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Unformatted text preview: READING 1 Two Concepts of Liberty Isaiah Berlin Isaiah Berlins essay Two Concepts of Liberty* is one of the most important pieces of post-war political philosophy. It was originally given as a lecture in Oxford in 1958 and has been much discussed since then. In this extract from the lecture Berlin identifies the two different concepts of freedom negative and positive which provide the framework for his wide-ranging discussion. Negative freedom is, roughly, a matter of which doors lie open to you, it is concerned exclusively with opportunities; positive freedom is a question of whether or not you can go through the doors, whether you are master of your life. Berlin points out that historically the concept of positive freedom has been used to control and repress individuals in the name of liberty. I To coerce a man is to deprive him of freedom freedom from what? Almost every moralist in human history has praised freedom. Like happiness and goodness, like nature and reality, the meaning of this term is so porous that there is little interpretation that it seems able to resist. I do not propose to discuss either the history or the more than two hundred senses of this protean word, recorded by historians of ideas. I propose to examine no more than two of these senses but those central ones, with a great deal of human history behind them, and, I dare say, still to come. The first of these political senses of freedom or liberty (I shall use both words to mean the same), which (following much precedent) I shall call the negativesense, is involved in the answer to the question What is the area within which the subject a person or group of persons is or should be left to do or be what he is able to do or be, without interference by other persons? The second, which I shall call the positive sense, is involved in the answer to the question What, or who, is the source of control or interference, that can determine someone to do, or be, one thing rather than another? The two questions are clearly different, even though the answers to them may overlap. 155 The notion of negative freedom I am normally said to be free to the degree to which no human being interferes with my activity. Political liberty in this sense is simply the area within which a man can act unobstructed by others. If I am prevented by other persons from doing what I could otherwise do, I am to that degree unfree; and if this area is contracted by other men beyond a certain minimum, I can be described as being coerced, or, it may be, enslaved. Coercion is not, however, a term that covers every form of inability. If I say that I am unable to jump more than ten feet in the air, or cannot read because I am blind, or cannot understand the darker pages of Hegel, it would be eccentric to say that I am to that degree enslaved or coerced. Coercion implies the deliberate interference of other human beings within the area in which I could otherwise act. You lack politicalhuman beings within the area in which I could otherwise act....
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- Spring '08