Private Lives and Public Affairs

Onora O’Neill

  • Public and Private in Social Life edited by S.I. Benn and G.F. Gaus
    Croom Helm, 412 pp, £19.95, July 1983, ISBN 0 7099 0668 4
  • Public Man, Private Woman by Jean Bethke Elshtain
    Martin Robertson, 376 pp, £22.50, February 1982, ISBN 0 85520 470 2
  • Women’s Choices: Philosophical Problems facing Feminism by Mary Midgley and Judith Hughes
    Weidenfeld, 242 pp, £12.95, September 1983, ISBN 0 297 78221 5

Liberal thinkers are keen on self-criticism, a necessary discipline for those who don’t accept intellectual authority. But it can have embarrassing moments, when too much is stripped away and exposed. Most of the essays in Public and Private in Social Life explore aspects of ‘the familiar liberal conception of public and private’; three are ‘external’ critiques of liberal thought, and three describe related distinctions drawn in distant cultures. Nearly all the essays are thoughtful and tough-minded; and many have interesting things to say: but in spite of the underlying commitment to liberalism there is no point at which criticism and self-exposure are compensated for. We are left to wonder whether there is any coherent way in which liberal thought can distinguish the public from the private.

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