On the unavoidability of actions: Quentin Skinner, Thomas Hobbes, and the modern doctrine of negative liberty

Inquiry: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy 44 (3):315 – 330 (2001)
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Abstract

During the past few decades, Quentin Skinner has been one of the most prominent critics of the ideas about negative liberty that have developed out of the writings of Isaiah Berlin. Among Skinner?s principal charges against the contemporary doctrine of negative liberty is the claim that the proponents of that doctrine have overlooked the putative fact that people can be made unfree to refrain from undertaking particular actions. In connection with this matter, Skinner contrasts the present-day theories with the prototypical liberal account of negative freedom propounded by Thomas Hobbes. The present essay challenges Skinner?s position both philosophically and exegetically. Because an agent can always elect to cease his activity as an agent, the ostensible inescapability of certain actions is not the same as the outright inescapability of certain instances of inaction. Once this point is properly recognized, the way is clear for a re-evaluation of Hobbes (and of Skinner on Hobbes).

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Matthew Henry Kramer
Cambridge University

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