray’s book can be summarized as an argument for the latter by presenting the contradictions in the former view of liberalism. But his claims go further — that liberal pluralists such as Will Kymlicka and even, it seems, Gray’s hero Isaiah Berlin, don’t go far enough — that "toleration" among different ways of life still contains the seed of the idea that those who "tolerate" still believe in the universal superiority of a single way of life. Gray’s book is an extended argument that even toleration doesn’t capture the very real conflicts that occur between groups, cultures, and ways of life. And thus, the liberal "utopia" is one of modus vivendi, Gray’s Hobbesian term for a tactical agreement between individuals which facilitates the peaceful co-existence of different ways of life.

I suspect that prior to reading Rorty, and internalizing his strain of pragmatism, I’d have been more impressed by Gray. As it was, I spent much of the book thinking that Gray was trying valiantly to carve out a differentiated territory between Rawlsian notions of fairness, the pluralistic liberalism of folks like Berlin, Kymlicka, and Kukathas, and a post-Darwinian notion that no particular way of life is privileged. And in this sense, I was disappointed that the argument wasn’t more original. That said, Two Faces was a valuable read. Gray describes how various notions of the good life, rival freedoms, and competing ways of life work both within individuals and societies. Most valuable, perhaps, is his insistence on the multiplicity of each individual — that we can each hold rival notions of good and proper action, participate in multiple ways of life, and even value freedoms which are mutually exclusive. Liberal theorists who stress rational argument and universal principles would do well to keep in mind Gray’s point about the diversity inherent within single individuals, because it suggests that we do need to think carefully about how to meld our notions of a shared civic "good life" with the realization that conflicts of interest, values, and rival liberties will always be with us.


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  14. Mark,

    Reading, for me, is halfway between being enjoyable and a compulsion. But I’m happy if a few interesting thoughts come out the other end…so hopefully it’s worth it.

    Thanks for the NYT ref. I’ll trade you a reference as well…John Judis has a new piece out in The New Republic that’s terrific and very thought provoking. I’m digesting it, and I suspect that between this, and Fukuyama and Fareed Zakaria’s book, and ideas from your blog postings, there’s an essay brewing, but I keep wondering when it’ll be born. I’m in the late stages of a software release cycle right now, so my time is pretty full…so maybe in the next week or so…

    Here’s the URL for the Judis piece:

  15. David Airth,

    I am amazed how anybody can read so many books. I guess you enjoy reading. I don’t find reading enjoyable or entertaining. I read because I have to, if I want to learn about the world. I am amazed how much we have to read to get a little morsel of information. I find that all writing says too much and yet not enough. Half the time I don’t understand what someone like John Rawls is saying.

    Please keep reading and share your insights with us.

    By the way, there is an interesting article in the NYT about wine in films in Sunday Styles section.