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POLITICAL 10.1177/0090591704268179 Nelson / LIBERTY: THEOR ONE Y / February CONCEPT 2005 TOO MANY?


LIBERTY One Concept Too Many?

ERIC NELSON Harvard University

Isaiah Berlins distinction between negative and positive concepts of liberty has recently been defended on new and interesting grounds. Proponents of this dichotomy used to equate positive liberty with self-masterythe rule of our rational nature over our passions and impulses. However, Berlins critics have made the case that this account does not employ a separate concept of liberty: although the constraints it envisions are internal, rather than external, forces, the freedom in question remains negative (freedom is still seen as the absence of such impediments). Responding to this development, Berlins defenders have increasingly tended to identify positive liberty with self-realization. The argument is that such an account of freedom is genuinely nonnegative, in that it does not refer to the absence of constraints on action. This essay argues that the claims made on behalf of freedom as self-realization cannot withstand scrutiny, and that they fail to isolate a coherent view of liberty that is distinguishable from the absence of constraint. Keywords: liberty; positive; negative; Berlin

I When Isaiah Berlin unveiled his classic distinction between negative and positive liberty in 1958, he was making both a historical and an analytical claim. He was not only arguing that nonnegative locutions about liberty
AUTHORS NOTE: I am deeply grateful to Elisabeth Camp, James Hankins, Melissa Lane, Leonidas Montes, Amartya Sen, Richard Tuck, and two anonymous readers for their comments on this essay, and to Mark Kishlansky for suggesting the title. I also owe a special debt of gratitude to Quentin Skinner, who first prompted me to think about these issues, and without whose encouragement this essay simply would not have been written.
POLITICAL THEORY, Vol. 33 No. 1, February 2005 58-78 DOI: 10.1177/0090591704268179 2005 Sage Publications




could be intelligible but also that such locutions had a significant, if sinister, history. While Hobbes and Mill, Tocqueville and Constant carried the banner for negative libertyfreedom as the absence of interference or impedimentthe positive concept found expression in the writings of such towering eminences as Plato, Zeno, Kant, Rousseau, Hegel, and Marx.1 Since Berlin issued his celebrated formulation, however, his claim for the historical importance of positive liberty has been gravely compromised, as scholars have whittled away at the set of thinkers whose political theories the concept was meant to explain. Gerald C. MacCallum took a significant stride in this direction when he pointed out that Berlin had imposed an arbitrary restriction on the notion of constraint in insisting that negative freedom consisted solely in the absence of the deliberate interference of other human beings.2 Persons can be said to be constrained by internal forces or factors as well, MacCallum argued, and the absence of such intrinsic constraints would still count as freedom in its negative sense.3 Once the category of constraint had been stretched in this manner, it became a relatively simple matter to redistrict the province of negative liberty so that it could embrace many of the theorists Berlin had placed in the positive camp. Stoics in the tradition of Zeno, for example, preached that man lives according to his nature (and is thus truly free) only when his passions are restrained, a straightforward instance of freedom as the absence of internal constraint. Likewise, Plato spoke of freedom from false beliefs,4 and Kants moral agent legislates for himself the law of reason once he has liberated himself from the slavery of passions and sense impressions. All of these putatively positive theorists turn out on closer inspection to disagree with Hobbes and Constant, not about the meaning of liberty but about what counts as a constraint. MacCallum offered these observations in the service of a broader critique of Berlins enterprise. Rejecting Berlins distinction between positive and negative freedom, MacCallum maintained that all intelligible locutions about liberty could be subsumed under a single triadic template: freedom is always of something (an agent or agents), from something, to do, not do, become, or not become something.5 But even contemporary theorists who dispute MacCallums larger claim about a single concept of freedom often accept his narrower argument about internal constraint. Quentin Skinner provides a distinguished example in this respect. He observes that Berlins characterization of positive liberty as self-mastery seems to have relied in large measure on the familiar thoughtequally familiar to students of Plato and of Freud that the obstacles to your capacity to act freely may be internal rather than external, and that you will need to free yourself from these psychological constraints if you are to act autonomously.6 But, Skinner continues, this claim fails to capture a separate concept of positive liberty, since, although


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we now include psychic, internal forces in the universe of possible constraints, we are still speaking about the need to get rid of an element of constraint if we are to act freely.7 Indeed, Berlin himself seems to have intuited that this particular notion of self-mastery was a nonstarter as a separate concept of positive liberty. In his 1958 lecture, he declared, Freedom is selfmastery, the elimination of obstacles to my will, whatever these obstacles may bethe resistance of nature, of my ungoverned passions, of irrational institutions, of the opposing wills or behaviour of others.8 Whether the constraints are internal or external, we are still firmly within the realm of negative liberty. Skinner is thus committed to MacCallums emptying of the historical population of positive theorists. Plato and Freud must go, as must the Stoics, and presumably the Kantians. But Skinner, whose interest is primarily in elucidating two different understandings of negative liberty,9 nonetheless accepts that a positive concept exists and is intelligible. When Berlin writes in his introduction to the 1969 Four Essays on Liberty that for the most part, freedom was identified by metaphysically inclined writers, with the realization of the real self,10 Skinner feels that he has at last articulated a concept of freedom that is truly incommensurable with negative liberty. Freedom, Skinner explains, is thus equated not with self-mastery but rather with selfrealisation, and above all with self-perfection, with the idea (as Berlin expresses it) of my self at its best. In making this claim, Skinner suggests that Berlin had in mind chiefly the British neo-Hegelians T. H. Green and Bernard Bosanquet. Certainly, in the descent from Plato and Kant to Green and Bosanquet the concept of positive freedom experienced quite a falling off. But the claim remains that this positive notion is intelligible, and that it was articulated in a particular historical moment. We turn now to an analysis of exactly what this claim involves.

II Positive liberty, on this account, is an end state, the status of a fully selfrealized human being. It is not the absence of internal or external constraints, but the actual achievement of a particular condition of life. Relying in large measure on an important essay by Tom Baldwin, Skinner takes Green and Bosanquet to be the classic exponents of this view.11 Green does indeed make several statements, which would seem to tend in this direction. In Liberal Legislation and Freedom of Contract (1881), Green rejects the notion that by liberty we mean the freedom to do as we like irrespectively of what it is



that we like, and insists that, in measuring the growth of freedom, what we are measuring is the greater power on the part of the citizens as a body to make the most and best of themselves.12 In his lecture On the Different Senses of Freedom as Applied to the Will and to the Moral Progress of Man, he adds that real freedom consists in determination of the will by reason,13 and in arriving at harmony with the true law of ones being.14 Still more strikingly, Green writes that freedom for a man is the state in which he shall have realised his ideal of himself.15 Skinner, like Baldwin before him, is deeply struck by the use of the future perfect tense here.16 Freedom, Green seems to be saying, is not in any sense the opportunity to attain such a condition but rather the actual attainment of it. But there is good reason to doubt that Green saw himself offering a positive account of liberty in this sense.17 He begins his lecture On the Different Senses of Freedom by setting up a familiar distinction. He imagines the case of a man who pursues an unworthy object. In one sense, the man is a free agent in the act, because through his identification of himself with a certain desired object . . . he makes the motive which determines the act, and is accordingly conscious of himself as its author.18 But in another sense he is not free, because the objects to which his actions are directed are objects in which, according to the law of his being, satisfaction of himself is not to be found.19 Such a man is externally free and internally a slave. Green offers the caveat, however, that it must of course be admitted that every usage of the term [freedom] to express anything but a social and political relation of one man to another involves a metaphor.20 Specifically, reflecting on their consciousness, on their inner life(i.e. their life as viewed from within), men apply to it the terms with which they are familiar as expressing their relation to each other . . . a man can set over against himself his whole nature or any of its elements, and apply to the relation thus established in thought a term borrowed from relations of outward life. Much like Berlin, Green then offers Plato, the Stoics, St. Paul, Kant, and Hegel as examples of thinkers who used freedom in this metaphorical sense. But Green insists that there is a real community of meaning between freedom as expressing the condition of a citizen of a civilised state, and freedomas expressing the condition of a man who is inwardly master of himself. 21 Freedom, for Green, is self-realization only insofar as it means freedom from wants and impulses which interfere with the fulfillment of ones possibilities.22 The consciousness of these impulses, Green explains, is a consciousness of impeded energy, a consciousness of oneself as for ever thwarted and held back, and, as a result, the forecast of deliverance from these conditions is . . . a forecast of freedom. Once such encumbrances are disposed of, man will indeed find his


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object (what else could he find?), but freedom in this sense still shares a community of meaning with freedom as the absence of physical interference. One could say much the same thing, it seems to me, about Bosanquet in his Philosophical Theory of the State. Bosanquet, who edited the 1907 edition of Greens lectures, submits that liberty is being able to be yourself,23 and, at the same time, that liberty is the being ourselves, and the fullest condition of liberty is that in which we are ourselves most completely.24 At first glance, it might appear that these two claims endorse two extremely different positions on what constitutes liberty. On the first view, freedom seems to be the opportunity for me to be myself, while on the second view it seems to be the state of my being myself. But for Bosanquet, as for Green, there is no conceptual distance between these two claims: once I have a genuine opportunity to be myself (i.e., all internal impediments have been disposed of) I will become myself. Indeed, there is nothing else that I could possibly become. The manner in which Bosanquet develops this argument is much influenced by Green, as he himself concedes. He begins by acknowledging the common belief that liberty is to be free from constraint.25 He then asks, What is constraint? and proceeds to offer some version of the traditional answer: It is constraint when my mind is interfered with in its control of my body either by actual or by threatening physical violence under the direction of another mind. But Bosanquet then advances a second, and preferred notion of constraint, which, he argues (as does Green), involves making use of a metaphorthe metaphor of internal chains.26 There is, he insists, a higher and larger liberty that is only to be had when we realize that what we are freed from is, in this case, not the constraint of those whom we commonly regard as others, but the constraint of what we commonly regard as part of ourself. The higher sense of liberty, like the lower, Bosanquet adds in language that should have caught MacCallums attention, involves freedom from some things as well as freedom to others.27 Once we are free from our internal impediments, we are free to be ourselves. But for Bosanquet, as for Green, the opportunity to be ourselves, if genuine, is never passed up: only an impediment of some kind could cause us to choose something else, but freedom is precisely the absence of such impediments. In sum, if Plato and the Stoics are to count as negative theorists, then surely Bosanquet looks qualified to join them.28 It appears, then, that the historical supply of positive theorists is all but exhausted once we assume that constraints can be intrinsic to the agent. Yet the claim remains that, as an analytical matter, there is an intelligible positive concept of liberty that is incommensurable with its negative counterpartwhether or not it has a significant presence in the historical record. The



remainder of this essay will make the case, however, that even as an analytical matter the distinction does not withstand scrutiny.

III Among contemporary philosophers who have risen to the defense of positive liberty, Charles Taylor has been especially outspoken and insistent. It is undeniable, he has written of Berlins dichotomy, that there are two such families of conceptions of political freedom abroad in our civilization. I should note at this point that Taylors essay Whats Wrong with Negative Liberty carves out a significantly wider space for positive liberty than does Skinners. Taylor, indeed, does not concede that freedom as self-rule and independence rely on the negative rubric.29 I introduce him here because he provides a helpful vocabulary for thinking through the proposed distinction between negative and positive freedom. Doctrines of positive freedom, Taylor suggests, are concerned with a view of freedom which involves essentially the exercising of control over ones life. On this view, one is free only to the extent that one has effectively determined oneself and the shape of ones life. The concept of freedom here is an exercise-concept.30 By contrast, the negative theory is an opportunity-concept, where being free is a matter of what we can do, of what is open to us to do, whether or not we do anything to exercise these options. Taylor suggests that positive liberty is not in any sense an absence, but is rather the affirmative achievement of self-realization. It is therefore, on his view, incompatible with negative liberty, a genuine second concept of freedom. Taylors vocabulary is valuable if only for reminding us of why contemporary theorists have wanted to isolate a separate concept of positive liberty. They notice that, on some theories of freedom, free people seem to have choices, while, on others, all free people seem to be doing or being one particular thing (that thing may or may not be identical across the entire set of free individuals, but for each free individual there is one particular thing he or she will be). These differing descriptive claims about what free people will do have seemed to require explanation in the form of different concepts of liberty. To be sure, sometimes inexact language makes it difficult to see the problem in these terms. We have encountered, for example, the formulation freedom is self-realization, which seems to indicate that self-realization is neither the condition free people will necessarily arrive at nor the achievement that makes freedom possible, but is actually freedom itself. Yet it does not take much to see through this phrase. Self-realization is, presumably, quite a lot of things; we still want to know what is free about it.31 To answer


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that question, we have to begin by replacing the formula freedom is selfrealization with one of two conditional statements: If people are free, they will realize themselves, or If people realize themselves, they will be free. These two conditionals represent, in my view, the two things people could reasonably mean when they use the phrase freedom is self-realization. That is, they might mean that freedom brings self-realization, or that self-realization brings freedom. These two conditionals do not constitute a logical transposition of the original identity statement. The point, rather, is that this identity statement is on its face unacceptable: it cannot reasonably be argued that freedom and self-realization are identical. Self-realization is not only freedom. The most that can be argued is that freedom is one of the qualities of a self-realized individual, along with, say, completeness, fulfillment, perfection, harmony, peace, and so forth. We want to know what it is about self-realization that connects it, for some theorists, to the value of freedom. The question, in short, is whether there is a nonnegative way of explaining the use of the word free in these two conditional statements. I believe there is not. Once more, what is truly at issue in the quarrel between Taylors opportunity theorists and exercise theorists is not a disagreement about liberty but one about constraint. To see this more clearly in the case of the first conditional statement (If people are free, they will realize themselves), let us separate theories of freedom into two parts. The first part will be a normative claim about what should count as a constraint (the absence of such constraints will be called freedom). The second part will be a descriptive claim about what the situation of unconstrained people will look like (what they will do or not do, be or not be). The essential point is that the normative claim will determine the shape of the descriptive claim.32 Consider as an example the classic formulation of liberty found in Hobbess Leviathan. For Hobbes, LIBERTY or FREEDOME, signifieth (properly) the absence of Opposition; (by Opposition, I mean externall Impediments of motion;) and may be applyed no lesse to Irrationall, and Inanimate creatures, than to Rationall.33 On this view, only physical impediments count as constraints; a person is free so long as he is not tied up, chained, or otherwise physically obstructed. Such is Hobbess normative claim about constraint. But this claim commits him to a particular account of what being free will look like. If freedom is to be posited of all agents (or objects) who are not physically restrained, then as a descriptive matter the situation of free people will be extremely indeterminate. They may choose to do or not do, be or not be any number of different things. The state of free people in a Hobbesian universe looks like an opportunity state because only physical impediments count as constraints on freedom.



Suppose, however, that a particular theoristGreen or Bosanquet, for instanceassumes that each person has a higher self that, left to its own devices, will choose to live in a particular way (and that way only) or do a particular thing (and that thing only)and that only through doing that thing or living that way will the person realize his true nature. Such a thinker would list as constraints any and all things that might dissuade or distract the agent from following his higher self and choosing his natural object. In other words, if doing or being x is mans true nature (i.e., the thing his unobstructed higher self would always choose), then anything that might make him do or be not x becomes a constraint. It is not difficult to see how broadening the set of constraints in this manner will have a very pronounced effect on a given thinkers descriptive view of the situation of free people. If anything that might prompt an agent to choose not x is understood as a constraint, then of course any agent of whom freedom can be posited will do or be xand only x. Hence the rise of shifty locutions such as freedom is x, or freedom is doing x. Such statements most often work out to all free people will do or be x and rest ultimately on the negative notion of freedom as the absence of constraint. For many of those theorists whom philosophers and historians have wanted to call positive, the state of free people looks like an exercise state only because of their extremely broad normative claims about what things are to count as constraints. Free people, for positive theorists like Green and Bosanquet, do indeed have choices; its just that they will never choose anything other than their object. At this point the following objection might be raised: the argument that these putatively positive claims about freedom are actually claims about the absence of constraint involves the use of a rhetorical slight of hand. All positive accounts of freedom, it might be argued, can be rewritten in such a way as to turn them into negative claims, but to do so is to misrepresent them. In other words, it is surely the case that the absence of all things which could prevent x is equivalent to x, but putting the matter in these terms might obscure the emphasis a given author is trying to convey. Positive theorists, we are told, are fundamentally concerned not with obstacles but rather with x itself; negative theorists, on the other hand, are neutral with respect to outcomes and focus only on the removal of obstacles. As a result, we should agree that two different understandings of the core element in the idea of freedom are present. Several replies to this line of reasoning immediately suggest themselves. First, even if we were to grant all of this, it would still be quite significant from an analytical point of view if all positive claims about liberty could be successfully accounted for in negative terms. That is, it would be very odd indeed to say that we require a separate concept of positive liberty, but at the same time to acknowledge that there are no claims


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about liberty that such a concept is needed to explain (i.e., which cannot be explained using the more conventional negative understanding). Indeed, for many of its proponents, the attraction of positive liberty lies precisely in the fact that it is supposed to make sense of various arguments about liberty, which are said to be incoherent in negative terms.34 But this is already to concede far too much ground to the objection, because in point of fact there is no rewriting going on here. Green and Bosanquet themselves turn to the language of constraint whenever they are required to explain what self-realization has to do with freedom. All kinds of language, it seems, can be used to explain why self-realization is good, but, in order to explain how it is connected to the value of freedom, recourse must be had to the standard negative idiom. Again, no one seems to have been able to provide any account of why a self-realized individual should be called free (as opposed to happy, fulfilled, complete, etc.) that does not involve the absence of constraints. Thus, as we have seen, both Green and Bosanquet are anxious to stress the community of meaning between their two senses of freedom, and to define the higher freedom they have in mind as liberation from the constraint of what we commonly regard as part of ourself. Likewise, Kant, whose account of freedom is often styled as a paradigmatic positive view, makes clear that he locates freedom in adherence to the law of reason because such conformity reflects independence of determinate causes of the world of sense.35 Once such constraints have been overcome, my authentic self, which is pure intelligence, operates according to the rational necessity of the moral law.36 It is for this reason that Kant scholars constantly find themselves drawn to privative language when they are discussing his account of freedom. For one critic, Kants creature of inclination is fettered, while his free agent is one who breaks loose from what is merely given by nature, including the brute facts of my inclination.37 For another, Kant grounds the principle of right solely in the legislative reason, purified of all anthropological features and excluding all elements of nature, of a metaphysics of freedom.38 All of this language aims to make concrete the absence of internal and external constraint, and to dramatize the idea that rational necessity is arrived at by process of elimination. As Kant himself puts it, reason is a something that is left over [das da brig bleibt] if I have excluded everything from the determining grounds of my will that belongs to the world of sense.39 Kants account, in short, needs no more rewriting than Greens or Bosanquets to make clear that it involves the absence of constraint.40 Yet at the center of the objection we have been considering there lurks a more fundamental error. Different theories of freedom are not characterized by differing levels of concern with the actual conduct of free people; they dif-



fer, rather, in the specificity with which they are able to describe that conduct. Let us return for a moment to the case of Hobbes, so often identified as the quintessential negative theorist. Hobbes is famous for rejecting the conventional notion of a purely rational will; there is, for him, no act of deliberation that is not based on passions (themselves the results of sense impressions). The will is simply the last Appetite, or Aversion in a wholly determined process of deliberation (Beasts, Hobbes informs us, also Deliberate).41 It would, therefore, make no sense for him to speak of the passions or sense impressions as constraints, since, on his account, there is no pristine will for them to constrain. Freedom for Hobbes is, thus, simply the absence of physical constraint on natural motion (i.e., motion dictated by natural necessity, which includes all human action).42 A river without a dam is free in precisely the same sense as a man without chains. But because only physical impediments count as constraints in his theory, Hobbes cannot describe the behavior of free people with any degree of specificity: a man, on his account, is free from chains to walk three miles, go to France, throw his belongings into the sea, write a book . . . ad infinitum. This lack of specificity is in no sense intrinsic to an account of freedom as the absence of constraint; it follows from a theory of the human person to which such an account is then applied. A second, and related objection to the model I have proposed might go as follows: it is disingenuous to claim that there is any real choice (opportunity) involved in a theory of freedom that lists everything that might prevent x as a constraint. In such a theory, a rational agent has only one conceivable option, and no other choice is possible. Therefore, freedom here really is an exercise conceptit is doing x. For an investigation of this line of reasoning, it should be useful to consider an example from a different area of political philosophy: Michael Sandels analysis of the choice situation in the Rawlsian original position. Sandel poses the question of just how free the choice of principles would actually be behind Rawlss veil of ignorance. On one hand, he writes, once the parties find themselves in a fair situation, anything goes; the scope for their choice is unlimited.43 On the other hand, however, it becomes clear that the original position has been designed explicitly to ensure the selection of Rawlss two principles of justice. On Rawlss account, it seems, a fair choice situation is by definition one in which it is inconceivable that the parties would choose any other principles.
On this interpretation, what it means to say that the principles chosen will be just whatever they turn out to be is simply that, given their situation, the parties are guaranteed to choose the right principles. While it may be true that, strictly speaking, they can choose any principle they wish, their situation is designed in such a way that they are guaranteed to wish to choose certain principles. . . . The notion that the full description of the origi-


POLITICAL THEORY / February 2005 nal position determines a single choice which the parties cannot but acknowledge seems to introduce a cognitive element to justification after all and to call into question 44 the priority of procedure which the contract view . . . seemed to require.

Here Sandel invokes a previously introduced distinction between voluntarist and cognitive forms of justification: on the former, principles of justice are said to derive their authority from the fact that they are selected by the parties in an act of unencumbered choice, while, on the latter, they are said to be preexisting authoritative principles that are simply discovered or acknowledged by the parties once the requisite circumstances have been put in place. Rawls appears at various points in A Theory of Justice to resort to both styles of justification, but, as Sandel points out, he cannot have it both ways. Either the principles of justice derive their authority from the fact that they are chosen in the original position or the original position derives its authority from the fact that it generates the correct principles of justice and Sandel makes a strong case for thinking that Rawls is actually committed to the second claim. But the key point for our purposes is that, while Sandel insists that choice cannot coherently be said to authorize the principles of justice in the Rawlsian framework (because the choice conditions were established with the principles already in mind), he does not deny that Rawlss parties make a choice (strictly speaking, they can choose any principle they wish). The fact that it is inconceivable for any principles other than Rawlss to be chosen in the original position does not mean that his parties make no choice; it simply means that their choice does not ground the principles of justice. This insight, in turn, applies powerfully to the objection we are considering. The argument for distinguishing between positive and negative liberty, after all, rests on the claim that a situation can only be called an opportunity state in which it is not inconceivable for people to choose any number of different ends. If an account of freedom does not place free people in such a condition, we are told, then it must partake of a different, nonnegative concept of liberty. Sandel avoids this muddle because he intuits, although does not make explicit, the impact of different worldviews on descriptive claims about what free people will actually do. A voluntarist form of justification presupposes the sort of world in which liberty looks like an opportunity state: one in which ends exist by virtue of the fact that they are chosen by human beings. A cognitive form of justification, on the other hand, presupposes the sort of world in which liberty looks like an exercise concept: one in which human beings exist in order to recognize and achieve some predetermined end. But there is no more reason to put the word choice in quotation marks in this context than in the case of the hypothetical higher self we have been discussing. For Rawls, as for Kant, heteronomy and freedom are incompatible.



Only the self unencumbered by context, materiality, contingency, and sensation can make a free choice. Kant casts off these impediments by theorizing an abstracted mind that legislates for itself the law of reason; Rawls does so by situating his hypothetical parties behind the veil of ignorance in the original position. In both cases, once the impediments have been removed, the agents in question will choose a given principle because it is suggested by their unencumbered reason. But it is no less a choice for the fact that every human being in the appropriate circumstances would make it. Consider the following example. Let us suppose that human beings had a gene that made vanilla ice cream taste better to them than all other flavors. Assuming this were the case, if I were to offer a person his choice of all the flavors behind the ice cream counter (and if he had tasted them all before), caeteris paribus he would choose vanilla. But suppose we were to introduce some complicating conditions: suppose vanilla were the most expensive flavor, and the person in question were either poor or cheap; suppose this person lived in a culture where red was an auspicious color, and, accordingly, strawberry was the trendy flavor; suppose this person had objections to the working conditions of vanilla bean pickers and had therefore decided to boycott vanilla products. Given all of these circumstances, the person in question may never in his life have tasted vanilla ice cream and would probably never choose it if given the chance. If, however, we were to place him in a hypothetical situation in which all of these complicating factors ceased to intrude, and we gave him a taste of every imaginable flavor and asked which he would prefer, he would certainly pick vanilla. Why? Because it tastes best to human beings; that is simply a fact of their nature. Is there really no meaningful distinction between that situation and one in which we were to take our ice cream eater to a shop stocked only with vanilla? In such a situation, there would genuinely be no choice (that is, if we were to exclude the choice of having no ice cream). But the first situation bears a much closer resemblance to the condition of free men in the putatively positive theories of liberty we have been discussingand in the Rawlsian original position. When given the opportunity, free men will choose their object because the affinity of unencumbered human nature for the object in question is stipulated in advance.

IV The objection might be raised at this point that the model just described only accounts for positive claims of the form if men are free, they will do or be x and not positive claims of the form if men do or are x, they will be


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free. The second category, it might be argued, still retains an exercise concept of liberty: the notion that to be free one must actually do or be some unique, particular thing. In other words, it might seem that freedom in this case is not acquired through the stripping away of internal or external constraints but acquired through some kind of activity. But this too is imprecise. Consider the classic Christian statement of liberty offered by Thomas Cranmer in the Book of Common Prayer: His service is perfect freedom.45 Following our earlier practice, we should replace this statement with two possible claims: When people are free, they will serve Him, or When people serve Him, they will be free. We have already seen that the first claim employs the negative, opportunity concept of liberty. It simply suggests, as a descriptive matter, that when people are free from all internal and external constraints, they will choose His service. Yet the second claim too can be accounted for if we once again adjust our understanding of constraint. This formulation supposes that there are certain constraints that can only be removed if the agent in question embraces a particular activity or way of life (in this case His service). Only if a man embraces the devotional life of a Christian will he overcome the slavery of his passions, or his ignorance, or evil inclinationthat is, the experience of serving Him has the effect of liberation.46 This is not at all an unfamiliar kind of reasoning about negative liberty. On Hegels view, for example, we can be liberated from our passions and sense impressions only once we have been made to realize that we ourselves will the universala level of consciousness we can acquire only through the practice of citizenship in a Hegelian state.47 Likewise, for Rousseau, people are governed by their higher, rational selves (and are, hence, free from internal constraint) only when they are guided by a General Will formulated through the public life of a self-governing commonwealth.48 For both of these theorists, constraints are stripped away through the actual experience of citizenship rightly practiced. We might also recall that, in a Freudian context, we are said to be freed from our pathologies through therapy (although, fortunately, we have not yet as a society generated the barbarism: freedom is therapy!). Once again, this is not a different claim about liberty; it is a different claim about constraint. A good test of this construction of the issue is whether it can make sense of the theory of freedom offered by Hannah Arendt in Between Past and Future. This text is usually cited as the positive theory of liberty par excellence, a theory that equates freedom with participation in politics.49 As it happens, however, Arendt assiduously avoids making the claim that freedom is participation in politics, and instead ends up with a claim very much of the form we are currently considering. In this respect, the first thing to note is that the idea of freedom Arendt means to attack by stressing the relationship between



freedom and politics is not negative liberty but rather inner freedom. Her objection is that freedom has been banished by philosophy from the public square to the forum internum, where it is understood to be a property of the will. But the difference between her favored notion of freedom and this internal one is emphatically not that one implies the absence of constraint while the other somehow does not. Indeed, Arendt, like Green and Bosanquet, stresses the community of meaning between the various different senses of freedom she canvasses, making it extremely difficult to see how she could envision them as embodying separate concepts of liberty. Arendt begins with the historical claim that inner freedom was an idea generated by the Stoics at a time when actual, political freedom was no longer to be had in the world. But this, as she is anxious to point out, is already to make a claim about analytical priority: Man would know nothing of inner freedom if he had not first experienced a condition of being free as a worldly, tangible reality. We first became aware of freedom or its opposite in our intercourse with others, not in the intercourse with ourselves.50 And what was this first, nonderivative freedom? It was the free mans status, which allowed him to move, to get away from home, to go out into the world. It was, in short, the absence of constraint on movement. In the late Roman Empire, this notion was perverted and turned inward, so that it came to describe, not the status of men vis--vis each other but rather the internal sovereignty of the will. In this way, men who were externally enslaved could still be said to find a degree of freedom. But Arendt believes that this palliative came at a terrible price: it yielded a situation in which freedom has no worldly reality.51 This is where politics comes into the argument. Although Arendt concedes that even in repressive societies freedom may still dwell in mens hearts as desire or will or hope or yearning, when it is confined to the recesses of the heart it is not a demonstrable fact.52 Only politics, on Arendts account, provides the space in which freedom can become concrete, in which it can emerge as a fact about human beings. Why? Because on Arendts account, freedom is fundamentally the status of being unconstrained by the automatic processes of nature and history; it is the ability to begin again, unencumbered by contingent circumstances.53 And this claim intersects with a view about human nature: man is not for Arendt Homo sapiens or Homo laborans, but Homo initiansa creature who can begin.54 The world of politics gives us the chance to live according to our nature, to make beginnings; it is only when we are in fact living this way that we are freed from the constraints of our situation. This is what allows Arendt to make the famous claim on which so much of the confusion surrounding positive liberty ultimately rests: Men are freeas distinguished from their possessing


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the gift for freedomas long as they act, neither before nor after; for to be free and to act are the same.55 Even in repressive societies man has the gift for freedom, he is a creature who can make a new start. But only in actually making such a start does he break free of the constraints of his context; until that moment, he is determined by them. It is not that the act is freedom in some new conceptual sense but rather that the act makes us free. Man realizes his true nature when he begins anew, and this beginning anew makes him free. Freedom here is still the absence of constraint; to the extent that it looks like anything else, that is a result of Arendts conviction that the constraints are banished by the act itself. Our analysis of freedom as self-realization ends with Arendt. There is, however, one final account of liberty that must be addressed before we can declare the broader case closed: it is not usually billed as a positive theory, but it might still be thought to reject the framework of the absence of constraint. This is the so-called republican theory of liberty, or freedom as nondomination. As sketched by Philip Pettit, this view accepts that there are positive and negative concepts of liberty, but then suggests a third way. The writers of Roman antiquity, and their disciples in the Renaissance and earlymodern period, viewed liberty not as the absence of interference but as the absence of mastery, as non-domination.56 The difference, Pettit suggests, is that the republican account of freedom as non-domination will regard many people who are not actually interfered with by others as nonetheless unfree. The comic slave in Plautus who has the run of his masters house still lives in a state of dependence on the will of his master, and is therefore unfree (although not interfered with). Conversely, such an account of liberty might regard someone as free who is interfered with, but is not dominated by a master. A citizen of a self-governing republic, for example, might not be thought unfree if he is coerced into following laws enacted by the popular will. On Pettits account, this view of freedom is not exactly positive because it requires the absence of something (i.e., domination), but it is not exactly negative either, in that it needs something more than the absence of interference.57 This third concept, Pettit informs us, fits on neither side of the now established negative-positive dichotomy. The best response to this line of argument is that provided by Skinner, who has written extensively on the historical development of freedom as nondomination. The problem with Pettits presentation of the case, as Skinner points out, is that it replicates Berlins initial error: it wrongly assumes that the universe of possible constraints in theories of negative liberty is limited to physical interference by other human beings. But, as we have seen, any number of forces can count as constraints (internal psychic forces, sense



impressions, ignorance), and a theory of freedom that specifies the absence of these obstacles is no less negative, conceptually speaking, than its Hobbesian counterpart. In consequence, Skinner argues that liberty as nondomination is a species of negative liberty, in which the psychological impact of dependence itself counts as a constraint on action. As Skinner puts it, for neo-Roman theorists a mere awareness of living in dependence on the goodwill of an arbitrary ruler does serve in itself to restrict our options and thereby limit our liberty. The effect is to dispose us to make and avoid certain choices, and is thus to place clear constraints on our freedom of action.58 Freedom as non-domination is wholly negative,59Skinner concludes, because it never for an instant defines itself as anything other than the absence of constraint. If Pettit had not been wedded to Berlins original commitment (i.e., that any theory of freedom, which specifies the absence of nonhuman constraints is in some sense positive), he would not have ended up providing his tripartite scheme.60

V Where does all of this leave us? There is an argument to be made that, in subsuming all of the abundant variety of claims about liberty under a single concept, we run two major risks. First, we run the risk of trivializing the concept itself. If so many completely different views about who is free can be accommodated using the rubric of negative liberty, then the concept begins to seem superficial or even meaningless. The second risk is precisely the reverse: that by dragging all of these various claims about liberty into the negative camp, we will end up projecting on to them a uniformity that they palpably lack. We will, in short, begin to lose sight of how radically different they truly are from each otherhow they rest on incompatible views of human nature, psychology, and theology. As David Miller puts it succinctly, the different traditions of speaking about liberty appear to embody very different basic assumptions about human beings and what gives meaning to their lives.61 Why is it analytically helpful, in that case, to reduce them to a single paradigm? Each of these arguments is compelling, and, indeed, this essay has not insisted that there is only one concept of liberty. It has only argued that, if there are two or more concepts, they cannot be distinguished from one another on the basis of positivity and negativity. All claims about freedom seem to be claims about the absence of some constraint; within this broad set, however, there are substantially different claims about the ends of human life, the character of human beings, and the elements that can con-


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strain us. The quarrels between these various accounts are serious and deserve more attention than they have been able to receive under the shadow of Berlins dichotomy.

1. Isaiah Berlin, Two Concepts of Liberty, in Four Essays on Liberty (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1969), 118-72. 2. Gerald C. MacCallum Jr., Negative and Positive Freedom, in Liberty, ed. David Miller (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1991). 3. For purposes of this analysis, I have treated the terms liberty and freedom as if they were synonyms. Although these terms are not in fact interchangeable, the literature with which I am engaged has tended to view them that way, and I will not attempt to disentangle them on this occasion. 4. See, for example, Plato, Laws X (885b). 5. Ibid., 102. 6. Quentin Skinner, A Third Concept of Liberty, (The Isaiah Berlin Lecture), Proceedings of the British Academy 117 (2001): 237-68. 7. Skinner never minimizes the differences between views of liberty that specify the absence of metaphysical constraints and those that specify the absence of physical interference. He is simply pointing out that they cannot be distinguished from each other on grounds of positivity and negativity. 8. Berlin, Two Concepts of Liberty, 49. 9. In addition to the liberal notion of freedom as the absence of interference, Skinner has in mind the neo-Roman idea of freedom as the absence of dependence (which is discussed later). This second idea is sometimes cast as an instance of positive liberty, largely because Berlin seemed to endorse that view in his classic essay (although he then seemed to move away from this position). For a recent attempt to grapple with this argument of Berlins, see Raymond Geuss, Freiheit im Liberalismus und bei Marx, in Ethische und Politische Freiheit, ed. Julian NidaRmelin and Wilhelm Vossenkuhl (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1998), esp. 118-20. 10. Isaiah Berlin, Four Essays on Liberty (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1969), xiv. 11. See Tom Baldwin, MacCallum and the Two Concepts of Freedom, Ratio 26 (1984): 125-42. 12. T. H. Green, Liberal Legislation and Freedom of Contract, in Liberty, ed. David Miller (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1991). 13. T. H. Green, Lectures on the Principles of Political Obligation, ed. Bernard Bosanquet (London: Longmans, Green, 1907), 26. 14. Ibid., 16. 15. Ibid., 17. 16. Cf. Baldwin, MacCallum and the Two Concepts of Freedom, 135; Skinner, A Third Concept of Liberty, 240-41. 17. Indeed, I take it to be of the highest significance that, although Green alludes casually to freedom in the positive sense in his 1881 public lecture to the Leicester Liberal Association, he pointedly neglects to speak in such terms in his contemporaneous, more technical lectures at Oxford. The phrase never occurs in On the Different Senses of Freedomas Applied to the Will



and to the Moral Progress of Man (delivered at Oxford in 1879 as part of a set of lectures on The Theory of Duty) or in the Lectures on the Principles of Political Obligation (delivered as The Principles of Political Obligation and the Social Virtues at Balliol in 1879-80). See Green, Liberal Legislation, 23. 18. Ibid., 2. 19. This account of higher freedom points to an area of concern in the analysis provided by Maria Dimova-Cookson. Dimova-Cookson assigns to Green a conviction that juristic and true freedom are trade-offs within the individual. In the pursuit of the true freedom, she writes, the exercise of juristic freedom is temporarily suspended. I cannot see how Green would agree to this statement. Juristic freedom is the condition in which a person is not interfered with (by other people) in the pursuit of things that seem good to him. In this condition, the individual is partially free: he is not affected by external constraints. Higher freedom builds cumulatively on lower freedom: once free in the true sense, the individual is liberated from internal constraints as well, and begins to seek that which is good for him. But the fact that the individual changes his object does not mean that his juristic freedom has been compromised in the least. That would be the case, of course, if he were coerced from outside to change his object, but that is not the scenario that Dimova-Cookson is considering. See Dimova-Cookson, A New Scheme of Positive and Negative Freedom: Reconstructing T. H. Green on Freedom, Political Theory 31 (2003): 515. 20. Ibid., 3. 21. Ibid., 16. 22. Ibid., 18. 23. Bernard Bosanquet, The Philosophical Theory of the State (New York: Macmillan, 1899), 128. 24. Ibid., 146. 25. Ibid., 134. 26. Ibid., 137. 27. Baldwin also notices Bosanquets MacCallum-esque language. See Baldwin, MacCallum and the Two Concepts of Freedom, 126-27. 28. One way out of the impasse would be to reject MacCallums argument that internal forces can count as genuine constraints. One could, like Green and Bosanquet, argue that to call ignorance a constraint is simply to speak metaphorically. The only problem here, as both Green and Bosanquet point out, is that if the constraint is metaphorical so too might be the liberty involved. I make no attempt to settle this question. I only mean to insist that, if Plato and the Stoics are to count as negative theorists, then so must the neo-Hegelians. 29. Skinner, A Third Concept of Liberty, 2. 30. Ibid., 143. 31. Raymond Geuss is similarly wary of the excessive inflation of the concept of freedom to the point where it loses its profile and becomes indistinguishable from the vague general notion of a completely satisfactory human life. See Raymond Geuss and Martin Hollis, Freedom as an Ideal, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 69 (1995): 102. See also Christopher Megone, One Concept of Liberty, Political Studies 35 (1987): esp. 616, 622. 32. It is worth pointing out here that all theories of freedom are normative; none are neutral. That is, based on their respective accounts of the human person, they all admit certain elements as potential constraints and exclude others. It is, therefore, extremely important to distinguish normativity from positivity. Hobbes, for example, argues that passions should not count as constraints on action; he does so because he rejects the conventional notion of a free will (the will, for him, is simply the final outcome of a wholly determined process of deliberation). This


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argument is certainly normative, but it is not in the least bit positive. Freedom, for Hobbes, remains the absence of impediments to motion. 33. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. Richard Tuck (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 145. 34. See, for example, Skinner, A Third Concept of Liberty, 243. It is enough for me, just as it is for Berlin, to display the coherence of the neo-Hegelian view. That in itself is sufficient to dispose of the prevailing belief that there is only one concept of liberty. The argument, in short, is that such a view cannot be accounted for under the negative rubric, and that, as a result, if it is coherent we must search for a different concept of liberty to explain it. 35. Immanuel Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals [Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten], ed. and trans. Allen W. Wood (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002), 69. 36. There is considerable debate among Kant scholars as to whether (as Kant seems to suggest in the Groundwork) only actions taken in accordance with rational maxims can count as free. On such an account, all immoral acts are determined, and, therefore, not imputable to their agents in a moral sense. In his works from the 1790s, Kant seems to move away from this position, arguing that heteronomous impulses influence but do not determine behavior. For evaluative purposes, therefore, they do not count as constraints on the freedom of the agent. On this issue, see Henry E. Allison, Kants Theory of Freedom (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 94-99. Allison attempts to harmonize Kants various statements on this subject. 37. Charles Taylor, Kants Theory of Freedom, in Conceptions of Liberty in Political Philosophy, ed. Zbigniew Pelczynski and John Gray (London: Athlone Press, 1984), 107. 38. Wolfgang Kersting, Politics, Freedom, and Order: Kants Political Philosophy, in The Cambridge Companion to Kant, ed. Paul Guyer (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 344. 39. Kant, Groundwork, 78. 40. At this point it should be useful to remove a possible confusion. In several of his works, but in the Groundwork in particular, Kant contrasts a negative definition (Erklrung) of freedom with a positive concept (ein positiver Begriff). It is important to recognize that Kant is not using this language in Berlins sense (or in Skinners). Kant begins the third section of the Groundwork by defining freedom as a quality of the will by which it can be effective independently of alien causes determining it (Groundwork, 61). Kant views this definition (which, importantly, he never rejects) as negative because it is arrived at theoretically; that is, speculative reason requires the possibility of some sort of causation that is not itself determined, but it can tell us nothing about how that causation might operate. An understanding of the source of the free act (the authentic self operating under rational, rather than physical, necessity) comes to us through pure practical reason, and is positive in the sense that it shows us the mechanics of free action. Kant is certainly not arguing here that there is a way of thinking about liberty that does not involve the absence of constraint. He is arguing, in MacCallums terms, that liberty has both a freedom from and a freedom to component. One could apply precisely the same model to Hobbes, for whom a river is free from a dam to flow downstream. Hobbess definition would be wholly negative in Kants sense if, for some reason, he knew that it was possible to conceive of an unimpeded river but did not know what would happen to one. On Kants argument about negativity, see Dennis P. Quinn, An Examination of Kants Treatment of Transcendental Freedom (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1988), esp. 13-23; see also Allison, Kants Theory of Freedom, 243-45. 41. Hobbes, Leviathan, 44.



42. Ibid., 146. Liberty and Necessity are consistent; as in the water, that hath not only liberty, but a necessity of descending by the Channel; so likewise in the Actions which men voluntarily doe: which, because they proceed from their will, proceed from liberty; and yet, because every act of mans will, and every desire, and inclination proceedeth from some cause, and that from another cause, in a continuall chaine, (whose first link is the hand of God the first of all causes,) they proceed from necessity. 43. Michael Sandel, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice 2nd ed. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 127. 44. Ibid., 127-28. 45. Martin Hollis cites this view of Cranmers as an instance of positive liberty on the grounds that it identifies freedom with what it is proper for me to want, rather than what I want. See Geuss and Hollis, Freedom as an Ideal, 102. 46. It goes without saying that these two constructions of Cranmers statement cannot be simultaneously true. If freedom is a necessary condition of His service, then His service cannot be a necessary condition of freedom. However, it is certainly possible for a theory of freedom to incorporate two different sorts of constraints: external constraints that can be removed without any activity on the part of the agent, and internal constraints that require some sort of activity (say, His service) in order to be removed. 47. See, for example, G. W. F. Hegel, The Philosophy of Right, ed. and trans. T. M. Knox (Oxford, UK: Clarendon, 1942), 155 (257). 48. See, for example, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Du contrat social I.8 in Oevures Compltes, vol. 3, ed. Bernard Gagnebin and Marcel Raymond (Paris: Gallimard, 1964). See also Patrick Gardiner, Rousseau on Liberty, in Conceptions of Liberty in Political Philosophy, ed. Zbigniew Pelczynski and John Gray (London: Athlone Press, 1984), 83-99. 49. See, for example, Ronald Beiner, Action, Natality and Citizenship: Hannah Arendts Concept of Freedom, in Conceptions of Liberty in Political Philosophy, esp. 352, 355. See also Skinner, A Third Concept of Liberty, 242. 50. Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books, 1993), 148. 51. Ibid., 149. 52. Ibid. 53. Ibid., 168. 54. Ibid., 167. 55. Ibid., 153. 56. Philip Pettit, Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government (Oxford, UK: Clarendon, 1997), 22. 57. Ibid., 51. 58. Skinner, A Third Concept of Liberty, 256-57. Skinner closes his essay by suggesting that he is more comfortable with the following schema: there are two concepts of liberty (one negative, one positive), and two theories of negative liberty (one about interference, one about domination). See also Skinner, Liberty before Liberalism (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 85-99. 59. Ibid.,255. 60. Note that Pettit himself describes domination as a constraint: The constraint from which exemption is given is not interference of any sort, just arbitrary interference; Pettit, Republicanism, 26. 61. Introduction, in Liberty, ed. David Miller (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1991).


POLITICAL THEORY / February 2005 Eric Nelson is a junior fellow in the Society of Fellows, Harvard University, and a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge. He has published articles on Thomas Mores Utopia and Miltons political prose. His first book, The Greek Tradition in Republican Thought, was released by Cambridge University Press in February 2004.

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