What is liberty?

Sowmyasri Muthupandi
6 min readSep 27, 2021
Photo by DESIGNECOLOGIST on Unsplash

Liberty is a fundamental political concept which is tied to an individual’s freedom, dignity and self worth. So, how should/do we define liberty? Can we define it at all? Quentin Skinner, being a Nietzschean, says we cannot define liberty since concepts that have history cannot have a definition. The meaning of freedom/liberty has evolved and contested over the history of modern times and the best way to understand is through genealogy. This post is my attempt to summarize “Genealogy of Liberty by Quentin Skinner”. Quentin Skinner focuses on liberty in English Language tradition throughout his lecture and that will be the focus on this post as well.

Overview of Quentin Skinner’s Genealogy of Liberty

Skinner’s genealogy starts with a two part condition with first being — the individuals to be free citizens of the state they should have the power to act in pursuit of a given choice. The second condition is, they will be acting on their choice without interference or being dominated or their pursuit in about realizing the essence of their nature. This might seem a little mouthful and I would break down each branch in the genealogy step by step.

The liberal concept (Non-interference)

In Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes inaugurates the discussion on Liberty in the chapter ‘Of the Liberty of Subjects’. According to Hobbes, for an individual to enjoy freedom as citizen of state, he should have the power to pursue a given option and there must be no interference on the exercise of that power by any external agency. Now let us unpack this statement. What does power to act in pursuit of an option mean? Can we say inability to perform an action makes us unfree to perform it? Hobbes would say no. If you lack the ability to perform an action then you are neither free nor unfree to perform it. For example, you cannot walk on water or grow wings and fly. You are unfree only if you are disempowered by an identifiable agency which has interfered with your capacity to exercise your power. This view of liberty/freedom is called the negative concept since freedom is present by absence of interference. The next natural question would be, what qualifies as interference? According to Hobbes, interference is limited to “impediments to motion”. That is, if you stop someone using physical force and make it impossible to render their power, that would qualify as a valid interference.

The limitation in Hobbes’ conception of interference is rather obvious, interference is not always exerted by physical force. It could be achieved by manipulating the will of the individual by coercion as pointed out by John Locke. Bending the will might not make it impossible to exercise one’s power, but it can make certain options ineligible. Jeremy Bentham explains that we can bend someone’s will either by rewarding (bribes) or punishing (threats) certain actions. According to him, only the latter (threats) qualifies as coercion. In addition he explains the threats should be credible, serious and immediate so that it would make the option ineligible.

In Chapter 3 of On liberty, Mill questions if freedom is always interpersonal and if the agent could take away their own freedom. This makes us contemplate what constitutes a free action without interference by the self? Here are some ideas. As per Descartes, An action motivated by reason conquering passions (such as anger, envy, hatred etc) is considered free action. Hence one of the impediments to liberty could be passion. Mill adds inauthenticity (When individuals are oppressed by opinions of civil society and act in a certain way) as an impediment to free action. We can also include Karl Marx’s idea of “false consciousness” as a self-obstructing agent of liberty. According to him, individuals become agents of their own servitude when they conceive freedom of action in bourgeoise terms.

The diagram given below includes the summary of liberal concept of liberty which primarily focuses on the negative concept of freedom. An individual is considered free when he has the power to act on a certain option without interference from an external agent or the self. The external agencies can render the action impossible by physical force or ineligible by coercion. On the other hand, self can interfere with the individual’s power to act through passion, false consciousness etc.

Genealogy of liberty as non-interference

The Hegelian concept (Self-realization)

When you are free from something, you are free to do something. You can come across the question, if you are unfree, what are you curbed from doing? The famous answer from Mill is, you can do whatever you want provided that it doesn’t harm others. However, during the late 19th century emerged a tradition which challenged the idea that freedom is purely negative. It endorsed the Hegelian idea that individuals want to be free not merely to be able to act at their will (not to just randomly shoot in the dark provided no one gets shot) but to act in a way such that it enables them to realize the true essence of their nature. According to Hegelians, freedom is self-realization. When one views freedom as negative they think of it as an “opportunity concept”, to be free is to have options. However from the positive freedom perspective it is considered an “exercise concept”, you can judge if someone is free based on their conduct. The positive concept of freedom begs that question of what is the true essence so that we can pursue it? The following are some streams of thoughts about the true nature of humans. According to T.H. Green freedom might be in service to God. Hannah Arendt thinks “Freedom is in politics”. Only in a political Arena/public sphere can we put our virtues and talents into action and become a fully free person.

The Neo-Roman Concept (Non-dependence)

Can we say a slave is free given that his actions are not interfered by his master in any ways? Neo-Roman thinkers would say no. Their concept of liberty is marked by an absence but it is absence of dependence rather than interference. A free individual is different from a slave because he is not subjected to arbitrary will of someone which could impede their power to act. There always exists an explicit or implicit consent from their master which is guiding their actions. This nature of dependence would either lead to self-censorship of individuals or their masters would explicitly undermine their actions. The main value Neo-Roman concept adds to the classical liberal model is the fact that power that undermines freedom can be silent. As per the liberal model, interference needs to be observed to deem one unfree.

We can look into some examples where people live as slaves in certain domains of their lives. As per James Harrington, anyone who lives under a reign of a monarch is a slave. The colonized people who lived under imperial power were considered unfree based on this paradigm. The American Declaration of Independence is founded on the Neo-Roman concept of freedom. In recent times, in our workplaces we are under the arbitrary will of our bosses, which will make us unfree under this paradigm. In the same way we are also subjected to the arbitrary power of the state.

What is liberty?

The genealogy of liberty laid out here has multiple traditions coherent in their own terms, yet they all cannot be combined into one concept of liberty. This summary, as in Quentin Skinner’s lecture, has assembled relevant information to answer the question “what is liberty?”, but the answer is up to the reader to decipher for themselves.