Tools for thinking: Isaiah Berlin’s two concepts of freedom

By Maria Kasmirli – ‘Freedom’ is a powerful word.

We all respond positively to it, and under its banner revolutions have been started, wars have been fought, and political campaigns are continually being waged.

But what exactly do we mean by ‘freedom’?

The fact that politicians of all parties claim to believe in freedom suggests that people don’t always have the same thing in mind when they talk about it.

Might there be different kinds of freedom and, if so, could the different kinds conflict with each other? Could the promotion of one kind of freedom limit another kind? Could people even be coerced in the name of freedom?

The 20th-century political philosopher Isaiah Berlin (1909-97) thought that the answer to both these questions was ‘Yes’, and in his essay ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’ (1958) he distinguished two kinds of freedom (or liberty; Berlin used the words interchangeably), which he called negativefreedom and positive freedom.

Negative freedom is freedom from interference. You are negatively free to the extent that other people do not restrict what you can do. If other people prevent you from doing something, either directly by what they do, or indirectly by supporting social and economic arrangements that disadvantage you, then to that extent they restrict your negative freedom.

Berlin stresses that it is only restrictions imposed by other people that count as limitations of one’s freedom. Restrictions due to natural causes do not count. The fact that I cannot levitate is a physical limitation but not a limitation of my freedom. more>

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