Liberty and Education: John Stuart Mill's Dilemma

E. G. Westa1

a1 University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne..

The Term ‘liberty’ invokes such universal respect that most modern political economists and moralists endeavour to find a conspicuous place for it somewhere in their systems or prescriptions. But in view of the innumerable senses of this term an insistence on some kind of definition prior to any discussion seems to be justified. For our present purposes attention to two particularly conflicting interpretations will be sufficient. These are sometimes called the ‘negative’ and the ‘positive’ notions of Liberty. According to the ‘negative’ notion, my own liberty implies the reduction to a minimum of the deliberate interference of other human beings within the area in which I wish to act. Conversely the absence of liberty, or coercion, is regarded as undesirable because it amounts to the prevention by other persons of my doing what I want. On the other hand, the ‘positive’ sense of the word ‘liberty’ consists in the attainment of self-mastery, or, in other words, the release from the domination of ‘adverse’ influences. This ‘slavery’ from which men ‘liberate’ themselves is variously described to include slavery to ‘nature’, to ‘unbridled passions’, to ‘irrational impulses’, or simply slavery to one's ‘lower nature’. ‘Positive’ liberty is then identified with ‘self-realisation’ or an awakening into a conscious state of rationality. The fact that it is contended that such a state can often be attained only by the interference of other ‘rational’ persons who ‘liberate’ their fellow beings from their ‘irrationality’, brings this interpretation of liberty into open and striking conflict with liberty in the ‘negative’ sense.