Visiting Speaker Series: Rebecca West and the Antinomies of Liberalism

The Department of English Language & Literatures Visiting Speakers Series presents

Rebecca West and the Antinomies of Liberalism

by Peter Baehr (Lingnan University, Hong Kong)
Friday, November 30, 3:00 pm – 4:00 pm, BuTo 323

Over a life that traversed two centuries and seventy-one years of literary production, Rebecca West (1892-1983) is most often recalled for her novels, short stories, and travelogues (on the Balkans and Mexico). West was also a political writer of astonishing verve. Her work refigured a variety of traditions: socialism, feminism, anarchism and, the subject of this talk, liberalism. West’s liberalism pivots on a series of oppositions – between liberty and cruelty, maturity and infantilism, pleasure and atonement, honesty and wishful thinking. This talks approaches West’s liberal credo not as an abstract philosophy, such as we find in writers such as John Rawls and Martha Nussbaum, but as a set of political ideas forged in oppositional encounters with individuals, social movements, and currents of thought, she considered fatal to a free society.


Another chance to hear Peter Baehr talk during this visit:

The Unmasking Temptation: A Critique
Thursday, November 29, 11:00 am-12:20 pm, AnSo 2107

This talk examines a destructive, though common, form of social criticism. I call it unmasking. Unmasking is not the same as scientific refutation or principled disagreement. When people unmask they claim to rip off a disguise, revealing the true beneath the feigned or imaginary. Two kinds of unmasking are prominent in western societies. The first, aimed at persons or groups, exposes enmity and hypocrisy. The second, aimed at ideas, exposes illusions and ideologies.

This talk describes the techniques of unmasking practiced by intellectuals and revolutionary social movements. It contrasts the peculiarities of unmasking in vernacular and academic contexts. And it discusses the contribution of sociology to unmasking. The talk will suggest that unmasking is a style of thought harmful both to political argument and to sociological theory. It should and can be avoided.


PETER BAEHR is Research Professor of Social Theory at Lingnan University, Hong Kong. His books include Against Unmasking: Social Theory and the Politics of Exposure (Routledge, 2019) and Hannah Arendt, Totalitarianism, and the Social Sciences (Stanford University Press, 2010).

Co-sponsored by the Department of English Language & Literatures and the Department of Sociology

Visiting Speaker Series 2018-2019