How Isaiah Berlin Revised the “Two Concepts” (A Concluding Philological Postscript)

Having finished my three posts on the exchange of letters between Karl Popper and Isaiah Berlin, I’m ready to reward myself by rolling around in the some of the nGram catnip that I’ve been accumulating. But there’s one bit of unfinished business: a discussion of the differences between the 1958 edition of Berlin’s “Two Concepts of Liberty” and the version that was reprinted, eleven years later, as the third of his Four Essays on Liberty. While, at first glance, this would seem to be a rather tedious topic, it wound up being a good deal more interesting than I’d initially suspected. It has implications both for appreciating some of the challenges that “Two Concepts of Liberty” appears to have posed to its first readers and for understanding how Berlin understood what he was doing in this influential, if sometimes perplexing, essay.

The Two Versions of the Two Concepts

When I began the series of posts on Popper and Berlin I wasn’t at all concerned with the differences between the 1958 and the 1969 versions. Indeed, it didn’t occur to me that there were any. I worked from the 1958 text because — as I explained in my the first post — it’s the one I’ve owned for as long as I’ve been interested in political theory and it was the version Popper cited — by page number — in his letter (the fact that it is smaller and lighter than the Four Essays also had its appeal). But when I teach the essay, I use the 1969 version and several years ago I scanned that version so I could keep it on my iPad and refer to it in class. When I started to work on these posts, it occurred to me that, rather than transcribe the material that I wanted to quote, it would be easier to extract the text from my scan of the 1969 version and then paste it into the word processor I use when writing these posts. But I quickly began to notice that there were differences between what I’d copied and what I was seeing on the page in front of me.

I explain this in order to make it clear that I have not made an exhaustive investigation of the differences between the two versions. Some of the changes that I noticed are simply alternative ways of making the same point. For example, on p. 23 of the 1958 text, Berlin writes,

Cephalus, whom Plato reports as saying that old age alone has liberated him from the passion of love — the yoke of a cruel master — is reporting an experience as real as that of liberation from a human tyrant or slave owner.

In the 1969 version (p. 138) “Cephalus” is replaced by “Sophocles,” a distinction without a difference since Cephalus — that tedious blowhard and, on this occasion, name-dropper — is recounting something that Sophocles allegedly told him. But a few of the others had implications for the discussion between Berlin and Popper, which was what led me to them in the first place.

Since the “Two Concepts” lecture is generally regarded as Berlin’s most important work, it might be useful for someone to draw up a list of the differences between the two editions (perhaps the Isaiah Berlin Virtual Library might be interested in making such a thing available). But that is not even close to what I am offering here.

I will limit myself to noting three changes.

Conceptual Change: Historical, not Logical

The first change involves the insertion of a few words into a passage that appears at the second paragraph of the Section II of the lecture, the section in which Berlin begins his discussion of the concept of “positive freedom.” The paragraph in question (p. 16 of the 1958 version, pp. 131-132 of the 1969 version) prepares for the long preview of Berlin’s argument that follows in the next paragraph. The paragraph goes as follows (I’ve set the new material in boldface):

The freedom which consists in being one’s own master, and the freedom which consists in not being prevented from choosing as I do by other men, may, on the face of it, seem concepts at no great logical distance from each other — no more than negative and positive ways of saying much the something. Yet the ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ notions of freedom historically developed in divergent directions not always by logically reputable steps until in the end, they came into direct conflict with each other

These alterations are small, but by no means trivial. The passage, as originally formulated, began by granting that the “logical distance” between two concepts and closed by observing that the “development” of these two concepts pushes them in diverging directions. Berlin’s later additions clarify what kind of “development” he is proposing to trace — a historical development — and stress that the process driving these concepts apart is governed by something other than logic.

Berlin made a similar modification at the close of the third paragraph from the end of Section V (“The Temple of Sarasto”). Again, the new material is in boldface:

In this way the rationalist argument, with its assumption of the single true solution, has led by steps which, if not logically valid, are historically and psychologically intelligible, from an ethical doctrine of individual responsibility and individual self-perfection to an authoritarian state obedient to the directives of an élite of Platonic guardians. (p. 37, 1959; p. 152).

Again, the change drives home the point that the transformation Berlin is attempting to trace represents something quite different from the working out of the logical implications of a proposition.

In the introduction to Four Essays on Liberty Berlin explained,

While I have not altered the text in any radical fashion, I have made a number of changes intended to clarify some of the central points which have been misunderstood by critics and reviewers.1

The particular misunderstanding that Berlin would seem to be remedying with these changes is clear enough: they remind the reader that the transformation Berlin is tracing is historical, rather than a logical. What is somewhat less clear is why Berlin would have thought that this point needed emphasizing or which of his “critics and reviewers” might have misunderstood him in this way.

It may be relevant that, within five months of the delivery of the lecture, Berlin found it necessary to remind at least one critic of this point. The critic was Karl Popper. In his letter to Popper of March 16, 1959 explained,

The whole of my lecture, in a sense, is an attempt at a brief study or prolegomenon to the study — of the way in which innocent or virtuous or truly liberating ideas (’know thyself’ or sapere aude or the man who is free although he is a slave, in prison etc.) tend (not inevitably!) to become authoritarian & despotic and lead to enslavement and slaughter when they are isolated & driven ahead by themselves.2

The parenthetical interjection “not inevitably!” — like his additions to the 1969 version of “Two Concepts” — emphasizes that the transformation of the concept of “positive liberty” into something monstrous was neither logical nor inevitable.

Popper’s suggestion that it was possible to conceive of “a very different and very simple idea of positive freedom which may be complementary to negative freedom, and which does not need to clash with it” might have been motivation enough for Berlin to insist on this point in his response to Popper. The force of Popper’s critique was that it was (logically) possible to conceive a way of framing a concept of positive liberty that did not have the authoritarian implications that Berlin associated with the notion. Berlin’s response would seem to be aimed at reminding Popper that “Two Concepts” is not concerned with logical possibilities but rather with the “associations” that concepts have “accumulated” over the course of their historical development.

By the time that Berlin came to write the introduction to Four Essays on Liberty it would have been obvious to him that Popper was not the only reader who had read “Two Concepts” as an analysis of the differing implications of the concept of liberty, as opposed to an attempt to trace the diverging historical trajectory of two ways of talking about liberty. Two years before the publication of the Four Essays, the American political theorist Gerald MacCallum challenged Berlin’s notion that “we may usefully distinguish between two kinds or concepts of political and social freedom” and argued that

Whenever the freedom of some agent or agents is in question, it is always freedom from some constraint or restriction on, interference with, or barrier to doing, not doing, becoming, or not becoming something. Such freedom is thus always of something (an agent or agents), from something, to do, not do, become, or not become something; it is a triadic relation. Taking the format “x is (is not) free from (to do, not do, become, not become) z,” x ranges over agents, y ranges over such “preventing conditions” as constraints, restrictions, interferences, and barriers, and z ranges over actions or conditions of character or circumstance.3

MacCallum was aware that “disputes about the nature of freedom are certainly historically best understood as a series of attempts by parties opposing each other on very many issues to capture for their own side the favorable attitudes attaching to the notion of freedom.” But the point of his “triadic” conception of liberty was to clarify the ways in which the contestants in these historical struggles were engaged in modifying the content of the variables in a concept of liberty that remained, when properly analyzed, the same.

Berlin limited his response to MacCallum to a footnote that dissented from MacCallum’s suggestion and insisted,

A man struggling against his chains or a people against enslavement need not consciously aim at any definite further state. A man need not know how he will use his freedom; the just wants to remove the yoke. So do classes and nations.4

Berlin’s rejoinder is not without its shortcomings. It is easy enough to conceive of an individual who simply wants to be free from some burden, but does not go on to specify what he or she wants to do as an alternative (this is the strategy adopted by Melville’s Bartleby). It is, however, more difficult to conceive of political movements that simply want to be freed from some form of oppression but do not specify what they want to do or to be (e.g., they might explain that they wish to become “a self-governing people”). But the question, at least for Berlin, is an historical one, rather than a conceptual one and the possibility that, somewhere in the past, we can find movements that, like Bartleby, simply refuse to do something without specifying what it is that alternatives they would prefer, cannot be ruled out. We can analyze political statements using MacCallum’s triadic concept to our heart’s content, but what is ultimately at stake is the question of whether actual political and social movements have articulated their positions in the way that MacCallum’s matrix would suggest or whether they have tended “(not inevitably!)” to move to one of the two diverging conceptions of liberty whose history Berlin purports to be tracing.

The weakness that plagues Berlin’s account lies in the absence of anything resembling the historical account that the modifications made in the text of the “Two Concepts” suggests is needed. As I suggested in my previous post, we now know that he had attempted such a conceptual history in the Flexner lectures. But, he was unable to shape it into a form that he found satisfactory. And since very little of the historical narrative that he was trying to work out in the Flexner lectures made it into the “Two Concepts,” readers and critics might have been forgiven for thinking that Berlin was presenting a conceptual analysis, rather than a history of concepts: hence the need to set them straight.

Monists, All the Way Down

There is one last revision that I want to note before ending this postscript. It comes at the end of the final paragraph of Section V, which summarizes how a commitment to the idea that (1) “all men have one purpose, and one only, that of rational self-direction, (2) “that the ends of all ration beings most of necessity fit into a single universal harmonious pattern, (3), “that all conflict, and consequently all tragedy, is due solely to the clash of reason with the irrational or the insufficiently rational,” and (4) “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” tends to lead “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 ….” In the version in Four Essays, the final sentence is modified with a deletion and an addition:

Can it be that Hume is right and Socrates and the creators of the central Western tradition in ethics and politics who followed him have been mistaken, for more than two millennia, that virtue is not knowledge, nor freedom 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?

Popper’s letter had begun with a critique of this passage, noting that he considered himself a “rationalist” but had never accepted any of these principles and that he was “far from convinced that Socrates would have accepted your four basic assumptions, although I agree that Hume would have rejected them.” It would seem (at least as I read these changes) that Berlin’s modifications close the door on Popper’s attempt to persuade Berlin that there might be a way of salvaging both an alternative conception of positive liberty and a version of rationalism that was immune to the slide into despotism that Berlin sought to trace. Berlin eliminated the one point on which he and Popper (momentarily) agreed (namely, that Hume would reject these principles) and reinforced the notion that the entire tradition, beginning with Socrates, was wedded to what Berlin would come to call “monism.”

And, with this, my discussion of these exchanges between Berlin and Popper comes to a close.


Into the (nGram) Catnip

  1. Berlin, Four Essays on Liberty, pp. ix-x.
  2. Isaiah Berlin, Enlightening: Letters 1946-1960 Edited by Henry Hardy and Jennifer Holmes with the assistance of Serena Moore (London: Chatto & Windus, 2009) p. 681
  3. Gerald C. MacCallum, “Negative and Positive Freedom,” The Philosophical Review 76, no. 3 (July 1967): 312-313.
  4. Berlin, Four Essays on Liberty p. xliii.

About James Schmidt

Professor of History, Philosophy, and Political Science Boston University
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4 Responses to How Isaiah Berlin Revised the “Two Concepts” (A Concluding Philological Postscript)

  1. Cameron says:

    There is, in fact, an article by Anthony Arblaster called “Visions and Revisions” which addresses this very topic, though Arblaster is considerably more critical of Berlin than you have been here. I’m inclined to agree with you that Berlin always meant to be speaking historically (not conceptually), and that the additions are legitimate clarifications.

    The Arblaster article is in Political Studies 19 (1971): 81-86.

    • Thanks for mentioning the Arblaster article, which (if I recall correctly) I didn’t get around to noticing until after I wrote this post. Over the last couple of years Henry Hardy has been doing quite a bit of work tracking down different versions of the Two Concepts lecture and has made many of these drafts available on the Isaiah Berlin Virtual Library (see ). A quick glance suggests that what he calls “Draft E” corresponds to what I called the “1958 version” and that his “Draft J” is the version that appeared in the 1969 Four Essays on Liberty collection (and, presumably, appears without alteration in the subsequent editions of the Liberty collection).

      It would be great if the Berlin Virtual Library could be persuaded to produce variorum edition of the various versions, perhaps using the 1969 edition as the basis and allowing readers to work their way back through earlier drafts. But the work of putting together the Virtual Library has fallen almost entire on Hardy and putting together the sort of thing that I’m suggesting would require considerable outside support.

      Still, now that we have an etext version of the 1958 Clarendon edition available it would be simple enough for anyone who is interested in tracking the changes between the 1958 and the 1969 versions to 1) download the 1958 text, 2) produce a text version of 1969 version, and 3) run a comparison of the two texts using a word processor that can track changes (e.g., Word, Pages, etc.). While there would be no way of posting such a comparison on the web without running into copyright issues, the exercise might produce an interesting article for someone.

    • Postscript: I should have mentioned that the Isaiah Berlin Virtual Library has also made available Berlin’s dictabelt recordings. Listening to him read the text is a rather peculiar experience.

  2. Pingback: Isaiah Berlin Virtual Library | elcidharth

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