How to Read James Fitzjames Stephen: Technocracy and Pluralism in a Misunderstood Victorian
By Gregory Conti, Princeton University
This paper offers a new reading of the political thought of the mid-Victorian jurist and intellectual James Fitzjames Stephen. Contrary to impressions of Stephen as a conservative or religious authoritarian, this article recognizes the liberal character of Stephen’s thought, and it argues that investigating Stephen’s liberalism holds lessons for us today about the structure of liberal theory. Stephen, the paper demonstrates, articulated robustly both technocratic and pluralistic visions of politics. Perhaps more stridently than any Victorian, he put forward an argument for the necessity and legitimacy of expert rule against claims for popular government. Yet he also insisted on the plurality of perspectives on public affairs and on the ineluctable conflict between them. Because both of these facets existed in his work, he fit within the liberal ranks, but he did not show how the two dimensions fit together. The tension that we discover from reading Stephen is, the article concludes, not peculiar to him, but a permanent feature of liberal theories, which always include both technocratic and pluralistic elements.