The dissertation of Hans Arentshorst contributes to a better understanding of the problems related to the realisation of freedom and democracy today. He argues that in order to better understand these problems, we should focus less on morality and ethics, as it has become common today, but once again give a central place to (political) history. Arentshorst will defend his PhD thesis at Utrecht University on Wednesday 27 June.
Struggles about the ideal of freedom
In today’s society we seem to be confronted with renewed struggles about the ideal of freedom. After decades of wide-spread belief in the benefits of globalisation, marketisation, open borders, and de-regulation, we are now facing a countermovement consisting of various forms of populism and nationalism that promise to restore borders, security and identity.
Problematic conceptions of freedom
Both movements seem to be informed by problematic conceptions of freedom: globalisation and marketisation are often accompanied by an ‘atomistic’ picture of society, whereby self-sufficient individuals compete in free markets, which neglects the social, political and cultural preconditions of individual freedom, and this can lead to feelings of social dissolution, powerlessness, and identity-crisis. Populists and nationalists try to fill this void by promising to restore collective autonomy, community and identity, but in doing this they de-legitimize pluralism and threaten the freedom of minorities.
Restoring the balance
The problematic pendulum swing between the two extremes of ‘atomism’ and ‘homogeneous unity’ raises the question if the pendulum can also be stopped somewhere in the middle in order to realize the ideals of individual and collective autonomy in a more balanced and less one-sided way.
Contemporary political philosophy
The dissertation tries to contribute to a better understanding of this problem by turning to the insights of contemporary political philosophy, a discipline that can be divided into three camps – a moral camp, a social-ethical camp and a political-historical camp. Whereas recent philosophical discussions about freedom have often focused on the relation between the moral and social-ethical camp, this dissertation is concerned with the relation between the social-ethical camp and the political-historical camp.
Rehabilitating the political-historical camp
After a historical reconstruction of the origins of these methodological differences, which traces the different ideas about freedom in the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the Romantic period, the dissertation concludes that today we need a rehabilitation of the political-historical camp and its methodological commitments if we want to understand the problems related to freedom today.