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Two concepts of freedom
Two concepts of freedom

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3.6 Berlin criticised: one concept of freedom?

I've already mentioned that the most important feature of Berlin's article for our purposes is his distinction between negative and positive concepts of freedom: freedom from constraint, and the freedom that results from self-mastery or self-realisation. Most discussion of Berlin's article has also focused on this distinction. Now I want to consider a criticism of the distinction between two types of freedom.

The whole article rests on the assumption that we can make a meaningful distinction between negative and positive concepts of freedom. Gerald MacCallum challenged this view in an article, ‘Negative and Positive Freedom’, in which he claimed that there is just one concept of freedom, not two, and that the idea that there are two concepts introduces confusion about what is really at stake. MacCallum summarises his position on the distinction between negative and positive concepts of freedom:

the distinction between them has never been made sufficiently clear, is based in part upon a serious confusion, and has drawn attention away from precisely what needs examining if the differences separating philosophers, ideologies, and social movements concerned with freedom are to be understood. The corrective advised is to regard freedom as always one and the same triadic relation, but recognise that various contending parties disagree with each other in what they understand to be the ranges of the term variables. To view the matter in this way is to release oneself from a prevalent but unrewarding concentration on ‘kinds’ of freedom, and to turn attention toward the truly important issues in this area of social and political philosophy.

(MacCallum jnr, in Miller (1991), p. 100)

The single concept of freedom that MacCallum puts forward as a replacement for Berlin's two concepts is ‘triadic’. All this means is that it has three parts. The three parts are as follows: freedom is always freedom for someone; it is also freedom from some possible constraint; and it is freedom to do (or not do) something. MacCallum believes that in any discussion of freedom, we should be able to fill in the details for each of the three parts. When one of the parts seems to be missing this is simply because it is implicit in the context. So, for example, any discussion of freedom of speech will, implicitly or explicitly, refer to some person or persons who are or are not constrained to make some sort of public statement.

What MacCallum is doing is arguing that there is a simpler and more useful concept of freedom available than the two concepts set out by Berlin. This simpler concept embodies aspects of both the negative and the positive concepts of freedom described by Berlin. However, Berlin has responded to this criticism by pointing out that there are important cases in which freedom is at issue which cannot be fitted into this three part concept of freedom. Here is Berlin's response:

It has been suggested that liberty is always a triadic relation: one can only seek to be free from X to do or be Y; hence ‘all liberty’ is at once negative and positive or, better still, neither… This seems to me an error. A man struggling against his chains or a people against enslavement need not consciously aim at any definite further state. A man need not know how he will use his freedom; he just wants to remove the yoke. So do classes and nations.

(Berlin, op. cit., footnote, p. xliii)

Put simply, what Berlin has done here is to have provided several counterexamples to MacCallum's general claim that all discussions of freedom can be resolved into a single triadic concept of freedom with varying content. To MacCallum's claim that freedom must always include an explicit or implicit view about what it is freedom to do or be, Berlin has presented some cases in which this does not appear to be so. Any general claim, such as one that begins ‘All… are…’ (e.g. all aardvarks have long tongues) can be refuted by a single counter-example (e.g. in this case, a short-tongued aardvark). If someone claims that all mammals live on land, you only need to cite the single counterexample of dolphins to make clear that the generalisation is false. Similarly, if someone claims that no one ever lived over the age of one hundred and twenty, you only need to produce evidence that one person has lived to be one hundred and twenty-one to refute their claim. (The word ‘refute’ means ‘demonstrate to be false’; it shouldn't be confused with the word ‘repudiate’ which simply means ‘deny’.) Counter-examples provide a powerful way of undermining a generalisation.

Activity 6: Generalisations refuted by counter-example

Which of the following pairs of statements consist of a generalisation followed by a refutation by counter-example?

  1. No one has ever returned from the dead.

    No one will ever return from the dead.

  2. All cats like eating tuna fish.

    My cat detests tuna fish and won't touch it.

  3. All bachelors of arts have degrees.

    My aunt is a bachelor of arts.

  4. No self-respecting intellectual would enjoy watching television ‘soap operas’.

    A.J. Ayer was a self-respecting intellectual and he enjoyed watching television ‘soap operas’.

  5. Everyone who has written about freedom has maintained that there are at least two concepts of freedom.

    MacCallum has written about freedom maintaining that there is just one basic concept of freedom.

Compare your answers with those below before reading on.


(2), (4), and (5) consist of a generalisation followed by a counter-example.

If any of Berlin's examples are accurate descriptions of possible states of affairs, then it follows that he has refuted MacCallum's notion that all meaningful senses of freedom can be captured within a single triadic concept. It does seem reasonable to say that someone struggling for freedom may just seek to ‘remove the yoke’. Indeed this seems to be a basic sense in which we use the word ‘freedom’, one that is not captured by MacCallum's triadic concept.

Activity 7: Reading

When you have finished this course, try reading through the long extract from Berlin's ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’. It concentrates on the distinction between negative and positive liberty and doesn't cover the issues raised in the second half of this course. Don't worry if you can't follow every point: Berlin refers to a wide range of thinkers in passing, most of whose work you probably won't know. Also, like many philosophers, he writes at quite an abstract level. However, much of this essay should already be familiar to you from the long quotations included in this course.

Click to open 'Two Concepts of Liberty' [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] .