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In the last blog post, I criticized the idea that Intellectual Freedom is an origin. Intellectual Freedom as origin is mixed confusingly with Intellectual Freedom as outcome, which can also be criticized from a social justice perspective. But I want to stay on the topic of IF as origin here, because it connects to another concept in political philosophy, that of negative freedom.

Isaiah Berlin, in his “Two Concepts of Freedom” (1969), distinguishes between a “normal” view of freedom, in which no one is obstructed from doing what they want (negative liberty), and a positive view, in which freedom consists in determining my own way of live, choosing for myself, etc. Berlin admits that these two views of liberty don’t seem to be “at great logical distance from each other”, but nevertheless he draws a sharp distinction between them, not only in their historical origins and trajectories, but in their potential political consequences. Positive liberty, in Berlin’s view, when extended to a social body, leads people to “justify the coercion of some men by others in order to raise them to a ‘higher’ level of freedom”. We can see here the spectre of totalitarianism as well as the seeds of libertarianism.

I am drastically over-simplifying here, but it is true to say that negative liberty holds primacy for Berlin, and with it a liberal pluralism which “[it] seems to me a truer and more humane ideal than the goals of those who seek in the great, disciplined, authoritarian structures the ideal of ‘positive’ self-mastery by classes, or peoples, or the whole of mankind”.

We can see here one of the philosophical justifications for the “neutral” proceduralism that operates as if the liberal state or liberal society is agnostic with respect to the good. Charles Taylor takes issue with Berlin’s dismissal of positive liberty in his 1985 essay, “What’s Wrong with Negative Liberty?” For Taylor, the totalitarian threat is an exaggeration which might well form the “inner logic” of (Taylor’s understanding of) Marxism, but is nonetheless a caricature. Taylor wants to rehabilitate the positive conception of freedom in the face of Berlin’s dismissal. (Positive liberty will form the basis of Taylor’s critique of libertarianism as well as his justification of objective moral frameworks in Sources of the Self).

However, like the two principles of justice I have written about before, both positive and negative liberty as formulated by Berlin and Taylor are predicated on an individualistic, autonomous view of human subjects. Negative liberty - which has a political expression in social contract theory - sees individuals as “pre-social” with rights and liberties that pertain to them originally. Any infringement on these “natural” rights and liberties is a violation because such rights and liberties take (logical, legal, and historical) precedence. Rawls’ principle of the equality of opportunity is connected with this idea.

Positive liberty, by contrast, sees freedom as an outcome (the outcome of education, or a process of self-mastery), and we can see this most clearly in Kant’s notion of Enlightenment as emancipation. This kind of liberty is the result of a project of self-improvement and self-liberation. Such self-liberation, from the Kantian perspective, includes liberation from the sway or influence of other people. In this way, a moderate positive liberty can avoid the threat of totalitarianism while avoiding what Taylor sees as the drawbacks of negative liberty (e.g. that negative liberty is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for freedom).

However, both Berlin and Taylor as liberals see “freedom” as a) something that “belongs” to individuals (whether as origin or as outcome) and b) as something that owes nothing to the constraints of historical necessity. If I am born into an English-speaking household, my “freedom” (to speak German) is constrained by this fact. Similarly, if I am born into a country which drives on the right side of the road, no amount of negative liberty or positive emancipation will justify my driving on the left (in the case, for example, where I kill someone).

The Marxist conception of freedom - discounted by Berlin from a fear of totalitarianism and by Taylor through a straw-man vulgar Marxism - contradicts both of points a) and b). Freedom is not something that belongs to individuals, because there are no individuals outside social relations, and those social relations always impose constraints and obligations. Freedom recognizes the constraints and affordances of historical necessity. We can think of these are synchronic and diachronic constraints on freedom which are unavoidable but which are generally dismissed by liberal conceptions of freedom.

Just as intellectual freedom owes most to the origin theory of freedom, with an admixture of the outcome theory, so it owes most to the negative conception of liberty (freedom from censorship) with an admixture of the positive (independence and education as requirements for a healthy democracy). Again, these are not clearly defined within the concept of IF, but are messily and chaotically mixed together.

What liberal theories of freedom avoid, and which Marxism embraces, is a theory of historical causality. Taylor, in the Sources of the Self tries to head off this critique by claiming 1) that by not including “diachronic-causal” explanation in his account of the making of modern identity, he doesn’t mean to say it isn’t important and b) that diachronic-causal explanations are so messy and chaotic that they don’t really tell us anything anyway. Individuals freely and rationally choose their own paths, either originarily or as the outcome of a process of self-emancipation.

For Marxists, on the other hand, similarly to many social construction theorist, individuals are produced by the world they are born into (the diachronic and synchronic structures identified above). The Hegelian view might be that individual personalities are “expressions” of an underlying totality, while a structuralist view sees people as created by their differential position within a vast structure of structures. Each moment in the diachronic movement of the whole produces synchronic structures in which we are all embedded. It is this movement over time that prevents the Marxist view from being completely deterministic. Roy Bhaskar, in his taxonomy of individual/society relations, describes the structural form as “transformational”, in which structures produce individuals and individuals produce structures. In this context, “freedom” takes on a radically different cast than either Berlin or Taylor’s view, but it is also radically different from the vulgar, determinist, totalitarian Marxism Taylor dismisses.

This third way of looking at freedom - different from both positive and negative conceptions of liberty - has, I think, huge consequences for intellectual freedom. It denies any kind of absolute liberty either as origin or as outcome, and in its place proposes a conception of individual agency (physical, social, and intellectual) that both produce, reproduce, and are (re-)produced by them. Social change, therefore, rules out any question of the coercion of individuals, and focuses instead on what kind of coordinate, cooperative action amongst individuals can change the structures that need to be changed to ensure a just future.


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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