The idea of liberty is commonly discussed amongst many philosophers, they each offer a different view of the topic and provide different insights as to what freedom really means. Philosopher Charles Taylor published a piece titled ‘What’s Wrong with Negative Liberty’ in 1979 which discussed controversies to Isaiah Berlin’s piece ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’. He challenged this pivotal essay by weighing into the notion that negative freedom is too ambiguous of an idea and suggests alternative approaches which better discuss freedom. Taylor analyzes this concept by making frequent reference to the Hobbesian definition of freedom. This paper will explore the intent of Taylor when making a specific claim regarding the steps transferring from a Hobbesian definition to a different view of freedom which provides more openness and significance. This will be done by analyzing the claim and breaking it down to best understand all segments. Concluding ‘What’s Wrong with Negative Liberty’, Taylor makes a strong claim, “The first step from the Hobbesian definition to a positive notion, to a view of freedom as the ability to fulfill my purposes, and as a being greater the more significant the purposes, is one we cannot help taking” (Taylor, 382). This claim will be the focus of this essay as we will determine what exactly Taylor meant by this.
In Taylor’s essay he explores the drawbacks of the Hobbesian definition of freedom and explains why it is not the optimal view of freedom. The Hobbesian view considers liberty as the ability to act accordingly to one’s own will, with no physical restraints preventing one from acting in their desired manner. Absolute liberty in this sense does not withstand or allow prevention by any sort of obstacles unless extremities are reached such as imprisonment. In ‘Leviathan’ by Thomas Hobbes, he differentiates and compares freedom and power, as he feels the two, although very different are interrelated. His distinction is as followed, negative freedom is the absence of external impediments and power is the internal ability to do something (Smith, 2013). Taylor challenges this concept as he believes it is misleading as freedom entails much more than the power or ability to act in a certain way. Berlin also draws on negative liberty as he illustrates this concept as the freedom to and the freedom from (Cherniss, Hardy, 2016). These viewpoints all suggest different outlooks on the same idea, however provide a framework for ones thought process on what liberty entails. These different interpretations gave Taylor the opportunity to challenge their beliefs and illustrate that of his own.
The claim made by Taylor rests on the notion that one should deviate from their original thought of freedom and move to a more positive outlook that fulfills self-purpose. Taylor expresses the concept of self-realization and self-fulfillment as being directly associated with freedom. He argues that negative liberty in terms of holding the opportunity to do what we want or act how we please do not substantially capture the notion of self-realization. This highlights the concept of being free from external constraints, but does this sense of freedom provide self-realization he questions. Self-realization is essential in understanding freedom as being able to exercise control or act how one pleases requires a sense of being able to determine what it is we want and without self-realization this is not deemed to be possible. Being unknowledgeable of your own desires leads to internal restraints which in sum are still constrictions preventing total freedom. The whole idea of self-realization simply acts as a requirement of self-awareness and self-understanding in creating the notion of freedom, without this one could ask: ‘Well, what is freedom?’. The perception of this concept can be variant on an individual basis.
Going back to the initial claim, now that we have some background information on Taylor’s opinion of this notion of freedom, we can break it down. The idea of moving from the Hobbesian definition is simply recommending the deviation from the original or rather common practice to a notion which demonstrates greater positivity furthermore does not entail any negative perception. The next segment which discusses moving to a view of freedom which demonstrates one’s ability to fulfill their own purpose. This goes back to the idea of self-realization, what internal constraints are preventing one from freedom and how can they deviate from this to experience greater opportunity. Being able to fulfill your own purpose is trying to suggest that your own desires need to be fulfilled in the manner in which you desire. So, your own desires are filled by your desires, and this idea of fulfilling your purpose is directly associated with the desires you have. Next, Taylor’s claim suggests being greater the more significant the purpose, this is more of a qualitative measure in that your desires are greater the more significant the purpose of this desire, different desires hold different significant to you and not all are seen equally. Knowing this, there may be different constraints acting as a preventative measure to those more significant desires as they seem more unattainable due to internal constraints one experiences. Lastly, the idea of this whole notion being something we cannot help taking is simply expressing the compulsion one has to do something, the force being too strong to ignore or avoid for that matter.
I believe this approach is an improved version of the Hobbesian theory as it still follows a sort of framework which suggests freedom as the optimal goal however this approach entails a greater sense of self-awareness and self-realization which is valuable in today’s society. It suggests one focuses on fulfilling their desires however does not indicate having no remorse for the outcomes on others. It simply suggests acting in a manner which eliminates internal obstacles one sets on themselves and I believe that in itself is a valuable component of Taylor’s essay.
In sum, this claim is simply demonstrating the deviation from the Hobbesian outlook of viewing freedom, to a method which is more focused on one’s self. It is predominantly more considerable of fulfilling desires on an individual basis and understanding that all desires are different and categorizing negative and positive liberty is not the most accurate. This categorization is inaccurate as it inflicts a sense of differentiation between the two, but does not recognize that external constraints are not the only constraints, and internal constraints also play a valuable role and are quite significant in acting as a preventative measure in attaining one’s liberty. Recognizing the difference is essential, and this claim suggests moving toward a manner that promotes a sense of self-realization, self-awareness and encourages the fulfillments of all desires quantitatively and qualitatively. This claim, to Taylor is something that one cannot refrain from adopting as it holds greater opportunity and room for personal growth and success on all basis. The idea of optimism in deviating from what we may already know or the method we have already adopted is important. Becoming realizable within our society, a point with which he follows is essential and will allow for growth on a more grandiose scale.