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Hardcover | $37.00 Short | £30.95 | 216 pp. | 6 x 9 in | February 2015 | ISBN: 9780262028790
eBook | $26.00 Short | February 2015 | ISBN: 9780262327541
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Liberalism in Practice

The Psychology and Pedagogy of Public Reason


At the core of liberal theory is the idea—found in thinkers from Hobbes to Rawls—that the consent of the governed is key to establishing political legitimacy. But in a diverse liberal polity like the United States, disagreement runs deep, and a segment of the population will simply regard the regime as illegitimate. In Liberalism in Practice, Olivia Newman argues that if citizens were to approach politics in the spirit of public reason, couching arguments in terms that others can reasonably accept, institutional and political legitimacy would be enhanced.

Liberal theory has relied on the assumption of a unified self, that individuals are unified around a single set of goals, beliefs, attitudes, and aptitudes. Drawing on empirical findings in psychology, Newman argues instead that we are complex creatures whose dispositions and traits develop differently in different domains; we hold different moral commitments in different parts of our lives. She argues further that this domain differentiation allows us to be good liberal citizens in the public domain while remaining true to private commitments and beliefs in other domains. Newman proposes that educational and institutional arrangements can use this capacity for differentiation to teach public reason without overwhelming conflicting commitments. The psychology and pedagogy of public reason proposed by Newman move beyond John Rawls’s strictly political liberalism toward what Newman terms practical liberalism. Although we cannot resolve every philosophical problem bedeviling theories of liberalism, we can enjoy the myriad benefits of liberalism in practice.

About the Author

Olivia Newman is a Lecturer on the Committee on Degrees in Social Studies at Harvard University.


“In Liberalism in Practice, Olivia Newman advances a theory of the self that opens whole new vistas for political theory, offers welcome reasons to be optimistic about liberalism, and suggests important implications for education. It is a model of empirically informed theory that matters.”
Peter Levine, Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship & Public Affairs, Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service, Tufts University
Liberalism in Practice is a game-changer. It unites first-rate political theorizing, cutting-edge psychology, and educational insight in service of a novel ‘pedagogy of public reason.’ Newman’s clear demonstration about how citizens learn to distinguish their political commitments from religious, cultural, and moral commitments in other domains of their lives breaks important new ground in establishing a plausible and appealing contemporary psychology for liberal political theory, education, and practice.”
Meira Levinson, Associate Professor of Education, Harvard University; author of No Citizen Left Behind; coeditor of Making Civics Count
“Newman offers an answer to a question that bedevils many liberals: how is it that there can be legitimacy in pluralist democracies? She argues that we can and do often hold contending beliefs in different domains of our lives. This takes us a long way toward defending the possibility of legitimacy in pluralistic democracies. This book points us in the right direction—to take us beyond the limits of current debates.”
James Bohman, Danforth Professor of Philosophy, Saint Louis University