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Realism and liberalism in the political thought of Bernard Williams

Hall, Edward (2013) Realism and liberalism in the political thought of Bernard Williams. PhD thesis, The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).

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This thesis offers the first systematic critical examination of the political thought of Bernard Williams; explains the relation between his political realism and his critical assessment of much modern moral philosophy, and discusses how his work illuminates the debates about the nature and purpose of political theory. I defend Williams’s fundamental claim that the central questions of political morality arise within politics and argue accordingly that political theory should not, contrary to the position implicit in much contemporary political theory, in the first instance be seen as an exercise in applying a set of external moral principles to politics. I argue that although Williams’s critique of contemporary political theory is mistaken in its claim that contemporary political theorists conventionally endorse a monolithic form of moralism, he convincingly shows that political theory should begin with an understanding of the distinctive character of politics, as this enables us to understand the goods that are internal to it. In this regard, Williams’s realism is best read as an attempt to make ethical sense of politics, and as an attempt to explain how we can continue to affirm a kind of liberalism, without recourse to the moralised presuppositions that he insists we must jettison. I go on to argue that by developing the insights of Williams’s late work we can articulate a defence of liberalism that has marked advantages over the ‘high liberalism’ that most contemporary liberal theorists defend. This latter argument illustrates the distinctiveness of Williams’s contribution to contemporary debates about realism in political theory as most of the realist thinkers with whom he is grouped endorse a form of realism in order to impugn liberalism.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Additional Information: © 2013 Edward Hall
Library of Congress subject classification: J Political Science > JA Political science (General)
Sets: Departments > Government
Supervisor: Kelly, Paul

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