Skinner on liberty

by Chris Bertram on December 1, 2003

The Columbia website has “”Three Concepts of Liberty”: ” , the Contemporary Civilization Coursewide Lecture, Fall 2003 by Quentin Skinner, Regius Professor of Modern History at the University of Cambridge. I’ve watched about the first 20 minutes so far and it is admirably clear and consistently interesting. When he got to Mill, Marx and Habermas I started yelling “What about Rousseau?!!” at the screen (but I often do that). (To watch you need RealPlayer installed).

UPDATE: I’m less impressed after 48 minutes than I was after the first 25 or so. He still didn’t talk about Rousseau which was all the more unforgivable because his third concept of liberty — freedom as non-dependence on the will of others — is so important for Rousseau’s own account. But I shouldn’t just snark on about my own obsessions. What I thought was absurd was his insistence at the end that it somehow followed from the alleged incommensurability of the three concepts that we have to choose amongst them. Why? Why can’t I value (in some measure) absence of constraint, self-realization and non-dependence on the will of others? He doesn’t explain and he makes some silly (and disingenuous) remarks about being a historian rather than a philosopher to absolve himself from having to. None of which should discourage people from listening to what is a characteristically elegant and interesting presentation.

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Raw Carrot » Crooked Timber and Skinner on Liberty
08.23.05 at 4:05 pm



Shai 12.01.03 at 1:26 pm


converted it to mp3 audio for a listen on the subway.


mike van winkle 12.01.03 at 2:50 pm

In my opinion Rousseau’s “freedom” is highly problematic, if not completely non-existant.


Chirag Kasbekar 12.01.03 at 3:04 pm

I must say I found his discussion of the ‘third concept of liberty’ to be rather problematic.

I’m neither a philosopher nor a historian, but it did seem to me immediately (I might change my mind later) that the particular notions of ‘dependency as unfreedom’ he talked about weren’t independent of the power to coerce.

I’m pretty open to the idea of ‘freedom as autonomy’, but I did find his discussion unsatisfactory, to say the least.


Nasi Lemak 12.01.03 at 4:30 pm

When I was working in Cambridge (as a non-theorist) I was advised by a friend never, even casually, to make an approving mention of Rousseau in the department if I wanted my career to flourish.

I’m not sure if Skinner has followed this rule…


Shai 12.01.03 at 5:28 pm

I’ll need to listen to it 3 or 4 times to get all of it, but near the beginning of the lecture I do notice he’s using Amartya Sen as a strawman by not understanding what he means by the relationship between freedom and “capability”, construing it as something like “constraint logically entails a hindrance of freedom”. Anyone who has read inequality reexamined and development as freedom will see this is a silly interpretation.

It’s not exactly clear whether it was Skinner’s own argument or exegetical of the hobbesian position he was illustrating, but the argument from analogy about the lock and key* is entirely disconnected from the very real hindrances that the blind person faces in Sen’s example.

A blind friend in one of my classes had to wait weeks for disability services to translate his text into a format that he could use. So what Skinner has to say about lack of power not entailing hindrance or constraint in the case of blindness is an illustration of a more general point that doesn’t apply because there are very real constraints that the blind face. Nussbaum has written something similar from a feminist perspective, that Sen’s recent work focuses too much on capability AS freedom, when the absense of constraint may well damage equality and therefore freedom of women, but I believe that’s a misreading as well.

Great lecture anyway.

(*) (from memory: two men are in a room. one can’t leave the room because he doesn’t have the key. the other is too sick to get up to consider leaving the room, so even if the door is locked, he’s neither free or unfree to leave the room because it is locked because there’s no hindrance of a power, they simply don’t have power — according to Skinner, according to hobbes)


John Isbell 12.01.03 at 6:25 pm

The editor of the vast Rousseau correspondence was at Cambridge until his recent death, as is Sen. Not in the History Department, mind you.
My impression is that the form of liberty elaborated in the Contrat social is coerced by the community. Personally I like Benjamin Constant’s work on forms of liberty, notably his comparison of ancient and modern liberty in 1819.


Chirag Kasbekar 12.01.03 at 6:55 pm

Chris: “What I thought was absurd was his insistence at the end that it somehow followed from the alleged incommensurability of the three concepts that we have to choose amongst them. Why?”

Yes, that was rather silly. Especially when later, in response to a question, he admits that Marx was both a liberal of the Millian anti-tradition sort AND a Hegelian.


Nasi Lemak 12.01.03 at 7:08 pm

Leigh? Died in 1985 or so?

Anyhow, I believe the advice goes for both History and SPS, but I wouldn’t swear to the former.


Chirag Kasbekar 12.01.03 at 7:11 pm

To be fair to Skinner, though, he probably merely meant that the three notions _can_ be highly contradictory and that nobody can believe in all three without be willing to trade off one for the other in concrete situations.

So these positions qua dogma are mutually exclusive.


John Isbell 12.01.03 at 9:20 pm

Yes, Ralph Leigh, and 1985-1987 is spot on. I have a story about him avoiding the milkman he owed money to. He was fairly reclusive: I was in French, in his college, as an undergraduate and never set eyes on him to my knowledge. Brilliant work though.


john c. halasz 12.03.03 at 10:01 am

This is perhaps a bit crude, but bear with me. Animals delimit themselves from their environment and intervene causally in environmental states of affairs though behavioral selections. But they can only respond to immediate events in their environment or cycles of such events. Human beings have a language, which means that the world or environment is symbolically re-doubled, such that they can intervene in the causal nexuses of the environment counter-factually in terms of a symbolically mediated horizon of possibilities. This, at a crude minimum, is what is meant by human freedom, qua volitional action. Now, language is a rule governed activity, such that the rules constituting intelligible speech or understanding are constitutive of the existence of language in the first place and constrain constitutively what can be said or understood. If this tie between language and volitional action, more than an analogy and less than an identity, holds, then 1) “freedom”, like language itself, is constitutively constrained and 2) since language inherently involves a relation to and exchange with the otherness of other, irreducible to the identity of the individual, “freedom”, in the first instance, is a collective or communal property. Hence, a fourth concept of “freedom”, unmentioned in Skinner’s historian’s overview: “freedom” as optimal constraint, rather than as the absence of constaint, and, as grounded in human interaction rather than the volitional capacity for individual action, “freedom” as tied to its collective embodiment in a community. This view, of course, relates to the “positive” view of freedom as self-realization in the aristotelian/hegelian tradition, but it supplies some missing premises, both as to Skinner’s account and as to the tradition itself. The identification of “freedom” with individuality- ( and here, philologically speaking, a step back into investigating Hobbes’ rootedness in scholastic nominalism would be instructive)- and with “autonomy” needs to be brought into question. For me, the locus classicus of the question is Kant’s moral philosophy, which effectively conceives of freedom qua autonomy as necessitarian, since, sollipsistically privileging individual action qua surmounting causality over really embedded human interaction, it presents “freedom” as a mirror-image of necessity, and as dominating, since surmounting all other sources of causality, including that of the actual, if not notional, actions of others, provides the only certainty of fully “free” will. Of course, the rhetoric of freedom qua autonomy flatters us all, since, regardless of anything else, it posits us humans, in our given facticity, as the terminus ad quem of history or evolution or what ever quasi-metaphysical term is supposed to cut short any further argument or question. But precisely such vanity may prevent us from recognizing the real conditions and terms in which we actually deal with each other. To be sure, questioning the identification of “freedom” with “autonomy” is a tall order, one well beyond my feeble powers, so deeply embedded is it in Western tradition, (though the incontrovertible fact of existential separateness should not be confused with the “ideal” of autonomy). But avoiding the question begs how much we constitutively owe one another through our interactions for our very existence as recognizable selves and for our inevitably shared world in common. If this is a bass-ackwards view of self-realization, so be it.


quentin Skinner 02.22.04 at 6:00 pm

The reason I didn’t talk about Rousseau was that, as I said, I was focusing on the Anglophone tradition. Rousseau can be read in English, but I must assure you that he was not an English writer.


quentin Skinner 02.22.04 at 6:00 pm

The reason I didn’t talk about Rousseau was that, as I said, I was focusing on the Anglophone tradition. Rousseau can be read in English, but I must assure you that he was not an English writer.

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