Literature, Politics

Nicholas Kristof’s defense of the humanities

Well, the defenses of the humanities just keep on coming…  Nicholas Kristof writes in his column today about how his understanding of the world was influenced by three philosophers: Isaiah Berlin, John Rawls, and Peter Singer.

Kristof’s comments remind me that I’ve been meaning to return to something I mentioned, but never developed, in one of this blog’s earlier defenses of the humanities: could it be that there are certain subject matters that belong uniquely to the humanities? That is, even if someone were not persuaded that the humanities could be a valuable way of learning about the empirical world, might it not still be the case that the humanities are important because they alone address certain extremely important subjects — such as the meanings of things, and questions about what we should do?

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Negative freedom, positive freedom, and opportunity

Isaiah Berlin famously distinguished “negative” and “positive” liberty. In Berlin’s distinction, the former is the classical liberal ideal of freedom from government coercion, while the latter is the communitarian ideal of collective self-determination.

There is a related but even more basic distinction between two kinds of liberty that might be called “negative” and “positive”: negative freedom from government prohibition, and positive freedom to do something, to achieve some aim. A person who has no money is free in a negative sense to buy a loaf of bread, because there is no government prohibition on the buying of bread; but this person is not free in a positive sense to buy the loaf of bread, because he is not able to do so. He cannot choose to buy the bread. Likewise, we all have the negative freedom to become the CEO of Goldman Sachs, because no law prohibits us from doing so; but we lack the positive freedom, because we lack the practical ability to make the choice.

It is sometimes assumed that the American political tradition embraces only “negative” liberty from government coercion, and not the “positive” liberty to achieve one’s aims in life. But a case could be made that the ideal of “opportunity,” a central pillar of American political culture, implies a notion of positive freedom.

When the ideology of the Reagan era speaks of “freedom,” the response should be: freedom to do what?

If the 1960s called for negative freedom from social and cultural constraints, and the 1980s called in a confused way for negative freedom from economic constraints, then perhaps some coming decade can be the time when the positive freedom of Americans finally becomes the focus of our political life.