Two Concepts of Liberty: Reading Isaiah Berlin: Part 2 (w/ Davood Gozli & John David)

Freedoms to Recognize

How the “negative freedom” and “positive freedom” of Isaiah Berlin suggests the necessity of considering the human element

Isaiah Berlin

Note the following phrase: “Freedom of the individual.” Pretty self-evident, right? The individual is not locked in a room or forced to read books all day: the individual is released, left alone. Wait, look at the phrase again: “Freedom of the individual.” “Of” could mean created, which could mean the freedom which the individual creates. If an individual creates freedom, the individual has a certain capacity which makes freedom possible. “Freedom of the individual” then doesn’t merely mean “released”: it simultaneously suggests a state where “the individual is left alone” and a state in which the individual “expresses something.”

Two Concepts of Liberty: Reading Isaiah Berlin: Part 2

If freedom is “of” an individual, it is created by individuals, not merely enjoyed by them. When Isaiah Berlin wrote his famous “Two Concepts of Freedom,” he defined “positive freedom” as “self-determination,” which is to say that “humans are free to the degree they have certain capacities,” while “negative freedom” is “release and absence of restriction,” which means humans aren’t forced or coerced into x or y.

For Berlin, “positive freedom” was dangerous, because if I as a ruler could say that people weren’t free unless they were rational (for example), then I might decide, “x group of people weren’t rational,” and thus I could do what I wanted to them and not “violate their freedom” (after all, if they’re not rational, they’re not free). Rulers easily decided what constituted “rational,” and thus they were given “a blank check” to do what “they thought was best” without any worry of doing something immoral or illegitimate. For this reason, Isaiah Berlin focused on “binding positive freedom,” for when “positive freedom” was combined with what he called “monism” (a single schema according to which the world could be understood), Mr. Berlin discerned that this was a recipe for totalitarianism.

If people aren’t free unless they are rational, then if I think some people are irrational, I can force them to do whatever I think is best so that they gain rationality (according to me) without violating their freedom. I can do no wrong, and so the 20th century was made. With noble focus, Berlin worked to make sure this never happened again.

Let’s inspect another phrase: “I did it by myself.” What does “by myself” mean? Well, it could mean “alone,” without anyone in the room, and we can safely assume that it would be hard to paint a picture, for example, if someone was constantly poking us or shouting at us. However, “by myself” can also mean “without any help,” according to my own capacities. The phrase entails an ambiguity, a possible “both-ness,” and surely I would need “a little of both” to paint my picture. I must have not been bothered, and I must have had the necessary capacity. How exactly these two needs came together would require a person to be there in the room with me to see: it could not be determined “outside the condition” of being in the room (which suggests also that an inevitable “human element” is required to determine how negative and positive freedom must be balanced, a key move on which we’ll soon expound).

I need to be free to paint and feel like I can paint freely, and perhaps these can come together so that I can generate a painting that others can freely enjoy. Better yet, perhaps my painting will inspire people to do things they otherwise wouldn’t do, suggesting that my painting can also be freeing. See all the different ways the term “freedom” can be employed? There are many senses “freedom” can be applied at different times and in different ways, and that means recognizing specifically how freedom applies (and in what sense) requires involvement and recognition.

Also, another complexity: let’s say I’m the world greatest heart surgeon, and that no one would ever dream of stopping me from carrying out a heart surgery. I have the capacity, and no one is using force against me. And then I have a heart attack and need a heart surgery myself. Am I free to do the surgery? No, I will need help. I will need others. Considering this, there are certain situations that require communal involvement, which is to say there are situations in which neither “positive freedom” nor “negative freedom” can prove adequate alone. We will need community. But can’t community control us? Can’t community prove overbearing? Yes, but this is why recognition is critical: a people who recognize one another and respect freedom can “be in a place” where they can know how freedom should apply, while at the same time not using that knowledge as grounds for power in favor of themselves.

For Isaiah Berlin, human life is messy. There are times when we need freedom, and there are times when we need to emphasize economics. There are times when a violin needs to play, and times when it needs to fall into the background so that the trumpet can take center stage. All are part of the same performance, and all the parts, in the right order and to the right degree, make possible “harmony.” “Harmony,” in this sense, is what Berlin seeks, versus a “monism” or “monotheory” which could risk totalitarianism and “emptying diversity” into a single image and likeness. But how can when we know when we need “positive freedom” versus “negative freedom?” How can we know when the violins should play versus the bass? Well, recognition. “The human element.” We need to be involved in the lives of one another and our communities.

Isaiah Berlin finds a middle ground between “Fundamentalism” and “Relativism” that he calls “Pluralism,” something I like to think of as “Conditionalism.” I associate this with “Aesthetic Epistemology,” as I have discussed before with Ethan Nelson. We could say there is Fundamentalism, Relativism, and Conditionalism, with Fundamentalism being more absolutistic and ideological, while Relativism is more “anything goes.” Conditionalism tries to find a middle between these two positions, opening up space for diversity without losing substance or “grounding.” Conditionalism stresses that if I meet condition x, then y could be logical, yet a person who meets condition z could be someone for whom y is illogical. Both people are rational, relative to the conditions they meet. This is not an “open relativism” that suggests “anything goes,” but stresses that the logic and rationality of people is based and justified by conditions they meet and experience. Berlin wants us to recognition that “mature” politics recognizes Conditionalism, which also means that it takes the diversity of human lives and situations seriously. Also, “mature politics” realizes that, under condition z, more equality can be “rational and justified,” while under condition y, less equality might be the way to go. How do we know which is appropriate and when? Well, involvement. Knowing people. Being part of the community. Meeting the conditions of the situation, as is only possible in it.

“Positive freedom” and “negative freedom” gradually muddle together, and in so doing the categories can help us acknowledge the inevitable and critical role of “human recognition” and “conditionality.” Berlin emphasizes in his essay the dangers of “positive freedom,” but he ultimately doesn’t just say that “therefore negative freedom is good.” Perhaps under totalitarian regimes, this was the claim, but what about in a world where people are dying of preventable illness? Times can change, and Berlin muddles his “two concepts of freedom” precisely to make space for adjustment relative to what “the human element” calls for and summons. But identifying that will require us to pay attention.

To close, Berlin opens his famous essay with a section that I never really noticed before:

‘Where ends are agreed, the only questions left are those of means, and these are not political but technical, that is to say, capable of being settled by experts or machines, like arguments between engineers or doctors.’¹

This in mind, let us also consider a section toward the end of his essay:

‘Principles are not less sacred because their duration cannot be guaranteed. Indeed, the very desire for guarantees that our values are eternal and secure in some objective heaven is perhaps only a creative for the certainties of childhood or the absolute values of our primitive past […] To demand more than this is perhaps a deep and incurable metaphysical need; but to allow it to determine one’s practice is a symptom of an equally deep, and more dangerous, moral and political immaturity.’²

This second quotation I could frame and hang in my office, and learning to live with that “incurable metaphysical need” could be seen as the main drive of The True Isn’t the Rational trilogy. Trying to cure this itch is the desire for certainty; living with it, living with confidence.

Berlin fights “monotheorism” or “monism” because it leads to ‘all political and moral problems [being] turned into technological ones,’ which means there is no muddling or mess.³ There is a right answer that is always a right answer, which is to say Conditionalism is false. Unfortunately, this means “the human element” no longer needs to be emphasized, and with this we can lose “the other” and “our communities.” What happens to us then? Well, perhaps “The Meaning Crisis.”

“Mature politics” for Berlin is Conditional, and in showing how his “two concepts of liberty” can muddle together, space is made for a requirement that we take seriously “the other” and be involved. By explaining how liberty can be thought of as two concepts, Berlin has also shown that the world needs “the I” and “the other.” If we recognize the “two concepts of liberty,” we might free the human between them.





¹Berlin, Isaiah. The Proper Study of Mankind. “Two Concepts of Liberty.” Farrar, Straus and Giroux. New York, NY: 2000: 191.

²Berlin, Isaiah. The Proper Study of Mankind. “Two Concepts of Liberty.” Farrar, Straus and Giroux. New York, NY: 2000: 242.

³Berlin, Isaiah. The Proper Study of Mankind. “Two Concepts of Liberty.” Farrar, Straus and Giroux. New York, NY: 2000: 191.




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