In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Liberty

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • Anthologies
  • Liberty and Autonomy
  • Liberty and Groups

Philosophy Liberty
Ian Carter, Ronen Shnayderman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 February 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 February 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0142


The definition of “liberty” (or “freedom”—most political and social philosophers use these terms interchangeably) is a highly contested matter. Under what conditions is a person free to do something? What kinds of obstacles would make a person unfree to leave the country or to attend church or to get a job? Is liberty simply a matter of having the opportunity to do something, or is it achieved only through effective action of certain kinds? Is liberty a property of individuals, or can it also be applied to collectivities? Under what conditions can an individual’s overall level of freedom be said to “increase”? The starting point for much of the discussion about the nature of freedom is usually the distinction, made famous by Isaiah Berlin, between “negative” and “positive” freedom. Theorists of negative freedom, who tend to be political liberals, hold freedom to be the absence of obstacles of various kinds, and they often limit their attention to obstacles that they hold to be “external” to the agent, or, more commonly, to obstacles that are created by other human agents. Theorists of positive freedom, on the other hand, see constraints on freedom where negative theorists deny their existence—for example, in the presence of internal factors that damage the agent’s capacity to be autonomous. For them, freedom is a matter of being in control of one’s life and determining one’s own fate. Only when such agential limitations are overcome, they hold, can an agent achieve self-mastery or self-realization. Also important for theorists of liberty is the relation between the freedom of one person and the power of another. Is the power of agent A over agent B only contingently related to the unfreedom of agent B? Or should freedom itself be defined as the absence of subjection to the power of others? The latter response is given by republican theorists of freedom, who claim to have traced a third way between negative and positive conceptions of liberty. A number of liberal theorists of freedom, who instead see freedom and power as contingently related, have resisted this republican claim and have continued to uphold the negative conception. Understanding the nature of liberty, and of its relation to coercive or dominating power, is also important for debates about distributive justice: Is liberty best guaranteed, or most fairly distributed, where the state limits its activities to the enforcement of private property rights and freedom of contract? Or is there a sense in which a government’s redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor enhances the freedom of the poor? Must egalitarians appeal to a positive notion of freedom in support of such enforced redistribution, or might the libertarians be mistaken in seeing egalitarianism and negative liberty as incompatible ideals? Yet another important area of enquiry concerns the measurement of freedom—whether of an individual or of a group. How, if at all, can the various single freedoms of individuals be aggregated, so as to produce overall comparisons of freedom, to the effect that one individual or group is “freer” than another?

Introductory Works

Gray 1991 and Flikschuh 2007 are introductory works on liberty. Gray 1991 is somewhat dated, but it provides a good overview of the different conceptions of liberty. Flikschuh 2007 concentrates on the theories of freedom of six contemporary liberal thinkers, together with the more general theories of Berlin 2002 and MacCallum 1967 (both cited under Positive and Negative Liberty). Many shorter introductory pieces can be found in general encyclopedias and companions, among which are Schmidt 2022, Carter 2021, and Kukathas 1993. Although not written as introductory works, Berlin 2002 and MacCallum 1967 (both cited under Positive and Negative Liberty) serve well in providing an overview of the many controversies surrounding the definition of political and social liberty (Berlin 2002 for its engaging discussion of positive and negative liberty; MacCallum 1967 for its overarching analysis of the concept of liberty, in terms of which the various rival definitions can be classified). Lindley 1986 provides a more specialized introduction to the concept of autonomy (and therefore to certain conceptions of positive liberty). Pelczynski and Gray 1984 is author-based rather than concept-based, examining the theories of liberty of certain classic thinkers. Schmidtz and Pavel 2018 is a large collection of articles linking freedom to other political concepts of contemporary interest.

  • Carter, Ian. “Positive and Negative Liberty.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2021.

    Article-length introduction to the distinction between positive and negative liberty, starting from Berlin and moving on to attempts to build a “third way.”

  • Flikschuh, Katrin. Freedom: Contemporary Liberal Perspectives. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2007.

    Introduction examining the theories of freedom of six thinkers: Isaiah Berlin, Gerald MacCallum, Robert Nozick, Hillel Steiner, Ronald Dworkin, and Joseph Raz. Taking Berlin’s distinction between positive and negative liberty as its starting point, it aims to bring out the metaphysical presuppositions of the divergent conceptions.

  • Gray, Tim. Freedom. London: Macmillan, 1991.

    Analytical introduction to a wide range of conceptions of liberty, usefully distinguishing between particular conceptions and a single concept (that of MacCallum).

  • Kukathas, Chandran. “Liberty.” In A Companion to Contemporary Political Philosophy. Edited by Robert Goodin and Philip Pettit, 685–698. Oxford: Blackwell, 1993.

    Article-length general introduction.

  • Lindley, Richard. Autonomy. Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan, 1986.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-349-18428-6

    Book-length introduction to the concept of autonomy (see Liberty and Autonomy), exploring, among other things, three rival conceptions deriving from Kant, Hume, and Mill.

  • Pelczynski, Zbigniew A., and John Gray, eds. Conceptions of Liberty in Political Philosophy. London: Athlone, 1984.

    A useful, author-based introduction, this book expounds the conceptions of liberty of a series of major philosophers. Includes chapters on freedom in ancient Greek thought, Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, Fichte, Hegel, Mill, Marx, Green, Hayek, Berlin, Oakeshott, Arendt, Rawls, and Habermas.

  • Schmidt, Andreas. “Freedom in Political Philosophy.” In Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics. Edited by William R. Thompson. New York: Oxford University Press, 2022.

    DOI: 10.1093/acrefore/9780190228637.013.2022

    Article-length introduction that, in line with the recent trend in the literature (but see Christman 2022 cited under Positive and Negative Liberty), sets the idea of positive liberty aside and focuses on issues surrounding the idea of negative, liberal liberty—its definition, measurement, and distribution—and its newest contender, that is, the idea of republican freedom (see Republican Freedom versus Liberal Freedom).

  • Schmidtz, David, and Carmen Pavel, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Freedom. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.

    Contains an introduction and twenty-eight articles grouped under the following headings: Conceptual Frames; Historical Frames; Institutional Prerequisites of Freedom; Culture, Diversity, Expectations; Economies and Normative Trade-Offs; and Body and Mind.

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