An Introduction to the Political Philosophy of Isaiah Berlin Through His Free Writings & Audio Lectures

Isa­iah Berlin casts a long shad­ow over mod­ern polit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy. Ris­ing to promi­nence as a British pub­lic intel­lec­tu­al in the 1950s along­side thinkers like A.J. Ayer and Hugh Trevor-Rop­er, Berlin (writes Joshua Che­miss in The Oxon­ian Review of Books) was at one time a “cold war­rior,” his oppo­si­tion to Sovi­et Com­mu­nism the “lynch­pin” of his thought. But his longevi­ty and intel­lec­tu­al vital­i­ty meant he was much more besides, and he has remained a pop­u­lar ref­er­ence, though, as Che­miss points out, Berlin’s rep­u­ta­tion took a beat­ing from crit­ics on the left and right after his death in 1997. Born into a promi­nent Russ­ian-Jew­ish fam­i­ly, Berlin grew up in mid­dle class sta­bil­i­ty until the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion dis­man­tled the Czarist Rus­sia of his youth and his fam­i­ly relo­cat­ed to Britain in 1921.

Berlin’s child­hood expe­ri­ence of the Bol­she­viks was nev­er far from his mind and pre­cip­i­tat­ed his aver­sion to vio­lence and coer­cion, he con­fess­es above in a 1992 inter­view with his biog­ra­ph­er Michael Ignati­eff (who spent ten years in con­ver­sa­tion with Berlin). Orig­i­nal­ly broad­cast on BBC 2, Ignatieff’s inter­view serves as an intro­duc­tion to both the man him­self and to his past—in lengthy seg­ments that detail Berlin’s his­to­ry through pho­tographs and nar­ra­tion. Refer­ring to Berlin’s huge­ly influ­en­tial cat­e­go­riza­tion of intel­lec­tu­al his­to­ry, The Hedge­hog and the Fox, Ignati­eff tells us: “He once wrote, ‘A fox knows many things, but a hedge­hog knows one, big thing.’ He was a hedge­hog, all his work was a defense of lib­er­ty.… All of his writ­ing can be read as a defense of the indi­vid­ual against the vio­lence of the crowd and the dog­ma of the par­ty line.”

Berlin was enor­mous­ly pro­lif­ic, in print as well as in record­ed media, and we have access to sev­er­al of his lec­tures online. One radio lec­ture series, Free­dom and its Betray­al, exam­ined six thinkers Berlin iden­ti­fied as “anti-lib­er­al.” Per­haps fore­most among these was Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In his lec­ture on Rousseau above (con­tin­ued here in Parts 2, 3, 4, 5 & 6), Berlin elab­o­rates on his impor­tant dis­tinc­tion between types of lib­er­ty, a theme he returned to again and again, most famous­ly in a lec­ture, even­tu­al­ly pub­lished as a 57-page pam­phlet, called “Two Con­cepts of Lib­er­ty.” Berlin adapt­ed much of the ideas in these lec­tures from his Polit­i­cal Ideas in the Roman­tic Age—writ­ten between 1950 and 1952 and pub­lished posthumously—a text that Berlin called his “tor­so.”


Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty hosts an exten­sive “Isa­iah Berlin Vir­tu­al Library” that details the com­po­si­tion of “Two Con­cepts of Lib­er­ty,” from its ear­li­est draft stages (above) to its pub­li­ca­tion his­to­ry. You can read the full text of the pub­lished lec­ture here and lis­ten to Berlin’s record­ed dic­ta­tion of an ear­ly draft below.

In the pub­lished ver­sion of “Two Con­cepts of Lib­er­ty,” Berlin suc­cinct­ly sums up his major premise: “To coerce a man is to deprive him of free­dom.” Then he goes on:

free­dom from what? Almost every moral­ist in human his­to­ry has praised free­dom. Like hap­pi­ness and good­ness, like nature and real­i­ty, the mean­ing of this term is so porous that there lit­tle inter­pre­ta­tion that it seems able to resist….[There are] more than two hun­dred sens­es.… of this pro­tean word….

Berlin reduces the more than two hun­dred to two: neg­a­tive liberty—dealing with the areas of life in which one is free from any inter­fer­ence; and pos­i­tive liberty—his term for that which inter­feres in people’s lives for their sup­posed ben­e­fit and pro­tec­tion. Berlin’s con­cep­tions of these two types is anchored in spe­cif­ic geopo­lit­i­cal arrange­ments and philo­soph­i­cal tra­di­tions, as Dwight Mac­Don­ald explained in a 1959 review of the pub­lished text. He saw Com­mu­nism as an abuse of pos­i­tive lib­er­ty and wished to enhance so-called neg­a­tive lib­er­ty as much as pos­si­ble. As such, Berlin is often cit­ed approv­ing­ly by politi­cians and philoso­phers with more clas­si­cal, lim­it­ed under­stand­ings of state pow­er, although these may include lib­er­tar­i­ans as well as lib­er­als, find­ing com­mon ground in val­ues of eth­i­cal plu­ral­ism and robust civ­il lib­er­ties, both of which Berlin defend­ed stren­u­ous­ly.

Berlin draws his account of neg­a­tive lib­er­ty from the work of clas­si­cal lib­er­al polit­i­cal philoso­phers like John Locke, Adam Smith, and John Stu­art Mill. Most of his cri­tique of pos­i­tive lib­er­ty focused on Roman­ti­cism and Ger­man Ide­al­ism, in which he saw the begin­nings of total­i­tar­i­an­ism (above, hear Berlin’s final 1965 lec­ture on the “Roots of Roman­ti­cism,” con­tin­ued in Parts 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, & 7). Despite his pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with kinds of free­dom, his thought was extra­or­di­nar­i­ly idio­syn­crat­ic, wide-rang­ing, and diverse. Oxford hopes to soon add the text of much of Berlin’s pub­lished work to its Vir­tu­al Library. Now, in addi­tion to “Two Con­cepts of Lib­er­ty,” it also hous­es online text of the essay col­lec­tion Con­cepts and Cat­e­gories. While we await the post­ing of more Berlin texts, we might attend again to Berlin’s con­cep­tion of types of free­dom, and hear them defined by the philoso­pher him­self in a 1962 inter­view:

As in the case of words which every­one is in favour of, ‘free­dom’ has a very great many sens­es – some of the world’s worst tyran­nies have been under­tak­en in the name of free­dom. Nev­er­the­less, I should say that the word prob­a­bly has two cen­tral sens­es, at any rate in the West. One is the famil­iar lib­er­al sense in which free­dom means that every man has a life to live and should be giv­en the fullest oppor­tu­ni­ty of doing so, and that there are only two ade­quate rea­sons for con­trol­ling men. The first is that there are oth­er goods besides free­dom, such as, for exam­ple, secu­ri­ty or peace or cul­ture, or oth­er things which human beings need, which must be giv­en them, apart from the ques­tion of whether they want them or not. Sec­ond­ly, if one man obtains too much, he will deprive oth­er peo­ple of their free­dom – free­dom for the pike means death to the carp – and this is a per­fect­ly ade­quate rea­son for cur­tail­ing free­dom. Still, cur­tail­ing free­dom isn’t the same as free­dom.

The sec­ond sense of the word is not so much a mat­ter of allow­ing peo­ple to do what they want as the idea that I want to be gov­erned by myself and not pushed around by oth­er peo­ple; and this idea leads one to the sup­po­si­tion that to be free means to be self-gov­ern­ing. To be self-gov­ern­ing means that the source of author­i­ty must lie in me – or in us, if we’re talk­ing about a com­mu­ni­ty. And if the source of free­dom lies in me, then it’s com­par­a­tive­ly unim­por­tant how much con­trol there is, pro­vid­ed the con­trol is exer­cised by myself, or my rep­re­sen­ta­tives, or my nation, my peo­ple, my tribe, my Church, and so forth. Pro­vid­ed that I am gov­erned by peo­ple who are sym­pa­thet­ic to me, or under­stand my inter­ests, I don’t mind how much of my life is pried into, or whether there is a pri­vate province which is divid­ed from the pub­lic province; and in some mod­ern States – for exam­ple the Sovi­et Union and oth­er States with total­i­tar­i­an gov­ern­ments – this sec­ond view seems to be tak­en.

Between these two views, I see no pos­si­bil­i­ty of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion.  

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Leo Strauss: 15 Polit­i­cal Phi­los­o­phy Cours­es Online

Intro­duc­tion to Polit­i­cal Phi­los­o­phy: A Free Yale Course

Alain de Bot­ton Tweets Short Course in Polit­i­cal Phi­los­o­phy

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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