On Isaiah Berlin’s “Two Concepts of Liberty”

Jordan Peterson, Ben Shapiro, and a number of other public intellectuals have recently become mega superstars.

Incredibly, tens or sometimes hundreds of thousands of people watch Youtube videos of them defending liberties against the encroachments of social justice warriors, neo-Marxists, and cultural leftists. Leftists, for their part, fight back by disparaging as best they can the “classical liberalism” of such thinkers, eviscerating it for its vices. If we admit that we, too, have had a hard time looking away from these battles, if we count ourselves among the mass of viewers of these discussions and debates, if we can no longer avoid clicking on articles dissecting or deconstructing Peterson or his opponents, then we owe it to ourselves at least to review one of the classical statements of classical liberalism: Isaiah Berlin’s lecture on “two concepts of liberty.” Berlin’s lecture does more than remind us of some relevant distinctions concerning liberty, distinctions that can bring clarity to our analysis of these contemporary debates. It also stands as an invitation to both classical liberals and their opponents, and indeed to all of us, to stop the ideological warfare for long enough to inquire into what it means to be human. We should accept Berlin’s invitation in the name of humility, moderation, charity, and discovery.

Berlin’s lecture famously distinguishes between two concepts of liberty. The negative concept of liberty has to do with the scope or area within which you can act as you wish to do without anyone obstructing you or interfering with you. It is not necessarily democratic: an autocrat can grant a large degree of freedom from interference, for instance. It is thus indifferent to the question of who rules, emphasizing instead whether or not the rules, whatever their source, interfere with your ability to act.

The positive concept of liberty, by contrast, has everything to do with the question of who rules. It imagines that human beings and societies have a “higher self” and a “lower self,” a “true” or “real self” and another, false self. According to this concept, a person, or a society, is “truly” free when the higher self is in control. An example can help to clarify the distinction. The negative concept of liberty describes the situation when you want to smoke a cigarette and can do so without interference or obstruction, without a law telling you otherwise. The positive concept of liberty says that when you smoke, even if no one is stopping you, you are not free, but rather a slave to your habits, addictions, and erroneous desires. You are only truly free when you can master those things in the name of your own higher good.

Berlin acknowledged that the positive concept of liberty speaks to genuine human aspirations and legitimate human practices. When we educate our children, we are acting as though it is better for them to be learned than ignorant, civilized human beings rather than natural brutes. We take upon ourselves the prerogative of prohibiting them from doing all sorts of things – i.e. constraining their liberty in the negative sense – for the sake of what we regard as their own good and for the sake of the social good. And personally, we often try to defeat our bad habits through the “higher” knowledge that it is bad for us (your lower self wants the junk food, your higher self wants the health).

But Berlin also thought that the positive concept of liberty carries with it a tyrannical potential. When one person or group of people believes it knows what the “true” “real” or “higher” self of the human being or of human society is, it can succumb to the temptation to infringe upon all sorts of personal liberties in the name of the higher good. “We,” this group says, “will forbid you from doing what you want, but it is for your own good, or for the good of society.” You are not free, according to this picture, when you do what you want, because your wants can stem from your lower self, and when you act from your lower self, you are enslaved to it, and thus not free. “Yes,” such groups say, “we are limiting what you can do, but because we know what reason requires, or what God’s law is, or the meaning of history” or some other such Higher Truth, the interference is justified. If liberty is liberty from oppression, it might be justified to infringe on certain negative liberties for the sake of that higher, truer liberty.

Berlin recognized that there are a number of plausible ends, aims, or purposes for human and social life, such as happiness, the fulfillment of duty, justice, wisdom, and equality. The problem, he thought, was that there is no perspective from which these ends can co-exist harmoniously: an increase in equality might come at the expense of freedom, for instance. Anyone who claims he knows which end is the right one risks succumbing to the tyrannical potential of constraining others’ liberties for its sake, as “social justice warriors” constrain free speech for the sake of social justice, for instance. The safest bet, Berlin thought, was to embrace pluralism. Pluralism means acknowledging that there are a multitude of plausible ends and refusing to admit that any one of them is the correct one. Once the possibility of assessing the correctness of any end has been rejected, the ends become mere values. We can no longer talk about fidelity to higher principles, since principles might be true, but are required to speak instead about being committed to values. It is built into the concept of “values” and our commitments to them, for Berlin, that we reject in advance the possibility that the values can be true, universal, or eternal, or that there can be any rational adjudication among them. What matters instead is just our act of commitment and recognition of pluralism.

At the same time, Berlin astutely observed that our conceptions of liberty depend directly on our definition of what it is to be human. If we believe that to be human is indeed to have a higher and lower self, and if we believe that the higher self is truly to be defined in a certain way (as obedient to the will of God, or as self-legislating rationality, for instance), then it follows that freedom is not merely to do what we want, but to do God’s will, or to be rationally autonomous, or whatever happens to be the case depending on how we define what it is to be human. He called our beliefs “values” to make sure we wouldn’t take them as the truth, but the main point here is his recognition of the fact that our concepts of freedom vary as a function of our beliefs about what it is to be human.

Berlin’s arguments can help us make sense of the campus zeitgeist and point the way to deeper reflections that all sides must face up to. First, whenever we hear that someone is for or against “free speech,” we can ask whether they are talking about the negative or positive conception of liberty or freedom. If free speech means to say what you wish to say, so long as you are not directly inciting violence, it is “negative” liberty, i.e. it is concerned with protecting the act of speech without obstruction and interference. Those who oppose such speech in the name of social justice are arguing that “true freedom” is not the freedom to say what you wish, but the freedom to say what accords with the truth as they see it, for instance the truth that society is only truly free when it is free from certain oppressions, or when it approximates perfect equality of outcome. “Social justice warriors” have posited some form of “social justice” as society’s “true” or “higher” self, and they are prepared to infringe on lesser personal liberties for its sake.

Does that mean that self-professed classical liberals have rejected all forms of the positive conception of liberty? Not at all. Take Jordan Peterson. If you start from any random Youtube video of his, it won’t take long to encounter an argument of the sort that we ourselves have a higher self worth striving to bring ourselves into harmony with, and moreover that there are various sorts of social or individual “lower selves” whose freedom is worth constraining for the sake of a greater good.

Examining debates in terms of the two conceptions of freedom can aid us in mapping out with more precision than usual what the various sides are claiming for themselves, without making the mistake that one side alone runs the tyrannical risk, while the other side alone truly fights for freedom. “Freedom” is an equivocal term, Berlin argued. So we can’t just talk about freedom without making some distinctions.

Berlin’s position can also show the way forward toward some important questions for all sides, and for each of us. Berlin, remember, said that conceptions of freedom depend directly on our definitions of what the human being is. If you think the human being is an autonomous rational agent, freedom will be some sort of self-legislation; if you think the human being is a heteronomous child of God, freedom may be obedience to God’s law. If disputing parties and interested observers usually take for granted and defend a certain notion of freedom, or some other “value” altogether, what happens when the scene shifts from the deployment of that notion to inquiry into the definition of the human being that supports it?

Good things happen. It is dogmatic to wield a notion of freedom, or some other “value,” like a bat in campus wars and ideological wars. This dogmatic warfare is reflected in the titles of Youtube videos that claim a thinker has “DESTROYED!” another one. But it is also reflected in the increasing discussion of tactics among the partisans (see for instance Ben Shapiro’s video on how to defeat leftists in argument), until matters descend to who can call whom a “fascist” first. Some rhetorical and argumentative takedowns are, to be sure, often impressive, instructive, and apparently total. But it degrades the practice of argumentation and reasoning, and is unjust rather than just, to treat serious discussions as though they were little more than a reality television wrestling show. We become humbler, milder, and more decent when we shift away from the tactics of employing our “truths” as weapons toward an inquiry into our own underlying presuppositions. The question, therefore, should not be “which of these two positions is the right one,” but rather, “what does each position presuppose about what it means to be human, and can we inquire further into the status of that presupposition?” To use a Peterson-ism I rather like, “it is by no means obvious” that our own presuppositions are warranted or secure.

Besides humbling and moderating the disputants, mutual inquiry into basic presuppositions has the benefit over the tactical deployment of presupposed notions that it is possible to learn something fundamental from the former, but not from the latter. Inquiry points us toward discovery and learning. Tactical warfare can be instructive, too, of course: it can instruct us whether our tactics work or not under certain conditions, for instance. But if we admit that it is possible to learn something not just about tactics but also about essential matters of what it means to be human, for instance, then searching inquiry into our own presuppositions must be part of our practices.

Moreover, recognizing that various conceptions of freedom, or commitments to other “values,” stem from more or less concealed presuppositions about what it means to be human can alert us to the positive significance of ideological adversity. If we think that “social justice warriors” are wrongheaded, or if we think that champions of free speech and “viewpoint diversity” are, we might at least get a better understanding of why they think what they think if we charitably regard their positions in light of an overarching conception of what it means to be human. Outstanding philosophers have disagreed fundamentally over what it means to be human. If we see the lunar ideological disputants in the bright light of solar philosophical disputes, we ennoble the former by showing that, however meagerly, they at least reflect some genuine luminescence. Moreover, since the philosophers disagree, since there are many suns in this universe, we become, to repeat, more cautious in assuming that all the shine belongs to our little light.

To admit that there are genuine disputes about what it means to be human even among those who have thrown themselves headlong into the study of precisely that question is not, however, to conclude that all principles are but “values,” that nothing can be known, that there is no truth, and no means of adjudication among the alternatives. That is an overly hasty conclusion, indeed, and Berlin should not have drawn it. For the proposition that nothing can be known of these matters, or that all principles are but values to be postulated, is itself one among a number of competing propositions, and it too can become a dogma to us, dulling our senses down so much that we no longer sense the manifold questionable presuppositions behind such propositions.

Berlin’s essay on two concepts of freedom, then, not only teaches us to draw distinctions for the sake of analytical clarity; it also invites us to inquire into the question of what it means to be human, a question presupposed by our various commitments. Although Berlin assumes that the truth of the ends of human life cannot be known, a position reflected in his use of the term “values,” his invitation leaves open the possibility that we can call into question also his view of the human being as constrained with regard to knowledge of ends (a rigorous understanding of what is presupposed by the language of “values” would have to take Nietzsche at least as seriously as Heidegger did).

It would be naïve to expect everyone to lay down their weapons of war and to start to ponder their own presuppositions instead. For one thing, if a side lays down its arms, the other side might pounce. But if reflections on Berlin’s essay can at least keep us from forgetting completely that the question of what it means to be human lurks behind every ideological deployment of an answer to that question for the purposes of victory over ideological adversaries, if reflections on Berlin can keep the humbling, yet ennobling, moderating, yet invigorating inquiry alive to our minds and can render us intellectually charitable, that would be more than enough to recommend him to us.

At least, we must receive his message: “inquire.” In an age when it is easier than ever to watch public intellectuals “DESTROY” each other by wielding arguments, concepts, and ideas like a mobster’s baseball bat, while onlookers cheer the victor and mock the vanquished, we must never forget that for many of them, and for all of us, whether we know it or not, the most worthwhile opponent, looming ever-present, is our own question. Carl Schmitt once wrote that the enemy is our question as figure. In other words, behind every enmity lies concealed the possibility of inquiry. It might be strange to bring together a British liberal and a Nazi jurist, but together they teach us that we can channel the positive potentials of today’s ideological enmities into more peaceful and profitable directions if we learn to discover in our enemies our question.

1 thought on “On Isaiah Berlin’s “Two Concepts of Liberty””

  1. “We become humbler, milder, and more decent when we shift away from the tactics of employing our “truths” as weapons toward an inquiry into our own underlying presuppositions.” ——– Oh my, this is music to my ears. Thankyou so much for elucidating on this crucial theme. I admire your tenacity to dig deep on this topic, and in that regard thankyou for translating Dugin. If only the opponents to his ideas could get humbler, milder and more decent— then the discourse could begin.

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