Isaiah Berlin and his poor defence of liberalism – Önder Kulak

Berlin usually relates his negative freedom aspect with economic processes because his main aim is to criticize Marxism which is referred to several times in his articles. According to Berlin, poverty is seen as a condition like an illness. It is an incapacity to attain goals and is not a lack of political freedom

Isaiah Berlin is one of the philosophers who is needed in discussions on the term freedom. The problem of freedom has been discussed since ancient times to today, and there is more than one side to this discussion. As is known, Berlin studied the history of philosophy in order to explore and understand these sides. Consequently, Berlin emphasized two main traditions by using the terms positive freedom and negative freedom. In his work entitled Two Concepts of Liberty, he tries to show the positions of these two traditions in the history of philosophy. He does not claim anything new, but locates these movements by using the above mentioned terms.

Berlin tries to understand the evolution of the term freedom in his important work ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’. In that famous article, he says:

To coerce a man is to deprive him of freedom – freedom from what? Almost every moralist in human history has praised freedom. Like happiness and goodness, like nature and reality, it is a term whose meaning is so porous that there is little interpretation that it seems able to resist. (Berlin 1969:2)

At this point, Berlin thinks that there are two main paths, as has been mentioned previously. In the case of the negative path, concepts like obstacles, absence, and prevention are used. On the other hand, presence, self mastery, self determination are the concepts that are commonly used for the term positive freedom. In this work, the main aim is to describe and criticize Berlin’s understanding of freedom. Negative freedom will therefore be the major subject in this approach.

Negative freedom

Berlin gives a definition for negative freedom by saying:

I am normally said to be free to the degree to which no man or body of men interferes with my activity. Political liberty in this sense is simply the area within which a man can act unobstructed by others. (Berlin 1969:3)

As is clear from the quotation, Berlin directs the discussion from social philosophy to political philosophy and he thinks that freedom is something linked to politics. Then, he determines the new limits of the discussion.

The definition does not consider that the conditions of a person affect his or her freedom positively or negatively. At this point, the definition acquires a meaning when people are prevented from attaining a goal by other human beings; otherwise it would be similar to positive freedom that considers the conditions of a person.

Berlin usually relates his negative freedom aspect with economic processes because his main aim is to criticize Marxism which is referred to several times in his articles. According to Berlin, poverty is seen as a condition like an illness. It is an incapacity to attain goals and is not a lack of political freedom. At this point, it is possible to query why the poor are incapacitated. What is more, someone could ask a question about the distinction between the poor and show the rich and the results of this distinction in the social and political area.

Berlin has a famous example about an Egyptian peasant. He claims that the ‘half–naked, illiterate, underfed and diseased’ (Berlin 1969:4) peasant needs food and medicine rather than individual freedom. Although he has a basic freedom and also has the freedom potentialities for the future, he is incapable of attaining a lot of goals, but his freedom is equal to ‘professors, artists and millionares.’ (Berlin 1969:4) Berlin asks: ‘What is freedom to those who cannot make use of it? Without adequate conditions for the use of freedom, what is the value of freedom?’ (Berlin 1969:4) After the question, it is possible to infer the answer from the article. The peasant has freedom potentialities and if he finds suitable conditions he will use them. As has been emphasized several times so far, Berlin does not think that the conditions of the peasant obstruct his freedom. However, it is possible to separate the peasants’ and a millionaire’s freedom by looking at their conditions in a critical way of thinking.

For example, Berlin does not reject an example that the peasant, a professor and a millionaire have the freedom to meet in an international conference, but when the peasant is not allowed to enter an airplane, a security officer obstructs his attempt. This means the peasant’s freedom is under threat. In this example, there are a lot of important points that should be argued. The peasant was in freedom when he was at the gate of the airport but after the security officer’s obstruction, he lost his freedom because someone had obstructed his desire. The reason for this obstruction was about the incapacity of the peasant: the peasant has not enough money to pay for a ticket and for of this reason the officer obstructed his desire. If we ask the officer why he or she did not allow him to go in, the officer would defend himself or herself by pointing out the laws in his or her country. It is known that Berlin does not reject the negative effects of laws on individuals. According to Berlin, conditions do not threaten freedom but laws can. As can be inferred from the example, such kinds of laws are strongly connected to the conditions of people. So, without incapacity, laws obstruct an individual’s desires, which means incapacity and capacity form different types of freedom.

Positive freedom

Berlin defines positive freedom as the following:

The “positive” sense of the word “liberty” derives from the wish on the part of the individual to be his own master. I wish my life and decisions to depend on myself, not on external forces of whatever kind. (Berlin 1969:8)

According to Berlin, positive freedom is supported because of people’s failures in their life. Berlin does not consider the importance of conditions; also he thinks that the conditions depend on people’s own efforts by using options in their lives. Additionally, people want to form a new society with an understanding of positive freedom because of their failures in their attempts. So, positive freedom makes everyone equal to each other and abolishes their own efforts and options. What is more, concepts like class, state, and society are just used to hide the failure of individuals. Berlin is strongly against philosophers like Jean Jacques Rousseau, Johann Fichte and Friedrich Hegel and he labels them as followers of positive freedom.

Berlin’s distinction between negative and positive freedom is not a successful one. Also, he cannot place all philosophers into two categories. For example, Is Immanuel Kant a follower of negative freedom or positive freedom? It is known that Kant’s thoughts are both in negative and positive freedom. John Stuart Mill and Alexander von Humboldt are two important figures in liberalism and negative freedom but they also support some parts of positive understanding.

Critics, however, have objected that the ideal described by Humboldt and Mill looks much more like a positive concept of liberty than a negative one. Positive liberty consists, they say, in exactly this growth of the individual: the free individual is one that develops, determines and changes her own desires and interests autonomously and from within. This is not liberty as the mere absence of obstacles, but liberty as self-realization.

Another example is Karl Marx. Although Berlin claims that Marx is one of the philosophers supporting positive freedom, Marx’s understanding of freedom cannot be considered as positive freedom. Galvano Della Volpe, in his well known book entitled ‘Rousseau and Marx and Other Writings’ (1979), criticises thoughts like Berlin has and forms an alternative understanding.

Roothbard is also another important critic of Berlin. In his book called ‘The Ethics of Liberty’, he finds a lot of points to argue. For example, he says:

Berlin’s fundamental flaw was his failure to define negative liberty as the absence of physical interference with an individual’s person and property… (Roothbard 2007)

According to Roothbard, the definition must be expanded because with its current formulation, it causes problems while defending liberal and neoliberal thoughts by using Berlin’s ideas. Roothbard’s criticism is a common one. For example, Kaufman has a similar criticism to Roothard’s. (Kaufman 1962:241)

Herein, Berlin’s understanding of freedom has been described by using his own categories like negative freedom, positive freedom, conditions, capasity, and incapasity. After that, we have criticized Berlin by using his own ideas and then have referred to the criticism of Roothbard, Kaufman and Volpe and have showed the alternative understandings.


Berlin, Isaiah (1969). Four Essays on Liberty, Two Concepts of Liberty. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gray, John (1995). Isaiah Berlin. Glasgow: HarperCollinsPublishers

Kaufman, A. S. (1962). ‘Professor Berlin on “Negative Freedom” ’. Mind 71, 241–3.

Roothbard, M. N. (2007). Isaiah Berlin on Negative Freedom.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2003). Positive and Negative Liberty.

Volpe, G. D. (1979). Rousseau and Marx and Other Writings. London: Lawrance and Wishart Ltd. T. John Fraser.