Two Concepts of Liberty
The idea of freedom is something that is generally praised by everyone, yet it is also very abstract and highly contentious, where there is little agreement about the meaning and conditions of freedom (Baum & Nichols, 2013). Isaiah Berlin’s (1958) essay, Two Concepts of Liberty, is an attempt to bring clarification to the term freedom by dividing it into two separate and distinct forms of freedom, negative liberty, and positive liberty. His essay formed part of a revival in the interest of political theory and is still one of the most influential writings in the field, and despite having criticism, is widely considered a valuable starting point for discussing the concept of freedom (Hardy et al., 2020). This review aims to summarise the main arguments of Berlin’s (1958) essay and provide an analysis of his conclusions.
Berlin (1958) begins his essay by speaking about the importance of disagreement, and stating that without it, political theory may have never been conceived. He then goes on to speak about how political theory has the power to overturn civilizations, and that the central questions of politics are about obedience and what is an acceptable amount of coercion. This is where the concepts of negative liberty and positive liberty become crucial topics to discuss. It’s important to note that Berlin uses the terms liberty and freedom as synonyms, and as such, they have been used as synonyms in this essay as well. However, this is a point that has been criticized by scholars (Baum & Nichols, 2013; Carter, 2019).
Berlin (1958) describes the idea of negative liberty as being free from deliberate interference or obstruction from other human beings, and that the mere incapacity to achieve a goal is not a lack of political freedom. He notes that negative liberty is primarily about providing an area of personal freedom, and that where the limits of this personal freedom should be will endlessly be debated. Berlin argues that the larger the area of non-interference is, the wider personal freedom is. But, then goes on to explain how classical English philosophers argued that the area of non-interference should not be unlimited, because if it were, it would ironically lead to a state where anyone would be able to interfere with others, and where the strong would suppress the liberties of the weak. He explains that therefore, these philosophers argued that freedom should be limited by law. This, he believes, was an assumption, but it would appear to be logically valid, because one can’t act freely without at some point infringing on the freedom of another being. Berlin seems to realize this when he notes further on that “no man’s activity is so completely private as never to obstruct the lives of others in any way” (Berlin, 1958). And much later in the piece, Berlin mentions the arguments of Benjamin Constant, and how he believed that the source of oppression is the accumulation of power, regardless of who it is that possesses it. This would seem to cause a problem for Berlin’s own argument, as it acknowledges that it is not just government power that can infringe upon freedoms, but private power as well. That is, a powerful individual or business/organization is just as likely to infringe upon personal liberties as any government, given that they have enough power. So, logically, it would seem that in order to ensure basic freedoms for all, that (seemingly ironically) restrictions of freedom to accumulate and/or exercise excess power are necessary for that to be possible. The conclusion being that power consolidated too highly in any form, public or private, needs to be avoided to ensure a comparable level of freedom for all. Because of the emphasis on the importance of negative liberty in Berlin’s essay, and the wide influence it has had (Hardy et al., 2020), it seems likely that it has had an immense impact in shaping our cultural understanding of what the essence of freedom is. The variety of essays included in the book Isaiah Berlin and the Politics of Freedom: ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’ 50 Years Later (Baum & Nichols, 2013) collectively argue that by accepting the concept of negative liberty as being the dominant meaning of the word freedom, progressives have largely conceded the concept of freedom to conservatives. Given that almost everyone espouses valuing the idea of freedom, and given the argument that progressives have conceded the concept of freedom to conservatives, progressives are unnecessarily granting an immense amount of rhetorical power to conservatives. Therefore, it may be time for progressives to reclaim the term freedom in the positive liberty sense of the word to regain the rhetorical power that has been lost.
Berlin (1958) describes the idea of positive liberty as the ability of a person to be their own master and not reliant on others. This relates to the idea of a person having agency and self-determination to achieve their goals. He aptly asks “what is freedom to those who cannot make use of it?” (Berlin, 1958). But then goes on to proclaim that this positive conception of liberty can sometimes be a disguise for brutal tyranny. He attempts to justify this claim by describing a metaphor of seeing people in two parts; a ‘heteronomous’ self that is concerned with fulfilling one’s immediate desires, and a ‘real’ self that they would pursue themselves if they were more enlightened. Berlin claims that once this view is held, that it is possible to ignore the wishes of individuals or communities, and then oppress, bully, or torture them on the behalf of their ‘real’ selves. But this claim is dubious, as it tries to make it seem as though the desire to help people through increasing their positive liberty is akin to becoming a brutal dictator. And although this may be true of some more extreme forms of positive liberty, it is seemingly a logical leap, as to whether it can be generalized to all forms of positive liberty is not clear (Baum & Nichols, 2013). It appears as though through making this argument, Berlin sees positive liberty as a potential slippery slope to autocracy, but in the absence of a more robust explanation of how this would occur, it would seem to be conjecture. Prior to Berlin’s essay, Ralph Barton Perry (1956) noted that through neglecting the resources necessary for positive liberty and self-determination, it leads to the idea that negative liberty and an absence of obstruction is falsely an implication of capacity.
Another noteworthy topic to discuss from Berlin’s (1958) essay is his argument that the idea of democracy and the self-determination of communities such as nation-states can be problematic. He notes that individual freedom is not necessarily connected with democracy, and that negative liberty “is not incompatible with some kinds of autocracy” (Berlin, 1958). However, he does suggest that civil liberties may be better protected by democracy than other forms of government, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that democracy would enable greater freedom in the negative sense than autocratic rule would. Given Berlin’s claim that the greater the negative liberty, the wider an individual’s personal freedom is, one could interpret this as the suggestion that Berlin would be willing to live in an autocratic rule as long as the autocracy granted him a high degree of negative liberty. This idea seems rather questionable, as surely one’s overall sense of freedom is intricately linked with a balance between negative liberty and positive liberty at both an individual and a collective level.
Berlin, despite himself leaning towards social democratic values, in his essay he somewhat surprisingly ends up arguing for the idea of negative liberty as being more fundamentally important than the idea of positive liberty, and democracy as not necessary for personal freedom (Baum & Nichols, 2013). Berlin’s (1958) Two Concepts of Liberty provides a valuable starting point for analysis of the concept of freedom, but because of the notable flaws in Berlin’s argument (Baum & Nichols, 2013; Carter, 2019), and the observation that the idea of freedom has largely been conceded by progressives to conservatives (Baum & Nichols, 2013), the debate about freedom will no doubt continue. And rightly should continue if we are to discover a more robust and balanced understanding of what it truly means to be free.
Baum, B. & Nichols, R. (2013). Isaiah Berlin and the politics of freedom: ‘two concepts of liberty’ 50 years later. New York, NY, and London, England: Routledge.
Berlin, I. (1958). Four essays on liberty. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
Carter, I. (2019). Positive and Negative Liberty. In Zalta, E. N. (Ed.) The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2019 Edition). Retrieved from https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2019/entries/liberty-positive-negative
Hardy, C., Hardy, J. & Hardy H. (2020). Isaiah Berlin. In Zalta, E. N. (Ed.) The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2020 Edition). Retrieved from https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2020/entries/berlin
Perry, R. B. (1956). The Humanity of Man. New York, NY: George Braziller.