Isaiah Berlin’s Conception of FreedomJune 27, 2021
Freedom is both positive and negative.
Positive freedom is the freedom to determine our own destiny and to choose our own goals. Negative freedom consists of external obstacles and domination or chains. If our positive freedom causes a reduction in the negative freedom of others, then it creates pressure. Therefore, the most basic freedom is freedom from chains.
What does it mean to be free? This Berlin is explored in his famous essay “Two Concepts of Freedom”. In his words, freedom exists as positive and negative. While he wasn’t the first to make this distinction, he does so in an extraordinarily original way, using it to showcase the obvious dissonances in our everyday understanding of freedom.
For Berlin, negative freedom is our basic sense of freedom. This freedom is freedom from external obstacles: I am free; because it is. Consider, for example, the freedom that comes from the discipline of learning to play the taba. As a newbie, I can’t help but struggle with my own inability to play; but finally I can play with unleashed enthusiasm. Or consider the fact that people often exercise their “positive” freedom by voting for a particular government, knowing that their “negative” freedoms will be curtailed if that government comes to power.
Berlin points to another problem. Who can determine what would be an appropriate goal for “positive” freedom? Authoritarian or totalitarian regimes often have an inflexible view of the purpose of human life; so they restrict “negative” freedoms to maximize their idea of human happiness. In fact, political oppression often arises from the abstract idea of what the good life is and is followed by government intervention to realize this idea.
Berlin’s response to this is twofold: the first is the importance of recognizing that the various freedoms we may desire will be in conflict, because there is no such thing as “life’s purpose”—only certain individuals’ goals. According to Berlin, this phenomenon has been rendered incomprehensible by philosophers who seek a universal basis for morality but confuse “right action with the purpose of life. Secondly, the lack of “tyranny and domination” is to keep our basic sense of freedom alive, thereby keeping our ideals in chains for ourselves and others. that we need to eliminate the possibility of transformation.
Prepared by: Sociologist Ömer YILDIRIM
Source: Omer YILDIRIM’s Personal Lecture Notes. Atatürk University Sociology Department 1st Year “Introduction to Philosophy” and 2nd, 3rd, 4th Grade “History of Philosophy” Lecture Notes (Ömer YILDIRIM); Open Education Philosophy Textbook