Essay Review · Great philosophers · Liberalism · political philosophy · Political Theory · politics

Review: Two Concepts of Liberty by Isaiah Berlin

Berlin discusses distinction between negative and positive concepts of liberty. Negative liberty covers the area within which the individual can act without interference by other persons (169). Person is free when is unobstructed by other to do what he/she wish to do. Negative liberty is a “normal” sense of liberty. The positive concept of liberty “derives from the wish on the part of individual to be his own master” (178). In other words, it looks for the answer who is the source of control or interference that determine one’s actions (169).

The negative freedom is theberlin-pic absence of coercion. If one is prevented by others from doing what he/she could otherwise do, if the contraction by others goes beyond a certain minimum, one is subject of coercion (169). Consequently, “the wider the area of non- interference the wider my freedom” (170). Berlin elaborates on classical thinkers’ view that area of men’s freedom must be limited by law (171). Locke, Mill, Constant and Tocqueville shared the same opinion that there must exist certain minimum area of personal freedom because it is needed for development of individual’s “natural faculties” (171). Therefore, there must be boundary between private life and public life. Lock and Smith believed that large area for private life should be secured. While Hobbes argued that private sphere should be limited while the area of centralized control by state should increase (173). Nevertheless, Berlin thought that the biggest defender of freedom was Constant, who thought that despotism is to invade the private sphere. At least, the liberty of religion, opinion, expression, property must be guaranteed (173). Minimum of personal freedom must be preserved, otherwise individuals are denied their nature (173). Burke, Paine, Mill also agreed that the power of the state should be kept at bay (173). However, we should not forget that people are interdependent and “the liberty of some must depend on the restraint of others (171). Nevertheless, Berlin argues complete self- surrender is like self- defeat (173). For Mill, without freedom individuals cannot develop as genuine, spontaneous, wise energetic people (174). Berlin contends that Mill was wrong to claim coercion is always bad. Further, Mill’s ideas might be suitable for despotism because even under despotism subjects might enjoy the individual freedom (175-176). Berlin gives convincing examples from history to illustrate why Mill was mistaken (176). Berlin concludes there is no necessary connection between individual liberty and democratic rule (177).

On the other hand, the positive conception of liberty it is not freedom from but freedom to “lead one prescribed form of life” (178). This is the right of the individual to be his/ her own master. The individual is rational, thinking and responsible for own choices (178). Conflict between negative and positive notion of freedom occurs (179). There is dominant  “real or higher self”- the rational part; and “lower self”, which is subjugated by passions and pleasures (179). The real self is something wider than the individual, a social “whole” that makes the individual to belong to state, church, race, etc. (179). Berlin explains that there are situations when coercion can be used for people’s own sake but still it remains coercion (179-180). In negative concept of freedom the “real” man has ideal purpose but in positive concept, man is divided into “transcendent dominant controller and empirical bundle of desires and passions to be disciplined and brought to heel” (181).

One way to self- mastery is to self- abnegation of desires (182). Berlin discusses Kant’s argument that freedom does not mean elimination of desires but resistance and control of them (183) and Rousseau’s view that freedom is obedience because we prescribe the law to ourselves (183). Berlin contradicts those opinions by saying that “ascetic self-denial” might be beneficial but this is not “enlargement of liberty” (186). In fact, this is not a liberty at all. He offers several examples, such ancient Greece, Rome and Germany in Seventeenth century, where people reduced their wishes or experienced inner withdrawal simply because their freedoms were limited by various powers (186).

Berlin also discusses learning, which according to some philosophers, liberates people and make them rational (189, 195). He refers to Fitche, who claimed that education should be coerced (195). However, Berlin refutes this argument by saying that every dictator, inquisitor or bully who seeks for justification of his actions treats humanity as a “raw material” (197). The liberty is confused with knowledge or understanding and with adjustment or adaptation to the situation. Berlin says that education as a virtue that liberates individuals is common approach in Western world. However, it is wrong (200). I would argue that we are unavoidably educated through public education or even through media. However, there is a need for good quality of education that would equipped individuals with skills to analytically judge what choices are better.

Berlin claims Constant rightly saw that transfer of sovereignty from one group to another does not necessarily mean increase of liberty. Rousseau’s “giving yourself to all” is wrong because the sovereign might always abuse the individual (210). Further, he agrees with Mill that sovereignty of the people might destroy sovereignty of the individual. The point is not who has the authority but how much authority somebody has (209). Berlin then concludes that to secure some minimum level of negative freedom absolute limits must be put on the authority (211).

Finally, there is always need for freedom because it is “the end in itself” (214). Berlin explains liberty is not the dominant criterion of social actions because people’s choices depend on their vision of what “constitutes a fulfilled human life” (215). Therefore, Berlin favours pluralism and negative freedom rather than authoritarian “positive” self- mastery used by people, classes or whole mankind (216). Authoritarian systems depends on positive liberty and consequently monism, which is a desire for certainty and guarantees. For him, Western system also base on monism.

In summary, Berlin elaborates on the ideals of liberty that were instructed by earlier political philosophers. Berlin’s interpretation of two concepts of liberty is very important in politics. He demonstrates that negative and positive liberties can be seen as rival interpretation of freedom. It gives more light into conflict between liberalism and challenging it views that there is a need for wider state intervention. In the context of negative liberty, Berlin recognizes that the external powers must be limited but he does not discuss internal forces, dilemmas or fears that might prevent individuals from actions.

On the other hand, Berlin brought together negative and positive liberty with pluralism because he says ultimate human values are plural and there should be respect for individual freedoms and desires. Sometimes extreme pluralism leads to occurrence of illiberalism. The question arises here, what should be the limits of pluralism?

References: Berlin I 1995, Liberty. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


2 thoughts on “Review: Two Concepts of Liberty by Isaiah Berlin

  1. I am happy that my post was useful for you. I must admit that Berlin’s essay made the differences between negative and positive liberty easier to understand for me too. Recently we hear a lot about liberalim and challenging it views, and Berlin’s discussion makes some issues more clear.

    Liked by 2 people

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