Two concepts of freedom
Two concepts of freedom

This free course is available to start right now. Review the full course description and key learning outcomes and create an account and enrol if you want a free statement of participation.

Free course

Two concepts of freedom

2 The word ‘freedom’

The word ‘freedom’ can have powerful emotive force, that is, the power to arouse strong emotions. Its connotations are almost exclusively positive. If you describe a group as ‘freedom fighters’ this suggests that you approve of the cause for which they are fighting; call them ‘terrorists’ and you make clear your disapproval.

Activity 1: Emotive words

The following statements all use language calculated to arouse emotion. Make a note of the words which are particularly emotive.

  1. Meat is murder.

  2. The workers in this factory are little more than beasts of burden driven on by an evil capitalist master.

  3. I am firm, you are obstinate, he is pigheaded.

  4. Television is entertainment for philistines.

  5. Britons never, never, never shall be slaves.


  1. murder.

  2. beasts of burden, evil, master.

  3. obstinate, pig-headed.

  4. philistines.

  5. never, never, never, slaves.

‘Freedom’ is not usually a neutral term. Freedom seems noble and worthy. It is hard to imagine anyone declaring that they are fundamentally opposed to it. Many people have laid down their lives in the name of freedom, or of liberty (like most writers on the subject, I'll be using the words ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ interchangeably here); yet we should not lose sight of the fact that ‘freedom’ is used to mean many different and sometimes incompatible things. Just because one word (or two, if you count ‘liberty’) is used, it does not follow that there is one thing to which it refers. A quick perusal of the philosophical writing about freedom will reveal the wide variety of approaches to political life which have been defended in the name of freedom.

The arguments we'll be examining are arguments for political or social freedom: the freedom of the individual in relation to other people and to the state. The aim is to explain and unravel some arguments for this kind of freedom. In the process we'll be examining some of the classic philosophical defences of particular types of freedom. The stress will always be on the arguments used rather than on the detailed historical context in which the views were originally expressed. Many of the central arguments transfer readily to the contemporary situation, if you make appropriate changes. They contribute to the pressing debates about the limits of individual freedom that affect us today.

You might think that the meaning of ‘freedom’ is straightforward: at an individual level it means not being imprisoned. If I'm imprisoned then, obviously, I'm not free. I can't choose to go out for a stroll, eat a pizza, go to the cinema, and so on. But on the other hand, even as a prisoner, I am likely to be free in many respects. I am free to think about whatever I want to think about. In all but the cruellest prison regimes I will be free to pace around my cell, do a few push-ups or stare blankly at the wall; I'll also be free to write a letter to my family, perhaps even to study for an Open University degree, and so on. However, this may be a sentimental view of what prison life is actually like for most prisoners. Several of the activities I have described, particularly studying, require a certain amount of concentration. For most of us concentration requires relative quiet. Here is one prisoner's account of trying to study for an Open University course:

One of the main problems is that of noise. Jail is a very noisy place and it is rarely quiet. The quietest periods are after 8.30 at night and the normal lockup times. At other times it is very hard to concentrate with all the noise. I can't study during communal periods because of the loudness of the TV. Noise is a major problem.

(Ashley, et al. (1994), p. 12)

So is this prisoner really free to study? Although the prison authorities don't actively prevent him from doing so, the noise in the prison at some times of the day does. A prisoner's freedom may be curtailed in many ways beyond preventing him or her leaving the prison, and not all of those curtailments of freedom are necessarily a result of someone deliberately imposing restrictions on behaviour. Nevertheless, most prisoners have considerably more freedom in most respects than did Gulliver, in Swift's novel Gulliver's Travels (1726), when he woke up after being shipwrecked on the shore of Lilliput:

I attempted to rise, but was not able to stir: for as I happened to lie on my back, I found my arms and legs were strongly fastened on each side to the ground; and my hair, which was long and thick, tied down in the same manner. I likewise felt several slender ligatures across my body, from my armpits to my thighs. I could only look upwards, the sun began to grow hot, and the light offended my eyes. I heard a confused noise about me, but in the posture I lay, could see nothing except the sky.

(Swift (1985 edn), p. 55)

In this condition, Gulliver had virtually no freedom of movement. Even physical freedom is not a matter of all or nothing, but rather of degree. You may be imprisoned, but there are still further freedoms that you can lose.

For a nation, ‘freedom’ may mean not being occupied. France during most of the Second World War was not a free country in this sense as it was occupied by the Nazis or controlled by the Vichy government. The Resistance saw themselves as freedom fighters, risking their lives to liberate France. Their aim was quite simply a free France, which meant a France which was free from Nazi occupation. Yet when France was liberated it did not miraculously become free in every respect; nor were the French completely constrained in what they could do while the Nazis were in occupation.

However, ‘a free nation’ or ‘a free state’ may also mean one that is not totalitarian. A totalitarian state is one in which the state authorities, in principle at least, exercise control over most aspects of subjects’ lives. Totalitarianism may take many different forms. Its essence, in its most extreme form, is captured in George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four: because the state authorities want to have complete control over individuals’ lives, there is an elaborate mechanism for surveillance, summed up in the slogan ‘Big Brother is Watching You’:

A Party Member lives from birth to death under the eye of the Thought Police. Even when he is alone he can never be sure that he is alone. Wherever he may be, asleep or awake, working or resting, in his bath or in bed, he can be inspected without warning and without knowing that he is being inspected. Nothing that he does is indifferent. His friendships, his relaxations, his behaviour towards his wife and children, the expression of his face when he is alone, the words he mutters in sleep, even the characteristic movements of his body, are all jealously scrutinised. Not only any actual misdemeanour, but any eccentricity, however small, any change of habits, any nervous mannerism that could possibly be the symptom of an inner struggle, is certain to be detected. He has no freedom of choice in any direction whatever.

(Orwell (1989 edn), p. 219)

In such a totalitarian state there is no significant private realm in which individuals can exercise free choice: every area of life is subject to control by the state authorities. Here, then, is another sense in which a state or nation can lack freedom.

What these examples show is that freedom isn't a matter of all or nothing. You can be free in some respects and not in others (usually the context in which freedom is being discussed makes clear what kind of freedom is at stake). And you can have a greater or lesser degree of a particular freedom.

When philosophers ask ‘What is political freedom?’ they are not asking for a dictionary definition. ‘Political Freedom’, unlike, say, ‘aardvark’, isn't the sort of phrase that a dictionary definition is likely to shed much light upon. There is, as far as I know, no controversy about what an aardvark is. It is a species of animal: my dictionary says ‘the ant bear, a South African edentate’. If I were unsure whether or not the animal in front of me was an aardvark, a competent zoologist could easily set me straight. There are established criteria for determining which animals are aardvarks: if an animal meets these criteria, then it must be an aardvark. But political freedom is a notion that has been argued about for centuries: there is no uncontroversial way of defining it. The definition you give usually implies a particular view about human beings and about the things we do or should value most. In this respect it is more like ‘art’ than like ‘aardvark’. There are numerous, conflicting definitions of what art is. Similarly there are many different views about what political freedom is, and in particular about where its limits should be set.


Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has over 40 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to university level study, find out more about the types of qualifications we offer, including our entry level Access courses and Certificates.

Not ready for University study then browse over 900 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus