Berlin’s two concepts of positive liberty

European Journal of Political Theory 12 (1):31-48 (2013)
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In ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’, Berlin wavered between two readings of the concept of positive liberty. In the first one, ‘positive liberty’ is a distinct concept, different from that of ‘negative liberty’. Those who advocate liberty in the negative sense and those who advocate it in the positive sense do not disagree on which interpretation of the same thing – ‘liberty’ – is the correct one; they speak about different things. Both defend valid ideals, although those ideals may not be simultaneously achievable. In the second reading, negative and positive liberty are competing interpretations of the same concept, the defenders of negative liberty being involved in a substantive disagreement with the advocates of positive liberty on what the same term – ‘liberty’ – really means. On this understanding, negative and positive liberty cannot both be valid ideals: one of them (negative liberty) is a genuine value, the other (positive liberty) being nothing but the perversion of it. My article aims to uncover the roots of this ambiguity in unresolved difficulties in Berlin’s account of the history of the ideas of negative and positive liberty and, more importantly, in his conception of value pluralism



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Janos Kis
Central European University

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