Shklar, Judith 1928-1992
Judith Nisse Shklar was Cowles Professor of Government at Harvard University and one of the most influential political theorists of the late twentieth century. Though her studies were wide-ranging in focus, her work centered on the problems of cruelty, exclusion, oppression, and fear in liberalism.
Born in Riga, Latvia, to Jewish parents, Shklar was still fairly young when her family fled Europe to avoid Nazi persecution. Perhaps accordingly, her first major work, After Utopia: The Decline of Political Faith (1957), wrestles with the intellectual legacy of twentieth-century totalitarianism. In a time when the political application of comprehensive ideologies has led to so much horror, is there any future for the discipline of political theory? Shklar found it unlikely that its future would look like its past; political theory had little chance of returning to the high levels of hope and optimism that had once marked it, particularly during the Enlightenment. In this postfanatical age, she argued, political philosophers would do best to take up the gauntlet of intellectual history and avoid future entanglements with “-isms.” Shklar thus articulated an argument that would mark her career: Philosophy needs to separate and extricate itself from ideology.
Shklar herself found much to defend in classical liberalism, which she described in her seminal essay “The Liberalism of Fear” as resting on the proposition that “every adult should be able to make as many effective decisions without fear or favor about as many aspects of her or his life as is compatible with the freedom of every other adult.” For Shklar, unlike others who find more aspiration in the liberal framework, liberalism has no positive, moral aim outside this basic commitment to political and social freedom.
In that sense, Shklar’s liberalism rests upon a pessimistic or skeptical sensibility. Her version of liberalism does not aim for the best; rather, it is concerned with averting the worst. And the worst, for Shklar, is the kind of partisan injustice and cruelty that might also be called political evil.
Shklar’s dedication to this kind of “barebones liberalism,” as she called it in her second and favorite book, Legalism: Law, Morals, and Political Trials (1964), is evident throughout her corpus. Even in her treatments of individual thinkers—she composed full-length books on the political theories of Georg Hegel, Montesquieu, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau—Shklar remained invested in supporting liberalism but divesting it of any perfectionist associations.
Any account of Shklar’s life and works would be remiss not to mention that she was one of the first women to achieve success in the field of political philosophy— and, in fact, the first woman to serve as president of the American Political Science Association. Though Shklar acknowledged that her career, especially in its earliest days, had been made more difficult by the pervasive sexism of the age, she resisted being classified as what she called a “real feminist.” To identify herself with a collective ideology, she argued, would be to undermine her own intellectual project.
SEE ALSO American Political Science Association; Enlightenment; Freedom; Holocaust, The; Law; Liberalism; Nazism; Political Theory; Sexism; Social Exclusion; Totalitarianism
Shklar, Judith N. 1957. After Utopia: The Decline of Political Faith. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Shklar, Judith N. 1964. Legalism: Law, Morals, and Political Trials. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006.
Shklar, Judith N. 1989. The Liberalism of Fear. In Liberalism and the Moral Life, ed. Nancy L. Rosenblum, 21-38. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Shklar, Judith N. 1998. Political Thought and Political Thinkers, ed. Stanley Hoffman. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Susan J. McWilliams