“Two Concepts of Liberty” by Isaiah Berlin

I thought it would be appropriate to start with a foundational piece of writing in political philosophy so I have chosen Berlin’s “Two Concepts of Liberty.”


Berlin examines two forms of freedom: negative and positive freedom. Negative freedom is related to the question: “What is the area within which the subject is or should be left to do or be what he is able to do or be?” whereas positive freedom is related to the question: “What, or who, is the source of control or interference that can determine someone to do, or be, this rather than that?”

I. The Notion of Negative Freedom 

Negative freedom is freedom as non-interference – acting in a manner unobstructed. Coercion is not mere obstruction (e.g. a high wall I cannot climb or the text my blindness prevents me from reading), but deliberate inference in an area in which I could otherwise act. “The nature of things does not madden us, only ill will does,” Rousseau said.

Negative freedom is limited in the interest of other values or even freedom itself (e.g. limits set by law). But it is also presumed that there must be a minimal sphere of person freedom that is inviolable. Otherwise, a person could not develop “his natural faculties” necessary to pursue basic ends. Thus, the limits of negative freedom must be drawn between private life and public authority. “Freedom for the pike is death for the minnows.” Liberty depends on the restraint of others.

There are circumstances, moreover, when liberty is not the primary value. Those who live in conditions of destitute poverty require medical assistance and food before their freedom means anything. The value of freedom, then, depends on the fulfillment of certain other needs.

There is consensus that we must preserve some minimal degree of freedom from interference; to sacrifice all freedom would be “to ‘degrade or deny our nature.” But, authors disagree about exactly how much, and exactly which forms of freedom must be preserved as inviolable. Regardless of the precise answer, the freedom these authors regard as essential to preserve is always a freedom from something – namely, interference. This is the sacred individualistic liberty conceived by modern liberals: “The defense of liberty consists in the ‘negative’ goal of warding off interference.”

Negative liberty is concerned with the area of control, not the source of control; because of this, it is compatible with autocratic government. It is conceivable that a benevolent despot guarantees a sphere of liberty greater than one preserved in an oppressive democracy. It may be the case that democratic self-government is overall more conducive to negative liberty, but that is not necessarily the case. Recall that the questions related to negative and positive liberty are distinct. Indeed, the question “how far can we interfere with what one can do,” is entirely separate from “who governs me?” The latter question has to do with positive liberty.

II. The Notion of Positive Freedom

Positive freedom is freedom as self-mastery. To be a self-master is to be a subject, rather than an object – one whose actions are self-directed and self-authored. “I wish, above all, to be conscious of myself as a thinking, willing, active being, bearing responsibility for my choices and able to explain them by references to my own ideas and purposes,” Berlin writes.

It is easy at the outset to question the difference between positive and negative liberty. It appears, after all, that freedom as self-mastery would similarly condemn external interference of my will. To illustrate the difference, Berlin has us consider the case of someone is who unaware of what her rational self would want – that is, what is best for her. This dominant self, identified with reason, is contrasted with the empirical self. Given the positive conception of liberty, Berlin explains, this true self “may be conceived as something wider than the individual…as a social ‘whole’ of which the individual is an element or aspect: a tribe, a race, a church, a state…” And given such a metaphor, the true self may warrant coercion of some for the sake of their true interests and latent rational will.

Berlin sees this positive conception as dangerous: “Once I take this view, I am in a position to ignore the actual wishes of men or societies, to bully, oppress, torture them in the name, and on behalf, of their ‘real’ selves, in the secure knowledge that whatever is the true goal of man…must be identical with his freedom – the free choice of his ‘true’, albeit often submerged and inarticulate, self.” He continues that “this monstrous impersonation” is “at the heart of all political theories of self-realization.”

Berlin concedes that the negative conception of liberty is conceivably just as susceptible to this danger. After all, if we take seriously the interests of the rational self, then coercion is no longer interference in the relevant sense – that is, coercion is simply acting in accordance with the wishes of the true self. However, Berlin claims that it is a matter of historical fact that the positive conception of liberty, “with its suggestion of a man divided against himself,” is more conducive to this coercive danger. Here, Berlin’s insight is that conceptions of freedom are attached to certain conceptions of the self.

III. Liberty and Sovereignty

In part three of his essay, Berlin details the potential conflict between positive and negative liberty. He begins by describing Rousseau as a paradigm case of positive liberty – one that defends the possession of public power for all in the form of a general will. In contrast, Berlin cites Mill, who observed that “the sovereignty of the people could easily destroy that of the individuals.” The central point Berlin seeks to make is that self-governance is simply a different form of tyranny from monarchy or autocracy, wrapped in the trappings of democracy.

He goes on to cite Constant, who shares this worry about the transference of absolute sovereignty, whether to a monarch or a popular government. The threat of liberty, for Constant, was located in the concentration of authority, not the specific wielder of that authority; the source of oppression was not the tyrant, but rather the absolute authority he possessed. Given such a view, democracy is as dangerous as any monarch. The equal right to oppress nor the consent of the oppressed makes no difference in preserving individual liberties. “Popular government is a spasmodic tyranny, monarchy a more efficiently centralized despotism.”

Nineteenth century liberal thinkers, then, argued that there must instead be some minimal frontier of freedom across which nobody could cross. This frontier would be grounded in the nature of man. Only such a frontier, accepted and protected absolutely, can stand against the tyrannical potential of majoritarian democracy. ‘Positive’ rights for liberals, then, are instrumentally valuable to preserve the negative liberty of individuals. (These, I take it, are what we now commonly refer to as ‘civil rights’).

Liberals like Mill, Constant, and Tocqueville hold two principles to be fundamentally to any free society. First, no power, only rights, can be considered absolute. Second, there must be a frontier drawn of inviolable liberties or rights – liberties that cannot be procedurally overturned by legislation, judicial decision, or popular support. These are liberties required of the nature of persons like the right to trial, or protections against torture. For Berlin, the freedom of a given society is measured by the guarantee of these protections.

IV. The One And The Many 

In the final part of his essay, Berlin offers an argument for the value of negative freedom – specifically, the freedom to choose. Berlin begins with the observation that pluralism is an inescapable and permanent part of the human condition. By pluralism he means the existence of incompatible absolute claims and ends which people pursue. The value of the freedom to choose emerges from this permanent condition as an end in itself exactly because there is no way to harmonize conflicting ends. Despite being an end in itself, the freedom to choose is not unlimited; it must be weighed constantly against other values like equality, justice, or happiness to mention a few examples.

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