A Third Concept of Liberty

Quentin Skinner

My starting point is one of the claims most widely accepted in current discussions about the theory of liberty. There is one overarching formula, we are told, under which all intelligible locutions about freedom can be subsumed. The prevalence of this belief appears to be due in large part to the influence of a single classic article, Gerald MacCallum’s ‘Negative and Positive Freedom’ (1967). Whenever the freedom of an agent is in question, MacCallum maintains, it will always be freedom from some element of constraint on doing or becoming (or not doing or becoming) something. Consequently, to speak of the presence of freedom is always to speak of an absence: absence of constraint on an agent from realising some goal or end. There is, in other words, only one concept of liberty.

These observations bring me to Isaiah Berlin, a thinker who devoted himself to many disparate themes, literary and historical as well as philosophical, but whose most important and influential work was on the theory of freedom. It is on that topic that I propose to concentrate. I shall focus in particular on Berlin’s most celebrated contribution to the debate, his essay entitled ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’, recently republished in a handsome new collection.[*]

The abiding merit of Berlin’s text is that, by contrast with the conventional wisdom I began by citing, Berlin succeeds in showing that a strong distinction needs to be marked between two rival and incommensurable concepts of liberty, which he, too, labels ‘positive’ and ‘negative’. When he discusses negative liberty, he gives an account closely resembling the analysis that, according to MacCallum and his numerous followers, must be given of any claim about freedom if it is to be intelligible. To see, therefore, where Berlin has something challenging to add to the argument, we need to turn to his account of what he calls positive liberty.

Berlin’s attempt to mark off this separate concept is admittedly dogged by several false starts. He begins by suggesting that, whereas negative liberty is freedom from constraint, positive liberty is freedom to follow a certain form of life. But this distinction cannot be used to disclose two different concepts of liberty, if only because all cases of negative liberty are at once cases in which I am free from constraint and in consequence free to act should I choose. Berlin next suggests that the positive sense of the word refers to the idea of being one’s own master as opposed to being acted on by external forces. But this, too, fails to isolate a separate concept of positive liberty. For the situation in which I am free to act in virtue of not being hindered by external forces is, according to Berlin’s own analysis, the situation of someone in possession of their liberty in the ordinary negative sense.

It soon emerges, however, that Berlin’s concern is not with the idea of being your own master. Rather, he is interested in the very different notion (although he sometimes runs them together) of mastering your self. When he first employs this formula, he uses it to refer to the thought – equally familiar to students of Plato and of Freud – that the obstacles to your capacity to act freely may be internal rather than external, and that you will need to free yourself from these psychological constraints if you are to behave autonomously. But this, too, fails to capture a separate concept of positive liberty. For while the notion of an internal obstacle extends the range of things that can count as constraints, we are still speaking about the need to get rid of an element of constraint if we are to act freely, and are still speaking in consequence about the idea of negative liberty.

The principal claim, however, that Berlin wishes to make about self-mastery proves to be a different and more convincing one. According to those who have wished to give a positive content to the idea of liberty, he suggests, the freedom of human agents consists in their having managed most fully to become themselves. Freedom is thus equated not with self-mastery but rather with self-realisation, and above all with self-perfection, with the idea (as Berlin expresses it) of my self at its best. The positive concept is thus that, as Berlin finally summarises, ‘whatever is the true goal of man . . . must be identical with his freedom.’

If there is any one philosopher whom Berlin had in mind in formulating this definition, I think it must have been Bernard Bosanquet. In The Philosophical Theory of the State, first published in 1899, Bosanquet speaks in so many words about the ‘negative idea’ of being ‘free from constraint’ and contrasts this juristic concept, as he calls it, with what he describes as the ‘fuller’ or ‘positive’ understanding of the term. Furthermore, when Bosanquet characterises the negative ideal as that of being preserved against trespass, and contrasts it with the positive view of the ‘real’ or ‘ideal’ self whose activity is identical with freedom, Berlin echoes his phraseology almost word for word.

Behind Bosanquet’s analysis, however, lies the overwhelming influence of T.H. Green. As Bosanquet acknowledges in the chapter I have been quoting, he makes ‘great use’ of the analysis of freedom offered by Green in his Principles of Political Obligation, originally published in 1886. Green does not explicitly speak in that work (although he does elsewhere) of ‘positive’ liberty, but he provides a subtler and more careful analysis than Bosanquet does of what might be meant by giving a positive content to the ideal. ‘Real freedom,’ according to Green, ‘consists in the whole man having found his object.’ To speak of the freedom of a man is thus to speak of ‘the state in which he shall have realised his ideal of himself’. Freedom is, in short, the name of an end-state; as Green concludes, it is ‘in some sense the goal of moral endeavour’.

It is hard nowadays to recapture how disquieting this analysis seemed to many Anglophone philosophers writing in the aftermath of the First World War. L.T. Hobhouse, for example, whose critique of Hegel, Green and Bosanquet appeared in 1918, went so far as to assert that in the bombing of London he had witnessed ‘the visible and tangible outcome’ of this ‘false and wicked doctrine’. To anyone of Berlin’s generation, however, these anxieties about Hegelian philosophy remained remarkably acute, and these are the feelings that Berlin is registering, I think, in his account of positive liberty and the dangers to which it gives rise.

The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in

[*] Liberty by Isaiah Berlin, edited by Henry Hardy (Oxford, 416 pp., £12.99, 7 March, 0 19 924989 x).