Skip to main content Accessibility help
  • Print publication year: 2014
  • Online publication date: September 2014

3 - Interpreting freedom dynamically: beyond liberty and autonomy to positive freedom



In this chapter, I analyze the concept of positive freedom more fully, retrieving it from critics like Berlin and defending its importance. I indicate how it differs from liberal conceptions of choice and autonomy, and indeed goes beyond even feminist reconceptions of autonomy in more social terms as “relational autonomy.” I want to explicate the ways in which positive freedom is a more open and dynamic conception than traditional understandings of liberty or freedom, and suggest that it is better able to take into account the interdependence of persons. When viewed in an intercultural context, moreover, the proposed understanding of freedom has implications for how we understand universality, and requires a norm of concrete universality.

The first part of this chapter takes off from Isaiah Berlin’s critique of positive liberty, which has resonated through decades of liberal theory. Building on criticisms already advanced by C. B. Macpherson, I first indicate how – contrary to Berlin’s allegations – positive freedom does not in fact entail the mastery of the state or of a collectivity over the individuals within it. I then move to further explicate the conception of positive freedom, understanding it as self-developing or self-transformative activity, in a sense that requires the availability of a set of conditions, material and social. The positive freedom conception also presupposes the important notion of negative liberty, but in an interpretation that includes freedom from oppression, domination, or exploitation, as well as the traditional liberties. Yet, the notion of positive freedom points to the importance of economic and social human rights, in addition to civil and political ones (along with the significance of institutional design for fulfilling these human rights). It also gives rise to rights of democratic participation in a range of joint activities and institutional contexts, as discussed in Chapter 4. I focus here on the comparison of positive freedom with the ideas of autonomy and relational autonomy, and consider the implications of these various interpretations of freedom for the possibility of universal or fully global norms.

Crowder, George, Isaiah Berlin: Liberty and Pluralism (Cambridge: Polity, 2004)
Avineri, Shlomo, Hegel’s Theory of the Modern State (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972)
Wood, Allen, Hegel’s Ethical Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990)
Hardimon, Michael O., Hegel’s Social Philosophy: The Project of Reconciliation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994)
Neuhouser, Frederick, Foundations of Hegel’s Social Theory: Actualizing Freedom (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000)
Habermas, Jürgen, “Morality and Ethical Life: Does Hegel’s Critique of Kant Apply to Discourse Ethics?” Northwestern University Law Review 83 (1988)
MacCallum, Jr. Gerald C., “Negative and Positive Freedom,” The Philosophical Review 76, no. 3 (1967)
Pettit, Phillip, Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997])
Langlois, Anthony, “Liberal Autonomy and Global Democracy,” in Global Democracy and Its Difficulties, ed. Langlois, A. and Soltan, K. (London: Routledge, 2009)
Christman, John, “Autonomy in Moral and Political Philosophy,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Zalta, Edward N. (2011), citing Berlin
“Two Concepts of Liberty”; Crocker, Larry, Positive Liberty (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1980)
Macpherson, C. B., The Life and Times of Liberal Democracy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977)
Sandel, Michael, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981)
Taylor, Charles, “Atomism,” in Philosophy and the Human Sciences: Philosophical Papers,Volume 2, ed. Taylor, Charles (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985)
Young, Marion, Justice and the Politics of Difference (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990)
Gilligan, Carol, In a Different Voice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982)
Held, Virginia, “Non-Contractual Society: A Feminist View,” in Science, Morality and Feminist Theory, ed. Hanen, M. and Nielsen, K. (Calgary, Canada: University of Calgary Press, 1987)
Ruddick, Sara, Maternal Thinking (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1989)
Jaggar, Alison, Feminist Politics and Human Nature (Totowa, NJ: Rowman & Allanheld, 1985)
Code, Lorraine, What Can She Know? (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991)
Stoljar, Cf. Natalie, “Feminist Perspectives on Autonomy,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta (: 2013)
Sen, , “Well-Being, Agency, and Freedom”; Sen, Amartya, Inequality Re-examined (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1992)
Crocker, David A. and Robeyns, Ingrid, “Capability and Agency,” in Amartya Sen, ed. Morris, Christopher W. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010)
Hegel, G. W. F., Science of Logic, trans. Miller, A. V. (London: Allen & Unwin, 1969), 603–4
Stern, Robert, “Hegel, British Idealism, and the Curious Case of the Concrete Universal,” British Journal for the History of Philosophy 15, no. 1 (2007)
Nussbaum, Martha, “Human Capabilities, Female Human Beings,” in Women, Culture and Development, ed. Nussbaum, M. and Glover, Jonathan (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995)
Marx, Karl, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy, trans. Nicolaus, M. (New York: Vintage, 1973), 409
Dryzek, John, Deliberative Democracy and Beyond (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002)
Dryzek, John, Deliberative Global Politics (Cambridge: Polity, 2006)
Benhabib, Seyla, The Claims of Culture (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002)
Benhabib, Seyla, The Rights of Others (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004)
Gould, Carol C., “Recognition, Care, and Solidarity,” in Socialité Et Reconnaissance. Grammaires De L’Humain, ed. Bertram, G. W. et al. (Paris: Editions L’Harmattan, 2006)