Two Concepts of Liberty

Isaiah Berlin’s inaugural lecture as Oxford’s Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory, ’Two Concepts of Liberty’, has its proximate origins in the text of his Political Ideas in the Romantic Age (PIRA). The lecture was delivered and published in 1958, and ever since it appeared it has been the most discussed and the most contested of his texts. Parts of it have given rise to widely differing interpretations, and parts of it (sometimes the same ones) have been found unconvincing, ambiguous, inconsistent, equivocal or otherwise unclear, despite the undoubted clarity of Berlin’s prose.


Fortunately several drafts of the lecture survive. As often happens in the case of texts that have been reworked a number of times before publication (especially if, as here, they began life in dictated form), earlier drafts, if at times cruder and less elegant, can throw useful light on the meaning of later ones, since the ideas they contain are sometimes expressed more simply and directly, and are less set about with qualifications, defences and digressions. Seen through the prism of a previous version, a later one can yield more meaning than when read in isolation – or even a different meaning. This is especially true of a philosophical pointillist like Berlin, an intellectual impressionist who, in his later work, tends to communicate his thoughts with a cumulative, often repetitive, rhetorical scatter-gun rather than by providing a plain, sober, rigorous exposition, step by explicit logical step.

It is certainly true in the case of this lecture, which is why I have included much of the earlier material as an appendix to the second edition of Freedom and Its Betrayal (FIB2), lectures themselves based on PIRA; and also, as an appendix to the second edition of the latter volume (PIRA2), a condensed version of the lecture prepared for delivery, only half as long as the text that appears in Liberty (L).

A number of the remaining drafts are posted on this website: links are provided in the list of drafts below. I have corrected Berlin’s direct quotations where I can: fidelity to his text seemed in this case misleading rather than illuminating. Where the same quotations appear in Liberty, I have not repeated here the references provided there; for other quotations I have added references where I can. I have added the section headings from the text published in Liberty as useful signposts. And I have inserted arabic numbers in square brackets to indicate (sometimes necessarily roughly) where the pages of the text published in L begin, to facilitate comparison between the various versions of this important and celebrated work, the classic statement of Berlin’s pluralist liberalism.

A very brief summary by Berlin of the two concepts of liberty addressed in the lecture appears below the table.

AOriginal text (continuous text plus 5 additional passages)IBVL; FIB2 (in composite text)
BA amended in manuscript (see image above)IBVL; some passages in FIB2 (in composite text)
CRevised version of BIBVL; FIB2 (in composite text)
DRevised version of CIBVL; some passages in FIB2 (in composite text)
ERevised version of D, submitted to the Clarendon PressIBVL; some passages in FIB2 (in composite text)
FShortened version of E, used for delivery of the lecturePIRA2
GCorrected proofs of ESome passages in FIB2 (in composite text)
HBBC talk on ‘The Search for Status’POI; one passage in FIB2 (in composite text)
JText published in Four Essays on LibertyFEL
KText published in LibertyL

The recorded dictation of A and the last half (roughly) of C survives (indeed C survives only in this form), and may be listened to in six segments:
1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6

What is Freedom?

On 10 January 1962 Isaiah Berlin was interveiwed by Bamber Gascoigne for an ATV programme entitled ‘Freedom of Speech’ (the first of a series on ‘The Four Freedoms’), broadcast on 11 February 1962. Berlin was asked what ‘freedom’ really means: what follows is a lightly edited transcript of his reply.

As in the case of words which everyone is in favour of, ‘freedom’ has a very great many senses – some of the world’s worst tyrannies have been undertaken in the name of freedom. Nevertheless, I should say that the word probably has two central senses, at any rate in the West. One is the familiar liberal sense in which freedom means that every man has a life to live and should be given the fullest opportunity of doing so, and that there are only two adequate reasons for controlling men. The first is that there are other goods besides freedom, such as, for example, security or peace or culture, or other things which human beings need, which must be given them, apart from the question of whether they want them or not. Secondly, if one man obtains too much, he will deprive other people of their freedom – freedom for the pike means death to the carp – and this is a perfectly adequate reason for curtailing freedom. Still, curtailing freedom isn’t the same as freedom.

The second sense of the word is not so much a matter of allowing people to do what they want as the idea that I want to be governed by myself and not pushed around by other people; and this idea leads one to the supposition that to be free means to be self-governing. To be self-governing means that the source of authority must lie in me – or in us, if we’re talking about a community. And if the source of freedom lies in me, then it’s comparatively unimportant how much control there is, provided the control is exercised by myself, or my representatives, or my nation, my people, my tribe, my Church, and so forth. Provided that I am governed by people who are sympathetic to me, or understand my interests, I don’t mind how much of my life is pried into, or whether there is a private province which is divided from the public province; and in some modern States – for example the Soviet Union and other States with totalitarian governments – this second view seems to be taken.

Between these two views, I see no possibility of reconciliation.