Isaiah Berlin’s two concepts of liberty
Università di Padova
It has always been difficult, if not impossible, to categorize Isaiah Berlin according to specific intellectual disciplines: Was he a “historian of thought” or a political philosopher? Berlin himself, with his eminently critical mind and non-dogmatic approach, always refused to be included in any school or intellectual group, and even to stick, in his interests and in his work, to a single discipline. This is why he never wrote any magnum opus, preferring instead, both Fox and Hedgehog, to transmit what was the main core of his liberal belief (the Big Truth he knew) through a lively and manifold series of essays only apparently scattered but actually deeply consistent and coherent.
What is certain, is that, by his brilliant exploration of several threads of intellectual history (from German Romanticism to French reactionary thought, from Russian populism to Soviet literary figures) he has given us original insights that we can use as invaluable instruments in the field of political theory. I would like to focus on one of these contributions, one that after almost half a century is still with us as an unavoidable element in political discourse: his “Two concepts of liberty.” The idea was organically spelled out on October 31, 1958 on the occasion of Berlin’s inaugural lecture at the University of Oxford, but had been previously sketched by him in other essays.