The current Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2002) opens its discussion of liberalism by stating that: “Liberalism can be understood as (1) a political tradition (2) a political philosophy and (3) a general philosophical theory, encompassing a theory of value, a conception of the person, and a moral theory, as well as a political philosophy.” It correctly points out that: “In England — in many ways the birthplace of liberalism — the liberal tradition in politics has centered on religious toleration, government by consent, personal and, especially, economic freedom.” The encyclopedia entry goes on to “examine liberalism [both] as a political theory and as a general philosophy.”
Like virtually all authorities today, it misses the third element of the topic, which is broad general culture. Liberal culture both subsumes the aforementioned disciplines of politics and philosophy, and is somewhat distinct from them. Such important cultural elements as the subjects of esthetics and spirituality aren’t treated by the encyclopedia entry.
The Stanford Encyclopedia first considers the subject of political science where it notes that “liberals accord liberty primacy as a political value. First, liberals have typically maintained that humans are naturally in ‘a State of perfect Freedom to order their Actions…as they think fit…without asking leave, or depending on the Will of any other Man’ (Locke, 1689).” And while individual freedom is certainly foremost to traditional and contemporary liberal political thinkers, “social contract theory, as developed by Thomas Hobbes (1651), John Locke (1689), etc…is usually viewed as liberal [as well].”
“For classical liberals liberty and private property are intimately related. From the eighteenth century right up to today, classical liberals have insisted that an economic system based on private property is uniquely consistent with individual liberty, allowing each to live her life — including employing her labor and her capital — as she sees fit. Indeed, classical liberals and libertarians have often asserted that in some way liberty and property are really the same thing; it has been argued, for example, that all rights, including liberty rights, are forms of property; others have maintained that property is itself a form of freedom.” So much for the entry’s treatment of politics.
The encyclopedia next considers philosophy: “Although liberalism is, first and foremost, a political philosophy, ‘liberal’ has come to be employed to describe a group of comprehensive philosophies, including a theories of ethics, value, the person and knowledge.” This belief-system includes a “moral ideal of human perfection and development.” Regarding individual values, there is “the basic liberal idea that people rationally follow very different ways of living,” and thus any valid philosophical/ethical system must account for this.
On the subject of liberal metaphysics, Stanford says “it is surely the case that, overwhelmingly, liberals do believe that individual persons are ontologically prior to social groups and relations and, so, persons and their identities are distinct, and that central to personhood is a capacity to choose among alternative ways of living.”
On the subject of epistemology, Stanford says: “On the face of it, it may seem odd to think of a distinctively liberal theory of knowledge, but liberalism has always been closely associated with the Enlightenment and its defense of reason…The rationalist [reasonist] camp is best represented by Voltaire and the philosophes in whom it takes the form not only of a defense of science but an attack on superstition, custom and, importantly, religion. Thus the secular and anti-religious character of much liberal thought. This sort of militant, confident, rationalism [reasonism] is, however, also associated with great confidence in the ability of humans to understand nature and control their social world.”
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on “liberalism” concludes by saying: “Liberalism is, first and foremost, a political theory, yet it seems dubious that it can be a purely political theory. While no liberal need embrace every element of the wider liberal philosophy — not every liberal must advance a liberal notion of the morally right, a liberal conception of value, a liberal epistemology and a liberal metaphysics of the person — it is hard to see how any liberal political theory can avoid all of these. To be sure, no necessary principles mandate how political philosophy links up to the rest of philosophy. But neither is it an entirely autonomous field; hence the ‘comprehensive’ nature of all liberal theories.”
This comprehensive nature includes, but is certainly not limited to, the two most dominant and impressive strains of current liberal theory: the politics of libertarianism and the philosophy of objectivism.