Sep 2, 1981

Isaiah Berlin on Liberty

“Berlin makes freedom appear as isolation rather than sharing.”

Gary Frank Reed
University of California at Santa Cruz

“Berlin and the Division of Liberty.” Political Theory 8(August 1980):365–380.

Liberty seems to have the uncanny property of extinguishing itself. For, if I am free to do whatever I want and so are you, then I have no assurance that I can actually do what I want. You, being as free as I, may interfere with me. On the other hand, if my freedom is not absolute but limited along with that of everyone else, then I have assurance that I can do what I may do, that no one in other words, will interfere.

In “Two Concepts of Liberty,” Sir Isaiah Berlin argues that there are indeed two concepts, not one, whose name is liberty. His analysis has provoked much controversy. Whatever the merits of the critics’ responses, they, like Berlin himself, fail to investigate the origins of the division of liberty. The principal defect of Berlin’s work is in his assumptions leading to the conclusion that liberty is divided between two irreconcilable concepts, rather than between complementary aspects. Prof. Reed attempts to demonstrate this complementarity.

In political matters, Berlin points out, the term “freedom” is used in two senses: negative and positive. Behind each of these senses lies a question: “In what ways am I free to act?” (negative); and “Who determines what those ways are?” (positive). To have negative liberty is to enjoy rights, liberties, permissions, and freedoms to act. To have positive liberty is to exercise control over what those liberties are to be.

Berlin considers the negative “freedom from” as the fundamental sense of freedom and other senses as derivative. He thus prepares the way to show that positive “freedom to” is an extension of that root sense. For him, the essence of liberty involves “holding off” an intruder, trespasser, or despot. Yet, Reed comments, if this is the essence of liberty, it was not always so.

Historical evidence indicates that “freedom from” is itself an extension by metaphor of a prior understanding of freedom. According to linguistic research, freedom in the primary sense did not signify being “rid of something”: the original meaning was that of belonging to an ethnic stock, designated by a metaphor of vegetal growth. This belonging conferred a privilege which a stranger would never know.

A later metaphor introduces the idea of making free by treating a person born a stranger as if he grown up with the kin. This metaphor enables people to do by choice what at first only nature could do by birth—make a person free. A third metaphor would later turn release from constraint as such into liberation.

In order to participate in the hunt or in combat, the free or freed tribesman had to exercise considerable self-control —resisting fear, despair, hunger, lust for the sake of right; he could display anger, pride, or courage only in the proper ways and at the proper time. Here we have the two complementary aspects of freedom conjoined: participation and self-control. A free man does as he pleases because what pleases him is right; that is, it accords with the practices or tradition of his people. He is treated as one who belongs, because he acts like one who belongs. He rules himself, curbs his passions in the service of the right.

From this point of view, lawful restriction is not deprivation of liberty. Instead, it involves a comprehensive sharing in a system of right. Liberty does not consist in a set of freedoms (although they accompany it) but in the status of free man and in action which accords with that status. Berlin takes as fundamental the expression “free from,” whereas it is actually derived from “free person.”

Berlin’s conclusion that we must choose between individuality and belonging makes it appear that we are more fully individual and more fully human as we slough off common standards. He thus obscures the connection between self-control, maturity, and the interpretation and application of common standards. Berlin makes freedom appear as isolation rather than sharing. The political consequences of his view are increasing fragmentation and injustice in the name of liberty. He succumbs to the paradox of liberty. However, Reed believes that the paradox can be overcome by the realization that giving up, for the sake of justice, some freedom to act does not diminish liberty.