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The Psychological Dangers of Positive Liberty: Reconstructing a Neglected Undercurrent in Isaiah Berlin's “Two Concepts of Liberty”

  • Gina Gustavsson

Berlin is often taken to have exaggerated his case against positive liberty, since contrary to what he seems to argue, several versions of it do not logically justify coercion. A more historical interpretation of his warnings may save him from this accusation, yet on the other hand suggests his message is of little relevance for contemporary liberalism. In contrast to both these approaches, this essay considers a third and largely neglected aspect of “Two Concepts of Liberty,” that speaks more directly to the challenges facing liberalism today: Berlin's warning that positive liberty invites the specific kind of coercion that parades as liberation, and that it does so according to a psychologically predictable pattern. After reconstructing this undercurrent in Berlin's critique of positive liberty, this essay also considers the relevance of Berlin's warnings to contemporary European debates on banning the Muslim veil in the name of liberation.

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1 Berlin, Isaiah, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” in Liberty, ed. Hardy, Henry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 211 (hereafter referred to as TCL). Following Berlin, I here use “liberty” and “freedom” synonymously; see TCL, 169.

2 Macpherson, C. B., “Berlin's division of liberty,” in Democratic Theory: Essays in Retrieval, ed. Macpherson, C. B. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), 110–13; Christman, John, “Liberalism and Individual Positive Freedom,” Ethics 101, no. 2 (1991): 359; Simhony, Avital, “On Forcing Individuals to be Free: T. H. Green's Liberal Theory of Positive Freedom,” Political Studies 39, no. 2 (1991): 305; West, David, “Spinoza on Positive Freedom,” Political Studies 41, no. 2 (1993): 296.

3 Galipeau, Claude J., Isaiah Berlin's Liberalism (Oxford: Clarendon, 1994), 85; Gray, John, Isaiah Berlin (London: HarperCollins, 1995), 18; Crowder, George, Isaiah Berlin: Liberty and Pluralism (Cambridge: Polity, 2004), 8485.

4 Franco, Paul, “The Shapes of Liberal Thought: Oakeshott, Berlin, and Liberalism,” Political Theory 31, no. 4 (2003): 490. Also see Galipeau, Isaiah Berlin's Liberalism, 85; and Kenny, Michael, “Isaiah Berlin's Contribution to Modern Political Theory,” Political Studies 48, no. 5 (2000): 1037.

5 Crowder, Isaiah Berlin, 149.

6 Mack, Eric, “Isaiah Berlin and the Quest for Liberal Pluralism,” Public Affairs Quarterly 7, no. 3 (1993): 215–30; Gray, Isaiah Berlin; Tamir, Yael, “A Strange Alliance: Isaiah Berlin and the Liberalism of the Fringes,” Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 1, no. 2 (1998): 279–89; Galston, William A, “Value Pluralism and Liberal Political Theory,” American Political Science Review 93, no. 4 (1999): 769–78; Gutmann, Amy, “Liberty and Pluralism in Pursuit of the Non-ideal,” Social Research 66, no. 4 (1999): 1039–62; Honneth, Axel, “Negative Freedom and Cultural Belonging: An Unhealthy Tension in the Political Philosophy of Isaiah Berlin,” Social Research 66, no. 4 (1999): 1063–77; Riley, Jonathan, “Interpreting Berlin's Liberalism,” American Political Science Review 95, no. 2 (2001): 283–95; Franco, “The Shapes of Liberal Thought: Oakeshott, Berlin, and Liberalism”; Gaus, Gerald F., Contemporary Theories of Liberalism (London: Sage, 2003), chap. 2; Crowder, George, “Two Concepts of Liberal Pluralism,” Political Theory 35, no. 2 (2007): 121–46; Myers, Ella, “From Pluralism to Liberalism: Rereading Isaiah Berlin,” Review of Politics 72, no. 4 (2010): 599625.

7 Cf. Galston, William A., Liberal Pluralism: The Implications of Value Pluralism for Political Theory and Practice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), chap. 2; Mookherje, Monica, “Affective citizenship: feminism, postcolonialism and the politics of recognition,” Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy 8, no. 1 (2005): 33; Tebble, Adam, “Exclusion for Democracy,” Political Theory 34, no. 4 (2006): 474; Joppke, Christian, Veil: Mirror of Identity (Cambridge: Polity, 2010), 2; Adamson, Fiona B., Triadafilopoulos, Triadafilos, and Zolberg, Aristide R., “The Limits of the Liberal State: Migration, Identity and Belonging in Europe,” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 37, no. 6 (2011): 843–59.

8 Zakaras, Alex, “Isaiah Berlin's Cosmopolitan Ethics,” Political Theory 32, no. 4 (2004): 515; Müller, Jan-Werner, “Fear and Freedom: On ‘Cold War Liberalism,’European Journal of Political Theory 7, no. 1 (2008): 5859; Zakaras, Alex, “A Liberal Pluralism: Isaiah Berlin and John Stuart Mill,” Review of Politics 75, no. 1 (2013): 9192.

9 Crowder, Isaiah Berlin; Ricciardi, Mario, “Berlin on Liberty,” in The One and the Many: Reading Isaiah Berlin, ed. Crowder, George and Hardy, Henry (New York: Prometheus Books, 2007).

10 Zakaras, “A Liberal Pluralism,” 92. Also see Crowder, George, “Justification and Psychology in Liberal Pluralism: A Reply to Zakaras,” Review of Politics 75, no. 1 (2013): 103–10; Zakaras, Alex, “Reply to Galston and Crowder,” Review of Politics 75, no. 1 (2013): 111–14.

11 See references in footnote 7, above.

12 Cf. McCloskey, H. J., “A Critique of the Ideals of Liberty,” Mind 74, no. 296 (1965): 483508; Ryan, Alan, “Freedom,” Philosophy 40, no. 152 (1965): 93112; Macfarlane, L. J., “On Two Concepts of Liberty,” Political Studies 14, no. 1 (1966): 7781; Gray, Isaiah Berlin; and Taylor, Charles, “What's Wrong with Negative Liberty?,” in Contemporary Political Philosophy, ed. Goodin, Robert and Pettit, Philip (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997). For an overview of this vast debate, see Harris, Ian, “Berlin and his Critics,” in Liberty, ed. Hardy, Henry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

13 Crowder, Isaiah Berlin, 69; Joshua Cherniss, “Berlin's Early Political Thought,” in The One and the Many: Reading Isaiah Berlin, 95; Ricciardi, “Berlin on Liberty,” 126.

14 TCL, 178–79.

15 TCL, 212. This reading is also found in Galipeau, Isaiah Berlin's Liberalism, 8–9; Gray, Isaiah Berlin, 17; Crowder, Isaiah Berlin, 78.

16 Gray, Isaiah Berlin, 15–16.

17 Berlin, Isaiah, “Introduction,” in Liberty, ed. Hardy, Henry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 179. For an insightful account of these different sides of positive liberty, see Miller, David, editor's introduction to The Liberty Reader (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006), 10. Berlin, moreover, clearly refers to “individual liberty, in either the ‘negative’ or in the ‘positive’ senses of the word” (TCL, 204). Thus, although he blames positive liberty for being more easily perverted into an idea of freedom as merging one's individual self into “some super-personal entity,” it seems fair to say that he does not identify positive liberty with any collectivist notion. This reading is argued for in further detail in Crowder, Isaiah Berlin, 68; and Ricciardi, “Berlin on Liberty,” 132.

18 Galipeau, Isaiah Berlin's Liberalism, 36; Crowder, Isaiah Berlin, 188.

19 This reading is also found in Macpherson, “Berlin's division of liberty,” 95; Galipeau, Isaiah Berlin's Liberalism, 104; Gray, Isaiah Berlin, 22; and Crowder, Isaiah Berlin, 68–69.

20 Isaiah Berlin, “Introduction,” 32.

21 Ibid. 39 (emphasis added).

22 TCL, 169.

23 TCL, 180–81.

24 TCL, 215.

25 TCL, 180.

26 Zakaras, “Isaiah Berlin's Cosmopolitan Ethics,” 504–7. Cf. Berlin, Isaiah, “The Pursuit of the Ideal,” in The Crooked Timber of Humanity: Chapters in the History of Ideas, ed. Hardy, Henry (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990), 11; Berlin, Isaiah, Three Critics of the Enlightenment: Vico, Hamann, Herder, ed. Hardy, Henry (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), 49.

27 TCL, 216–17.

28 Christman, “Liberalism and Individual Positive Freedom,” 359; Simhony, “On Forcing Individual to be Free: T. H. Green's Liberal Theory of Positive Freedom,” 305; West, “Spinoza on Positive Freedom,” 296; Crowder, Isaiah Berlin, 86.

29 TCL, 179, 181. Berlin, “Introduction, 37.

30 Cf. Macpherson, “Berlin's division of liberty,” 110–11.

31 Crowder, Isaiah Berlin, 69–70. The notion of the “inversion thesis” is also used in Ricciardi, “Berlin on Liberty,” 121.

32 Crowder, Isaiah Berlin, 84.

33 Ibid., 69.

34 TCL, 167.

35 TCL, 179.

36 Berlin, Isaiah, “Kant as an Unfamiliar Source of Nationalism,” in The Sense of Reality: Studies in Ideas and their History, ed. Hardy, Henry (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997), 237.

37 TCL, 198 (emphasis added).

38 TCL, 207–8 (emphasis added).

39 Berlin, “Introduction,” 31–32.

40 Zakaras, “Isaiah Berlin's Cosmopolitan Ethics,” 515; Müller, “Fear and Freedom,” 59; Zakaras, “A Liberal Pluralism.”

41 Cf. Cherniss, Joshua L., “Isaiah Berlin's Political Ideas: From the Twentieth Century to the Romantic Age,” in Political Ideas in the Romantic Age, ed. Hardy, Henry (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006); Graeme Garrard, “Strange Reversals: Berlin on the Enlightenment and the Counter-Enlightenment,” in The One and the Many: Reading Isaiah Berlin; Ricciardi, “Berlin on Liberty.”

42 Gray, Isaiah Berlin; Galston, “Value Pluralism and Liberal Political Theory”; Riley, “Interpreting Berlin's Liberalism”; Franco, “The Shapes of Liberal Thought: Oakeshott, Berlin, and Liberalism.”

43 Macfarlane, “On Two Concepts of Liberty,” 79–80; Christman, “Liberalism and Individual Positive Freedom,” 359; West, “Spinoza on Positive Freedom,” 288; Galipeau, Isaiah Berlin's Liberalism, 101–2.

44 His more general concern that, as Galston puts it, “the totalitarian temptation is an enduring feature of the human mind” has often been recognized, however. See Galston, William A., “Moral Pluralism and Liberal Democracy: Isaiah Berlin's Heterodox Liberalism,” Review of Politics 71, no. 1 (2009): 99; and Zakaras, “A Liberal Pluralism,” 86.

45 TCL, 208.

46 TCL, 214.

47 TCL, 216.

48 TCL, 217.

49 As an anonymous reviewer brought to my attention, a monist could of course merely assume that there is one rational ordering of human values, but doubt that there can be any positive access to this knowledge. By repeatedly lumping together monism, certainty, and self-righteousness, Berlin thus neglects this much less comforting version of monism. Cf. Berlin, “The Pursuit of the Ideal,” 13–14.

50 Note that this differs from the more common interpretation of Berlin as seeing monism as a consequence of positive liberty, which has recently been discussed by Kis, Janos, “Berlin's two concepts of positive liberty,” European Journal of Political Theory 12, no. 1 (2013): 3839.

51 TCL, 181.

52 TCL,179–80.

53 TCL, 192.

54 Berlin seems to have thought of himself as a pluralistic supporter of positive liberty: Berlin, “Introduction,” 50; Cherniss, “Berlin's Early Political Thought.”

55 TCL, 193.

56 TCL, 213.

57 TCL, 180.

58 Ross, Lee and Ward, Andrew, “Naive Realism in Everyday Life: Implications for Social Conflict and Misunderstanding,” in Values and Knowledge, ed. Reed, Edward, Turiel, Elliot, and Brown, Terrance (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1996), 110–11. Also see Griffin, Dale W. and Ross, Lee, “Subjective Construal, Social Inference, and Human Misunderstanding,” in Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, vol. 4 (New York: Academic Press, 1991), 319–59.

59 Taber, Charles S. and Lodge, Milton, “Motivated Skepticism in the Evaluation of Political Beliefs,” American Journal of Political Science 50, no. 3 (2006): 767. Also see Kunda, Ziva, “The Case for Motivated Reasoning,” Psychological Bulletin 108, no. 3 (1990): 480–98.

60 Nickerson, Raymond S., “How we know—and sometimes misjudge—what others know: Imputing one's own knowledge to others,” Psychological Bulletin 125, no. 6 (1999): 739–59; Royzman, Edward B., Cassidy, Kimberly Wright, and Baron, Jonathan, “‘I Know, You Know’: Epistemic Egocentrism in Children and Adults,” Review of General Psychology 7, no. 1 (2003): 3865; Epley, Nicholas, Keysar, Boaz, Van Boven, Leaf, and Gilovich, Thomas, “Perspective taking as egocentric anchoring and adjustment,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 87, no. 3 (2004): 327–39.

61 Arblaster, Anthony, “Vision and Revision: A Note on the Text of Isaiah Berlin's Four Essays on Liberty,” Political Studies 19, no. 1 (1971): 86.

62 TCL, 169.

63 Berlin, “Introduction,” 32.

64 Berlin, Isaiah, “Two Concepts of Freedom: Romantic and Liberal,” in Political Ideas in the Romantic Age, ed. Hardy, Henry (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), 205.

65 MacCallum, Gerald, “Negative and Positive Freedom,” The Philosophical Review 73, no. 3 (1967): 312–34.

66 Crowder, Isaiah Berlin, 78; Christman, John, “Saving Positive Freedom,” Political Theory 33, no. 1 (2005): 81.

67 TCL, 179–80.

68 TCL, 185, 204, 195, 169.

69 TCL, 180–81.

70 Christman, “Liberalism and Individual Positive Freedom,” 354–55; Galipeau, Isaiah Berlin's Liberalism, 101; Gray, Isaiah Berlin, 21.

71 Berlin, “Two Concepts of Freedom: Romantic and Liberal,” 185, 89 (emphasis added). The term “romantic” is of course notoriously difficult to define. I here simply follow Berlin in using it to refer to ideas he associates with early German Romanticism. See Berlin, Isaiah, The Roots of Romanticism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001).

72 Berlin, Roots of Romanticism, 50–51.

73 Isaiah Berlin, “The Apotheosis of the Romantic Will,” in The Crooked Timber of Humanity, 229.

74 Berlin, “Two Concepts of Freedom: Romantic and Liberal,” 201.

75 Ibid., 197.

76 Berlin, “The Apotheosis of the Romantic Will,” 231.

77 Berlin, “Two Concepts of Freedom: Romantic and Liberal,” 201–2.

78 TCL, 169, 70, 79, 75.

79 TCL, 175, 78, 81–82.

80 TCL, 184.

81 TCL, 185.

82 TCL, 198–99.

83 TCL, 199.

84 Kant, Immanuel, An Answer to the Question: What Is Enlightenment?, in What Is Enlightenment? Eighteenth-Century Answers and Twentieth-Century Questions, ed. Schmidt, James (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 63.

85 Ibid, 59.

86 Ibid., 63.

87 TCL, 197.

88 Berlin, “Two Concepts of Freedom: Romantic and Liberal,” 202.

89 Zakaras has suggested this in passing, yet no one has yet to my knowledge actually tried to bring together the two (Zakaras, “A Liberal Pluralism,” 94).

90 André Gerin and Eric Raoult, Document no. 2262: Rapport d'information au nom de la mission d'information sur la pratique du port du voile intégral sur le territoire national, Assemblée Nationale, 29 January 2010, 87; retrieved from, last accessed on 18 November 2013. All quotes from this document were translated by the author.

91 Ibid., 93.

92 Ibid., 287–88, 291. He also raised other concerns, for example that the unveiled majority needed protection from the “symbolic violence” inherent in the full veil (ibid., 286).

93 Ibid., 291.

94 Ibid., 286.

95 Ibid., 291.

96 Ibid.

97 Ibid.

98 Ibid., 287. Also see his insistence on the face as the expressive mirror of the soul (ibid., 286).

99 Ibid., 98, 118. Also see the reasoning of the Sufi poet and intellectual Abdelwahab Meddeb, cited at116–17.

100 For a lucid account of Schlegel's sometimes opaque critique of Kant on this matter, see Gorodeisky, Keren, “(Re)encountering Individuality: Schlegel's Romantic Imperative as a Response to Nihilism,” Inquiry: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy 54, no. 6 (2011): 576–79.

101 Cf. Fekete, Liz, “Enlightened fundamentalism? Immigration, feminism and the Right,” Race & Class 48, no. 2 (2006): 122; Wallach-Scott, Joan, The Politics of the Veil (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), 16, 121, 135; Winter, Bronwyn, Hijab and the Republic: Uncovering the French Headscarf Debate (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2008), chap. 6; Al-Saji, Alia, “The Racialization of Muslim veils: A philosophical analysis,” Philosophy and Social Criticism 36, no. 8 (2010): 875902. A notable exception is Laborde, Cécile, Critical Republicanism: The Hijab Controversy and Political Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008). Yet Laborde only considers the ban on headscarves on minors in public schools, not the more recent and substantially different issue of banning full veils on adult women in the public sphere. Nor does Laborde mention Berlin or his warnings against the positive liberty of self-mastery; her concern is instead with republican freedom as nondomination, which is considerably different (cf. Miller, introduction to Liberty Reader, 10).

102 Baehr, Peter and Gordon, Daniel, “From the headscarf to the burqa: The role of social theorists in shaping laws against the veil,” Economy and Society 42, no. 2 (2013): 253, 255.

103 Ali, Ayaan Hirsi, The Caged Virgin: A Muslim Woman's Cry for Reason (London: Simon and Schuster, 2007), 32; Bruckner, Pascal, “Unveiled: A Case for France's Burqa Ban,” World Affairs 173, no. 4 (2010): 6165.

104 Gustavsson, Gina, “Romantic Liberalism: An Alternative Perspective on the Muhammad Cartoons Controversy,” Political Studies 62, no. 1 (2014): 6667.

105 Also see Gustavsson, Gina, “Freedom in mass values: egocentric, humanistic, or both? Using Isaiah Berlin to understand a contemporary debate,” European Political Science Review 4, no. 2 (2012): 241–62.

106 Adamson, Triadafilopoulos, and Zolberg, “The Limits of the Liberal State.”

107 Galston, William A., “Two Concepts of Liberalism,” Ethics 105, no. 3 (1995): 516–34; King, Desmond, In the Name of Liberalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999); Gray, John, Two Faces of Liberalism (New York: New Press, 2000); Kukathas, Chandran, The Liberal Archipelago: A Theory of Diversity and Freedom (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007). Also see the references in note 7, above.

108 Flanagan, Scott C. and Lee, Aie-Rie, “The New Politics, Culture Wars, and the Authoritarian-Libertarian Value Change in Advanced Industrial Democracies,” Comparative Political Studies 36, no. 3 (2003): 238; Bellah, Robert N., Madsen, Richard, Sullivan, William M., Swidler, Ann, and Tipton, Steven M., Habits of the Heart, Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), 130–33, 333–34; Stoltzenberg, Nomi Maya, “Liberalism in a Romantic State,” Law, Culture and the Humanities 5 (2009): 194215.

Earlier versions of this article were presented at the Nuffield political theory workshop, Oxford, May 2011, and the Annual Meeting of the Midwestern Political Science Association, Chicago, April 2010. I am especially indebted to Li Bennich-Björkman, Eva Erman, David Miller, Marcus Ohlström, Ralph Sundberg, Johan Tralau, Jörgen Ödalen, and five anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments and advice. I would also like to thank all members of the political theory seminar at the Department of Government, Uppsala University, for their incessant patience and constructive criticism over the years.

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