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Political Philosophy on Berlin, Isaiah - Dictionary of Arguments

Gaus I 418
Berlin/Political philosophy/Weinstein: Good is famously pluralistic for Berlin (...). In his case, however, value pluralism precludes systematizing justice because values are so clearly irreconcilable, making Berlin's liberalism difficult to classify.
BarryVsBerlin: Berlin has lately become an academic industry, leading Barry to criticize Berlin's literary executor of publishing every bit of trivia Berlin wrote as though it was reputable philosophy (see Barry, 2001(1): 7).
Freedom: Berlin's reputation initially rested on his analysis of negative versus positive freedom, which has overdetermined much theorizing ever since. Berlin defends negative freedom, condemning positive freedom as historically, if not logically, anti-liberal. For Berlin, the problem goes back to Green's unfortunate appropriation of Hegel (for Berlin's misreading of Green, see Simhony, 1991(2)). But Berlin's defence of negative freedom, and hence his liberalism, is problematic in so far as the more he clarifies what he means by negative
Gaus I 419
freedom, the more negative freedom resembles positive freedom. For instance, in the original 1958
'Two concepts of liberty', Berlin reconceptualizes negative freedom in a much-ignored footnote.
Being free is not simply having options to do what one wants. Rather, the extent of my freedom seems to depend on
(a) how many possibilities are open to me...
(b) how easy or difficult each of these possibilities is to actualize;
(c) how important in my plan of life ... these possibilities are...
(d) how far they are closed and opened by deliberate human acts;
(e) what value not merely the agent, but the general sentiment of the society in which he lives, puts
on the various possibilities.‘ (Berlin, 1969(4): 130)
Hence, being free is also being empowered to realize worthwhile aims. (But see Berlin's 1969
Introduction to Four Essays on Liberty, where he omits (b) and (e).)
Political science/Berlin: In 'Political judgment', Berlin asserts unequivocally that there is 'no natural science of politics' or 'natural science of ethics' but only political judgement (1996(5): 49, 52). Attempts to substitute the former for the latter can too often result in disaster, especially wherever political science and revolutionary theory converge. Such theorizing lacks a 'sense of reality' in naively assuming that politics is scientifically generalizable and therefore predictable. For Berlin, such scientific conceit is the Enlightenment's most unfortunate legacy. We simply can't anticipate all the important consequences of public policies. Justice, whether utilitarian, contractarian or socialist, is always controvertible in practice.
Gray has recently defended Berlin, agreeing that freedom should be privileged because it allows us
to 'negotiate' our way among incommensurable values. Negative freedom is pre-eminently valuable because it 'facilitates' unavoidable radical choice-making between incommensurables (Gray, 1996(6): 143-4). For Gray, Berlin's 'historicist turn' suggests that 'there can be, and need be, no universal justification for liberalism'. Rather, liberalism 'is instead best understood as a particular form of life, practiced by people who have a certain self-conception, in which the activity of unfettered choice is central' (1996(6): 161).


1. Barry, Brian (2001) 'Isaiah, Israel and tribal realism'. Times Literary Supplement (London), 9 November: 7-8.
2. Simhony, Avital (1991) 'On forcing individuals to be free'. Political Studies, 49: 303-20.
3.Berlin 1958
4. Berlin, Isaiah (1969) Four Essays on Liberty. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
5. Berlin, Isaiah (1996) The Sense of Reality. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
6. Gray, John (1996) Isaiah Berlin. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.


Weinstein, David 2004. „English Political Theory in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Century“. In: Gaus, Gerald F. & Kukathas, Chandran 2004. Handbook of Political Theory. SAGE Publications


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Explanation of symbols: Roman numerals indicate the source, arabic numerals indicate the page number. The corresponding books are indicated on the right hand side. ((s)…): Comment by the sender of the contribution. Translations: Dictionary of Arguments
The note [Author1]Vs[Author2] or [Author]Vs[term] is an addition from the Dictionary of Arguments. If a German edition is specified, the page numbers refer to this edition.
Political Philosophy
Gaus I
Gerald F. Gaus
Chandran Kukathas
Handbook of Political Theory London 2004


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