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A Short Historical Sketch on the Idea of Freedom (An Introduction by James P. Young)

Freedom is a complex topic. 

Freedom is a complex topic, so complex that it serves as a good example of what philosophers call an essentially contested concept. Particularly because freedom is something we value so highly, there is constant debate over exactly what the word means. These disputes are often politically charged, and they are not likely ever to be completely resolved. Analysis of the idea is also complicated because it is impossible to consider freedom without taking into account related concepts such as democracy and constitutionalism, problems such as majority rule and minority rights, and the tension between liberty and equality. Nor is it possible to ignore the political and historical context in which ideas of freedom developed. (Note that throughout this essay I will use freedom and liberty interchangeably, though even this practice has been debated.) To simplify matters somewhat, I will limit the discussion to the history of the idea of freedom in the Western world, with particular emphasis on American contributions. I will try to remain as neutral as possible regarding different conceptions, and I will call attention to some of the possible conflicts as they arise, in the belief that this may facilitate discussion.

It is best to begin with a brief attempt to identify the core ideas associated with freedom, ideas that in themselves are not controversial, though their political implementation may be very much contested. The first principle is personal freedom, defined as freedom from interference in what we as individuals wish to do, insofar as our actions do not interfere with the same right for others. The second principle is civic freedom, the ability of citizens to participate in politics and government.