The contest between globalism and nationalism, seen in so many political contests today here and abroad, might be understood as one facet of a deeper problem: whether politics–and liberal politics specifically–is a fundamentally universal activity or instead one rooted in cultural and contingent particularities. Here is a very interesting new book by Middlebury College political theorist Keegan Callanan about Montesquieu’s thought, but with clear implications for the way in which we think about universalism and particularism in politics. Professor Callanan’s book is Montesquieu’s Liberalism and the Problem of Universal Politics (CUP).
Dubbed ‘the oracle’ by no less an authority than James Madison, Montesquieu stands as a theoretical founder of the liberal political tradition. But equally central to his project was his account of the relationship of law to each nation’s particular customs and place, a teaching that militates against universal political solutions. This teaching has sometimes been thought to stand in tension with his liberal constitutionalism. In this book, Keegan Callanan argues that Montesquieu’s political particularism and liberalism are complementary and mutually reinforcing parts of a coherent whole. In developing this argument, Callanan considers Montesquieu’s regime pluralism, psychological conception of liberty, approach to political reform, and account of ‘the customs of a free people’, including the complex interaction of religion and commerce. Callanan concludes that, by re-orienting our understanding of liberalism and redirecting our attention toward liberty’s distinctive preconditions, a return to Montesquieu’s political philosophy leaves us better prepared to confront liberal democracy’s contested claim to universality.