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Reflections of a Would-Be Anarchist

Ideals and Institutions of Liberalism

1998
Author:

Richard E. Flathman

Reflections of a Would-Be Anarchist

A superbly original version of liberalism by a major figure in political theory.

In this provocative work, Richard E. Flathman puts forward his idiosyncratic view of liberalism, one that is particularly concerned with putting freedom and individuality first, one that warns of the individualism-limiting potential of even liberal efforts to promote social justice. Focusing on the ideals he regards as appropriate to liberalism, Flathman analyzes repeated patterns and tendencies that influence societies—their sustaining institutions.

Richard Flathman is an extraordinary thinker-erudite, reflective, profound, compelling, and original. He seems to have an academic Midas touch: thinkers, concepts, and issues that are prosaic in other hands are transmuted to gold in his reading. Reflections of a Would-Be Anarchist is doubly remarkable, first for extending and supplementing the superbly original vision of liberalism in his previous book, Willful Liberalism, and second for capturing in print the tonal range-ironic, magnanimous, judicious, biting, quick, awed, jaded, sensible, and fiery-of not only Flathman's intellectual power but his astute political judgment.

Anne Norton, University of Pennsylvania

In this provocative work, Richard E. Flathman puts forward his idiosyncratic view of liberalism, one that is particularly concerned with putting freedom and individuality first, one that warns of the individualism-limiting potential of even liberal efforts to promote social justice. Focusing on the ideals he regards as appropriate to liberalism, Flathman analyzes repeated patterns and tendencies that influence societies—their sustaining institutions.

Part I (Ideals) elaborates and vigorously promotes a conception of the ideals appropriate to liberalism and liberal politics, a conception that foregrounds and celebrates individual self-making or self-enactment. Drawing on but critically assessing ideas and arguments from liberal thinkers from Locke and Kant through Mill, Berlin, and Rawls, the work also reaches out to sources usually regarded as not only outside of but actually antagonistic to liberal tradition: Hobbes, Nietzsche, William James, Proust, Ortega y Gasset, and Oakeshott.

Part II (Institutions) goes on to critically examine the relationship between these ideals and various institutions that are prominent in all liberal societies—the rule of law, police power, and institutionalized education. At once attracted and resistant to anarchist, antinomian, and active nihilist arguments, Flathman approaches these institutions in a skeptical and wary spirit influenced by such thinkers as Montaigne, Wittgenstein, Cavell, Derrida, and Foucault.

Reflections of a Would-Be Anarchist is a unique attempt to move liberal thought and action toward individuality and away from homogeneity, toward a chastening skepticism and away from unifying conceptions of rationality and reasonableness. It will be required reading for political, moral, and legal theorists, as well as anyone concerned with the challenges of sustaining and enlivening liberal thought and action.

Reflections of a Would-Be Anarchist

Richard E. Flathman is the George Armstrong Kelly Memorial Professor of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University. His numerous publications include Willful Liberalism (1989), The Philosophy and Politics of Freedom (1987), The Practice of Political Authority (1980), and Practice of Rights (1976).

Reflections of a Would-Be Anarchist

Reflections poses daunting challenges to liberals and antiliberals alike. It attempts to build a political theory that can answer the objections of the latter while challenging the verities of the former, that can be both institutional and democratic, that can pay proper attention both to common identities and individual differences.

Theory and Event

Richard Flathman is an extraordinary thinker-erudite, reflective, profound, compelling, and original. He seems to have an academic Midas touch: thinkers, concepts, and issues that are prosaic in other hands are transmuted to gold in his reading. Reflections of a Would-Be Anarchist is doubly remarkable, first for extending and supplementing the superbly original vision of liberalism in his previous book, Willful Liberalism, and second for capturing in print the tonal range-ironic, magnanimous, judicious, biting, quick, awed, jaded, sensible, and fiery-of not only Flathman's intellectual power but his astute political judgment.

Anne Norton, University of Pennsylvania

In this distillation of a lifetime’s theorizing, Richard Flathman advances a deeply deliberated and copiously learned interpretation of liberal thinking. It will be required reading for those interested in political theory or intellectual history, and it will stir the thoughts of anyone who is concerned with the fate of the liberal style of life.

John Gray, Oxford University