Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Someone doesn't know their Berlin

Johann Hari in this morning's Independent has written another of his slightly confused and contradictory pieces, this time it's about the difference between negative and positive liberty, noting
The philosopher Isaiah Berlin said there was an irreconcilable divide between those who believe in "negative liberty" and those who believe in "positive liberty." He was right. The divide survives.....

It's become as fashionable as a Jean-Paul Gaultier handbag to say that the old left/right divide is dead, and from its grave has risen a new divide between libertarians and authoritarians. But this ignores the reality that the left and right have these clashing, conflicting visions of freedom.
My guess is that Hari has only breifly skimmed his Berlin, because if he had read it properly he would be aware that Berlin himself made clear that the clash between negative and positive liberty was a clash between libertarianism (classsical liberalism) and authoritarianism. He also warned of the dangers about the evangelical pursuit of postive liberty.

You can't start a piece praising a philosopher for being right, and then proceed to argue the complete opposite of what the philosopher said, you just make yourself look silly. Having said this, according to Hari, believing in negative liberty is just pandering to the "whack-back-the-state paranoia of the right."

12 comments:

John M Ward said...

I prefer Neil Innes's take, that we are the Slaves of Freedom.

"We are in a funny mood..." :-)

Anthony said...

Gosh, another column from Johann that doesn't stand up to factual scrutiny. Colour me surprised.

I often disagree with his judgement, which is fair enough - I'm sure he'd disagree with mine much of the time. That's the nature of the game. What I find more worrying, however, is that fact that, increasingly, whenever he chooses to write about a topic that falls within my sphere of expertise, he seems to have trouble getting his facts right and to show some pretty strong selectivity. This leads on inevitably to a situation where one is disinclined to take at face value what he asserts regarding other subjects.

Now, everyone bungles things from time to time, but I think the Hari canon contains rather more howlers than the average - certainly when one considers that he's meant to be the much-feted wunderkind of British journalism.

Nancy's stout said...

Will someone please tell me the point of Johann Hari. I had the misfortune to read some shabby drivel he/she/it wrote in the Indie about Chavez recently(ok its mostly my fault if I stray onto that website I grant you).

sockpuppet said...

Perhaps he's been at the modafinil again.

He does have a real telent for talking balls. The best bit of this article is the fact that it would make him duty bound to vote for Davis, as he is the only candidate expressly standing against 42-day detention.

But, really, it just reveals him as yet someone else who has failed to read his Mill.

Andy P said...

I think this is a bit like your blog post when you said Hari had got his London geography wrong when he, er, hadn't.

It seems pretty obvious Hari is saying Berlin was right to talk about the divide between positive and negative liberty, and it's a useful concept. He then goes on to use the ideas in a context Berlin wouldn't have. What's wrong with that? You can say Adam Smith was right about the 'hidden hand of the market' and then use that concept to attack trade unions or co-operatives or whatever, institutions Smith was actually in favour of. That wouldn't mean you "didn't know your Smith".

You say, "You can't start a piece praising a philosopher for being right, and then proceed to argue the complete opposite of what the philosopher said..."

But look again at Hari's words. What he is saying is "right" is Berlin's belief there are two kinds of liberty. That's all.

Shug Niggurath said...

It took me several attempts to work out Hari's gender - even having caught him on the Big Brother programmes.

It only took one read to work out his intellect.

dizzy said...

Andy P - the only problem is that he did get his geography wrong about London, and he has just made a point about Berlin and then pumped some crappy line about left/right lib/auth which is exactly what the essay said. Berlin did indeed say there were two kinds of liberty, and he said it was the difference between libertarianism and authoritarianism, and he was not paranoid right wing nut.

Anonymous said...

He didn't get his geography wrong, you misread his article, as was pointed out until you barred further comments!

You say, "Berlin did indeed say there were two kinds of liberty, and he said it was the difference between libertarianism and authoritarianism"

Now it's you who doesn't know your Berlin. He was not in favour of negative liberty uncriticially, as he said the the 1969 introduction to the essay very plainly. He certainly didn't think one was a form of liberty and the other was a form of authoritarianism. That's just howlingly wrong, as even a basic reading shows.

You really need to read Hari's articles a bit more closely before you start accusing them of errors!

dizzy said...

I did not bar further comments, stop lying. You can still comment on the post, so stop talking bullshit.

Now, on to misreading, you have just quoted me, and then gone on to say "was not in favour of negative liberty uncriticially, as he said the the 1969 introduction to the essay very plainly". The thing is, I didn't say he was in favour of negative liberty, I said Berlin was explicit in his concerns that positive liberty did tend toward authoritarianism whilst negative liberty tended towards libertarianism.

What's more, Berlin does not even mention either concepts in his introduction and instead refers to "obedience" and "coersion". Luickily I have a copy on the shelf and have just checked it again and smiled as I saw the pen marks on it I made over ten years ago.

Anonymous said...

I'm surprised no one has picked up on the sign off of Har's article - which did blatantly misunderstand Berlin - the state that 'intervenes to make you free'.
To me that echos another well known philosopher, Rousseau forcing people to be free.
And we all know that is a road that ends in the terror and the gulag.

Nancy's stout said...

Plain and simply the issue is this. Hari (it of indeterminate sex) is about as far removed from being some sort of political/moral/sage/even half decent columnist as Bush is from being an author of beautiful flowing prose. Hari is a marginal know nothing who writes for a pigs appendage of a newspaper.

Anonymous said...

Actually Dizzy, what Berlin was afraid of was that perversions of positive theories of freedom could be used as instruments of oppression. He tended towards negative liberty, because he believed that positive liberty could be open to abuse, but did not explicitly lay out a tendency towards authoritarianism as you have stated. Oh, and that's from Warburton's book Freedom : An introduction with readings. (2001) You're good on the techy stuff but bad on the philosophy, must do better.