Berlin, “Two Concepts of Liberty”

This is our reading for August 12.  You can find the location and details at our page.

In this essay, Isaiah Berlin describes two forms of freedom.  Negative freedom is freedom from interference; it seeks to maximize the choices an individual has in life.  Positive freedom is slightly more complicated; it is the freedom of the group to decide how the group will behave, or how it will be governed, or in other words: who has the right to coerce?.  While both forms of freedom are necessary for human life, Berlin thinks that positive freedom relies on the assumption that all real problems have single solutions, an assumption he considers false.  Because problems have a variety of solutions and some measure of conflict over these solutions is inevitable, he thinks we ought to maximize negative freedom.

Negative Freedom

1. The standard image of freedom is to be free from interference.  Once interference hits a certain point, we call it slavery.

2. Coercion does not cover every form of inability; we do not think of ourselves as coerced because we cannot jump ten feet.  Coercion implies the deliberate interference of others.  We might legitimately call someone a slave to their passions, or we might say that poverty and sickness restrict freedom, but these are non-political uses of the term.

3. The basic criteria is the role we believe others are playing. This is what the classical English philosophers like Locke thought of freedom.  They disagreed about the extent of other’s roles in coercion, but all agreed that interference needed to have a limit.  There has to be some baseline limitation by law, but just as much, there has to be a sphere of freedom which cannot be violated for any reason.  How large these limitations and freedoms should be was a matter of debate.  More optimistic philosophers like Locke thought that sphere of freedom should be large, while pessimists like Hobbes thought we needed more expansive laws in the name of security.

4. The minimum sphere of freedom has to be “That which a man cannot give up without offending against the essence of his human nature” (8).  Exactly what this essence is has been complicated debate.  

5. Mill said, “The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way.”  If that is true, is compulsion ever justified?  Mill thought it was—it is legitimate to use force to prevent someone from depriving others of freedom.  Mill thought this freedom was necessary to prevent society from being crushed under the weight of “collective mediocrity,” in which everything devolves into conformity.  Whatever mistakes a person might make, the value of being able to make them outweighs the evil of constraining the person.  Berlin says, “Every plea for civil liberties, against the encroachment of public authority or the mass hypnosis of custom or organized propaganda, springs from this individualistic, and much disputed, conception of man” (9).

6. One of the problems with Mills’ individualist account is that it is not incompatible with an enlightened dictatorship that allows its subjects a great deal of freedom: “The despot who leaves his subjects a wide area of liberty may be unjust, or encourage the wildest inequalities, care for little order, or virtue, or knowledge; but provided he does not curb their liberty, or at least curbs it less than many other regimes, he meets with Mill’s specification” (11).

7. This idea of freedom is not logically connected with democracy or self-government; there is no necessary connection between the questions Who governs me? and How far does government interfere with me?.  This is what the difference between positive and negative liberties consists in.  The positive sense of liberty appears not when we ask, What am I free to do or be? but By whom am I ruled?, or Who is to say what I am, and what I am not, to be or do?.  The connection between democracy and individual liberty is more tenuous than it seems to advocates of either.

Positive Freedom

8. The “positive” sense of liberty comes from the individual’s wish to be their own master:

“I wish my life and decisions to depend on myself, not on external forces, of whatever kind.  I wish to be a subject, to be the instrument of my own, not of other men’s, acts of will.  I wish to be a subject, not an object; to be moved by reasons, by conscious purposes which are my own, not by causes which affect me, as it were, from outside.  I wish to be somebody, not nobody; a doer—deciding, not being decided for, self-directed and not acted upon by external nature or by other men as if I were a thing, or an animal, or a slave incapable of playing a human role, that is, of conceiving goals and policies of my own and realizing them.”  (13)

9. This is basically what we mean by being rational, and what distinguishes one from the rest of the world.  The freedom of being one’s own master, and the freedom which comes from not being prevented from doing what one wishes, eventually come into conflict with one another.

10. This idea of self-mastery has two parts.  First, we might say, “I am a slave to no man,” but there is also the sense of being a slave to nature or one’s passions.  Many have had the experience of liberating themselves from “spiritual slavery,” in which they become aware of a “higher nature” and a “lower nature.” The dominant, higher self is associated with reason and autonomy, and the irrational, lower self is associated with heteronomy and impulse.

11. Some might argue that the real self might be larger than the individual, a social “whole” of which the individual is a part, such as a race, the Church, or a state: “This entity is then identified as being the ‘true’ self, which by imposing its collective, or ‘organic’, single will upon its recalcitrant ‘members’, achieves its own, and therefore their, ‘higher’ freedom” (14).

12. The problem with such organic metaphors is that it can justify coercion in order to raise people to their “higher” freedom.  It is plausible to think that sometimes, we have to coerce people for their own good.  This entails the claim that we know what is good for someone better than they themselves know.  We could also claim that they are latently aiming at the higher goal, and we are just helping them towards it.  Once we take this view, we are free to ignore the stated wishes of people and to bully and oppress them in the name of their “real” selves.

13. It is one thing to say that I know what is good for X, even if he does not; it is a very different one to say that he has already implicitly chosen it, unconsciously, under the guise of his higher self.  It is basically the difference between coercing one for their own good, and coercing one while claiming they are not being coerced because they have already implicitly willed the higher good.

14. This sort of move can also be made with the negative concept of freedom, in which the self that should not be interfered with is no longer the individual with their actual wishes and needs, but the “real” man within, pursuing an ideal purpose which his empirical self may never have dreamed of.  This ideal self can be inflated into a super-personal entity such as the State or class.  The move is less easy than it is with positive freedom, however.

15. The important point here is that our concept of freedom derives from what we take a self to be; with enough manipulation of the concept of “man,” freedom can be made to mean anything.

16. Another element in the “two selves” idea is the two different politics that has arisen from it.  One is “self-abnegation,” a stoic pursuit of independence, and “self-realization,” a total self-identification with an ideal.

17. First, he discuss self-abnegation.  If we are blocked from achieved our goals, we do not experience ourselves as masters of the situation.  We can be blocked by various forces, from accidents to the intentional or unintentional effects of institutions.  When these forces are too much, the only way to avoid being crushed by them is to liberate oneself from unrealizable desires.  This is a retreat into one’s “soul” or noumenal self, a master of what one can practically possess.

18. It is like having a wound in one’s leg, and seeing there are two ways to free oneself from the pain.  One way is to heal the wound, and the other is to cut the leg off.  One trains oneself to want nothing that one does not need the leg for.  The idea is to eliminate the obstacle by eliminating the path.  It is a form of the search for security, but it has also been called a search for national freedom or independence.

19. This is quite close to people like Kant, who identify freedom not with the elimination of desires but with resistance to them and control over them.  One obeys laws, but they are laws that one has placed on oneself; “Freedom is obedience, but ‘obedience to a law which we prescribe to ourselves’, and no man can enslave himself” (18).  If the essence of man is autonomy, the author of values, then nothing is worse than to treat them as objects or as not self-determined.

20. In its individualistic form, the stoic retreat only happens with the outside world is particularly cruel or unjust.  If action is blocked at every turn, then the withdrawal into private freedom becomes attractive.  This asceticism might be a source of spiritual strength, but it is not an enlargement of liberty.  The end point is suicide; total liberation is only achieved through death.

21. On the other hand, the self-realization account of freedom says that “Knowledge liberates by automatically eliminating irrational fears and desires” (24).  Critical reason is what helps us understand what is necessary and what is contingent.  For example, school children find the rules of mathematics to be impossible obstacles, imposed by an external authority.  Once they understand how the symbols function, and grasp that they cannot be otherwise, their use appears as something the child freely wills out of the natural functioning of their rational activity.  All obstacles function this way; once you understand the rational necessity of something, it can be freely accepted.

22. We are free only if we live by a conscious plan, which is to say self-imposed rules. Those who understand freedom as rational self-direction eventually had to think about what this means for society: is a rational life possible not only for individuals, but also for societies?  If I am rational, then it seems that what is right for me is also right for others.  But who can decide what is right?  Some these thinkers argued that there must be single solutions to genuine moral and political problems.  They said that all truth is, in principle, discoverable by all rational thinkers.  The hope was for an ideal, harmonious state of affairs.

23. This can be phrased another way.  Freedom is self-mastery and the eliminations of obstacles to my will, whether these be my own passions or the wills of others.  Nature can be technologically moulded, but what about recalcitrant humans?  I could mould them in my image, but this could mean that I alone am free, and they are slaves.  They would only be slaves if my plan has nothing to do with their wishes or values, but if my plan allows for the full development of their “true” natures, then the realization of their capacities coincides with my own.  For this to work, it would have to be true that “All true solutions to all genuine problems must be compatible; more than this; they must fit into a single whole; for this is what is meant by calling them all rational and the universe harmonious” (28).

24. If these underlying assumptions are correct, then in the ideal case, law and authority would coincide with liberty and autonomy.  

25. The practical problem is how to make currently irrational men into rational ones.  Education is one obvious route, because “only the uneducated are irrational.”  Fichte said education has to say, “You will later recognize the reasons for what I am doing now.”  Compulsion becomes a kind of education.  Even Mill says we can forcibly prevent a man from crossing a bridge if there is no time to warn him that it will collapse, because whatever we see in his current behaviour, we know he will not want to drown.

26. The big problem with this line of thought is that “This is the argument used by every dictator, inquisitor and bully who seeks some moral, or even aesthetic, justification for his conduct.  I must do for men (or with them) what they cannot do for themselves” (32).  I have to do it with or without their permission, because they are not in a position to know what is best for them.  

27. This opens the door to rule by experts, for two reasons.  First, not everyone can be consulted about everything all the time.  Second, not everyone is as “well attuned to the voice of reason” as others.  There must be some assumption that if someone opposes a “rational” law, then they must be irrational, and I take it upon myself to save you from your irrationality.  If this argument leads to despotism, even an enlightened despotism, then it might be there is something wrong in the premises.  

28. There is another approach to the topic: the demand for recognition.  The question of what the individual is was first raised in the eighteenth century, and it is very difficult to find accounts of individuality which are not wholly social.  To some degree, we are what we are due to how others see us.  When we analyze our identities, we discover that our identities are made up of identifications that exist because they are recognized by other people.  We are not disembodied or Robinson Crusoes.  My ideas about myself “are intelligible only in terms of the social network in which I am … an element” (37).

29. Many complaints about a lack of freedom amount to complaints about a lack of recognition.  I might be trying to escape what Mill thinks I should want to escape, which is coercion.  Or I might not be seeking a rational plan for my life.  Rather, I might be seeking an escape from being ignored, or not being treated as individual.

30. The limit is that this demand for recognition cannot be easily identified with liberty, either positive or negative.  It is a requirement of the good life, but it is not identical with freedom.  We could call it  a collective self-assertion, but one compatible with despotism and a minimum of negative freedom.  For these reasons, Berlin insists on making a firm distinction between recognition and freedom as such.

Liberty and sovereignty

31. The French Revolution was a demand for positive freedom as collective self-direction, and the liberals of the nineteenth century saw that this positive liberty could destroy every negative liberty. As Mill argued, those who govern are not necessarily the same as those who are governed, and further, can become a tyranny of the majority.  Berlin says, “Equality of the right to oppress is not equivalent to liberty.  Nor does universal consent to loss of liberty somehow miraculously preserve it merely by being universal, or by being consent” (45).  Consenting to slavery is still slavery.  He continues, “The triumph of despotism is to force the slaves to declare themselves free.  It may need no force: the slaves may proclaim their freedom quite sincerely; but they are still slaves” (47).

32. Democracies suppress freedom without ceasing to be democratic, so what makes a society free?  For the nineteenth century liberals, the answer had several parts.  First, no power, but only rights, could be considered absolute.  Second, there are borders within which liberty is inviolable.  These borders have to be defined in terms of rules which have been widely accepted for a long time, so that they have come to be a part of the definition of a civilized person, and to violate them would be barbarous.  For example, one of these rules is that a man cannot be declared guilty without a trial or punished under a retroactive law.

33. The freedom of a society is measure by the strength of these barriers.  This is almost the opposite of positive freedom.  The partisans of negative freedom want to curb authority; the others wish to have it in their own hands.  These are two widely divergent views of life, even if in practice we have to find a compromise between them.  Their fundamental claims are in conflict, but both are among the deepest interests of mankind.

34. The belief most responsible for the slaughter of individuals is the believe that individuals must be sacrificed for the freedom of society.  It involves the belief that there is a final, perfect solution for society.  Without such a rationalist guarantee, we have to accept that not all goods are reconcilable with one another.

35. It is not that we live without constraints; the strong’s power over the weak must be limited in some way.  But this is not a rationalist a priori rule, but because the desire for justice and equality is just as basic as the desire for freedom.  In the end, Berlin thinks negative liberty is a much more humane and truer image of freedom than the rationalist account of positive liberty.  It is more true because it recognizes that not all goods can be reconciled.  It is more humane because it does not deprive us of individual self-determination.

JS Mill – On Liberty, Ch. 1-2

This is the reading for our June 17th meeting.  You can find all the details at our page.

Chapter 1 – Introduction

This essay is not about the freedom of the will, but civil liberty—the nature and limits of the power which society can wield over the individual.  In the past, liberty meant protection against government tyranny.  Since the power og government could be used against anyone, citizens had to be in a perpetual state of defence against this power.  This limitation could be carried out in two ways.  First, a set of immunities, called liberties.  Second, constitutional checks.  Constitutional checks eventually became the main defence of liberty.

Eventually, societies decided that government should not be an independent, antagonistic power; rather, government power should be a delegated power and representative of the people.  Once this sort of democracy appeared, people began to think that too much importance had been attached to the limitation of power, since the idea that the people could oppress themselves appeared to be so odd.  As Mill puts it, “The nation did not need to be protected against its own will.  There was no fear of its tyrannizing over itself.” (89)  His response to this is to say that phrases like “the power of the people over themselves” does not actually describe what goes on in democratic republics.  For example, the “people” who exercise the power are not the same people over whom it is exercised, and the “will of the people” means nothing more than the will of a numerical majority.

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Meillassoux: Divine Inexistence

This is the reading for Saturday, May 27th.  You can get all the details at our page.

Imagine rolling dice and coming up with six.  Some might say this outcome was determined, and others might insist it was pure chance, and still others might say it was a mix of the two.  What they would agree on is that the faces of the dice had the appropriate numbers which could have produced a six—and importantly, this means that chance requires a set of pre-existing possibilities to work on.  We can think of any situation this way, as the actualization of pre-existing possibilities, governed by laws, chance, or a mix of the two.

Quentin Meillassoux’s work is dedicated to working out a single core idea: that the absolute truth of all existence is contingency.  Every single thing can exist, not exist, or exist differently.  What this means for our dice is that the ratio of chance and determinism governing their tumbling can be sidestepped entirely: Meillassoux’s thesis is the the faces of the dice can change, and can change for no reason, and importantly, it means this process does not answer to any possible account of probability.  Entirely new sets of possibilities can appear in the world, possibilities that had absolutely no antecedent.  He quite literally believes anything is possible.

His term for the appearance of new possibilities, or new dice, is the advent ex nihilo of a new world because they emerge from nothing and for no reason.  He says there have been three new worlds: the emergence of matter, the emergence of life, and the emergence of thought.  Life appeared in the context of matter, and thought appeared in the context of life.  Divine Inexistence is about the possibility of a fourth advent ex nihilo in the context of thought: the world of justice, a world of resurrected humans.  The goal is the final vanquishing of the division between being and value, otherwise known as the famous is/ought distinction.

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Jameson – An American Utopia

This is the reading for our March 18th meeting.  Visit us at for the location and details.

There have been very few utopian ideas over the last few decades; most of our cultural production goes toward imagining dystopias.  Some of the reasons for this are internal to leftist thought.  In the 1950s, when leftists thought about power, they imagined pre-agricultural societies without power.  This eventually morphed into a thinking of power’s origin.  Factors such as the work of Foucault and the “revelations” of the gulags, turned thought about power into a near paranoia concerning collective action and practical politics.  This is the context that Jameson is writing An American Utopia in, and it straddles the line between a political program and a utopian vision; this summary leans heavily on the utopian side.

Jameson thinks that utopian visions contribute to discursive struggle, “the process whereby slogans, concepts, stereotypes, and accepted wisdoms did battle among each other for. . . hegemony.”  It is the attempt to delegitimate the slogans of the other side, as Thatcher and Reagan managed to do with nationalization.  The strongest evidence that Thatcher and Reagan won is that so few people today can imagine an alternative to the market. Liberal parties are good for keeping repressed ideas in circulation, by “talking socialism.” Words that we need to discursively struggle over are words like austerity, which has a whole neoliberal framework behind it, or debt, which functioned as an empty signified for Occupy Wall Street.  We need to rehabilitate ideas of collectivity and even bureaucracy against “big government”.  

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Homo Sacer, P3: §6-7

Here is the reading for Saturday, August 13th’s meeting.  We will meet at 4:30 here, and there is a printable copy here.

In the previous passage, Agamben used examples of sinister medical experiments, such as blacks being infected with malaria in the U.S., to argue that doctors and scientists now wield a measure of sovereignty.  Remember that sovereignty is the capacity to decide who is killable.  In  section 6, Agamben explains how the line between life and death has become an increasingly political issue, as opposed to simply scientific or empirical.  

Section 7 is the last piece of the puzzle.  The first point is that sovereign power, the fundamental form of political power, is based on the capacity to decide, in exceptional cases, who is killable.  The second point is that the nation state has always been built on a connection between birth, land, and law.  The camp, as it developed over the last century, is the new fourth piece.  It is a space in which the exception is the new normal.  In our time, the key political issue which fundamentally divides people is no longer where one was born, or the territory a state holds, or the particular legal system of a given state. Now, the fundamental issue is who is inside a camp, and who is outside: and what’s more, everyone has the virtual capacity to be placed inside a camp.

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Homo Sacer, Part 3: §1-5

This is the reading for Saturday, July 30.  We will meet at 4:30 here, and there is a printable copy here.

In parts one and two, we saw Agamben’s argument that sovereign power is founded on a relation of ban, rather than something like a social contract.  The foundation of sovereign power is the capacity to decide who is outside politics, and therefore killable: the homo sacer.  

Part three applies this framework to the twentieth century, examining both totalitarian and democratic governments, and argues that this power to decide who is killable is common to both styles of government.  Further, this power is no longer limited to a traditional political sovereign, but is now also in the hands of doctors and scientists.

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Homo Sacer, Part 2: §5-6

Here is the reading for July 9th’s meeting.  We will meet at 4:30 here, and there is a printable copy here.

The first four sections of Part 2 began to argue that the ban, rather than a social contract, is at the origin of western politics.  Sections five and six complete this argument.  Section five is a historical study of the image funeral and its relation to three figures: the Roman devotee, the Emperor, and the homo sacer, or sacred man.  Each of these three figures has a different relation to bare life: the devotee’s bare life was expelled from the city, the Emperor’s bare life was divinized, and sacred man’s bare life was exposed to death.

Part six contrasts social contract theory with the ban.  The social contract, as an alleged founding event of the city, cleanly separates between nature and culture, or nature and law.  Agamben argues that the state of nature lives on in the heart of politics in the form of the bare life of the homo sacer and the sovereign, who exist in a liminal state between human and animal, hence the comparison to werewolves.  In short: Werewolves, therefore Holocaust.

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