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Positive Liberty as a driving force for the fulfilment of an indefinite number of notions of the self rather than as the antecedent of a single, authoritarian preconception of the self

Positive vs. negative liberty

Essay 2012 9 Seiten

Philosophie - Philosophie des 20. Jahrhunderts


Isaiah Berlin’s fundamental distinction between two separate concepts of freedom[1], namely positive and negative liberty, is essential for the contrastive, at times even mutually exclusive perspective on freedom offered by him. Whereas negative liberty refers to the area of non-interference an individual theoretically possesses in the moment of his action, liberty in the positive sense highlights the actual presence of control on the part of the agent. On Berlin's account it is liberty in the negative sense that corresponds best with a pluralistic notion of political freedom as it guarantees a minimum of unrestrained space of action for the individual which ideally reflects the natural heterogeneity of human beings. Berlin's concern regarding a fulfilment of positive liberty has to do with the fact that negative liberties could be destroyed as a consequence of the emergence of one prevailing paradigm that everyone is obliged to obey. In what will follow, I shall argue, contrary to Berlin's remark, that an enlargement of positive liberty doesn't necessarily undermine the individual's negative liberties, but can even serve as an essential tool to promote them. However, this argument presupposes that individuals, classes and other human entities don’t succumb to blind conformity with a certain paradigm, but rather identify themselves with their own, genuine ends to subsequently put them into effect.

First of all we should take a contrastive look at the notions Isaiah Berlin expounds with respect to positive and negative liberty and how their relationship decisively affects our understanding of political freedom. Liberty in the negative conception reflects the individual's goal to eliminate the interference of others in his actions, as for example, by becoming independent of one's parents and thereby make entirely autonomous decisions. It is important to remark that this definition doesn't comprise personal inability to attain certain things, but exclusively refers to actions within one's existential reach. If parents somehow hinder their children to live on their own, then there is a serious constraint on the negative liberty the children can possibly have. In order words the cosmos the children can engage in is a direct consequence of the parents' decision to interfere in their live. Despite the huge significance of negative freedom, it also requires a certain limitation which has to do with the high degree of interdependence between different individuals as naturally, social beings. Berlin's illustration of "freedom for the pike is death for the minnows"[2] provides an analogy for the fragile coexistence of human beings who vary greatly by physical and mental attributes. The assumption this analogy is based on, implies irrational and impulsive behaviour on the part of human beings. Hence, negative liberty need not to be limited if everyone acted purely out of reason and would harmonise with the other. It is the conviction that human nature entails at least a minimum of irrationality which necessitates certain restraints of men’s freedom of action. Above all, Berlin stresses a common confusion of values such as freedom, justice or security which aren't at any rate interchangeable, but have to be treated as independent values. Since we cannot attain the utmost of all these values, Berlin argues that we are required to make compensations and substitutions between them. But what is the relationship of Berlin's concept of negative liberty and political freedom, under which model is political freedom more like to thrive? In this regard, Berlin points out that his concept of negative liberty sheds light on the scope of individual control and not under which form of government it emerges. Supposedly paradoxical forms of government, such as liberal autocracy and illiberal democracy, underpin the contrast between positive and negative liberty by demonstrating that freedom is not a corollary of democratic self-government. In broader terms, this insight exemplifies the necessity of a distinction between the form and practices of a government and the individual’s autonomy, particularly liberty in the negative sense. Let us now turn to the notion of positive liberty, Berlin offers us. By definition, positive liberty refers to recognizing our natural, true self and actively promoting it though our own actions. It is here crucial to emphasise fundamentally distinct ways of identifying one's self[3]. One is to detach oneself from any desire or force which could enslave our true being in order to become conscious of one’s genuine nature and thus gain independence of anything that could impede us. The other is to identify oneself with a principle, ideal or desire that corresponds to one's own nature and fulfil it by deliberate engagement. Thus, this concept of liberty mirrors the source of one's actions and not the theoretical possibilities we have before pursuing a certain course of actions. We can elucidate this concept by the situation we face when forming a choice. Adherents of positive liberty are not so much concerned with the different options we have before forming a decision, but rather with the question of how a choice, once made, corresponds to our genuine self, whether the choice contradicts or reflects our self. After analysing Isaiah Berlin's two concepts of liberty, we can now proceed to substantiate their significance to political freedom by demonstrating the way in which these two concepts both are necessary, but likewise insufficient when approached as separate concepts.


[1] Cf. Isaiah Berlin, Two Concepts of Liberty, lecture, 1958. This lecture is the only source that is used for this work; it is abbreviated as C.L.

[2] p.6, C.L.

[3] Cf. p.16, C.L.


ISBN (Buch)
448 KB
Institution / Hochschule
University of Essex – Department of Philosophy
liberty freedom positive liberty negative liberty political philosophy notions of the self




Titel: Positive Liberty as a driving force for the fulfilment of an indefinite number of notions of the self rather than as the antecedent of a single, authoritarian preconception of the self