Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Isaiah Berlin and Guido De Ruggiero

In his guide to Political Ideas in the Romantic Age - published in History of Political Thought vol. XXIX (2008) - Roby Wokler mentions Guido De Ruggiero among the possible influences on Isaiah Berlin’s thought on liberty. Having corrisponded with him on the matter while he was preparing this essay - sadly left unfinished - I would like to add something to what Roby himself wrote. I agree with Roby’s suggestion that De Ruggiero is indeed among the likely sources of Berlin’s idea of using the negative vs. positive polarity as a cornerstone of his clarification of the concept of liberty. However, I think that Berlin’s reconstruction of the several senses of ‘liberty’ is more sophisticated than De Ruggiero’s sketchy account and owes very much to his critical reflection on the method of Oxford linguistic analysis and its limits.

Guido De Ruggiero was an Italian philosopher and political theorist - a good friend to both Croce and Collingwood - whose name was familiar to the English-speaking public before the Second World War as a fairly regular contributor to Philosophy. His main political work is Storia del liberalismo europeo (Laterza, Bari: 1925) which was translated in English by Collingwood.

In this book De Ruggiero draws a distinction between ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ liberty (using these very words). The distinction is put forward in a chapter on English liberalism, discussing the liberalism of T.H. Green, and it is developed in a section of part II, chapter I, whose title is ‘negative and positive liberty’. Being an Hegelian, De Ruggiero is more keen on positive liberty, but he recognises the importance of negative liberty as well. The similarity between De Ruggiero’s and Berlin’s treatment of this two concepts of liberty is close enough to make one wonder if the former might be a remote source (possibly read as a student via Collingwood, and then half forgotten) of the latter’s thought on the matter?

Another - though less likely - source of De Ruggiero’s influence on Berlin might be his book Il Ritorno alla ragione (Laterza, Bari 1946), a collection of essays mainly written during the war. In this book there is a chapter on ‘Definizioni della libertà’ that is a discussion of the distinction between negative and positive liberty.

Here are two passages (in Italian):

Tutte le definizioni della libertà, che leggiamo nei trattati di pace, nelle dichiarazioni dei diritti, negli statuti costituzionali e nelle scritture che li commentano, sono negative, in quanto accentuano l'atto della liberazione da qualcosa che vincola e opprime (p. 246).
(...) io non nego che anche questa libertà (i.e. negative liberty) sia qualcosa di molto importante, meritevole della più grande considerazione; ma dico che essa non è tutta la libertà, e non è neppure lo scopo più alto che con la libertà l'uomo possa proporsi. La rimozione di ogni esterno impedimento è invece soltanto il mezzo, o la premessa, o la condizione, che consente a una forza interna dello spirito di esplicarsi e di tendere a un fine appropriato alla sua natura. In altri termini, la libertà da qualche cosa dev’essere intesa come avviamento o tramite alla libertà per qualche altra cosa. Libertà negativa e libertà positiva sono i due nomi che io dò a questi due momenti di un più comprensivo concetto (p. 248).Towards the end, negative liberty is characterised by De Ruggiero as ‘liberty from something’, whereas positive freedom is ‘liberty for something’. The translation of the last phrase is: ‘Negative and positive liberty are the two names I give to the two moments of such more comprehensive concept’.

At least one chapter of the book - which was prepared as the text for a lecture to be given in Oxford in 1940, but finally delivered only in May 1946 - was published in English (by OUP) as Myth and Ideals. The aforementioned chapter might have attracted Berlin’s attention also because it deals with Romanticism.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Call for papers - Isaiah Berlin

5th ECPR General Conference-Potsdam. Political Theory

In 2009 we will celebrate the centenary of the great philosopher, historian of ideas and political thinker, Isaiah Berlin. Such anniversary is an opportunity to assess his legacy and to evaluate the lasting influence of his thought on some of the most important contemporary political debates.
To do that, we have organized three panels that are hosted within the OPEN SECTION:

482. Republican Liberty One Concept Too Many?
488. Value pluralism and multiculturalism.
489. Liberalism and the search for foundations.

The first, will deal with the lively controversies about the concept of freedom, and in particular with Berlin’s famous distinction between negative and positive liberty, now challenged by the neo-republicans (f.e. Skinner, 1990, 2001; Pettit, 1993, 1997, 2001: Crowder, 2004). The second, will be centered on the analysis of the impact of Berlin´s value pluralism on current debates on multiculturalism (f.e. Tamir, 1998; Kateb,1999; Miller, 2006) . The third, will focus on his defence of liberalism as the political regime which is best suited to accommodate value pluralism, and will be also a contribution to the debate of the foundations of contemporay liberalism (f.e. Gray, 2000, 2006; Crowder, 2006; Kekes, 1997,1998; Galston, 2002).

The panels are meant as a tribute to Berlin, but we hope they will give those attending the conference also the occasion to measure the present strenght of liberal thought and its ability to cope with the new challenges that our societies are undergoing. In particular its treatment of diversity and its conception of the limits of State intervention in the citizen’s life.

Elena Garcia Guitian

Mario Ricciardi

Saturday, 8 November 2008

An Interview with Michael Walzer

In your introductory lecture for the Master in Asti you argue in favour of the teaching of ethics in schools. Can you explain why?

MW: It seems entirely normal to want to teach young people how to behave in the world, how to treat other human beings, and how to think about the responsibilities of citizenship. What is odd is that anyone should think that this isn’t a necessary part of the educational process. Obviously, school isn’t the only place for moral education; the family is important and so is the church, synagogue, or mosque. But the school is the right place for a more reflective teaching; it is the place to invite arguments about right and wrong, just and unjust; it is the place to discuss moral dilemmas and hard choices. Where else can we do that?

To some, yours appears a welcome proposal, but it’s not difficult to imagine that those are likely to be a minority. Nowadays the general attitude in many countries seems to be rather sceptical on the same possibility to agree on a shared understanding of what ethics is. What would you say to those critics to persuade them of the feasibility of such courses?

MW: Some shared understanding there certainly is - on the wrongness of murder, for example, and of hurtful actions, and of deception. But we won’t agree on the applications of even these simple principles, and that is precisely why we need to talk about them. Young people need to learn how to think about moral difficulty, and how to join the moral arguments that have been going on for many centuries, and how to explain their own moral decisions to other people. We don’t need to get them all to agree; we need to teach them to disagree in better ways, with greater knowledge, more seriously, and with some understanding of views different from their own.

In 1999 you wrote ‘Drawing the Line’ a paper on religion and politics that has been highly influential in the debate on the role of religion in the public sphere. Recently is becoming increasingly difficult to “draw the line” in a satisfactory way - even in countries with a long tradition of religious toleration like the United Kingdom or the Netherlands. Writing on the same topic today, is there something you would change of your approach in that paper?

MW: It wasn’t so easy to draw the line even in 1999. I don’t think that, writing today, I would change anything in that paper. But there is much that might be added, specifically about the integration of Muslim communities into European countries that don’t have the commitment to religious pluralism that has been central to the American experiment from the beginning. So far as the US is concerned, I hope that we can treat Muslim immigrants in exactly the same way that we have treated other immigrants from other religious communities. And I hope that the difficulties posed by Islamic radicals will turn out to be very much the same as the difficulties posed by Christian fundamentalists (which were the immediate occasion of my writing in ’99). But the European experience is different, and will be different, because most European countries have strong and singular religious traditions - Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican - and you have always had a hard time with religious minorities, or, better, religious minorities, have sometimes had a hard time with you. I don’t think that I can tell the Italians, or the Dutch or the English, how to draw the line. You have to work that out in accordance with your own circumstances and your own political culture.

Many Left-wing commentators in Europe are enthusiastic about the possibility of a President Obama. You live and teach in the U.S., but you are also familiar with European political culture. What is your advice to these “Obama enthusiasts” in Europe. What is the mistake they should try to avoid in their assessment of the democratic candidate’s policies?

MW: He isn’t a leftist, our Obama. His decision to run from the center and to run against partisanship, “above the fray” - this was, of course, a strategic decision, but I believe that it also reflected his deepest sense of himself. He will turn out to be (if he is elected, as I pray he is) a more radical president than he wants to be - first of all, because of the economic crisis and, second, because no one on the right will respect his non-partisanship. He won’t be able to enact the health care program he has advocated, for example, without a bitter partisan fight. But still, he will cleave to the center as best he can; he will appoint some Republicans to his cabinet; he will be a cautious leader. The biggest “change” he is looking for is in the atmosphere in Washington: he wants to shut down the bitter ideological struggle. He wants a quiet pragmatism. He won’t get it, but he also won’t turn the US into a social democratic state. He will do more than he wants to do, but less than the “Obama enthusiasts” want him to do.
On the other hand, just think: he will shut down Guantanamo; he will terminate rendition; he will repudiate the torture memos. A big change!

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Forgive, O Lord, my little jokes on Thee

And I'll forgive Thy great big one on me.

Robert Frost