updated 2000 05 16
International Society for the Study of European Ideas (ISSEI)
University of Bergen, Norway, August 14-18, 2000


Workshop on
"Liberal Political Philosophy and Rights from the 18th to 20th Century"

Aims and objectives of the Workshop:

Some of the central characteristics of European identity are reflected in its relation to liberalism. The historical roots of liberalism are clearly European, and Europe is also home to the broadest range of contemporary liberalisms. (By choosing the title of "Liberal Political Philosophy and Rights from the 18th to the 20th Century," these sessions follow the theme of a workshop initiated, in 1992, by Professor Takamaro Hanzawa, of Tokyo Metropolitan University, and continued at the ISSEI meetings in Graz and Utrecht.)

A principal concern of liberalism has been to articulate and defend--or, at least, to find a place for--'rights.' When one thinks of the founders of modern liberalism, such as Hobbes, Locke, Kant, Wollstonecraft, and Spencer, the concept of natural right obviously has a central role in their views. Even in the work of those authors where such rights do not have such a fundamental role--such as Rousseau, Bentham, Mill, and Green--one notes at least an attempt to address the question of their nature, source, and limits.

This workshop will bring together scholars who can speak to several of the stages in the elaboration of the liberal discourse on rights within the European traditions. Since the 18th century there have been, of course, many thinkers within liberalism who have influenced the development of the concept of 'rights,' but the focus here will be on the work of Kant, Bentham, Mill, Green, and Spencer--and, to a lesser extent, Wollstonecraft, Bosanquet, Maritain and recent and contemporary liberal theorists such as H.L.A. Hart, Joseph Raz, Philip Pettit, and David Miller.

Many lines of discussion might be pursued in this workshop. One is the examination and discussion of the concept of 'right' in the work of classical and contemporary 'liberal' authors and, thereby, to discern its relation to liberalism in general. This will allow participants to consider whether, given the challenges of post-modernism and of communitarianism, given the various criticisms of the possibility of universal values, and given life in a world that is increasingly pluralistic, it is valuable or useful to speak of the rights of the person. The participants will also investigate to what extent attempts to defend natural rights depend on a distinctively 'liberal' account of the nature of the human person. Such an investigation will allow participants to reflect on whether there are some elements of liberalism that are necessary to a defense of the rights of the person.

There is a good deal of openness on how, specifically, the participants might pursue these questions, particularly since key terms, such as "liberal," "individualism," and "right" or "law" (droit, loi, Recht) are vague and have evolved during the centuries since the beginning of the Enlightenment. (Indeed, the meaning of the term 'liberal' itself has long been the subject of a keen

Ideally, participants will focus on some of the Enlightenment or post-Enlightenment figures or schools--be they 'classical' authors, such as Kant, Wollstonecraft, Bentham, Mill, Spencer, and Bosanquet--or contemporary authors or schools--those found in perfectionist liberalism, libertarianism, post-Rawlsian liberalism, Green theory, post-modernism and feminism. In this way, this workshop will be able to discern the some of the presuppositions of a discourse of rights, to identify some problems which have arisen in these various attempts to discuss the notion of 'right,' and perhaps to show that, in many cases, these problems indicate the existence of common difficulties in the underlying 'social ontology.'

It is clear that to try to cover a wide range of authors in this workshop is to risk falling into superficiality. But the issue here, though rooted in the history of political thought, is directed towards a more general, philosophical question. The aim, then, is to reflect on a number of issues that are pertinent to providing an account of rights that is consistent with liberalism's roots in the European context, and which will have some bearing on the kinds of ways that liberalism might be part of the European identity of the next millennium.

Further Information:

Professor William Sweet,
Principal Organiser, ISSEI Workshop on Liberal Political Thought,
Department of Philosophy, St Francis Xavier University,
Antigonish, NS B2G 2W5
Fax 902 867 3243; office telephone 902 867 2341; e-mail: wsweet@stfx.ca

List of the participants, abstracts, and draft versions of papers

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