The Semantic Revolution
by Daniel B. Klein
Pedaling my exercise bicycle is made tolerable by watching history lectures from The Teaching Company’s Great Courses. Today I watched part of a course on the French Revolution and Napoleon.
Throughout the course, the professor, Professor Suzanne Desan of University of Wisconsin, tended to use left-leaning formulations. The final lecture treated the 19th century aftermath to Napoleon. In speaking of the revolutions of 1848 in France and many other European countries, she spoke repeatedly of the “liberal” revolutions of 1848.
I accept that a historian today might use “liberal” to describe people and causes that did not call themselves liberal. Our discourse is undertaken today, not in the historical past. We speak to people today. It is natural that we project our own semantic practice back into history. Everyone does it.
The word liberal took on a political meaning for the first time in the 1770s. Liberalism 1.0 had arrived. I use the word liberal in that original sense—classical liberalism. Erik Matson explains how the original political meaning built on pre-political meanings of liberal.
Nonetheless, when referring to pre-1770 figures such as Montaigne, Grotius, or Locke, I might speak of their liberal political tendency, even though they didn’t use “liberal” that way.
Still, as I pedaled my bicycle and watched the lecture, I wondered whether any of the 1848 revolutionaries in fact called themselves “liberal.”
After my shower I went to my computer and clicked my Google Ngram Viewer bookmark. At the page I set the chart for 1848 to 2019, and entered the 4-gram liberal revolutions of 1848. Here’s the chart:
Had the revolutionaries of 1848 called themselves liberals, or said that they stood for liberalism, it would not have taken until the 1930s for someone to describe those revolutions as “liberal.” The chart proves that the revolutionaries of 1848 did not call themselves liberal. No one thought to call them liberal for about 80 years.
The chart shows that as the word liberal took on a new sense historians began to identify the revolutions of 1848 as “liberal.”
The term “liberal” started to change meaning when the Liberal Party in Britain began to change its character, from about 1880. The change was part of the collapse of classical liberalism and of a broader semantic revolution. The new generation was raised up against classical liberalism.
People favorable to the governmentalization of social affairs declared a New Liberalism. The changes led people to distinguish between “old liberalism” and “new liberalism,” as shown in the following Ngram chart. (In the chart, “old liberalism” is multiplied by 3, to show how it tracks “new liberalism.”)
In the United States, semantics started to change too, but the semantic change to liberal really picked up in the 1930s under Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The semantic revolution was also projected back on the French Revolution of 1789, as shown by the following chart of the 5-gram “liberalism of the French Revolution.”
Look at how talk of “liberalism of the French Revolution” shot up during the 1930s.
We make our own semantic decisions, and they reflect our ideology. If a historian were to speak of the “liberalism of the Bolshevik Revolution,” my beef wouldn’t be that he didn’t study the Bolsheviks carefully enough. It would be a broader beef about how he uses “liberal.” Our decisions on semantics express broader moral and political sensibilities.
In my semantics, the revolutions of 1848 were not liberal. Nor, overall, was the revolution of 1789. As Edmund Burke put it in 1790: “Their liberty is not liberal.”
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