Sunday, January 18, 2015

A Guide to Skinner's Genealogy of Liberty

What does it mean to be free? Liberty is the most important concept in modern political theory. That’s an overstatement, of course. There are other important concepts — equality? well-being? — and somebody could no doubt make the case for them. Still, liberty is very important, particularly to those who have temerity to call themselves “liberal”. It would help if they had some more detailed conception of liberty.

The traditional philosophical approach to this is to provide a conceptual analysis of what it means to be at liberty. The philosopher, from their privileged position in a comfortable armchair, thinks deeply about the nature of freedom. They propose a definition — a set of necessary and sufficient conditions for the application of the predicate “liberty” — and then they defend this analysis from a range of counterexamples and counterarguments, some proposed by themselves, some proposed by their philosophical friends and enemies.

This method has a long and venerable history, admirable and frustrating in equal measure. Are there any alternative approaches? In his excellent lecture “The Genealogy of Liberty” (based on his scholarly writings), Quentin Skinner argues that there is. He thinks we can construct a genealogy of all the different conceptions of liberty that have been proposed, rediscovered and defended since the birth of liberalism. The genealogy will highlight the resemblances and tensions between the different concepts, contextualise some of the important historic debates, and provide us with a rich landscape of conceptual possibility.

As I say, I think Skinner’s take on this is excellent, the product of his long years of historical and philosophical scholarship. I encourage everyone to watch his lecture. But, at the same time, I have been disappointed to see that no one (to the best of my knowledge) has provided a detailed summary and illustration of Skinner’s genealogy. That’s what this post is designed to do. Its goal is not to criticise Skinner’s framework (though this could certainly be done); its goal is to share what I believe to be a valuable intellectual tool.

1. The Big Picture
We’ll start with the big picture. The diagram below illustrates all the key components of Skinner’s genealogy.

Don’t worry if this looks confusing. We’ll be going through it step-by-step in a moment. For now, just note three main features of the genealogy. First, note that it starts with a basic two-condition analysis of freedom (throughout we’ll be using the term “freedom” interchangeably with the term “liberty”; this tracks Skinner’s usage of the terms):

Freedom: consists in (a) the power of an individual act and (b) the ability of the individual to exercise that power in a particular way.

This two-condition analysis provides the root from which the rest of the genealogy grows. And it is from the second condition that they grow. This is because the major traditions in the history of liberty have all tended to differ with respect to how they fill out the particulars of that condition.

That brings us to the second point, which is that those traditions are arrayed along the three major branches of the genealogy. Starting in the middle, we have the dominant liberal conception of freedom as non-interference. This has been subject to a number of analyses and elaborations over the years, but remains at the core of liberal theory. Moving to the left of that branch, we have the republican conception of liberty as non-domination. This was prevalent in ancient Rome, and underwent something of a resurgence in the latter half of the twentieth century (partly because of the work of Quentin Skinner). And then, moving to the extreme right (perhaps aptly) we have the more mystical concept of positive liberty. According to this conception, being free consists in the ability to realise one’s true self. This conception is probably less popular than the other two, but it has had some prominent defenders.

One other general point about the genealogy. In tracing out these different conceptions, Skinner focuses on the debate within the Anglophone literature. At times, he calls upon ideas that were initially developed in other languages (e.g. Greek, Latin, German and French). But he focuses on the Anglophone debate in order to sidestep problems that come from assuming that the English word for liberty is the same as the French “liberte” and so on.

Anyway, with that general introduction out of the way, let’s proceed to consider the three main branches of the genealogy.

2. Freedom as Non-Interference: The Dominant Tradition
We’ll start with the dominant branch, the one which conceptualises freedom in terms of non-interference. The guiding intuition here is that you are free whenever you exercise your power to act in accordance with your own will. In other words, when your will to act is not being interfered with. As Skinner notes, this conception of freedom is negative: it holds that freedom is the absence of something else, namely interference. As such, this conception shifts the focus away from the nature of freedom and onto the nature of interference. What counts as a freedom-undermining interference? Broadly speaking, there have been three answers to that question.

The first is associated with Thomas Hobbes and his classic work Leviathan. Hobbes argued that the only freedom-undermining interference was interference by some external agency, acting through the use of force on your body, in such a way as to literally prevent you from choosing an alternative course of action. So, for example, if I put a contract before you and asked you to sign it, and then proceeded to grab your hand, and trace out your signature through the use of force, I would be undermining your freedom. I would be using force, on your body, to prevent you from doing anything other than signing the contract. In this example, I am the one forcing you to perform the action, but don’t assume from this that it is only the use of force by another human agent that undermines freedom. According to Hobbes and his followers, the external agency that interferes with your act could be nature itself. In other words, the predication of “external agency” is being kept as wide as possible.

Freedom as Non-Interference by Force: You are free if (a) you have the power to act and (b) you exercise that power without being interfered with by an external agency, exerting force on your body, in such a way as to literally prevent you from doing anything else.

This classic Hobbesian position still has its followers, but for many it leaves something important out. While they accept that the use of force on the body undermines freedom, they think that less obvious forms of manipulation can undermine freedom too. Consider the famous example of the highwayman. The highwayman pulls over your stagecoach and offers you a deal: “Your money or your life?” No doubt, you give him your money. In this case, the highwayman does not manipulate your body through the use of force. Rather, he manipulates your will through the use of coercion. The question is whether that undermines freedom. The Hobbesian position is that it does not. Indeed, Hobbes famously said that in such a situation you still had a choice and you still had the power to exercise your will. The mere fact that the alternative you were being offered was unpleasant, did nothing to undermine your freedom.

To most contemporary liberals that seems pretty unsatisfactory. John Locke was one of the earliest critics. He argued that coercion could undermine freedom. Now, Locke had a pretty wide definition of what could count as coercion. He suggested that offers, threats, promises and bribes could all undermine the free exercise of the will. That probably goes too far. The politician who votes against a piece of legislation simply because she wishes to receive some bribe money, doesn’t seem to be acting without liberty. So others propose a more restrictive definition of coercion. For them, a coercive act is one that threatens to make you worse off than you would otherwise have been, and is serious, credible and (relatively) immediate. The highwayman’s offer of “your money or your life” fits the bill.

Freedom as Non-Interference by Coercion: You are free if (a) you have the power to act and (b) you exercise that power without being interfered with by an external agency, coercing you into doing something through the use of a threat, to make you worse off, that is (i) serious, (ii) credible and (iii) immediate.

This analysis of freedom as non-interference is usually added together with the Hobbesian one, to give us the classic (and arguably most popular) liberal conception of freedom.

But the story does not end there. As Skinner points out, in the 1800s a group of thinkers added some further complexity to the conception of freedom as non-interference. They highlighted an omission in the prevailing point of view. Note how the two preceding conceptions held that it must be an external agency (broadly construed) that interferes with your power to act. But why must this be the case? Could you yourself not interfere with your own power to act? John Stuart Mill was one of the first to recognise this possibility. Probably influenced by his occasional dalliances with Romanticism, Mill argued that you could be in the grip of inauthentic desires and beliefs, ones which interfered with your capacity to act as you truly wished. Ridding ourselves of such inauthenticity was one of the themes in Mill’s famous paean to freedom On Liberty. Similar “internal” interferences with liberty were highlighted by others. Marxists, for example, argued that many ordinary citizens were subject to false consciousness, and Freudians argued that psychological mechanisms for repression helped to suppress our true desires. This gives us:

Freedom as Non-Interference by the Self: You are free if (a) you have the power to act and (b) you exercise that power without being interfered with by some aspect of your self which prevents or compels you to act by (i) passion, (ii) inauthenticity, (iii) false consciousness, (iv) repression (and, maybe (v) other possibilities).

[Note: the “other possibilities” option at the very end is included by Skinner in order to recognise the fact that classificatory schemes of this sort are never complete].

Again, as with freedom as the absence of coercion, this conception can be added to the preceding ones. In other words, one could have a general theory of freedom as non-interference which accepted that the use of force, the use of coercion, and the prevention or compulsion of action by some aspect of the self, all undermine our freedom. The image below highlights these three possibilities in the general genealogy of liberty. As you can see, this conception of freedom as non-interference takes up the most space.

2. Positive Liberty: The Mystical Tradition
But freedom as non-interference does not exhaust the conceptual space. Skinner argues that in the late 1800s there also emerged a school of thought that rejected this purely negative conception of freedom. For them, freedom as non-interference only captured “the negative portion of the dialectic”. Freedom wasn’t simply the absence of something; it was the presence of something too. It was about realising some property or quality in one’s actions.

But what is this property or quality? Skinner cites the work of T.H. Green, who argued that in order to be free we must have acted so as to realise the true essence of our selves. I call this, somewhat disparagingly, the “mystical” tradition in the history of liberty. I do so because the notion that there is some true essence to the self strikes me as being slightly mystical. Nevertheless, there have been a variety of proposals over the years. Two are mentioned by Skinner. First, there is the Aristotelian proposal that the essence of the self is political (“man is a political animal”) and hence we are free when we act so as to realise our political natures. Second, there is the Christian proposal that the essence of the self is spiritual and hence we are free when we act so as to realise our spiritual natures (usually done by achieving commune with God).

Freedom as Self-Realisation: You are free if (a) you have the power to act and (b) you exercise that power in such a way that you realise the true essence of your self as: (i) a political being; or (ii) a spiritual being; or (iii) some other possibility.

The two most prominent exponents of this positive conception of liberty in the recent past are, according to Skinner, Hannah Arendt and Charles Taylor. Both of these authors adopt a political/communitarian conception of self-realisation.

3. Freedom as Non-Domination: The Republican Tradition
That brings us to the final branch of the genealogy. The one that conceptualises freedom in terms of non-domination. We come to this last because, according to Skinner, it is the conception of freedom that was suppressed by the birth of modern liberalism. Specifically, he argues that when Hobbes defended his version of freedom as non-interference, he did so in an attempt to refute the alternative, republican tradition, of freedom as non-domination (this makes sense when one considers the historical context in which Hobbes wrote his major works: Hobbes wished to defend the monarchy from its republican opponents).

This alternative tradition adopts an interesting, counterfactual, definition of political freedom. It holds that absence of interference is not enough for freedom. Imagine you are a slave. You are born into slavery. You know no other life. The condition of being a slave is such that you are always subject to the will of another (your master). But now imagine that you are happy to go along with the will of your master. You never contradict him; you always do as he pleases. As result, you may live a life that is devoid of interference. You will never be forced to do something by physical manipulation or by manipulation of the will. But would that be enough to secure your freedom?

The republican claim is that it is not. In order to be truly free, you must not be subject to the will of another in this way. To live under the constant shadow of the master’s good will is problematic in and of itself, and will likely limit your self-expression in other ways too. For instance, the slave will be prone to self-censorship. Because they know that their ability to act is conditional upon the good will of their masters, they will always be cautious about speaking and acting in a forthright manner. This gives us:

Freedom as Non-Domination: You are free if (a) you have the power to act and (b) your exercise of that power is not conditional upon the good will of another (i.e. you are not living like a slave subject to a master).

This republican conception of freedom has been resurrected in recent times by Skinner himself, and by the work of other political philosophers, most notably Philip Pettit (about whom I’ve written before). But it has featured prominently during a number of debates in the past 300 or so years. For instance, at the time of the American War of Independence, the notion was that the colonialists were subject to the will of the British crown (the irony that they permitted slavery within their own borders is not ignored in Skinner’s discussion of this history). Similarly, leading figures in the movement for women’s rights appealed, implicitly, to the republican conception of liberty. Indeed, both Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women and John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women drew analogies between the status of the married woman and the slave.

This branch of the genealogy is highlighted in the image below.

4. Conclusion
So that’s it. As I said at the outset, I didn’t intend for this to be a critical commentary on Skinner’s genealogy. Instead, I merely intended to share what I think is a useful intellectual tool. Hopefully that intention has been realised. As we have seen, there are three branches in the genealogy of liberty. The dominant branch holds that freedom consists in non-interference, with some debate about the precise nature of freedom-undermining interference. The mystical branch holds that freedom consists in the ability to realise one’s true essence through action. And the republican branch holds that freedom consists in non-domination, i.e. the absence of conditional dependence on the good will of another. Although it is possible to combine some of these views, there are also important tensions between them. Nevertheless, they have all featured in the debate about what it means to be free.


  1. What are your thoughts on this genealogy as it relates to Berlin's distinction between positive and negative freedom. There, interference from the self, was, as i remember, treated in the domain of self-realisation/self-mastery- where freedom is treated as an exercise concept. So positive freedom is realised when the self realises is true self, which can mean overcoming intrusions by an inauthentic self (caused by nature/relation with capital, power etc). I guess never thought that one could put this category under negative freedom.

  2. This article is really helpful! I hope you cover more thinkers as well!