On October 31, 1958, Isaiah Berlin assumed the Chichele Chair of Social and Political Theory at Oxford and delivered his inaugural lecture, “Two Concepts of Liberty.” The lecture — which is now regarded as one of the more important contributions to twentieth century political thought — played no small part in making the case for the importance of political philosophy at a time when the viability of the discipline was in question. And, if I am permitted to inject a personal note (and one of the privileges — and risks — of blogging is that there is no one to stop me), it was also one of the first pieces of “contemporary” political theory that I read. The copy of the lecture that lies open on my desk as I write is the original Oxford University Press edition, the version that Gordon Schochet (a great and inspiring teacher to whom I am greatly indebted) assigned during my freshman year at Rutgers University. Though its cover long ago separated from the text and while the text itself has been defaced by the various implements — pencils, pens, and (foolish boy!) yellow highlighter — that I’ve used to attack texts over the years, it is still the version that I prefer to read. Turning its pages is a sort of homecoming and, every once in a while, I can take some comfort when I notice that the awful yellow highlighting, splattered throughout the text during a frenzied reading many decades ago, actually marks an important passage. But, as we will see, my peculiar attachment to this version has something more than nostalgia to recommend it.
Karl Popper was among those to whom Berlin sent copies of the Two Concepts and, on February 17, 1959, he finally got around to acknowledging Berlin’s gift. Henry Hardy and Jennifer Holmes included brief extracts from his letter to Berlin in the second volume of Berlin’s correspondence.1 But these extracts are not enough to convey a sense of what Popper thought of the lecture, though Berlin’s response to them (which is published in full in the volume) does make it clear that Popper had some questions about what Berlin had written. Even after reading the full text of Popper’s letter — which the staff at the Hoover Institute Archives was kind enough to retrieve from Box 276, Folder 10 of the Karl Popper Papers and which I am able quote here with the permission of the Karl Popper Library, Klagenfurt, Austria — it is difficult to grasp the point of Popper’s comments without consulting Berlin’s text. But, fortunately, Popper was quite precise in his citations and, luckily, I kept my copy of the edition that he was citing (which offers yet another argument for the questionable practice of never getting rid of anything).
Popper’s letter falls into three parts. He begins by expressing his general agreement with the thrust of Berlin’s argument:
I have hardly ever read anything on the philosophy of politics with which I agreed so completely on all important issues — and the issues are very important indeed. I am delighted by your clear distinction between what you call negative and positive freedom; in your own confession of faith — even though it is only implicit, it is no less open and forceful — for negative freedom; for your exposition of the dangers of the ideology of positive freedom; your stand, on p. 57, against moral historism and historicism; your warnings against the assumption that social problems must be soluble in principle, and that (‘real’) goods must be compatible, and in harmony; and above all, your declaration on absolute human rights, on p. 51. On all these things, there is perfect agreement between us; and I believe that the way in which you have discussed and presented these ideas is admirable.
Praise completed, he goes on to observe, “Nevertheless I have some criticisms — in fact, a long list.”
In the letter Popper limits his discussion to “only two points.” The first has to do with Berlin’s characterization of “rationalism” and focuses, in particular, on the discussion that takes place in the last paragraph of Section V of the lecture, a section that — in an allusion to Mozart’s Magic Flute — carries the subtitle “The Temple of Sarasto.”2 The second consists of an alternative interpretation of the notion of “positive freedom,” an interpretation of the concept that Popper suggests might be “complementary to negative freedom.” His presentation of this alternative rather quickly leads to a somewhat enigmatic question to Berlin: “What have you against sapere aude?” What is at issue here was Berlin’s passing reference, at the start of Section IV of the lecture (which carries the title “Self-realization”), to Horace’s famous words, which Immanuel Kant had quoted at the start of his answer to the question “What is Enlightenment?” Popper, as we shall see in the sequel to this post, found Berlin’s treatment of these famous words rather troubling.
What I will be arguing in the next few posts (there is a lot to cover here, so this is going to take a while) is that (1) Popper’s two points are intimately related and (2) taken together, they represent a significant challenge to Isaiah Berlin’s interpretation of the Enlightenment. Popper’s first point can be understood as an attempt to question the concept of “rationalism” that Berlin had seen as central to the Enlightenment by contrasting it with a markedly different understanding of the Enlightenment that Popper associated with his own project of “critical rationalism.” In his second point, Popper seeks to associate the phrase that Kant had characterized as the “motto of enlightenment” with a form of “positive liberty” that would not be plagued by the various pathologies that Berlin had discussed in the Two Concepts. As a result, spending some time working our way through Popper’s letter and Berlin’s subsequent response will help to clarify the differing ways in which Popper and Berlin understood the Enlightenment — both the period and its broader project. Since such questions are the raison d’être for this blog, let’s get to work.
Point 1: Popper’s Reservations About Berlin’s “Four Premisses”
Popper’s first point is, as he explains, “connected with” Berlin’s “picture of rationalism.” Here is the relevant section of the letter:
On p. 39 you state the basic assumptions of a kind of rationalism. Now I am sure you will believe me when I say that I was never in my life tempted to accept any of those four assumptions — on the contrary, I should say that ever since I could understand them — say, from my seventeenth year on — I would have turned from them in horror. Moreover, when you say “Can it be that Hume is right, and Socrates mistaken” I am far from convinced that Socrates would have accepted your four basic assumptions, although I agree that Hume would have rejected them.
The passage to which Popper refers is the final paragraph of Section V of the lecture and the “four assumptions” discussed there loom large in Berlin’s discussions of the Enlightenment.
In the paragraph at issue, Berlin summarizes the account that he has been developing, over the course of the previous three sections, of how the notion of “positive liberty” has evolved into a doctrine that now lies “at the heart of many of the nationalist, communist, authoritarian, and totalitarian creeds of our day.”3 “Positive liberty,” as Berlin defines it, is a conception of liberty that assesses whether one is free or not by posing the question “What, or who, is the source of control or interference, that can determine someone to do, or be, one thing rather than another?” (there has been much written about the peculiarities of Berlin’s characterization of positive liberty but, at least for the present, I’d like to avoid opening that can of worms — perhaps I can discuss those issues in a later post). Here is the entirety of the last paragraph of Section V:
If this leads to despotism, albeit by the best or the wisest — to Sarastro’s temple in the Magic Flute — but still despotism, which turns out to be identical with freedom, can it be that there is something amiss in the premisses of the argument? that the basic assumptions are themselves somewhere at fault? Let me state them once more: first, that all men have one true purpose, and one only, that of rational self-direction; second, that the ends of all rational beings must of necessity fit into a single universal, harmonious pattern, which some men may be able to discern more clearly than others; third, that all conflict, and consequently all tragedy, is due solely to the clash of reason with the irrational or the insufficiently rational — immature and undeveloped elements in life — whether individual or communal, and that such clashes are, in principle, avoidable, and for wholly rational beings impossible; finally, that when all men have been made rational, they will obey the rational laws of their own natures, which are one and the same in them all, and so be at once wholly law-abiding and wholly free. Can it be that Hume is right and Socrates mistaken, that virtue is not knowledge, and freedom not identical with either? that despite the fact that it rules the lives of more men than ever before in its long history, not one of the basic assumptions of this famous view is demonstrable, or, perhaps, even true?
The four premisses that Berlin lays out here could profit from some cleaning up, especially since there seems to be some unnecessary repetition (it tends to be his style to repeat his points in a variety of ways and, though this is sometimes quite effective rhetorically, it may get in the way of understanding his argument). As a first stab, his “four premises” might, without too much violence to his presentation of them, be summarized as follows:
- “rational self-direction” is the sole “true purpose” of all human beings
- the ends of all rational beings fit into a coherent pattern, which some people are better at seeing than others
- while rational purposes never conflict with each other, irrational (or imperfectly rational) purposes do
- when human beings have been made fully rational, conflicts can be avoided without impinging on human freedom
I think that the argument might be a bit clearer if we reformulated these premisses as follows (readers should feel free to venture alternative formulations of Berlin’s argument in their comments — I need all the help I can get):
- “rational self-direction” is the sole “true purpose” of all human beings
- while rational purposes never conflict with each other, irrational (or imperfectly rational) purposes do
- actions based on irrational (or imperfectly rational) projects can be restrained without impinging on actions based on projects involving “rational self-direction”
- Some people are better at understanding premises 1,2, and 3 than others.
Readers will note that two things are missing from my proposed reformulation: (a) any mention of “freedom” and (b) any talk about purposes filling together into a “single, harmonious pattern.” It is simple enough to get “freedom” back into the discussion if we realize that Berlin’s “positive freedom” is probably best glossed as “rational self-direction” (which, for those familiar with Kant’s terminology, translates into Wille) and that “non-rational” or “false” purposes might — somewhat more tentatively — be glossed as freedom in the “negative” sense (i.e., the freedom to choose one thing rather than another without interference: what Kant would term Willkür). So, let’s try another stab at reformulating Berlin’s point (I’m not entirely happy with what follows, but it may be adequate enough for now):
- “rational self-direction” (i.e., the “rational willing” that lies at the heart of “positive liberty”) is the sole “true purpose” of all human beings
- conflicts between human purposes are limited to “irrational” or “imperfectly rational” purposes
- actions based on “irrational” (or “imperfectly rational”) projects can be restrained (i.e. the “negative liberty” to perform them restricted) without impinging on actions based on projects involving “rational self-direction”
- Some people are better at understanding premisses 1,2, and 3 than others.
The business about the “ends of all rational beings” fitting together into a “single, harmonious pattern” is still absent, though I think it is implicit in premise #2 since a lack of conflict between the rational wills of agents is, by definition, a “harmonious pattern.” Nevertheless Berlin, as we shall see, may have other reasons for talking about a “harmonious pattern.” But, for the moment, we can ignore them.
Finally, I should probably say something about what I am offering as premise #4, which extends the scope of what, in Berlin’s original formulation, had been limited to the idea that some people see a “harmonious pattern” while others don’t. It strikes me that this premise actually does a fair amount of work in the argument of the Two Concepts and, for that reason alone, deserves to be emphasized. All that the first three premisses offer is a conjecture about the ways in which differing human purposes might (or might not) fit together: while rational projects of self-direction do not clash with one another, irrational projects may sometimes conflict (e.g., your desire to drive through the streets of Boston while wearing a blindfold will conflict with my desire to walk down the middle of Beacon Street while reading a book). The mischief done by the fourth premise is that it helps to insulate this conjecture about the difference between rational and irrational projects from refutation by suggesting that some people aren’t that good at understanding the fact that rational projects always harmonize while irrational projects sometimes clash.
To drive this point home, all we need to do is replace “Some people” with the words “Rational people” and “others” with the words “irrational people.” And this should make it clearer why Popper might see this is a version of “rationalism” that he has long rejected: it is a formulation that is tailor-made to produce conjectures that can easily evade refutation (e.g., “Your resistance to my conjecture that your symptoms are the result of an unresolved Oedipal complex strikes me as evidence of your suffering from an unresolved Oedipal complex. Whoops, time’s up. Let’s talk more about this at our next session”).
There is still one more significant, if obvious, point to note about what Berlin is doing here: he has not desire to defend the plausibility of these premisses. Indeed, the whole point of the Two Concepts lecture is that these premisses, and the conception of liberty that he sees as derived (somehow or other) from them (i.e., “positive liberty”, a.k.a., “rational self-direction,” or — as he puts it in Section IV — “self-realization”) are deeply flawed, terribly misguided, and responsible for many of the miseries of the twentieth century. Much of the mischief that concerns him is, I think, done by the claim that I have reformulated in premise #4, which can be read as a warrant that allows me to force you to be free (e.g., “Your irrational attachment to bourgeois values prevents you from recognizing your failings as a citizen of the Soviet state. Why don’t we discuss this further in one of the basement rooms at Lubyanka?”). Nevertheless, Berlin does need to show that these premisses, or something like them, have enjoyed some measure of historical currency. Otherwise he runs the risk of knocking down a straw man.
Berlin makes some gestures in this direction in the Two Concepts lecture — see, for example, his references to British Hegelians such as Bradley, Bosanquet, and T. H. Green, along with Kant, Fichte, Hegel, and Rousseau. But since his chief interest is with the contrast between “negative” and “positive” forms of liberty, he confined most of his discussion of the premisses on which the notion of positive liberty rests to Sections IV and V of the lecture and focused the bulk of his attention on the disastrous political implications that flow from the concept of positive liberty. In making that point, what mattered most were the first and fourth premisses on my revised list: the first provides Berlin with the potentially dangerous concept of positive liberty and the fourth gives a warrant for exploiting these dangers. As he argues in the fourth paragraph of Section II (which begins the discussion of the notion of positive liberty):
This monstrous impersonation, which consists in equating what X would choose if he were something he is not, or at least not yet, with what X actually seeks and chooses, is at the heart of all political theories of self-realization.
That this “monstrous impersonation” is something more than a theoretical possibility is clear from the outset of the lecture, which argues that the question Berlin wants to explore — namely, “the permissible limits of coercion” — is a matter on which “opposed views are held in the world today, each claiming the allegiance of very large numbers of men.” And while many of those who embrace the “positive” conception reside on the eastern side of the line that divides Europe, others were closer to home. For the “strange reversal” that transformed Kant’s “severe individualism into something close to a pure totalitarian doctrine” — a reversal that, as Berlin cautions his listeners, “is not of merely historical interest” — can also be seen in the evolution of “not a few contemporary liberals.”4
Interlude: “Three Legs Upon Which the Whole Western Civilization Rested”
The “picture of rationalism” Berlin offered at the end of Section V was intended as a summary of a longer discussion that takes place in the first two paragraphs of the section. These paragraphs (which, combined, sprawl over four pages of the version of the lecture Popper was reading) offer an extended discussion of the premisses that Berlin attempts to summarize at the close of the section. In this account Berlin places particular emphasis on a point that I have, somewhat rudely, kicked out of my reformulation of his four premisses: namely, further arguments in support of the idea that the rational purposes individuals pursue fit together into a “harmonious pattern.” In an effort to summarize the assumptions shared by such thinkers as Spinoza, Hegel, Marx, and (depending on how one understands the relationship between the first and second paragraphs of this section) Rousseau, Kant, and Fichte, Berlin offers the following:
Thinkers of this type argued that if moral and political problems were genuine — as surely they were —they must in principle be fully soluble;5 that is to say, there must exist one and only one true solution to any problem. All truths could in principle be discovered by any rational thinker, and demonstrated so clearly that all other rational men could not but accept them …. On this assumption, the problem of political liberty was soluble by establishing a just order that would give to each man all the freedom to which a rational being was entitled. My claim to unfettered freedom can prima facie at times not be reconciled with your equally unqualified claim; but the rational solution of one problem cannot collide with the equally true solution of another, for two truths cannot logically be incompatible; therefore a just order must in principle be discoverable — an order of which the rules make possible correct solutions to all possible problems that could arise in it.
While the premise that all “genuine” problems must be soluble may not have been necessary for the critique of positive liberty that Berlin was offering, it does play a role in the overall argument he is making by providing an account of the broader set of assumptions that disposed certain thinkers to set off on the dangerous path that led to the deeply flawed set of premisses that close Section V. What we have here, then, is further evidence that the version of positive liberty that Berlin is criticizing is something more than a straw man.
The passage that I’ve quoted above will, no doubt, be familiar to Berlin’s readers since versions of it can be found in both the works that he wrote in the wake of the Two Concepts and in those that preceded it. For example, in his 1965 Mellon lectures at the National Gallery of Art in Washington (which served as the framework for a series of subsequent lectures on the BBC), we find the following summary of the “three legs upon which the whole Western tradition rested”:
First, that all genuine questions can be answered, that if a question cannot be answered it is not a question. … The second proposition is that all these answers are knowable … The third proposition is that all the answers must be compatible with one another ….
Notice that, in this discussion, there is no talk of “liberty” or “rational purposes” at all. We are presented with a set of assumptions that lie at a more fundamental level than arguments about liberty. The Enlightenment, he goes on to argue, “offered a particular version of them, transformed them in a particular manner” (21) and it was against these three principles that the Romantics mounted their attack. A similar claim can be found, a few years later, in his entry on “The Counter-Enlightenment” in the Dictionary of the History of Ideas, where a version of these principles serves as a rough characterization of what it was that the “Counter-Enlightenment” was countering.6
Working backwards from the “Two Concepts,” we see a similar list in his 1952 Flexner Lectures at Bryn Mawr College — a first canvasing of the concerns that Berlin explore, in more detail, over the next several decades. Surveying the eighteenth century he states that
Where ever we look — from the deists and the believers in natural law and natural religion to the disciples of Quensay or Adam Smith, form the German metaphysicians to the atheistic materialists in France, from the neo-classical aesthetic theorists to chemists and mathematicians zoologists — we find the same common assumption: that the answers to all the great questions must of necessarily agree with one another; for they must correspond to reality, and reality is a harmonious whole. If this were not so, there is chaos at the heart of things: which is unthinkable…. No truly good thing can ever be finally incompatible with any other; indeed they virtually entail one another: men cannot be wise unless they are free, or free unless they are just, happy and so forth.7
Pushing further backwards, we see much the same claim in his 1950 Foreign Affairs article “Political Ideas in the Twentieth Century”:
European liberalism wears the appearance of a single coherent movement, little altered during almost three centuries, founded upon relatively simple intellectual foundations, laid by Locke or Grotius or even Spinoza; stretching back to Erasmus and Montaigne, the Italian Renaissance, Seneca and the Greeks. In this movement there is a rational answer to every question. Man is, in principle at least, everywhere and in every condition, able, if he wills it, to discover and apply rational solutions to his problems. And these solutions, because they are rational, cannot clash with one another, and will ultimately form a harmonious system in which the truth will prevail, and freedom, happiness and unlimited opportunity for untrammeled self-development will be open to all.8
And, finally, we can catch the first glimmerings of this idea in his earliest book, Karl Marx: His Life and Environment, which — from the first edition onward — included the following summary of the lessons that Marx inherited from the Enlightenment:
Reason is always right. To every question there is only one true answer which with sufficient assiduity can be infallibly discovered, and this applies no less to questions of ethics or politics, of personal and social life, than to the problems of physics or mathematics. Once found, the putting of the solution into practice is a matter of mere technical skill; but the traditional enemies of progress must first be removed, and men taught the importance of acting in all questions on the advice of disinterested scientific experts, whose knowledge is founded on reason and experience. Once this has been achieved, the path is clear to the millennium.9
In short, Berlin’s characterization of the fundamental principles on which “rationalism” in general and the Enlightenment in particular rested was not an idea that he cobbled together for the “Two Concepts” and then discarded, nor was it a formulation that was limited to a particular period in his career. It was fundamental to how he understood the Enlightenment and, if was are to hold him to his formulation in The Roots of Romanticism, central to his understanding of the foundations on which Western Civilization rested. In other words, slippery slope that leads to totalitarianism is rather long.
Popper’s First Point Concluded: What “Reason” Means
For this reason Popper’s first point marks an important disagreement: what Berlin saw as central to a conception of “rationalism” (surely a misguided conception of rationalism, but a form of rationalism that was held by a number of significant thinkers — e.g., Kant) struck Popper, the self-professed “rationalist,” as nothing of the sort. That point was driven home by Popper in a succinct comment aimed at the lengthy footnote that Berlin placed at the end of the penultimate paragraph of Section V of the lecture. After noting that Kant, in his “Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Intent” “came nearest” to articulating a “negative” conception of liberty, Berlin went on to argue:
Mill, and liberals in general, at their most consistent, want a situation in which as many individuals as possible can realize as many of their ends as possible, without assessment of the value of these ends as such, save in so far as they may frustrate the purposes of others. They wish the frontiers between individuals or groups of men to be drawn solely with a view to preventing collisions between human purposes, all of which must be considered to be equally ultimate, uncriticizable ends in themselves. Kant, and the rationalists of his type, do not regard all ends as of equal value. For them the limits of liberty are determined by applying the rules of ‘reason’, which is much more than the mere generality of rules us such, and is a faculty that creates or reveals a purpose identical in, and for, all men. In the name of reason anything that is non-rational may be condemned, so that the various personal aims which their individual imagination and idiosyncrasies lead men to pursue, — for example aesthetic and other non-rational kinds of self-fulfillment — may be ruthlessly suppressed to make way for the demands of reason. The authority of reason and of the duties it lays upon men is identified with individual freedom, on the assumption that only rational ends can be the ‘true’ objects of a ‘free’ man’s ‘real’ nature.
I have never, I must own, understood what ‘reason’ means in this context; and here merely wish to point out that the a priori assumptions of this philosophical psychology are not compatible with empiricism: that is to say, any doctrine founded on knowledge derived from experience of what men are and seek.
To this Popper replied,
On the bottom of p. 38 (note) you say: “I have never, I must own, understood what “reason” means in this context”. Nor have I. But does not this passage read like an anti-rationalist declaration? And is not anti-rationalism, or irrationalism, at least as great an enemy as an uncritical rationalism?
To sum up: Popper’s first problem with Berlin’s lecture involves a disagreement about the proper understanding of what constitutes “rationalism.” Popper regards the premisses of the “kind of rationalism” that Berlin sees as providing the foundation for the “positive” conception of liberty as something that he — a self-described “rationalist” — rejects. This allows him to agree with Berlin’s view that the line of argument traced in the long footnote on p. 38 employs a notion of “reason” that is suspect. But, for Popper, what Berlin presents as a form of “rationalism” that reaches back through the Enlightenment and constitutes a central pillar on which Western Civilization rests might better be understood as a serious misunderstanding of what “reason” involves and (as we shall see in the sequel to this post) a misunderstanding that the Enlightenment (and, especially Kant) sought to correct.
Popper’s immediate (and perhaps strategic) response is to explain to Berlin that, despite what he may think, Berlin is a “rationalist” as well (albeit in Popper’s understanding of the term).
In my view, you yourself are a perfect example of a rationalist; for “rationality” means, for me, the readiness to pay attention to criticism an argument—to other people’s criticisms of what one thinks and says, and to be highly critical of one’s own views and predilections.
But this praise of Berlin, even if sincere, carries the implication that Berlin would be well-advised to alter his understanding of what constitutes “rationality’ and instead embrace Popper’s conception of “critical rationalism” (as we will see in a subsequent post, Popper seems to be engaged in an effort to recruit Berlin to his position). Doing so would ultimately require Berlin to revise his judgment on Kant and, more generally, his evaluation of the Enlightenment.
Such a revision will also deprive Berlin’s attack on the concept of “positive” liberty of some of its force, since it is central to that argument that, once a distinction has been made between the “rational” (i.e., “autonomous”) self and the empirical self (mired in heteronomous projects), the path has been greased that leads, at a minimum, to the “benign despotism” of Sarastro and, more ominously, to Soviet-style totalitarianism. Popper’s second point proceeds to develop a remedy for that problem: a reconsideration of what counts as “positive” liberty.
(To Be Continued)
- Isaiah Berlin, Enlightening. Letters 1946-1960, ed. H. Hardy and J. Holmes (London: Chatto & Windus, 2009) 680-682 ↩
- Since Berlin’s lecture was published three times — first in the Oxford edition of the lecture itself, then as one his Four Essays on Liberty (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969), and most recently as Liberty (Princeton: Oxford University Press, 2002)— and also exists in any number of anthologies, I will point readers to the passages I will am discussing by counting paragraphs within sections. There are some minor — but interesting — differences between the first edition and the version in Four Essays. Since I already own two copies of the Two Concepts, I’ve opted not to purchase the most recent incarnation. ↩
- Two Concepts 29 – this passage can be found in the last paragraph of Section IV ↩
- Two Concepts 37.↩
- The version reprinted in Four Essays deletes the word “fully.” I will have more to say about the revisions that Berlin made to this version in my next post. ↩
- See Berlin, Against the Current ed. Henry Hardy (New York: Viking, 1980) 3-4, ↩
- Berlin, Political Ideas in the Romantic Age,ed. Henry Hardy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006 54-55. The importance of these lectures for making sense of the development of Berlin’s argument cannot be stressed enough. ↩
- Isaiah Berlin, “Political Ideas in the Twentieth Century,” Foreign Affairs 28, no. 3 (April 1950): 357. ↩
- Berlin, Karl Marx; His Life and Environment (London: T. Butterworth ltd, 1939) 44. ↩
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