A Few Thoughts On Isaiah Berlin’s “Two Concepts Of Liberty”

Full text found here. (updated)

I wanted to focus a little on how Berlin discusses Kant’s influence, and how it may affect liberalism and classical liberalism, especially in the Anglo-American tradition.

Positive liberty for Berlin involves action, and what one must do to protect his/her own freedom, in part, from one’s own self and the passions.  Yet, also, like the hard-hearted Stoics in ancient Rome or the Christian or Buddhist aesthetic, positive liberty can involve what one must do to withdraw from the world around one’s self, and the injustices of a tyrant or the tyranny of the many.  Philosophers and deep thinkers are often doing this, building structures in the shadows which live long after them.

I should mention, however, that after Kant, it is no longer possible to prove the existence of God, so a transcendent being is replaced with what one must do to exercise the use of one’s own reason, and presumably, discover reality, or the phenomenal reality one can discover beyond Kant’s complex metaphysical framework.

Negative liberty for Berlin, on the other hand,  is freedom from coercion, much like the Lockean ideas of Life and Liberty.

“I am usually said to be free to the degree to which no man or body of men interferes with my activity.”

It is what many here in the West often mean by freedom.  This kind of freedom, when you think about it, is a kind of rarity, even in Europe, as this past century was a bloody one:

“Over a hundred years ago, the German poet Heine warned the French not to underestimate the power of ideas: philosophical concepts nurtured in the stillness of a philosopher’s study could destroy a civilization.  He spoke of Kant’s Critique Of Pure Reason as the sword with which German deism had been decapitated, and described the works of Rousseau as the blood-stained weapon which, in the hands of Robespierre, had destroyed the old regime; and prophesied that the Romantic faith of Fichte and Schelling would one day be turned, with terrible effect, by their fanatical German followers, against the liberal culture of the West.

“…The facts have not wholly belied this prediction…”

Personally, I thought Nietzsche thought he had found the solution to Kant’s statement of the problem:  the uberman, or someone who will creatively, and through a supreme act of the will, make new values for mankind now that God is dead.  As Berlin points out, this is strangely similar to what one imagines a tyrant might think gazing out at those over whom he rules.

It’s probably too obvious to identify Kant merely as “German,” and thus alien to a kind of liberalism we (and yes the French, the French Republic is still going strong) enjoy.

Berlin sees the potential for dangerous perfectionism in Kant perhaps, but especially what came after Kant’s thought, and identifies it largely as a form “positive” liberty, and also identifies some of the political/philosophical consequences, one obvious path being through Hegel, Schelling and Fichte:

“Let me state them (sic, the premises) once more:  first, that all men have one true purpose, and one-only, that of rational self-direction; second, that the ends of all rational beings must of necessity fit into a single universal, harmonious pattern, which some men may be able to discern more clearly than others; third, that all conflict, and consequently all tragedy, is due solely to the clash of reason with the irrational or the insufficiently rational-the immature and undeveloped elements in life, whether individual or communal…finally, that when all men have been made rational, they will obey the rational laws of their own natures, which are one and the same in them all, and so be at once wholly law-abiding and wholly free.”

Such thinkers tried to implement and systematize Kant’s thought and post-Kantian thought into something that became and still becomes an eventual threat to negative liberty.  Reason eventually became and becomes used like a blunt instrument for the actors in such systems. It granted license to the creation of institutions who in a sense, “know better” than individuals what is best for them.  This, of course, has given way to monstrous totalitariansim, corruption, and the horrors of Stalinist Russia, Mao’s China etc.  Some would argue a kind of Kantian prosthetic Christian moralism has dominated.

Yet, as for the tension between positive and negative liberty, Berlin makes an argument similar to the one which Karl Popper made (as Austria and the Continent descended into a second world war):  freedom and equality are in constant tension, and not necessarily compatible with one another,which is an idea which we in America can witness in our politics daily:

“Everything is what it is:  liberty is liberty, not equality or justice or fairness or culture, or human happiness or a quiet conscience.  If liberty of myself or my class or my nation depends on the misery of a number of other human beings, the system which promotes this is unjust and immoral.  but if I curtail or lose my freedom in order to lessen the shame of such inequality, and do not thereby materially increase the individual liberty of others, an absolute loss of liberty occurs.”

Out of this, Berlin thought that his defense of classical liberalism, (John Rawls was a friend of his), which has come to be called value pluralism, is his most important work:

“Pluralism, with the measure of negative liberty that it entails, seems to me a truer and more human ideal than the goals of those who seek in the great disciplined, authoritarian structures, the ideal of positive self-mastery by classes, or peoples, or the whole of mankind.  It is truer, because it does, at least, recognise that human goals are many, not all of them commensurable, and in perpetual rivalry with each other.”

A Russian/Latvian…a romantic…an idealist…a Kantian…A Classical Liberal…An Historian Of ideas…coming to terms with Western liberalism?  providing an effective defense of it?

Your thoughts and comments are welcome.

Update:  Berlin may not really take sides on the positive/negative divide, or perhaps we should say:  If you are inclined to seek a more favorable view of the negative view, as I am, that Berlin offers much to recommend it.  However, he doesn’t really come down entirely in favor of the negative view.  Negative liberty is being left alone (i.e. not being enslaved physically and/or economically), positive liberty is should you have/gain your freedom, the possibility of acting freely towards your purposes as an individual (those purposes just may not be the dangerous ideological/rational purposes found within much Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thought and doctrine).

There is a very strong Romantic/Enlightenment tension within Berlin’s thought.

Negative liberty has tremendous advantages, and Berlin took something of a stand against some Communists at Oxford during his time there. However, there may be some problems with the moral claims to this is a good model for liberalism long-term:

Kelley Ross responds to a correspondent on value-pluralism, while discussing John Gray as well:

‘Now, I do not regard Berlin’s value pluralism as objectionable or even as wrong, except to the extend that it is irrelevant to the MORAL issue and so proves nothing for or against liberalism. Liberalism will indeed recommend itself if one wishes to have a regime that will respect, within limits, a value pluralism. I have no doubt that respecting a considerable value pluralism in society is a good thing and that a nomocratic regime that, mostly, leaves people alone is morally superior to a teleocratic regime that specifies and engineers the kinds of values that people should have. However, the project of showing that such a regime IS a good thing and IS morally superior is precisely the kind of thing that Gray decided was a failure.

Thus, I believe Gray himself sees clearly enough that a thoroughgoing “value pluralism” would mean that the regime of the Ayatollah Khomeini is just as morally justified as the regime of Thomas Jefferson. Gray prefers liberalism (or its wreckage) for the very same reason that the deconstructionist philosopher Richard Rorty prefers his leftism: it is “ours” and “we” like it better. Why Gray, or Rorty, should think that they speak for the rest of “us” is a good question. ‘

and about providing a core to liberalism:

‘Why should the state need a “sufficient rational justificaton” to impose a certain set of values? The whole project of “rational justification” is what Gray, and earlier philosophers like Hume, gave up on as hopeless. All the state need do, which it has often done, is claim that its values are favored by the majority, by the General Will, by the Blood of the Volk, or by God, and it is in business.’

And that business can quickly lead to ever-greater intrusion into our lives:

‘J.S. Mill, etc., continue to be better philosophers than Berlin or Gray because they understand that there must be an absolute moral claim in the end to fundamental rights and negative liberty, however it is thought, or not thought, to be justified. Surrendering the rational case does not even mean accepting the overall “value pluralism” thesis, since Hume himself did not do so. ‘

Are libertarians the true classical liberals?  Much closer to our founding fathers?

Via a reader:  A supplemental lecture as part of a course on many liberal thinkers, this lecture focuses on Berlin:

The radical and rationalist project, anarcho-syndicalism and libertarian socialism: Repost-From Michael Totten At World Affairs: “Noam Chomsky: The Last Totalitarian”

Addition: More from Stanford here.

Addition:  As a tool to help understand some very complex thinking and broad periods of time, it seems quite useful.  It also seems pretty dualistic. another addition (not the philosophical definition).

See Also On This Site:  Positive and negative rights are also a part of Leo Strauss’ thinking (persona non-grata nowadays), and Strauss thought you were deluded if your were going to study politics from afar, as a “science.”  There has been much dispute about this: .Update And Repost- From YouTube: Leo Strauss On The Meno-More On The Fact/Value Distinction?’

Kant is a major influence on libertarians, from Ayn Rand to Robert Nozick:  A Few Thoughts On Robert Nozick’s “Anarchy, State and Utopia”…Link To An Ayn Rand Paper: The Objectivist Attack On Kant

A Modern Liberal, somewhat Aristotelian and classical?:  From The Harvard Educational Review-A Review Of Martha Nussbaum’s ‘Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education.’…Repost: Martha Nussbaum Channels Roger Williams In The New Republic: The First Founder

Samuel Huntington was quite humble, and often wise, about what political philosophy could do:  From Prospect: Eric Kaufmann On ‘The Meaning Of Huntington’

Isaiah Berlin by pbear6150

by pbear6150

11 thoughts on “A Few Thoughts On Isaiah Berlin’s “Two Concepts Of Liberty”

  1. Pingback: Quickthink » Blog Archive » I Kant, But in Fact I Can!

  2. jalal michael sabbagh.http://gravatar.com/jmsabbagh86@gmail.com

    Thank you so much for liking my post (The L.A. Times..) have great week .jalal

  3. miriamrburden

    I kind of wonder what Kant would say about Secular Humanism or perhaps pure biology. Certainly, he believed he felt he was free from God, and therefore free to rationalize. But I don’t think you can ever truly be free from instinct. There is Maslow’s hierarchy, of course, and we can aspire to new heights. I’m kind of thinking about how when my nephew was born. My brother was describing how he didn’t think he loved his son, because he didn’t know who his son was yet, but he still felt that he would die for his son if need be. We can try to rationalize, but we’re also still a part of nature, and we’re subject to the rules of evolution.

    1. Miriam,

      Thanks for the comment…those are big questions…!

      I’ll take a stab:

      Kant has there being a category of a priori knowledge that goes beyond empirical/sensory experience, a category which yields inherent knowledge of the laws underlying the natural world…a category he thought could explain the laws as discovered by Newton and others during his time that are really out there to be discovered, though with some contingency (Kant was just as up on these laws as someone would be to current physics/mathematical sciences…perhaps, say, post Einstein).

      Kant built a whole metaphysics on such thinking, but he’s not a ‘theory of mind’ guy and certainly not creating a psychological theory.

      His Critique of Pure Reason is an attempt to define just what we can understand of those laws with our own on-board apparatus (he offers a complex survey of that apparatus, and the grounds on which he thought we and it can make universal claims to knowledge….he also really thought he could put his field, metaphysics, on the same grounds as the Natural Sciences..).

      So, to take your brother’s natural and very understandable instinct as an example (one for which your brother might live and/or die…):

      There’s no God, necessarily, to explain that profound experience he’s having…there’s no necessary end-point to the process of natural selection. There’s really no underlying design but the basic laws of motion which govern the laws of matter/fields/particles.

      Yes, these explanations speak of some purposes (the perpetuation of the species in natural selection)…and contain much that subsequently came along in German philosophy like the will and the will to power…or perhaps these explanations might back one into the idea of a pre-determined ‘watchmaker’ type of Creator who set the laws in motion…but left his creatures to their freedoms/suffering in determined fashion.

      For me, I don’t think Kant really reconciles that gap between how his own metaphysics related itself to the natural laws (in supreme abstract fashion) and how we humans behave and make of our experiences when it comes to ends/purposes (he seemed to have been a believer).

      I think this is partly because Kant was a product of his time (the Sciences have moved on, especially biology) and partly because if our reason can discover laws in supremely abstract fashion, our reason might have to remain silent about ultimate ends and purposes when it comes to other living things…Kant himself implores us to treat each other as ends in ourselves, not as means to other ends).

      ***This may have been mildly helpful in explaining how a Kantian might think about instinct as it relates to Nature and the Natural Laws

      1. miriamrburden

        I feel like I should read more so I can sound that smart! Lol. I know that Kant inspired Ayn Rand. I loved The Fountainhead,- Howard Roark is my spirit animal, but I think Objectivism really overlooks the fact that humans are naturally cooperative. Tooey is this power hungry personality guised as an altruistic man, but there’s a reason, time and time again that leaders like this amass a following. People want to have a purpose. They want to belong to a community, because they are biologically hardwired to, (whether I want to admit it or not.) I read something interesting the other day about the proliferation of multicellular organisms. There’s this theory that during the Archean period, 1 unicellular organism attempted to eat another unicellular being. Instead of becoming ingested, the two archaens formed a symbiotic relationship, hence the very first eukaryote-our very very very distant relative. I think this completely represents humanity. Individuals are always assessing tradeoffs. Do I eat this person, or is it more beneficial to form a relationship? A functioning being understands the tradeoffs of cooperating vs competing. The two aren’t necessarily exclusive. Sometimes we have to cooperate in order to compete and vice versa. When I’m done with To Kill a Mockingbird, I’m checking out an Immanuel Kant book though!

  4. Anonymous

    Also, I think Ayn Rand was very reactionary to her surroundings. It was a time of conformity and that she found an individuality is marvelous.

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