Desktop version

Home arrow Philosophy arrow The handy philosophy answer book

Analytic political philosophy

What is distinctive about analytical political philosophy?

Twentieth century analytic political philosophers have for the most part supported liberal and egalitarian values, and they have done so in formal writing that is in itself apolitical.

Who was Isaiah Berlin?

Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997) was renowned for his work on ideals of liberty in democratic societies. He was born in Latvia and educated at Oxford. He was president of Wolf-son College, Oxford, from 1966 to 1975. He is famous for his distinction between "positive" and "negative liberty" and his criticism of Marxist ideas of history. Berlin was a brilliant and elegant speaker and delivered lectures on the British Broadcasting Corporation, often without notes. Berlin's major works include Historical Inevitability, Two Concepts of Liberty (1959), Four Essays on Liberty (1969), Russian Thinkers (1978), Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas (1979), Personal Impressions (1980), The Crooked Timber of Humanity: Chapters in the History of Ideas (1990), and The Sense of Reality: Studies in Ideas and Their History (1996).

What were Isaiah Berlin's two concepts of liberty?

Berlin developed the distinction in his 1958 inaugural address as Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at Oxford University. Negative liberty is the absence of constraints or interference with individual action, as in a person being free to vote, write a book, or study ballroom dancing. Positive liberty is the human capacity for self-development and determination of one's destiny. For example, some people live in countries without negative liberties, which in turn hampers their positive liberty.

Others with positive liberties may not be able to fully exercise them due to economic or social limitations.

Berlin argued that, largely due to the Romantic and German idealist tradition, political theorists had been preoccupied with positive liberties as effects of particular forms of government. He believed that the idea of positive liberty was co-opted by both German national socialism and communism. In the case of communism, the goal of liberty became identical to the goal of state control in the name of "collective rationality." For the Nazis, it was the destiny of Germany and its "master race" that became an overriding value affecting individual lives.

Berlin was an advocate of negative liberty in the tradition of John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), which emphasized the importance of minimal government constraint. In other words, he did not think government was a viable source of values or projects for individual life plans because when government did assume that function it was likely to become totalitarian and repressive.

How did Isaiah Berlin oppose Marxist historicism?

Berlin did not think that impersonal or absolute forces could determine history, apart from the free will of "exceptional individuals." He wrote in "Does Political Theory Still Exist?":

It is seldom ... that there is only one model that determines our thought; men (or cultures) obsessed at their models are rare, and while they may be more coherent at their strongest, they tend to collapse more violently when, in the end, their concepts are blown up by reality.

By the same token, Berlin was not enthusiastic about harmony or agreement in political life. He believed that well-intentioned individuals could hold opposing values, resulting in inevitable moral conflict: "These collisions of values are of the essence of what they are and what we are."

Who was Karl Popper?

Sir Karl Raimund Popper (1902-1994) is well known for his insistence that it be necessary to be able to say what would make scientific claims false. He was born in Austria

Isaiah Berlin was famous for his work on ideals of liberty in democratic societies (AP).

Isaiah Berlin was famous for his work on ideals of liberty in democratic societies (AP).

and grew up near Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) in Vienna, Austria, but not under wealthy circumstances. He had to leave Germany in the late 1930s, and after teaching in New Zealand he was a professor at the London School of Economics. Popper is as famous for his philosophy of science as for his political thought, which he developed in The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945, fifth revised edition, 1965).

Found a mistake? Please highlight the word and press Shift + Enter  
< Prev   CONTENTS   Next >

Related topics