The Idea of Liberty

As its name implies, one of the fundamental ideas that underpin liberalism is liberty. However, as with ideas underpinning other political philosophies, people don’t always mean the same thing when they use the term. This is not unimportant. Different ways of understanding liberty can lead to very different ideas about which political decisions we should take, and how a liberal society should be organised in in general.

The idea of liberty on a political level is inextricably bound up with the idea of individual liberty. In following articles, I will try to explain some of the ways in which liberty has been understood by different philosophers. I will also try to explain how their conceptions of individual liberty translate into opinions on the organisation of state and society.

But first a quick introduction of two vital terms:

  • The word “liberty” is ultimately derived from the Latin word libertas. It is used interchangeably in philosophical text with the word freedom.
  • The word “will” is a term which is used in philosophy to signify a property of the mind. It signifies a state of thought that is connected with doing a certain action. Roughly put, when someone wants to do X, we can also say someone has the will to do X. The will is therefore not the action itself, but the desire to do that action. The distinction here is important, because in philosophical discussions of liberty the idea of freedom is often connected not just to the idea of doing something freely, but also the idea of wanting something freely. The idea of wanting something freely, is generally referred to as free will.

With the meaning of these basic concepts clear, we can now start looking at how different philosophers have understood liberty, and how their understanding has influenced their political opinions.

This is an introductory piece to a series of posts on liberal political philosophy, it’s ideas, and why it is important. You can find his posts here.

Krijn van Eeden is a member of Liberal Youth (UK). He is originally from the Netherlands but is now studying for his Masters in Philosophy in Frankfurt. 


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