Isaiah Berlin, “Two Concepts of Liberty”

Isaiah Berlin’s “Two Concepts” is undoubtedly among the most influential of essays in the history of postwar political philosophy in the analytic tradition (a version of the text is available here) Even critics of the essay –Quentin Skinner, for example—laud praise upon Berlin’s clear articulation of a distinction between two opposed understandings of liberty or freedom.

In this post, I’ll summarize Berlin’s essay. Three points of note. First, although Berlin’s paper was originally delivered in 1958, I’ll be citing the following version of the text that appears in Liberty (ed. Henry Hardy), OUP: Oxford, 2002: 166-217. Second, I will only sketch the main lines of Berlin’s essay, not some of the important, though not central details. Finally, though Berlin’s essay is needs to be located within its cold-war context –Berlin was born in Riga, then in Russian, and was a fervent anti-communist—none of his arguments depend on that particular belief.


Berlin’s essay contrasts two “central” (though perhaps not the only) senses of liberty or freedom (he uses the terms interchangeably): a negative and a positive sense. He begins with the negative idea.

Negative Freedom

Defining Negative Liberty

Negative liberty is opposed to interference or coercion. Berlin characterizes it as follows: Coercion implies the deliberate interference of other human beings within the area in which I could otherwise act. You lack political liberty…only if you are prevented from attaining a goal by human beings” (169). Or, as he puts it latter: negative liberty “means liberty

Four features are of note here:

  • Mere Incapacity Is Not Lack of Freedom: You are only free to do what you could otherwise do, but for interference (so, although you cannot fly, you are neither free nor unfree to do so).
  • Only Human Violations Count, not unfavorable natural circumstances.
  • The Definition is Incomplete: it depends on an analysis of interference or coercion.
  • One can measure the ‘width’ of freedom by measuring the area of ‘non-interference’.

Economic Freedom

Berlin first applies this analysis to the idea of ‘economic freedom’. He suggests that a worker who is too poor to buy bread can only be regarded as unfree if his inability is “due to the fact that other human beings  have made arrangements” that prevent him from doing so.

The Classical English Tradition

Then, he argues that this conception of freedom can be traced back to “the classical English philosophers”—originally to Hobbes, then to Locke, Mill and Bentham. All agreed: (1) freedom could not be unlimited: it could be curtailed for various ends—at least for the sake of freedom itself, perhaps for the interests of order, equality or justice; and (2) there ought to be a certain level of liberty –a minimum of liberty–which on no account be violated.

Regarding (1), Berlin argues that, when do curtail freedom for the sake of (e.g.) liberty, we must nevertheless acknowledge that a loss of liberty occurs. Regarding (2), Berlin notes that, although meeting people’s basic needs comes before freedom, the meaning of freedom is the same everywhere.

Berlin on Mill

The difficult issues about negative freedom concern, Berlin then notes, concern “how wide [the area of freedom] could or should be” (170) or what “a minimum of personal freedom” amounts to. He examines J.S. Mill’s work as illustrative of the liberal view.

According to Mill, justice demands that all individuals be entitled to a minimum of freedom, and thus that other individuals must be restrained from depriving people of it. Mill confuses two liberal justifications for freedom—(a) Freedom as an intrinsic good and (b) freedom as necessary condition for developing certain perfectionist, individualist values (a certain kind of character). These two might be inconsistent

Three Further Points

  • Negative freedom, in Berlin’s sense, is a ‘comparatively modern’ political idea, not present until (at the latest) the 1600s (176).
  • Negative freedom is “not incompatible with…the absence of self-government” (176): a benevolent despot who does not interfere with his subjects does not impinge on negative liberty.

Thus, negative freedom does not imply democracy: ‘the answer to the question “Who governs me?’ is logically distinct from the question ‘How far does the government interfere with me?” (177).

  • It is difficult to estimate the extent of negative freedom in any given case (see fn 1, 177).
  • Positive Freedom

Defining Positive Freedom

Positive freedom derives from ‘the wish on the part of the individual to be his own master’. It concerns my desire to be self-directed, self-governing or self-realizing. Berlin has in mind here what often goes under the heading autonomy, and he links the idea to many historical figures: Hegel, Fichte, Kant, and Rousseau, for example.

Berlin’s Argument

Although positive and negative liberty might seem quite similar, Berlin will ultimately argue that certain understandings of positive freedom have lead, at times, to “a specious disguise for brutal tyranny” (178) because of some of the peculiarity of the way in which the notion of positive freedom has “historically developed” (179).

In this section, and several of the next, he begins to survey some of those directions (III-V). I won’t go into the details of each, but only sketch the basic critique Berlin offers.

The Dangers of Positive Freedom

Two Selves

When talking about being ‘one’s own master’, one can think of both external (a coercer) and internal obstacles (an insatiable desire or passion). Thus we arrive at a distinction of a ‘real’ or authentic and a less real or inauthentic self. This view takes two forms.

A first view identifies one’s ‘real’ self with reason.  A second view widens the gap between the two selves, by identifying (as Berlin thinks Hegel and Fichte do) the ‘real’ self with society at large.

In both cases, it is thus open to justify a kind of paternalism or coercion: “Once I take this view, I am in a position to ignore the actual wishes of men or society, to bully, oppress, torture them in the name…of their ‘real’ selves (180).

Berlin then identifies several directions in which such ‘two selves’ views have developed.


Suppose I am autonomous. I have a set of desires I want to fulfill, but which cannot be realized. Then, my only option is to get rid of my desires (rather than wanting to be rich, I stop desiring money). But this way of making people ‘realize’ then ends – by expunging them—is in many cases hardly satisfactory.


Berlin then critics the metaphysical rationalist view, which equates freedom with the use of critical reason. The fundamental premise he disputes is that one I understand the necessity of X, I cannot rationally will otherwise. Thus, if X is a historical necessity, it is irrational for me to (and I am not truly free if I) resist it.

Social Freedom

To be free is to accept certain rational principles. It is assumed that all rational agents would endorse the same principles, and to be free is incompatible with being irrational. If I know what these principles are, I may then impose them on others.


Berlin then sums up the premises he takes to be problematic (200):

  • All men have one true purpose—rational self direction
  • The ends of all rational beings must fit a certain pattern which some may detect better than others
  • All conflict is due to irrationality
  • When men have been made rational, they will obey their own natures.

Thus, from seemingly liberal premises, we arrive, perversely, at illiberal conclusions.

The Search for Status

Before reconsidering his own view, Berlin points on one other “historically important approach” to the topic which confounds freedom with “her sisters, equality and fraternity” and thus “leads to similarly illiberal conclusions”. The idea here—again, Hegelian—is that human beings are social creatures in a deep sense, and require “proper recognition” (200-1) to be free.

Berlin makes two comments about the need for recognition:

First, although it might be important (204) and “in certain respects, very close to the desire to be an independent agent” (205), it should not be confused with liberty per se.

Second, especially when applied to groups, the drive for recognition can be a source of illiberal oppression

The Liberal View Reconsidered

In the final sections of the essay, Berlin reconsiders the liberal view of negative liberty. He makes several remarks:

  • While any view of freedom must include ‘a minimum’ of negative liberty, liberals like Mill and Constant typically wanted to maximize the freedom (to the extent compatible with the demands of social life) (207).
  • For such liberals, the important question was not who wields authority over me – whether I rule myself (e.g., through democracy), but how much authority should be placed in any set of hands (209).
  • Liberalism involves a belief in the absolute inviolability of some minimum of individual liberty (210)
  • Thus, a society is not free unless (a) no power, but only rights, can be regarded as absolute and (b) there are frontiers within which individuals are inviolably not to be interfered with.

Value Pluralism

Berlin concludes (VIII) by making some general remarks about value and political philosophy.

First, he argues that there is a plurality of values –freedom, equality justice, and the like –and it is not possible for all these values to all be fully instantiated together. The thought that they can is dangerous, a prejudice, and in any case, not warranted by empirical observation or history (212-3). Conflict among values is inevitable. As he puts it,

 “If, as I believe, the ends of men are many, and not all of them are in principle compatible with each other, then the possibility of conflict – and of tragedy – can never wholly be eliminated from human life, either personal or social. The necessity of choosing between absolute claims is then an inescapable characteristic of the human condition” (214).

Second, although freedom is valuable in itself, it is not the sole, or the most important value. There are sometimes grounds for curtailing it. It must be weighed against other goods (214-215).

Third, negative liberty is nevertheless the ‘truer’ and ‘more humane’ meaning of freedom, when compared to positive liberty. It allows people to choose between ultimate values.

Finally, Berlin suggests that a kind of temporal relativism about values: although principles may hold absolutely in certain context, they may not be eternal. To want anything more is perhaps a metaphysical need, but is also a sign of immaturity.

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