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Conceptual clarity, freedom and normative ideas : reply to Blau.

Dimova-Cookson, M. (2004) 'Conceptual clarity, freedom and normative ideas : reply to Blau.', Political theory., 32 (4). pp. 554-562.


Adrian Blau makes three main criticisms of my article on positive and negative freedom.1 First, that the positive-negative freedom distinction is superfluous because it fails to address any important normative arguments. Secondly, that my interpretation of T. H. Green is wrong in certain respects. Thirdly, he claims that my ‘normative analysis does not always convince’.2 I see two reason’s for Blau’s first charge. To start with, Blau does not believe that conceptual clarity necessarily contributes to better normative analysis. If there is a unifying theme in Blau’s criticisms, it is that normative arguments are more important than conceptual distinctions. So strong is his critique of conceptual clarity that one gets the impression that there is a reverse relation between the degree of conceptual clarity, on the one hand, and significant normative messages, on the other. The topic of freedom falls into this dangerous category of topics generating a permanent discussion about conceptual clarification. Because of this, Blau believes it is worth dismissing all talk of such distinctions, and of freedom altogether, and focusing directly on normative issues. It is implied in his criticisms, that nothing of normative significance can be explained via the terminology of freedom. Secondly, Blau thinks that Berlin’s and Green’s important messages stand apart from their discussion of the distinction between positive and negative freedom. This is linked to Blau’s general scepticism about the conceptual analysis of freedom expressed in his statement that ‘the debate over positive and negative freedom has created more heat than light’.3 Blau’s response gives me a second chance to explain why the positive-negative freedom distinction captures moral dilemmas that are at the heart of political philosophy: something both Green and Berlin help us see. Blau recognises one of my normative contributions: that I show how ‘for Green, poorer citizens’ negative freedom depends on richer citizens’ positive freedom’.4 I will demonstrate that this normative conclusion could not have been reached without the preceding conceptual analysis. Blau’s third charge, that my normative analysis does not always convince, already admits that my conceptual analysis has led to a normative discussion, thus appearing to contradict his first charge. What concerns me about this charge, however, is that Blau hardly engages with the normative arguments of my paper. His main normative criticism is that as a defender of Green I have to, but I do not, justify Green’s ‘moralisation of freedom’.5 I do discuss this issue but Blau ignores the argument I develop for that purpose. In my reply I will deal with the three criticisms in turn. I will first talk about the normative significance of the positive-negative freedom distinction in the context of Green’s and Berlin’s philosophies, which will in turn reflect on the normative significance of my new scheme of positive and negative freedom. I will then address Blau’s claim that Green does not distinguish between freedom in personal and political contexts. Finally, as ‘Green’s supporter’ I will defend Green’s ‘moralisation of freedom’ but only within certain limits. I will demonstrate that Green’s defence of ‘true’ freedom can serve as a basis of a new justification of negative freedom.

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Date of first online publication:August 2004
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