A Theory of Freedom


Abstract: The traditional dispute over whether there are one or two ‘concepts’ of freedom has recently been reignited. Despite this, Isaiah Berlin’s distinction between positive and negative freedom retains a significant amount of influence over academic and popular disputes about freedom, continuing to withstand recent attempts, in Eric Nelson’s words, to ‘lift the shadow’ of Berlin’s famous dichotomy. Berlin’s distinction has traditionally been assailed by two separate schools of thought. One line of argument, propounded by Quentin Skinner and Philip Pettit, has suggested that Berlin’s account includes (at least) one concept of freedom too few. Another line of attack, however, propounded by the likes of Nelson, Efraim Podoksik and Gerald MacCallum, has suggested that, to the contrary, Berlin’s account contains one concept of liberty too many. In this article, I will attempt to clear up this confusing picture by discussing how both of these lines of attack have a role to play in helping to dismantle Berlin’s ultimately misleading account of freedom. In the second half of the article, I then go on to explore the implications of this for contemporary political theory in the construction of a theory of freedom for modern political communities, discussing how the ‘spectrum’ of liberty I explore in the first half leads, naturally, to a social model of individual liberty.