Two Concepts of Liberty by Isaiah Berlin

Two Concepts of liberty is a treatise by Isaiah Berlin on the enigmatic subject of Liberty. At first it might appear as naïve or simplistic on his part to have a contrived view of ‘Liberty’, a word notorious for being difficult to define. But as we progress, we see that Berlin draws arguments from Kant, Hegel and Plato to make his case which is convincing and thought provoking.


In the very start, he briefly notes how important Political Thought is as a field of inquiry, and how it has far-reaching effects on the society. However, he laments that Political Theory is not given its due. This in turn stagnates the evolution and subsequent development of this most critical subject, as Berlin remarks:


“To neglect the field of political thought, because its unstable subject matter, with its blurred edges, is not to be caught by the fixed concepts, abstract models, and fine instruments suitable to logic or to linguistic analysis–to demand a unity of method in philosophy, and reject whatever the method cannot successfully manage–is merely to allow oneself to remain at the mercy of primitive and uncriticised political beliefs.”


Political forces cannot bring change, for good or for bad, unless they clothe themselves in ideas and political theory might well be a way of providing structure and discipline to these forces. As a branch of moral philosophy, it is pervasive and profoundly influential in shaping societies and cultural narratives.


Negative liberty is classically defined as absence of coercion. It means to say that an individual’s freedom will be greater if there is little or no interference or coercion to prohibit his actions. Though some limits are quite necessary to secure the rights and freedom of the people around him, this should not hinder the development of the individual in particular and the society in general.


Positive liberty could be summarised as “being your own master”, which entails being an active and thinking individual responsible for his/her actions. This concept of freedom comes with a realisation that one still can be a master of himself and yet be a slave to one’s passions or baser instincts. Would one still be free? Berlin explains that this liberty cannot survive for long without some checks on it.


So the prescription for this crisis would be to rely on reason and common sense. To follow the path prescribed by any organised religion would mean complete submission of one’s liberty, but to put some constraints on individuals is necessary nonetheless. In a democratic system, this goal can ideally be achieved to some extent. Reason and logic are the tools at our disposal that can be utilized to safeguard our liberty all the while putting limits on it. To defend one’s liberty doesn’t necessarily means to fight or rebel against the Authority, but to analyse how pervasive it is. As Berlin says, it is not important who has the authority, what is important is that how much authority do they have?


So there is no single formula to harmonize the various desires that men have, and to choose an individualistic approach here would be to defeat the very purpose of ‘liberty’. Pluralism and Negative freedom are thus the truer and more humane ideals.



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