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Willful Liberalism.

The author argues for a refined understanding of the proper roles of voluntarism, individuality, and plurality in liberal political theory. Animated by the conviction that contemporary debates between liberals and communitarians are truncated artificially, Flathman aspires to transcend the false polarities of atomism versus holism.

The book is divided into two parts. In the first part, the author addresses issues related to individuality and plurality: "Let us take plurality to mean an abundant diversity of sub- or extrastate groups and associations, and let us call pluralism the doctrine that there is and/or should be such a miltiplicity" (p. 7). Here he interprets a host of Western thinkers, not all of whom are typically linked together in political theory: Hobbes, William James, Wittgenstein, and Michael Oakeshott. The commonality of such thinkers, in Flathman's view, does not lie in the similarity of their substantive normative conclusions, but instead in their importance for explicating notions essential to liberalism such as the meaning of individuality and self-enactment, and the possibility of mutual intelligibility among humans.

In the second part Flathman concentrates on voluntarism ("the [human] capability of developing desires and interests, objectives and purposes that are in some meaningful sense their own, of forming beliefs and intentions that are partially distinctive to themselves, and of making personal choices and taking actions on the basis of these" [p.124]) and the will. Here he interprets and associates and even more offbeat coterie of thinkers: Duns Scotus, William of Ockham, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Brian O'Shaughnessy, Hanna Arendt, and Augustine.

The author's general theme is that liberalism requires refinement to secure the paramount value of plurality and yet retain a strong notion of voluntarism. In explicating this theme, Flathman confronts and exposes numerous dichotomies which plague contemporary political debates among liberals, and between liberals and their communitarian critics. As evidenced by his choice of thinkers, the author fearlessly appropriates supporting ideas where he believes they will serve his purposes, without regard to traditional classifications and juxtapositions.

In several ways this book is unique. I find the book most interesting when Flathman is grappling with complex metaphysical and epistemological problems and when he is unraveling his sometimes novel interpretations of well-known philosophers. Surprisingly, this book may prove of greater interest to mainstream philosphers than to political theorists. The latter may tire of the author's lengthy discussions of voluntarism, will, and mutual intelligibility, and instead yearn for a clearer exposition of the practical implications of Flathman's refined liberalism.

This is a fine book whose author recognizes the impasses to which most contemporary political debates have led and the false polarities that often cripple theoretical insight. Although I am not convinced that the book will meet the (understandably) optimistic celebrations on its jacket ("to revive liberalism as the dominant public philosophy of our culture, setting it on a new and better course"), Willful Liberalism is indeed refreshing and instructive.
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Author:Belliotti, Raymond A.
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1993
Words:479
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