What Does the Word “Liberal” Mean?

The West is facing its most profound identity crisis since World War II. Events and movements like Brexit, President Donald Trump’s promotion of American nationalism, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s celebration of “illiberal democracy,” and Poland’s Euroskeptic Law and Justice Party have unsettled Western elites. This anxiety is compounded by threats from increasingly aggressive autocratic oligarchies in Russia and China. Furthermore, there’s been a recent spate of popular books heralding, and even celebrating, the end of liberalism, such as Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed (2018), Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option (2017), and Yoram Hazony’s The Virtue of Nationalism (2018).

These works, written from a broadly conservative viewpoint, have exposed a rift within American conservatism.  On the one hand, some conservatives defend a form of classical liberalism (what I and others have called Natural Law Liberalism; see here and here) exemplified in the principles of the American Founding, and regard modern liberalism (or progressivism) as a corruption of classical liberalism. On the other side of the conservative divide are the new anti-liberals, who reject liberalism tout court as a destabilizing, despotic, or even incoherent public philosophy.

Those who follow this debate will be interested in what historian Helena Rosenblatt of the City University of New York has to say on the subject. Rosenblatt’s The Lost History of Liberalism: From Ancient Rome to the Twenty-First Century, while ultimately disappointing, helps highlight the formidable challenge, if not impossibility, of settling on a single meaning of liberalism.

Multiple Definitions

When an ancient Roman heard the word “liberal” he thought of someone who possess the virtue of “liberality,” or generosity. When most Americans hear the word “liberal” they think of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. When most Europeans hear the word “liberal” they think of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Some scholars trace the roots of liberalism to Christianity, whereas others trace it to a “battle against Christianity,” to quote Rosenblatt (emphasis in original). This makes one wonder whether the word has any meaning at all.

According to the author, most scholars make the mistake of first defining liberalism and then recounting its history, but this “is to argue backward.” We human beings cannot, like Humpty Dumpty proposed, make words mean whatever we choose them to mean. “If we don’t pay attention to the actual use of the word,” Rosenblatt writes, “the actual histories we tell will inevitably be different and even conflicting. They will also be constructed with little grounding in historical fact and marred by historical anachronism.”

She points out, for example, that “the word ‘liberalism’ was not coined until the 19th century, and for hundreds of years prior to its birth, being liberal meant something very different.” For Rosenblatt, this means that the application of the concept to figures like John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, and Adam Smith is already problematic. Moreover, she usefully reminds her readers that many of the most prominent advocates of liberalism, although hostile to the ancien régime, were no friends of democratic government. The anti-democratic suspicions of most of the American Founders—not to mention more recent arguments like Jason Brennan’s Against Democracy (2016)—are at the service of liberal concerns.

So Rosenblatt proposes to determine the “meaning of liberalism” by attending to “how liberals defined themselves and what they meant when they spoke about liberalism. This is a story that has never been told.”

The story Rosenblatt tells is an engaging one, and her effort to pin down the meaning of liberalism with history is commendable. But her project ultimately founders against two obstacles, one formal, the other substantive.

Semantics and Social Realities

The formal problem is that the meaning of a word cannot be determined by history—or even by etymology—any more than it can be determined by ahistorical philosophy. As Rosenblatt herself indicates in the passage quoted above, meanings are determined by “actual use.” But the actual use of language, as F.A. Hayek often pointed out, is largely determined by rules which are (to use one of Hayek’s favorite lines from Adam Ferguson) “the result of human action but not of human design.” That is, although these rules are made by human beings, they not imposed a priori, but emerge spontaneously from the actions of individuals. Thus anachronisms can become idioms, so that just as a word like “Puritan” can be meaningfully applied to contemporary individuals and events, a word like “liberalism” can be meaningfully applied to earlier ones.

This semantic difficulty is compounded by the fact that the word “liberalism”—unlike, say, “tree”—has no objective, or extra-mental, referent to which we can point. It is what John Searle calls a “social reality,” whose meaning is constituted entirely by our intentional use of it.

The upshot is that although “liberalism” has a determinate range of meanings, the differences within that range can never be settled in an objective or impartial way. Within that range, the best we can do is make clear what we mean when we use the term.

The substantive problem is the bias Rosenblatt brings to her story of liberalism. Despite their pretenses to objectivity, histories are usually determined by a (usually unacknowledged) non-historical theoretical and evaluative framework that dictates which “facts” to highlight and how they should be ordered in relation to one another. Rosenblatt’s framework shows through in significant ways, of which I will highlight just two.

First, although she claims a purely academic interest in the meaning of liberalism (there is no mention in her book of the political developments with which I began this review), her tone reveals a more polemical purpose: to oppose a liberalism that affirms individualism, self-interest, and rights, and to promote a liberalism that affirms “duties, patriotism, self-sacrifice, [and] generosity to others.” This for Rosenblatt means downplaying the Anglo-American writers and thinkers, and highlighting the Continental ones.

Thus she writes: “The idea that liberalism is an Anglo-American tradition concerned primarily with the protection of individual rights and interests is a very recent development in the history of liberalism.” Again: “The truth is that France invented liberalism in the early years of the nineteenth century and Germany reconfigured it half a century later. America took possession of liberalism only in the early twentieth century, and only then did it become an American political tradition.” And once more: “At heart, most liberals are moralists. Their liberalism had nothing to do with the atomistic individualism we hear of today. They never spoke of rights without stressing duties.”

These are questionable assertions, both as history and as political advice. If she had read Paul A. Rahe’s Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift (2009), she would have traced the original sources of French liberalism to Anglo-liberalism through the singularly influential writings of the Baron de  Montesquieu, who, as if with Brexit on his mind, predicted that “in Europe the last sigh of liberty will be heaved by an Englishman.” (This quote is to be found in Rahe.) Surprisingly, Rosenblatt mentions Montesquieu only twice, and in passing reference.

She also would have seen how French liberals like Jean-Jacques Rousseau explicitly repudiated the Anglo model, with adverse consequences for French political history from the Revolution of 1789 to the present day. Rosenblatt relates much of that unfortunate 19th century history: the “brutal dechristianization campaign”; the Reign of Terror; the alternating cycles of mob violence and autocracy. Rahe puts it in larger perspective:

In the period since 1789, [France] has known five republics, two monarchies, two empires, and a dictatorship far more popular initially than anyone in postwar France was inclined to admit. Moreover, in this period, the French have lived under so many different constitutions—some say sixteen—that it is hard to keep count. Under each and every one of these regimes and constitutions, however, there has been one crucial element of continuity. Through thick and thin the administrative apparatus of the State has steadily grown in weight, in power, and scope. Today, more than one-quarter of those in the French laboring force work for the State, and the functionaries of that entity regulate daily life in minute detail.[1]

Yet this is the country we are to look to for a salubrious model of liberalism? It is strange that Rosenblatt focuses here, rather than following the French liberal Alexis de Tocqueville to the liberalism of England and America. There she could have found, alongside the promotion of individual and political liberty, a real, if more sober, endorsement of “duties, patriotism, self-sacrifice, [and] generosity to others.”

Liberalism’s Deepest Root

Secondly, there is the manner in which The Lost History of Liberalism addresses Christianity. Although Rosenblatt refers to “liberalism’s fraught relationship with religion” as “perhaps the most important issue of all,” and although she relates many of the historical conflicts between orthodox Christianity and liberalism, it is not clear she understands what is really at issue.

The author is keen to highlight continuities between liberalism and the ancient political tradition, which is where she hopes to ground a more ennobling, public-spirited version of it. Thus she strains to establish a conceptual and etymological link between liberalism and the classical moral virtue of “liberality” (liberalitas), which she describes as “the moral and magnanimous attitude that the ancients believed was essential to the cohesion and smooth functioning of a free society.” She also points out that “liberals saw themselves as fighting for the common good and continued to see this common good in moral terms.” But she completely overlooks the profound rupture Christianity makes in the ancient conception of politics and the common good, and the enormous task of coming to grips with that rupture. While she devotes pages to 19th century liberal Christianity, Rosenblatt never once mentions Francisco Suárez or the School of Salamanca, which speaks volumes about her blind spot on this subject.

Before Christianity, religion and politics were, even if differentiated into distinct spheres, integrated into a comprehensive unity of membership. In the ancient world, each city had its own gods and its own cult, and so blasphemy was also treason. Even the freest city, Athens, put Socrates to death for bringing strange gods into the city.

Christianity—a universal, transpolitical, comprehensive and salvific religion—fundamentally transforms the meaning of politics, citizenship, and the common good. After its arrival, political membership can no longer be the highest form of membership, and the common good of the polis can no longer be the most comprehensive common good. This does not mean that political life no longer has a common good; it only means that the political common good will be limited and instrumental to modes of human flourishing that are not themselves political. Civil society is largely the ramification of Christianity.

Arguably, this separation of religion from politics is the deepest root of liberalism, and it has taken two millennia of thought and action to work out what it means in practice, a work that is not yet finished. It is precisely this separation that bothered the French liberals whom Rosenblatt admires, and their animosity led to the “brutal dechristianization campaign” of which she speaks. Thus Rousseau writes in The Social Contract (1762):

By separating the theological system from the political system, [Christianity] brought about the end of the unity of the State, and caused the internal divisions that have never ceased to stir up Christian peoples . . . Everything that destroys social unity is worthless. All institutions that put man in contradiction with himself are worthless.

Remarkably, in this long history, the author never directly raises (much less answers) the question of the proper scope and limits of political power. But we ought not forget that, for most people, this is the question at liberalism’s heart. This vast gap renders the book’s appeals to duties, patriotism, and the common good empty and equivocal. Reading it to the very end, one still does not know what liberalism is.

The Lost History of Liberalism is a timely, ambitious work. While it cannot be completely blamed for failing to settle the true meaning of liberalism, it can be blamed for its Continental partiality. I share Helena Rosenblatt’s desire to ground a humane, non-individualistic form of liberalism; I only wish she would have looked more closely at the deep resources within her own Anglo-American tradition.

[1] Paul A. Rahe, Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocqueville, and the Modern Prospect (Yale University Press, 2009), pp. 230-231.

Reader Discussion

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on April 22, 2019 at 08:01:02 am

I think that this overstates the difference in transpolitical religious claims between ancient paganism and Christianity. Sophocles' Antigone is one of the greatest artistic works highlighting the tension between obedience to spiritual and temporal duties, yet was composed in a pagan context hundreds of years before the founding of Christianity.

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on April 22, 2019 at 10:29:06 am

it only means that the political common good will be limited and instrumental to modes of human flourishing that are not themselves political. . . .Arguably, this separation of religion from politics is the deepest root of liberalism, and it has taken two millennia of thought and action to work out what it means in practice, a work that is not yet finished.

Euphemism abounds here. The first clause is just an indirect way of saying "subordinated," and the "two millennia of thought and action" just another way of saying the Thirty Years' War (among other things). As for "separation of religion from politics," that, too, is bloodless. The real issue, and what has been working itself out for two millennia, is whether religion is to be freed from political mastery or politics freed from religious mastery. They cannot be two entirely independent co-equal branches of existence; one must always be subordinated to, and thus in service to, the other.

And I would also add that, insofar as the English roots of political liberalism are concerned, those roots lie in the period leading up to and including the English Civil War, where the political organization of religion was front and center, with the various participants falling along a spectrum from complete independence of church from state to an established church. The Calvinists did not exactly seek a total separation; rather, they demanded that the legislative power of the State butt out while desiring to appropriate the executive power of the State to enforce their liturgical decrees. At the beginning of this period possibly the most significant English political work was Hooker's Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. The title alone hardly suggests a separation of politics and religion.

Finally, on the subject of this separation, Adrian Vermeule's review at First Things of Ryszard Legutko's book argues (I think convincingly though I was convinced before I read the review) that current Anglo-American liberalism has once more united religion with politics and church with state. In fact, in the history of liberalism, if there ever really was a separation of religion from politics, its existence was evanescent like the moment a rock thrown upward is neither rising nor falling, the forces exactly balancing one another.

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on April 23, 2019 at 11:30:56 am

To QET: The charge that I resort to euphemism is inapt. While the word "separation" is unfortunate, given its association with the post-Everson court's misguided and unjustified appropriation of Thomas Jefferson's "wall of separation" into its first amendment jurisprudence, the word itself merely connotes a natural distinction of associations and authorities. And there is no reason why the acknowledgment of the trans-political good of religion requires the "subordination" of religion to political authority any more than the acknowledgment of marriage, rights or justice more generally does so. In Anglo-American liberal theory the "state" does not create these, it merely "ratifies" them, which is to say, it protects and promotes them. To say otherwise is merely to beg the entire question.

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Nathan Schlueter
on April 23, 2019 at 14:21:34 pm

I appreciate your taking the time to reply to my comment, thank you. But I don't understand your reply. You yourself argue that in a Christian milieu "political membership can no longer be the highest form of membership." What is that other than a statement that polis-specific political membership must be subordinated to membership in the universal community of Christian believers? Now there is a City of God set over the City of Man. The same people in the same place, only now in their political existence decidedly inferior to their godly existence. What is separated is not one man from another but two modes of existence of the same man. Civil society is a ramification of one of these aspects, you say; civil society is thus the earthly source of those rights our 18th century liberal Founders held it was the duty of politics to secure. So that, too, is a clear (to me, anyway) relation of subordination.

It would seem that liberalism began as a subordination of politics to Christian faith and evolved to become a subordination of the institutions of that faith (church) to the institutions of politics (state). Liberalism in the 19th - 21st centuries is thus at war with itself as it attempts simultaneously to maintain both relations. ("Liberals" in the modern US meaning of that word have resolved that paradox by making the state their faith and their church).

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on April 24, 2019 at 07:32:34 am

The Americans followed Milton and Owen (enhanced through Gill and Edwards) complemented by Rutherfurd (Lex Rex) in their 'individualism' which, far from shelving morality, enhanced and broadened it to a popular dimension without the vice of ecclesiasticism and its sanctimonious intervention, the personal religious aspiration expanded and distilled to political expression in wholesome separation. Truth trumps perspectivism, Merleau Ponty et al notwithstanding. And the tried and tested method of establishing fact in our law (assuming adequate memory which was religiously encouraged before the literacy, having since been devalued in the Shestovian 'Parmenides in chains') ensures a foundation from which one may tell the story, which fixes the meaning of 'liberalism', even after weathering the gyrations of current and subsequent obfuscation, confusion and guile which plague all significant matters bearing on the exercise of power, principality, might and dominion in the history of freedom, political no less than religious. Back to the old path.

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on April 24, 2019 at 10:35:42 am

These are good questions. You state this well: “What is separated is not one man from another but two modes of existence of the same man.” These cannot be strict separations without distorting the very meaning of faith. The issue turns on how exactly one’s membership in the comprehensive Body of Christ, the Church, comprehends one’s other memberships (sports, family, work, etc.). I think the governing principles are (1) that (in the words of St. Thomas) “grace does not destroy nature but builds on it and perfects it”; and (2) the activity of the Church is not identical to ecclesiastical authority. These two principles are the root of subsidiarity, which acknowledges the “legitimate autonomy” of earthly realities, including both family and the political association. Grace can (and should) permeate and sanctify these realities through the activity of believers, but it can do this without subordinating them to ecclesiastical authority, or making them mere instruments of the Church’s mission. There is no such thing as “Christian math,” just math done by Christians in Christian. Just so for politics. The whole task is determining what are the proper ends of political authority. There’s much, much more to be said on this, of course. But that would turn into a book…

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Nathan Schlueter
on April 26, 2019 at 12:37:13 pm

As definitions are, at least for non-Aristotelians, never complete, the presented critique of this book is rather tame. In that spirit one might also point out that Rosenblatt seems unaware of the very interesting and substantial contribution of Herder to liberalism. However, the main reason why this book is unlikely to contribute to any future debate on liberalism is because it is an unconvincing attempt to rehabilitate liberalism by presenting a simplistic story of 'good' (democratic/progressive/misunderstood/unlucky) liberals versus 'evil' aristocrats, laissez-faire liberals and (conservative) Catholics. In particular, there are no traces of any efforts to understand the motives of liberalism's opponents; what happened to curiosity is the beginning of wisdom?

This intention is particularly evident in the first and second chapters, where on page 38 Burke, and with him conservatism, is simply smeared; compare in particular this treatment of Burke with that of the 'great liberal' Lord Acton; from this book you would never learn his important sympathies for both the Confederation and slavery; even after the abolition of slavery in the UK! Moreover, Rosenblatt does not in the least try to give some insight why Burke's critique of the French Revolution was successful in delaying (in the UK) the advance of democratic/modern liberalism by a couple of decades. Why no curiosity? Especially because through his writings real insight into the difference between modern liberalism and classical liberalism can be found. For those interested, Lecky's 'Democracy and Liberalism', though theoretically rather weak, also documents this transition/surrender. Additionally, it contains some interesting observations on Gladstone (one of Rosenblatt's liberal heroes) and is kindly made available by Liberty Fund.

On the other hand, Thomas Paine is made the hero in these early chapters, because he thought it more important that the founding principles of a nation are liberal than that individuals are so, see page 47; something with which at least Robespierre could whole-heartedly agree! This preference of principles over people is further reflected in Rosenblatt's questionable assertion on page 65 that Constant's ''The Principles of Politics applicable to all Governments' is now rightly celebrated as a founding text of liberalism'. Despite having written another book on Constant and Constant being one of the main heroes of this book, it seems she never got round reading it. Because in this book Constant advocates for a very laissez-faire approach to existence with (political) privileges for (landed) property!; something that she precisely tries otherwise to dissociate Liberalism from!

What the reader of 'The lost history of liberalism' will unfortunately also not learn is Constant's more important contribution to history: His theory that modern politics/civilization has nothing in common with ancient politics/civilization. In particular that for the ancients liberty was a public concept while for the moderns liberty will be a private concept. This was Constant's attempt at an explanation for the failure of the French Revolution and particularly aimed against the admiration of the (too severe morality of the) ancients as expressed by Rousseau. This idea one might have expected to feature centrally in a book devoted to the history of liberalism!

In any case, one probably needs to wait a long time for a definition of liberalism. Lord Acton, despite his broad knowledge (though rather dogmatic and narrow worldview), worked his whole life towards writing a history of liberalism and failed! As both this book and also for instance books by Scheler and Bauman indicate, one, if not the best, reason for this is that liberalism is more characterized by what it is against than what it is in favor of.

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on April 26, 2019 at 15:49:57 pm

Well said. Apropos your last sentence, I find this characterization's peak in Hobhouse's book Liberalism, which urges liberalism as social solvent, its purpose and glory being to "liberate" people from every real social relationship on the principle that all social relations other than the unmediated man-State relation are per se illiberal.

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on April 27, 2019 at 10:03:31 am

Thank you for the reference. I have encountered his name before, but didn't find a sufficient reason to buy his book; the fact that he is said to have played a key role in establishing sociology as an academic discipline in England (per wikipedia) rather deterred me. As you summarize his book, the always interesting Rousseau comes immediately to mind. In particular, it strikes me that after the disaster of Rousseau's attempt to do away with inter-personal dependence (the Stoic ideal) in favour of a 'freely' accepted (Adam Smith's ideal) collective cooperation by 'temporary' violence (Robespierre; cf. Mackintosh's Vindiciae Gallicae), the same ideal should be championed again. Would I be wrong in guessing that Hobhouse does not advocate to 'force people to be free', but instead wants to 'bribe people to be free'? That would be more the modern liberal spirit.

Furthermore, I could not help but notice your remarks on (the lack of) the separation of politics and religion in connection with a review of Legutko; another author, who despite his direct experience of the collapse of Communism, promises far more in his book than he delivers. Apart from the ideal of inter-personal independence ('autonomy'/no popery) and its, pace Aristotle, necessary collectivism, what would you say to be the positive contents of this political-religion? Even more so, with the destruction of intermediate structures by liberalism should not religion itself also automatically have to be intensely personal and/or collectivist?

For the record, I agree with Molnar in his 'The decline of the intellectual' that liberalism has in the Western world been successful, probably far too successful, in its achieving its aims: prosperity and peace. However, it has achieved this at the cost of lowering man's self-understanding: Liberalism is the philosophy of the lowest common denominator (hence its hatred for aristocracy). Thus I would rather argue that the problem with liberalism is that it has been too long on a 'moral holiday' (W. James): It has parasitically used up accumulated cultural capital (traditions, trust, etc.) and left us museums.

Finally, if you want to read an interesting modern critique of the connection between politics and religion you might want to check out K. Minogue's 'The Servile Mind'. Note that Liberty Fund has made his earlier and different, but certain interesting, 'The Liberal Mind' (online) available.

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on April 29, 2019 at 14:25:56 pm

Thank you for the Molnar reference. I had never heard of him. Now I have another book to add to a list that only ever seems to grow.

I can't answer your Hobhouse question at the moment. My recollection, though, is that his brand of liberalism is of the "force people to be free" type. The essence of Hobhouse's liberalism I take to be these lines which I quoted in comment to another L&L article earlier this year: It [i.e., liberalism] finds humanity oppressed, and would set it free. . . .Everywhere it is removing superincumbent weights, knocking off fetters, clearing away obstructions. . . .a movement of liberation.

On politics and religion (and I have not yet read Legutko's book; it too is on the infinite list), I would say that the positive contents of today's Left-liberalism are a farrago of moral shards from exploded Christianity, along the lines suggested by Nietzsche: Those who have abandoned God cling that much more firmly to faith in morality. . . .[T]he more emancipated one is from theology, the more imperativistic morality becomes. . . .Residues of Christian value judgments are found everywhere in socialistic and positivistic systems.

To me, nowhere is this more evident than in the fetish for "recognition" and love that drives the politics of today's progressives, as discussed in the recent L&L articles on Fukuyama's new book and Adam Smith's old one. The God of Christianity recognized each individual's worth and loved each individual, each and every one of us--fat or thin, able or disabled, man or woman, black or white, American urban dweller and African villager; not a sparrow falls without my Father. Now God is dead but the need remains, with only "society" as the quasi-transcendental being available to fill it, which it can't absent the kind of communal omniscience that social media now makes possible. In 1880 Nietzsche was right to exclaim: Naivete: as if morality could survive when the God who sanctions it is missing! Today, social media is in the process of giving vox populi, vox Dei a literal meaning unknown to prior generations (and it so happens I am now reading The Servile Mind; not far into it yet, but was struck with his statement in the intro that we live in a surveillance society. That was in 2010, which seems a golden age of privacy compared to just 9 years later).

Before liberalism, the Reformation destroyed the "intermediate structures" of Christian religion. The alternative of intense personalism was of course Kierkegaard's project. The Hegelian State was a thinly disguised Catholic Church, with Progressives as its Jesuits. Today, in what might be thought of as Reformation 2.0, the First Great Awokening, with "Intersectionality" in place of "Protestant," diverse sects promulgate their own doctrines but demand the State enforce their public observance. Sola victima is the 6th sola. Some closely resemble Calvinists with their own doctrine of predestination.

But that's getting carried away. I wholly agree with the propositions you attribute to Molnar. The ultimate problem with liberalism is that it is incompatible with any real conviction or commitment, even to itself (Epimenides' paradox).

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on August 19, 2019 at 05:35:48 am

Sometimes the word was lost in translation or in the context it was used. 'Liberal' is 'liberal' which means it has the characteristics of a living word/concept, and it will be reinvented at every new mainstream of social engineering which involves promoting freedom and equality.

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Stefan Neagu
on November 12, 2019 at 10:59:17 am

It's easy to feel lost in information today, but “big data” can also help us understand the formulations we use in interpreting information, including politics. Google has scanned millions of books published over centuries. Can billions upon billions of words in digital form help us understand our history and character?

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