Isaiah Berlin was one of the twentieth century’s most significant intellectual defenders of liberty and liberalism. A prolific essayist, Berlin wrote on topics ranging from philosophy and the history of ideas to Russian literature. In one of his most famous essays, “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” Berlin distinguishes between those thinkers who “relate everything to a single central vision, one system…a single, universal, organizing principle”—hedgehogs—and those “who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way…related to no moral or aesthetic principle”—foxes. Berlin drew this distinction from a fragment of the Greek poet Archilochus, which reads, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” The essay itself advances the hypothesis that Tolstoy was a fox who thought he was a hedgehog. Berlin, by contrast, appears from his diverse, and seemingly disparate topics to be a fox, but in fact his thought revolves around a single central idea.

The central idea of Berlin’s thought is his belief in a value pluralism that, he judges, does not slip into relativism. Contrary to many twentieth-century thinkers, Berlin recognized the possibility that there could be a number of goods for human beings and societies that are not all compatible. Recognition of this fact forces us to take an honest look at the necessary tradeoffs that societies must make. Put another way, Berlin recognized that not all problems are soluble, and that there is no reason to suppose that mankind can progress toward a realm in which all goods will coincide without friction or cost, a notion that seemed to be animating, if only implicitly, much thinking in the West.

Berlin first began to express his ideas in lectures and BBC radio broadcasts that he delivered after the Second World War. These lectures discussed eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century figures such as Rousseau, Fichte, Hegel, and Saint-Simon. He also developed his views by examining and criticizing notions of historical determinism in Marx and others, and by studying the origins of historical thinking in Vico and Herder. His essay “Historical Inevitability” is an important elaboration of the basis of his criticism.

In the remainder of this introduction, we will draw out Berlin’s view of value pluralism by touching on Berlin’s most famous essay, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” and by further discussing “The Hedgehog and the Fox.”

Two Concepts of Liberty

Perhaps the most important tradeoff between goods for Berlin is that between liberty and coercion. The tension between these is the animating thought behind Berlin’s essay, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” the Chichele Inaugural Lecture he delivered in 1958.

Negative Freedom

For Berlin, negative liberty means not being interfered with by others. In the political context, negative liberty “is simply the area within which a man can act unobstructed by others.” This notion of liberty specifically involves being free of the coercive will of other people: “Coercion implies the deliberate interference of other human beings within the area in which I could otherwise act,” and, therefore, “The wider the area of non-interference the wider my freedom.” For Berlin, a degree of freedom in this sense is necessary “for even that minimum development of [man’s] natural faculties which alone makes it possible to pursue, and even to conceive, the various ends which men hold good or right or sacred.”

Berlin, though, is not a proponent of enlarging the sphere of freedom indefinitely. The boundaries are a matter for deliberation, for, as he says, quoting R.H. Tawney, “Freedom for the pike is death for the minnows.” For one thing, Berlin maintains that there are priorities more basic than liberty: ensuring an adequate amount of security, food, and health comes before a concern for freedom. For another, it is clear that in order to provide the widest sphere of freedom to the widest number of people, there must be restraints on the freedom of some, or, in some areas, of all.

For Berlin, the nature of negative freedom is such that no particular regime is necessary to ensure it. It is not necessarily the case, for example, that democracies are better than other regimes at providing negative freedom: “Just as a democracy may, in fact, deprive the individual citizen of a great many liberties which he might have in some other form of society, so it is perfectly conceivable that a liberal-minded despot would allow his subjects a large measure of personal freedom.”

Berlin does not think we can properly call it “freedom” to put limits on certain freedoms for some in the service of a wider freedom or social justice. This, for Berlin is a “confusion of terms,” and is the particular danger he is warning against in making the distinction between negative and positive freedom. As he puts it:

To avoid glaring inequality or widespread misery I am ready to sacrifice some, or all, of my freedom: I may do so willingly and freely; but it is freedom that I am giving up for the sake of justice or equality or the love of my fellow men. I should be guilt-stricken, and rightly so, if I were not, in some circumstances, to make this sacrifice. But a sacrifice is not an increase in what is being sacrificed, namely freedom, however great the moral need or the compensation for it. Everything is what it is: liberty is liberty, not equality or fairness or justice or culture, or human happiness or a quiet conscience.

Positive Freedom

If negative liberty is “freedom from,” positive liberty is “freedom to.” This notion of freedom is, Berlin maintains, older than that of negative freedom. It is the desire, familiar to Classical Greece and Republican Rome, that individuals should be able to govern themselves, or, at least, be directly involved in establishing the rules under which they are to live. This concept is characteristic of the direct democracies of the ancient world, but, Berlin worries, it is a concept that “adherents of the ‘negative’ notion represent as being, at times, no better than a specious disguise for brutal tyranny.”

This is the case in part because positive freedom presupposes, for Berlin, a conception of the self different from that presupposed by negative liberty. For example, highly religious societies and similar forms of society all have in common the idea that in order to be free, individuals must adhere to a rule. There is a higher freedom that represents the truth. Members of those societies who do not recognize this truth must be compelled to do so. One of the major problems with this concept of liberty, for Berlin, is that it can be used by totalitarian regimes to coerce their members into obedience in the name of freedom. Adherents of communism, for example, believe they can compel certain segments of society to act against their will because their will represents a false consciousness. The premise for them is that the proletariat does not understand the truth about freedom and therefore must be brought to do so in the name of freedom. This understanding of freedom, though, can be a justification for a communist regime to commit terrible atrocities against those segments of society that resist its “benevolent” will. In other words, positive freedom can be an excuse for imposing extreme forms of unfreedom.

According to Berlin, the notion of positive freedom is at the heart of the Enlightenment vision of a perfectly rational society, and of the desire for self-determination and recognition for peoples and nations. As Berlin notes, “It is the desire for reciprocal recognition that leads the most authoritarian democracies to be, at times, conspicuously preferred by their members to the most enlightened oligarchies.”

The various manifestations of positive and negative freedom, for Berlin, are not inherently good or bad. No manifestation of either can constitute a final solution to the political problem. Berlin hopes to curb some of the dangerous excesses of those who are overly wedded to one vision of liberty or the other. Nonetheless, his defense of liberty as negative liberty and his related criticism of positive liberty are the central elements of his work.

Read More: Liberty, Romanticism 

The Hedgehog and the Fox

Berlin is disappointed by Leo Tolstoy’s lengthy attempts to explain his own work, and seeks to do a better job in “The Hedgehog and the Fox.” Tolstoy, Berlin proclaims, believes he is a hedgehog who knows one thing, and who thus relates everything to a central vision, but in reality, he is a fox who knows many things, which are not connected in any especially coherent way. As he puts it: “The hypothesis I wish to offer is that Tolstoy was by nature a fox, but believed in being a hedgehog; that his gifts and achievements are one thing, and his beliefs, and consequently his interpretation of his own achievement, another.” Tolstoy, for Berlin, is an extraordinarily keen observer, but his implicit attempt to craft an overarching philosophy of history from these various observations is misguided. Berlin sums up Tolstoy’s view in this way:

Tolstoy’s central thesis…is that there is a natural law whereby the lives of human beings no less than that of nature are determined, but that men, unable to face this inexorable process, seek to represent it as a succession of free choices, to fix responsibility for what occurs upon persons endowed by them with heroic virtues or heroic vices, and called by them ‘great men’…Our ignorance of how things happen is not due to some inherent inaccessibility of the first causes, only to their multiplicity, the smallness of the units, and our own inability to see and hear and remember and record and co-ordinate enough of the available material.

What are we to do in the face of this extreme limit to our capacity to understand history? “Tolstoy arrives at no clear conclusion, only at the view…that it is better to realise that we understand what goes on as we do in fact understand it much as spontaneous, normal, simple people, uncorrupted by theories, not blinded by the dust raised by scientific authorities do, in fact, understand life.”

Tolstoy, nonetheless, appears to be caught in a contradiction, according to Berlin. His observations led him to mount successful attacks on those theories that reduce history to the result of various overarching forces. On the other hand, Tolstoy somehow did believe that some such theory could be found. “All his life,” Berlin writes, “he looked for some edifice strong enough to resist his engines of destruction and his mines and battering-rams; he wished to be stopped by an immovable obstacle, he wished his violent projectiles to be resisted by impregnable fortifications.” Despite his apparent antipathy for historical systems, Tolstoy was driven by the “agonised belief in a single, serene vision, in which all problems are resolved, all doubts stilled, peace and understanding finally achieved.” Tolstoy, then, was a fox who saw too sharply all the irreducible complexity of human life to really believe in any rational historical system. He nevertheless yearned to be a hedgehog, seeking for some sort of order above reason.

Read More: History of Ideas


The two essays discussed above treat disparate topics, but there is, a common thread that runs through both of these and much of Berlin’s other writings: the denial of a comprehensive theory that will untangle all the knots of politics and society, and ensure a happy ending for man with no tensions.

Berlin’s approach is thus characterized by an understanding that fundamental points of view are ultimately incommensurable,  an understanding that leaves him open, despite his protestations, to the charge of relativism. He wants, on the one hand, to claim that no way of life is superior to any other, but at the same time presents himself as a staunch defender of the liberal West against, for example, communism. It is difficult to see, though, why we should prefer liberalism to communism if these are simply incompatible systems which one may prefer or not on the basis of unknown criteria. This weakness in Berlin’s thought is perhaps not insurmountable;  one might be able to cobble together a defense that would rescue Berlin from this impression of relativism. The fact is, however, that he does not tackle this fundamental problem head-on.

See also:


National Portrait Gallery

Articles in the New York Review of Books:

The Isaiah Berlin Virtual Library:

 Catalogue of the papers of Sir Isaiah Berlin, 1897-1998, with some family papers, 1903-72 (Bodleian Library, University of Oxford):