Differing views on freedom:

O.T. Paynter-Wells
3 min readDec 21, 2020
Photo by Kevin LEE on Unsplash

1. According to Isaiah Berlin, what is ‘positive freedom’?

Positive freedom can be understood as ‘freedom to…’

20th Century philosopher Isiah Berlin believed positive freedom to mean ‘the wish on the part of the individual to be his own master’ . To Berlin, one possesses positive freedom if they are autonomous, sovereign agents who act only towards the ends which their own reason deems fit, rather than as a result of some deterministic factor like societal conditioning. positive freedom emphasizes the significance of internal processes on one’s state of liberty. Acts which result from an involuntary surge in emotion or psychological phenomena, by virtue of being involuntary, would be in conflict with one’s positive freedom.

Berlin went to great lengths to elaborate how a positive theorist exists in a constant battle against their ‘heteronomous-self’, the aspect of themselves which is subject to ‘every gust of desire and passion’ and often in direct opposition to their faculties of reason, he frequently referenced the stoics who were and are the preeminent thinkers on the subject.

Berlin attributed this conception of freedom to many atrocities through history, paying close attention to its role in the rise of communism. The notion that there exists a higher, dominant self, governed by reason, which ought to subdue the basal aspects of the human condition, he believed justified the manipulation of individuals by ideologues who sought to enforce people to conform to ideologies they otherwise would not subscribe.

(All references taken from ‘Liberty, c.p. Two Concepts of Liberty’)

2. How does Hobbes distinguish between a thing’s liberty and its power?

‘Negative freedom is freedom from…’

Hobbes saw many discrepancies between the liberty of a thing and its power. To comprehend the differentials, one must first understand Hobbes’ classification of freedom. Freedom signifies the ‘absence of opposition’, specifically, ‘external impediments of motion’ . To Hobbes, freedom and movement sustain each other, one is unfree who has been ‘tied’ or ‘environed’, in all other cases however where movement is unimpeded, freedom is maintained. Simply, something that possesses the capacity to move but is hindered in their ability to do so is categorically unfree.

The opposite is true for those things that lack the capacity to move and are therefore unable to do so; ‘when a stone lieth on the ground’ its immobility is not for lack of freedom but a lack of strength or power. The defining difference lies in whether something has been subjected to restriction through an external agent or if that restriction is part of a thing’s innate constitution.

(All references taken from ‘Leviathan c.p. XXI)

3. What is ‘republican freedom’?

Republican freedom, put simply, is defined by an absence of arbitrary opposition. To Rousseau, the only legitimate rule of a people must come from the people themselves rather than from the individual will of a monarch, or the minority will of an oligarchy. ‘No man has any natural authority over his fellows’; such a statement is commonplace now, however, in the 18th century when the feudal system was still yet to crumble and the majority of Europe was still governed by monarchs, the notion was far more radical.

The most fundamental axiom of the republican tradition is that, the only legitimate administration of a people must be one directed by the will of the people themselves — through established institutions agreed upon by the electorate. This approach can then be understood as ‘freedom from…’ akin to the negative approach, however, the difference lies in the fact that to a negative theorist one is always unfree if hindered or restricted by some action inhibitor. Conversely to a republican, restrictions and impediments can not be said to take ones freedom if they were deployed through legitimate means i.e. the breaking of a law which went underwent due process and correlated with the general will of the people it governs.

(all references taken from J.J. Rousseau ‘The Social Contract’)

Thoughts on the topic:

Which approach do you gravitate towards? Which do you feel correlates most with your own perspectives on liberty? Are there any obvious negative implications that could result from one or all of the traditions?