Isaiah Berlin

What do you think being free is? Is freedom just the ability to do what we wish? What concept of freedom should states use to legitimately exercise power over us? Isaiah Berlin (1909–97) was a British-Russian political philosopher, whose work predominantly centred around the concept of liberty or freedom. 

Isaiah Berlin Isaiah Berlin

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    Isaiah Berlin is renowned for his defence of liberalism and most notably, for his two concepts of liberty: positive and negative liberty. He puts forth these two concepts in defence of liberalism, to articulate the boundaries of legitimate state interference. This explanation will explore his concepts and theories of liberty.

    Isaiah Berlin: Biography

    Before getting to the heart of Berlin’s ideas on liberalism and liberty, it may be worth exploring his biography in more detail. This will help us get a better sense of where his philosophies come from. Berlin was born in 1909 in Riga (now Latvia’s capital, but at the time it was part of the Russian empire). Berlin was an only child, raised by middle-class, Jewish parents.

    During the First World War, Berlin’s family fled their hometown to escape the advance of German forces in 1915. In 1916, they resided in Petrograd (what is now Saint Petersburg), where he witnessed first-hand the violence of the Russian revolution. He went on to maintain, in subsequent interviews, that witnessing this brutality spawned his hatred of political violence. Berlin moved to Britain in 1921 and was later nationalised in 1929.

    Isaiah Berlin A black and white illustration of Isaiah Berlin StudySmarterAn illustration of Isaiah Berlin. Source: Arturo Espinosa, CC-BY-2.0, Wikimedia Commons.

    Isaiah Berlin’s theory

    Isaiah Berlin’s theory was centred predominantly around liberty. He believed that the concept was ambiguous and the reason was that it lacked a refined definition. His theory is rooted in a commitment to liberalism and value pluralism.

    Liberalism is a philosophy that believes the sphere of government interference should be minimal. Liberalism rejects paternalistic state intervention.

    Pluralism is the belief that there is a multiplicity of values that can coexist. There is no one true answer.

    Isaiah Berlin’s two concepts of liberty

    In 1958, Isaiah Berlin published his book Two Concepts of Liberty. In the book, he explores the notion that while freedom or liberty is often revered by political theorists, what exactly they mean by it isn’t completely clear. The concept is ambiguous and requires definition.

    As he puts it, the concept ‘is so porous that there is little interpretation that it seems able to resist’. This, therefore, provides theoretical motivation for his distinction between two types of liberty: negative and positive. These names are not intended to indicate the superiority of one concept over the other. Instead, negative just refers to the absence of something, while positive refers to the presence of something.

    Isaiah Berlin: Positive liberty

    Put simply, positive liberty describes an agent’s ability to act in accordance with their genuine desires and motivations. Put another way, for an agent to be free under positive liberty, they must be self-determined, in control of their destiny, and make choices in reference to their own true interests. The agent is free in their life and their decisions depend only on them and not an external force of any nature.

    Isaiah Berlin: Negative liberty

    Conversely, negative liberty is the concept of freedom that dictates an agent is free if they are not interfered with by a person or body of people. I am only unfree under the negative conception if I have been prevented by others from doing what I otherwise could.

    ‘Could’ is important here. Negative liberty does not say that I am unfree because I wish to fly but I can’t, as I never had the capacity to fly in the first place. Negative liberty is, instead, the absence of coercion or interference in my possible actions. It is for this reason that negative freedom is often also called ‘freedom as non-interference’.

    Coercion is the deliberate interference of other people in the sphere of my possible actions.

    In Berlin’s words

    Political liberty in this sense is simply the area within which a man can act unobstructed by others. If I am prevented by others from doing what I could otherwise do, I am to that degree unfree.

    Isaiah Berlin: Examples of positive and negative liberty

    At first glance, it may be difficult to distinguish between positive and negative liberty. That’s why it may be helpful to consider some examples to show how we may possess negative freedom, yet not positive freedom, and vice versa.

    Imagine a person taking a daily walk. On their journey, they encounter no obstacles such as cars or pedestrians, and thus their journey is free from interference by all external agents. They are free to choose their route and are not prevented from doing that which they are capable of doing.

    In this sense, the person is clearly negatively free on their journey (there is a lack of obstacles).

    Yet, what muddies the clarity of the extent to which this person is free is if we introduce the fact that they take these daily walks due to the fact that they are alcoholics. They walk daily to reach a shop to acquire alcoholic drinks.

    In a sense, they are not choosing to walk to the shops, instead, this choice is being made for them. Their need to drink guides them to take their chosen route, even at the cost of their own best interest. It seems, then, that now the person is not acting in accordance with their genuine desires and appears not to be self-determined.

    The external force in this case is alcohol or alcoholism. So while the person suffers no coercion or interference from another person or body of people in their journey, their addiction, under positive liberty, dictates that the person is palpably unfree.

    Take traffic laws. In the UK, it is the law that cars must drive on the left-hand side of the road. Yet, it is perfectly within our ability to drive on the right instead. In fact, for whatever reason, we may even desire to do so. The law that dictates this is therefore a direct impediment to our ability to do as we choose. Others are preventing us from doing what we otherwise could do.

    Traffic laws such as this, therefore, impede our negative freedom. However, under the positive conception of liberty, we remain free. Driving on the wrong side of the road would most likely result in a serious accident. It would be highly damaging, even fatal, to both the person engaging in the act and other road users.

    Therefore, restricting people’s ability to drive anywhere and in any manner, is compatible with their true desires and motivations (to be alive and not inflict pain upon themselves or others).

    Isaiah Berlin Roads in England StudySmarterTraffic laws impede an individual's negative freedom, Pixabay.

    Isaiah Berlin’s preferred concept of liberty

    Now that we’re clear on Berlin’s two concepts of liberty, we can turn to his position on them. Berlin saw negative liberty as the concept of liberty that the state should uphold. His reasons for this are closely bound to his commitment to liberalism and value pluralism.

    Berlin saw a negative conception of liberty as closely bound to the liberal tradition, which he himself supported.

    Liberalism is the political belief that the state should not interfere with the personal freedom of individuals. Freedom in the context of liberalism should be understood as non-interference or negative freedom.

    Negative freedom must have its constraints, which Berlin recognises, for if everyone were to do as they please without constraint or interference, this would inevitably lead to a paradox in which everyone would be constantly interfered with by one another.

    For Berlin and other advocates of the liberal tradition, the sphere in which the state can legitimately interfere with our actions should be minimal. Specifically, this sphere of interference should prohibit actions that would inevitably interfere with the choices of others, thus avoiding the paradox.

    Higher and lower selves and their importance for Isaiah Berlin

    Berlin supports the negative conception of liberty as he believes positive liberty has the potential to justify authoritarianism. The ideal of freedom that positive liberty identifies (this being self-realisation and self-mastery) could be twisted by totalitarian dictators, who claimed to have exclusive access to a higher level of rationality.

    The distinction between the higher and lower self is of importance here. The lower self is the self that is driven by irrational impulses and passion. Conversely, the higher self is the self that is rational and self-reflecting.

    Consider the alcoholic in the example above. Their desire to feed their addiction is a desire of their lower self. Their knowledge that they should not drink is a desire of their higher self. Positive liberty, therefore, suggests that we are free when our higher self is in control. But authoritarianism can arise when we concede that some people are more rational than others.

    This allows for dictators, who are supposedly more rational than their subjects, to force people to do the rational thing and realise their true higher selves, thereby freeing them from their primitive desires. Berlin notes that when we take this view, ‘(we are) in a position to ignore the actual wishes of men or societies, to bully, oppress, torture 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’.

    Isaiah Berlin and value pluralism

    Berlin’s commitment to value pluralism underpins his rejection of the positive conception of liberty. Value pluralism is the belief that there exist many values and that they are all genuine. This is a rejection of monism which asserts that all genuine questions must have a ‘true’ answer and that there is a dependable path to find this answer.

    For Berlin, values inevitably conflict, yet this does not mean the relative importance of each should be questioned. Liberalism, or a commitment to a negative conception of liberty, therefore, is the best path to allow a variety of values to coexist.

    He said:

    Pluralism, with the measure of ‘negative’ liberty that it entails, seems to me a truer and more humane 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.

    Positive liberty, on the other hand, is more conducive to a commitment to monism, in that it may assume that there is a right path to a singular set of values that allows us to realise the choices of our true higher selves.

    Isaiah Berlin and nationalism

    According to Berlin ‘Nationalism, even in its mildest version, the consciousness of national unity, is surely rooted in a sharp sense of the differences between one human society and another, the uniqueness of particular traditions, languages, customs – of occupation, over a long period, of a particular piece of soil on which intense collective feeling is concentrated’.

    Isaiah Berlin’s writings on nationalism argue that the concept reflects a need for humans to belong and recognise each other as members of a self-regulating group. He distinguished between two types of nationalism: national consciousness and inflamed nationalism.

    National consciousness refers to a sense of belonging and identity in a group. He saw inflamed nationalism as more pathological: this is a type of nationalism that feeds off resentment and aggravation towards those outside the national group. Berlin was unsympathetic to the latter, yet recognised the two types were closely bound.

    Isaiah Berlin - Key takeaways

    • Isaiah Berlin was a Russian-British political theorist most notably associated with concepts of freedom.
    • He proposed two concepts of liberty: negative and positive.
    • Positive liberty dictates we are free if we are self-actualised, autonomous, and act in accordance with our motivations and desires (the higher self).
    • Negatively liberty dictates we are free if we are not interfered with by external bodies from doing what we otherwise could do.
    • Berlin believed positive liberty had the potential to justify authoritarianism and that negative liberty should be preferred.
    • His preference for negative liberty is rooted in his commitment to liberalism and value pluralism.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Isaiah Berlin

    What is the connection between Isaiah Berlin and the concept of liberty?

    Isaiah Berlin is connected to the concept of liberty, as he famously introduced his two concepts of liberty: these being negative and positive liberty.

    What is Isaiah Berlin known for?

    Isaiah Berlin is known for his defence of liberal principles and his two concepts of liberty.

    Who is Isaiah Berlin?

    Berlin was a British-Russian political philosopher concerned primarily with concepts of freedom.

    What is negative and positive liberty according to Isaiah Berlin?

    Negative liberty is the concept of liberty that dictates we are free in so far as we are not interfered with by external bodies from doing what we otherwise could do. Positive liberty is the concept of liberty that dictates we are free if we act in accordance with our higher-self, we are autonomous, and masters of ourselves.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which of the following would be an example of acting in accordance with your higher self?

    Which of these principles does Berlin’s writing reflect?

    Why does Isaiah Berlin think the negative concept of liberty is more favourable?


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