Two Concepts of Liberty

Isaiah Berlin

The Two Concepts of Liberty is Isaiah Berlin’s attempt at seeking to understand how the two political systems embattled in the cold war, while both claiming to further freedom or liberty, came to be so different and at odds with each other. The simplest answer, and the one peddled by both sides, is to claim one is truer than the other. That serves fine as rhetoric, but it isn’t in the least bit clarifying.

The answer, then, Berlin tells us, is that the two political systems embody two very different concepts of liberty. The first of which he calls Negative Liberty and the other Positive Liberty. That answer in and of itself isn’t very clarifying either, unless one addresses how they are different and how the concept of liberty came to take on two very different forms in the first place. And it is precisely that task Berlin sets himself up to address for the bulk of the essay.

Your Negative Liberties are what you would answer to the question: What are the areas within which you are free from interference by other persons?. The Positive Liberties, on the other hand, are what you would answer to the question: What are the areas in which I’m empowered to act? On the surface, the two definitions might seem at no great odds with each other, but traced through their historical development, we find, they came to evolve in very divergent directions until they ended up in direct conflict.

Contrary to what many on the ‘net seem to believe, Berlin doesn’t prefer(and rightly so) negative liberty over the positive variety. Though he does say that the Positive concept lends itself much more easily to the conceit of ‘final solutions’, it is at the same time at the heart of ‘the most powerful and morally just public movements of our time’.

Though the part of the essay that defines and traces out the historical development of the two concepts is the most influential and deservedly celebrated, I think the latter part which deals with the assertion of status and the errors of presupposing the existence of an objective, rational ‘final solution’ is the real clincher and goes a little under-appreciated.

In a series of posts over the next 10 days, I hope to summarize the essay and perhaps interject a few of my own thoughts. I’ll probably devote a post to the Negative concept, a post to the Positive concept, and a post to the final part of the essay. Later, if I manage to develop the seeds of arguments I’ve against Murray Rothbard’s essay, I’ll try and address some of its objections. Also, in a different post, I’ll try and juxtapose some of Berlin’s ideas against those in this Ayn Rand’s essay, and show that Objectivist ethics are just as prone to the corruption that Positive liberties are prone to.

Isaiah Berlin’s essay is available for download here.

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3 Responses to “Two Concepts of Liberty”

  1. Interesting topic. I have not heard of it before so looking forward to your next posts. I have to admit that I did not understand much in my first reading..almost certainly because of my limited comprehension abilities.

  2. There isn’t much to understand here, anyway. Or are you referring Berlin’s original essay. No?..Perhaps it’s my writing, then?

    Anyway, here’s what I was saying in summary:

    1.) Berlin says there are two different concepts of liberty.

    2.) One is not necessarily better than the other, but the positive type lends itself easily to abuse.

    3.) I liked the later parts of the essay better than the earlier portions.

    4.) I’ll make several more posts on this topic.

  3. Nice to see you are back with a bang this time :)
    Although liberty is not a topic that i ever paid attention other than erroneously using it instead of flexibility at times, i look forward to reading your posts on it and gain some gyan.

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