Academic journal article Brazilian Political Science Review

The Concept of Liberty: The Polemic between the Neo-Republicans and Isaiah Berlin*

Academic journal article Brazilian Political Science Review

The Concept of Liberty: The Polemic between the Neo-Republicans and Isaiah Berlin*

Article excerpt

This article examines the polemic between neo-republican theory and Isaiah Berlin's ideas on the concept of liberty, and proposes a revision of the neo-republican critique of Berlin's argument. It emphasizes that, in Berlin's argument, freedom of choice is the central value in the concept of liberty, and that this idea should inform thinking about the tensions and complementarities between the extremes of negative and positive liberty. It then points out that the concept of liberty is constructed as the contrary to that of oppression, and the notion of intervention figures as a guarantee of freedom. Taking freedom of choice as its basis, it sets out the reasons why Berlin's thinking gave precedence to the notion of negative liberty. It also addresses the issue of final purposes in the concept of liberty and indicates areas of congruence between Isaiah Berlin's and the neo-republicans' arguments in that both deny the value of an ultimate end that justifies the exercise of liberty.

The two concepts of liberty and their leading critics

In 1958, Isaiah Berlin gave his inaugural lecture at Oxford under the title Two concepts of liberty. That same year, the lecture was published as an essay that triggered heated debate. In 1969, the essay was published in the book Four essays on liberty, the new edition of the text accompanied by a number of notes absent from the original edition, together with a long introduction in which the author endeavoured to answer a number of criticisms. The essay was originally written during the Cold War, and the imprint of that conflict was made clear in the text itself. Berlin described his purpose as to inquire into questions raised in the midst of "... the open war that is being fought between two systems of ideas which return different and conflicting answers to what has long been the central question of politics - the question of obedience and coercion" (BERLIN, 1969a, p.121). The two views of liberty - negative and positive - were associated, respectively, with the liberal democratic and communist worlds.

The essay had enormous impact and was discussed by numerous theoreticians. Illustrative of those from the left was the critique formulated by C. B. Macpherson(1973), according to whom the central value of the concept of negative liberty was the absence of interference: negative liberty demanded only a space free from interference by State, Church, trade unions, groups etc, and disregarded the fundamental consideration that liberty is subjects' ability to act according to their desires. For that capacity to materialize, resources are necessary. Macpherson argued that, as poverty does not constitute an interference, Berlin's concept of liberty ultimately did not consider it an obstacle. He saw Berlin's argument as relegating the endeavour to overcome misery and poverty to secondary importance, which thus entailed endorsing a policy of minimum government intervention, as advocated by laissez-faire thinkers or liberals like Hayek and Robert Nozick. A second critique, levelled by Gerald MacCallum (1967), had considerable impact in the Anglo-Saxon world, and even Berlin responded to it when his essay was republished. According to MacCallum, Berlin seeks to attribute validity to one of the extremes of liberty (in this case, negative liberty), which ultimately creates distinctions which are never clear. That imprecision results from the operation of dividing liberty. MacCallum sees liberty as a single concept: it resides in acting to do or to refrain from doing something, always against some constraint, interference or impediment.

In spite of the critiques, Berlin's formulation remained one of the most influential in political theory. The brunt of the attack, however, was to come from neither the Marxist left nor the neoliberals (many of whom saw little commitment to liberalism in its value pluralism), but from neo-republicanism, a theoretical current that emerged in the early 1990s and whose main exponents are Phillip Pettit and Quentin Skinner. …

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