Freedom and Culture in Western Society


Everyone knows what freedom means. Until you ask him or her what this meaning is. In Western liberal democracies everyone also knows that the citizens in these political systems enjoy maximum freedom. Until you ask them to justify this conviction. Freedom has become a dogma. This value forms the basis of our civilization and of our political consciousness, but often we have forgotten its meaning and justification. Also, in our world it is considered so evident that citizens are free that enlargement of their freedom is seen as superfluous. We regard a policy to this end as a threat to, rather than as a stimulus of, this value.

In this book, the significance and value which the concept of freedom could have in our society is analyzed. Also studied is how political communities could enlarge the capacity of their citizens to be master of their own lives, without unacceptable interference in their private realm. Because being able to participate in culture is regarded as one of the important conditions for individual freedom, in this context particular attention is devoted to the opportunities and boundaries of a cultural policy.

In books the discussions are generally on various theoretical levels. So too in this book. On the most concrete level, its thesis is that in present-day Western liberal democracies there is great social inequality in the ability to acquire and exercise freedom and that the opportunities offered by these political systems for developing this value, are insufficiently exploited.

On a higher theoretical level, the book tries to demonstrate that it is possible (although we will never arrive at an `objective' or `universal' conclusion) to have a reasonable and rational discussion on normative issues in which `essentially contested concepts' like freedom, autonomy, emancipation, paternalism or cultural participation play a pivotal role. Hence, a central purpose of the book is to counter relativism, a relativism which, under the influence of behaviourism and postmodernism, has become exceptionally strong in contemporary social and political science and in our society.

The book does not only deal with the question of what we can know about the meaning of con­cepts like freedom or auton­omy, but also of what we can do. In this case, it is not just tried to develop a plausible conception of freedom, the practical question is also addressed how politi­cal commun­ities could enlarge the capacity of their citizens to be master of their own lives. In this manner it is attempted to bridge the gap between social and political philos­ophy on the one hand, and empirical social and political science on the other. Generally, both disciplin­ary streams do hardly ever meet. As a conse­quence, the results are often either norma­tive the­ories without practical mean­ing or empirical theories with­out depth and direc­tion.


This book already has a long history. I started to write in the summer of 1987 and completed a first manuscript in the autumn of 1990. This was published by EBURON under the title Vrijheid Autonomie Emancipatie: Een Politiekfilosofische en Cultuurpolitieke Beschouwing (Freedom Autonomy Emancipation: A Politico-Philosophical and -Cultural Analysis). For this I received my doctorate in early 1991 at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam. My mentor was professor J.M.M. de Valk. He is the first who I would like to thank here for the moral and intellectual support which I received from him during these years.

I was also surprised by the positive reception accorded my book by the media and my colleagues, from whom, after all, I had distanced myself somewhat. It was awarded the Pieter de la Court prize by the Royal Netherlands Academy of the Arts and Sciences and the political science prize 1992 by the Netherlands Political Science Associati­on. However, most important in this context was that the Netherlands National Science Foundation and the Trustfonds of the Erasmus University awarded a subsidy to make an English translation of the thesis.

For this translation I decided to rewrite and expand the book on a number of important points. The literature had to be updated and I wanted to supplement the empirical data, which originally applied mainly to the Dutch situation, with material from the United States, Great Britain, France and Sweden. The book has ultimately been completely revised and because of the many changes and adjustments it was decided to publish it under a new title.

In the revision too I have been supported by a number of people. I want to mention here two by name. In the first place, thanks are due to the late professor Mark van de Vall, with whom I was able to collabo­rate in the last years of his life. His boundless passion for the science as well as his great capacity for friendship contributed enormously to the success of this underta­king, and secured for years my faith in the possibility of an academic community. In the second place I thank Talja Potters, who checked the text of large sections of the book and has also contributed in many other ways, which cannot be adequately described in this context, to its completion. I dedicate this book to her and Mark.



                                                                                                    Hans Blokland

                                                                                Rotterdam, December 1995