POL36130 Liberalism & its Critics

Academic Year 2023/2024

The following course provides a historical overview of the intellectual development of the liberal tradition from the origins of classical liberalism in the 18th century to contemporary developments. The course focuses particularly on building an understanding both of the diversity inherent in the development of liberal thought by a variety of thinkers, and of the progressive evolution of the liberal cannon through its interactions with other intellectual traditions.

Throughout the course, liberal thinkers are systematically placed in contrast to the arguments of critics from within and without the tradition. This includes placing liberal thought in contrast to that of figures from the anarchist, conservative, Marxist, social justice, socialist, radical democratic and environmentalist traditions. That critical comparison then allows for a reflection upon core themes around the value of individual liberty, democratic governance and free market society. These issues are to be contextualised at each stage against the backdrop of the significant events and upheavals of successive centuries since the Enlightenment period.

Figures engaged with include: Immanuel Kant, Adam Smith, Benjamin Constant, Peter Kropotkin, Alexis de Tocqueville, Edmund Burke, J.S. Mill, Jeremy Bentham, Karl Marx, Fukuzawa Yukichi, Vladimir Lenin, Ludwig von Mises, John Meynard Keynes, John Dewey, Friedrich Hayek, John Rawls, Charles Mills, Jürgen Habermas, G.A Cohen, Joseph Raz, Chantal Mouffe, Milton Friedman, and Kate Raworth.

This module will be taught by a PhD student, Benjamin Swift.

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Curricular information is subject to change

Learning Outcomes:

On the completion of this module, students will be able to:
• read and critically engage with historical and contemporary political theory texts, produced by a variety of liberal thinkers and their critics.
• summarize and explain the central positions of various liberal thinkers in relation to liberty, politics and political economy. This while also being able to contextualise those positions and their supporting arguments by reference to critics from within alternative political and philosophical ideational frameworks.
• Critically assess and write about the concept of political liberty, of the evolving nature of the links between liberalism and democracy and the role of the market economy within different strands of liberal thought.
• Develop and defend their own arguments informed by their reading, the lectures and the seminar discussions, with each session focussed upon the consideration of a given figure within the liberal intellectual traditions and their associated critic.
• develop and defend their own arguments in the form of a clearly structured normative political theory essay by reference to different ideological and philosophical traditions of thought.

Student Effort Hours: 
Student Effort Type Hours


Autonomous Student Learning




Approaches to Teaching and Learning:
Teaching and learning activities will require students to critically engage with historical and contemporary theoretical arguments on themes of individual liberty, democratic government and political economy. On a weekly basis, the material will be delivered through one lecture-based class and one seminar-based class.

Within the course of class discussions, students will deliberate and examine the different descriptive, conceptual and normative claims of different thinkers. This allows them to build their understanding of the substance of a variety of arguments, potential critical perspectives of said arguments and construct their own perspectives on these issues.

Students will ultimately be required to apply that learning within the end-of-term written assignment, selecting from a set of questions, in the form of an end-of-term essay. The mid-term essay preparation assessment will then serve to prepare students for this final assessment by requiring them to consider the question they wish to respond to, demonstrate understanding of the relevant course content and literature and begin thinking about the structure of their essay.

Concerning course engagement expectations, students will be asked to demonstrate comprehensive preparation throughout the course, including by reading the core texts ahead of classes, completing the continuous assessment assignments, participating in discussion as well as allocating sufficient time and self-motivated research to complete the course’s assignments. 
Requirements, Exclusions and Recommendations
Learning Recommendations:

Students intending to take this module should already have successfully completed Level one and two modules in Political Theory: INRL10010 Foundations of Political Theory and IR and POL20010 Individuals and the State, or equivalent.

Module Requisites and Incompatibles
Not applicable to this module.
Assessment Strategy  
Description Timing Open Book Exam Component Scale Must Pass Component % of Final Grade
Continuous Assessment: Students must submit a 150-200 word response on a weekly-basis Throughout the Trimester n/a Graded No


Assignment: Mid-term essay preparation form – Students must respond in concise form to a collection of pre-set questions. Unspecified n/a Graded No


Essay: Students must submit a 2500-word essay to be handed in at the end of the term Coursework (End of Trimester) n/a Graded No


Carry forward of passed components
Resit In Terminal Exam
Summer No
Please see Student Jargon Buster for more information about remediation types and timing. 
Feedback Strategy/Strategies

• Feedback individually to students, post-assessment
• Group/class feedback, post-assessment

How will my Feedback be Delivered?

Feedback provided individually to students following submission of the mid-term essay preparation form and the end-of-term essay. Feedback provided collectively at the mid-term point by outlining informative general trends found in the mid-term essay preparation form assessment. Further feedback can then be provided through office hours if required by the student.

Name Role
Benjamin Swift Lecturer / Co-Lecturer
Timetabling information is displayed only for guidance purposes, relates to the current Academic Year only and is subject to change.
Lecture Offering 1 Week(s) - 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33 Fri 10:00 - 10:50
Lecture Offering 1 Week(s) - 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33 Wed 10:00 - 10:50