Camden Philosophical Society
Tuesday, April 20, 2021 @ 4:00 pm – 6:00 pm
At its next session, at 4 pm on Tuesday, April 20, the Camden Philosophical Society will continue its exploration of the nature of “freedom” and what it means to be free. This month our attention will turn to the 1958 lecture/essay “Two Concepts of Liberty” by British philosopher and public intellectual Isaiah Berlin. All are welcome to participate in the online discussion via Zoom. Let us know by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com if you wish to attend via Zoom. You will receive an invitation on the morning of the meeting. Click on the “Join Zoom Meeting” link in that invitation at the time of the event.
The session will be led by Chuck Marecic. Chuck provides the following commentary on the topic, as well as some additional videos and readings:
In Western society, we take freedom as a given. It is the basis of our self awareness as citizens, and it is the underlying connection to our relationship with our government and our community. Contemporary political rhetoric is filled with talk of freedom and liberty, but what actually do we mean by “freedom” and “liberty?”
Some like Plato and Hannah Arendt have equated freedom with political freedom; the ability to influence the public sphere (government or society) either through debate or action. Others, like Henry David Thoreau, view freedom as a personal right to not be interfered with from the outside (government or society) except by explicit agreement. The former concept Berlin called positive liberty, or “freedom to,” and the latter he labeled negative liberty, or “freedom from.”
These two concepts of freedom appear to be at odds. According to Berlin, positive liberty has lead to much of the tyranny that humans have experienced throughout history because in every case the political actors had convinced themselves that only they had the one and only solution, and in order to enact or preserve that solution, they needed to suppress opposing opinion. Think: Revolutionary France’s Reign of Terror, Stalin’s purges in the USSR, China’s Cultural Revolution, Jim Crow laws and racism in the US, the Killing Fields in Cambodia, South Africa’s Apartheid, the Crusades, and on and on….
In short, Berlin saw positive liberty as the danger. His remedy was to call for the promotion of negative liberty. Let the individual be free from interference or impediment and a more just society will ultimately come forth. His ideas made an impact on the leaders of Western societies, particularly in the UK and the US. According to BBC documentarian Adam Curtis, we are now enjoying the fruits of Berlin’s solution.
The primary reading for this month’s discussion is Isaiah Berlin, “Two Concepts of Liberty” https://cactus.dixie.edu/green/B_Readings/I_Berlin%20Two%20Concpets%20of%20Liberty.pdf
In addition to Berlin’s essay, I would recommend Adam Curtis’s documentary The Trap (Part 3 of 3): We Will Force You to be Free (2007). The documentary explores the real world impacts of Berlin’s concepts of positive/negative liberty, with guest appearances of the political philosophies of Franz Fanon and Jean Paul Sartre. https://youtu.be/UX4AVFymCBg
Although not essential for our discussion, you might be interested in this recent book review in The Nation by Tyler Stovall of Freedom: An Unruly History by the political historian Annelien de Dijn. https://www.thenation.com/article/society/annelien-de-dijn-freedom-history/
Finally, I would be remiss if I did not include this clip on positive liberty from Monty Python and the Holy Grail: https://youtu.be/t2c-X8HiBng
OK, and for those of you who really wanted this month to be about Irving Berlin! https://youtu.be/u95BpnGqR78
All the best,