Sunday, 13 May 2012

Two Concepts of Liberty

What would have been Sir Isaiah Berlin's view?

Isaiah Berlin
Fantasy Bob found himself contemplating this question earlier this week. Sir Isaiah Berlin. Berlin has often been described as the greatest mind of the 20th Century even though, as far as FB can ascertain, he never faced the supreme intellectual challenge of scoring a Fourth XI fixture while preparing to bat and engaging in conversation with 3 11 year olds immersed in Facebook and all eager to consume the last empire biscuit on the tea table.  He is perhaps best known for his essay Two Concepts of Liberty to which FB looked for some guidance.

In this essay Berlin argued for the need to distinguish analytically between, the two concepts of freedom "from," which Berlin derived from the British tradition, and freedom "to," which Berlin derived from Rousseau, and continental rationalist thought. Berlin points out that these two different conceptions of liberty can clash with each other and people get themselves in a terrible mix when they are not clear between the two - a condition much like FB facing leg spin bowling.

Bianca Jagger
FB's train of thought was prompted by reports of challenging behaviour at the Royal Opera House.  Bianca Jagger, not a cricketer, was apparently upbraided by a fellow member of the audience, most probably a cricketer, for taking photographs with a flash during a performance of Philip Glass's new opera Einstein in Egypt.  When fellow members of the audience, in all probability mostly cricketers,  objected, she did not politely acknowledge the error of her ways and return to a passive sedentary position. There were insults traded and suggestions of pushing.

There are 2 concepts of liberty operating here.  FB's position is clear.  He thinks taking photos during a theatrical or musical performance is wholly unacceptable, both to performers and the rest of the audience. But, sadly, audience behaviour everywhere is changing, whether due to unfamiliarity with Berlin's work or other reasons.  FB will not go to multi-plex cinema because of the slurping and chomping, the texting and chatting, the sickening smell of hot dog and pop corn.  The lounge Pullman seats mean nothing to him.  He would rather sit up and pay attention.  The fact that multi-plexes do not show films of any merit is another consideration, but the context of the modern audience is a significant factor.

Can Sir Isaiah help?
There are similar issues in watching cricket.  FB would contentedly watch cricket all day every day - he would be happy that near silence covered that period.  He might make a mumbled observation to a colleague addressing the issue of whether a bowling change was necessary or whether another fielder in the circle might make a difference.  He might clap his hands at some admirable piece of play.  A philosopher might agree that he should be free to do so.  FB he does not indulge in a continual noise-fest.  So it is, in FB's view, a miracle that there are not more murders at international cricket matches.  For, if FB were to take his seat and find in the row behind him that trumpeter who only knows the first 4 notes of only one tune, and that the Champion's League Theme, which he will then play non-stop for 8 hours, he might not be accountable for his actions.  Murder would seem to be the least retribution he could inflict.  If he were to find himself surrounded by young men all dressed as Elvis Presley who kept up a chant of Engerland, Engerland for 8 hours, mass slaughter might be the only outcome.  The veneer of civilisation seems to be that thin.  But would philosophers agree that FB should be free from such intrusions?

But here FB finds uncertain guidance in Berlin's essay.  FB might be asserting his wish to be free from the intrusions of others, such as Bianca Jagger, tuneless trumpeters or chanting Elvises.  However Bianca and the trumpeters and Elvises will quickly assert that their freedom to behave as they wish should be an equally important consideration.  There is a bit of difficulty translating these abstract concepts into action.  This may be why philosophers down the ages have not made great skippers, preferring to offer their observations from deep fine leg.

FB suspects that the modern world is a little too keen on the freedom to argument and could do with a bit more of the freedom from considerations being taken into account.  Regrettably Sir Isaiah Berlin is no longer here to advise us on what is appropriate and whether murder would be morally justified in the situations FB describes.  So FB does not know what to do.  Just like when he is playing leg spin bowling.


  1. Visits to the multiplex are indeed a deeply unpleasant experience these days. Visits the cricket ground should not be, however. A well placed sock in the orifice of the offending instrument (trumpet or whatever) usually does the trick.

    1. Of course but Berlin's lesser known essay Two Concepts of Sock discourses on the difference between the common article of footwear and a blow or a punch. FB thinks there is still some ambiguity as to what is the correct course of action.

    2. Probably both would be appropriate in this situation.