Deneen on Historical Change

By: David Gordon

There is a central theme in Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed which I failed to note in my review of it. Deenen has a radical view of the role of intellectuals in modern history. He says, “The foundations of liberalism were laid by a series of thinkers whose central aim was to disassemble what they concluded were irrational religious and social norms in the pursuit of civil peace that might in turn foster stability and prosperity, and eventually individual liberty of conscience and action.”(p.24)

I quoted most of this passage in my review and questioned whether Locke, one of these thinkers, held the opinions Deneen attributes to him. But the passage deserves scrutiny for another reason. Deneen takes for granted that great thinkers by their teaching mold the way history develops. Surely this contention ought to be supported by argument.  Even if Deneen is right about their views, it does not follow that their ideas were the primary factor in the growth of modern liberal institutions.  What about other causal factors, such as changes in technology and social institutions, or, for that matter, ideas of less “great” thinkers? Deneen passes by all this, instead offering his “top-down” approach to historical change as if it were self-evidently true.

Again, in discussing the U.S. Constitution, he says: “The Constitution is the embodiment of a set of modern principles that sought to overturn ancient teachings and shape a distinctly different modern human.”(p.101). Once more, the influence of “foundational” thinkers is assumed without argument to be paramount. For all I have said, Deneen may be right; but he should argue for his views, not simply “tell us.”

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