GV4B7      Half Unit
The Idea of Freedom

This information is for the 2020/21 session.

Teacher responsible

Bruno Leipold


This course is available on the MSc in Human Rights, MSc in Human Rights and Politics and MSc in Political Theory. This course is not available as an outside option.

This course is capped at two groups. Priority will be given to students enrolled on the MSc in Political Theory.

The deadline for applications is 17:00 on Tuesday 29 September 2020. You will be informed of the outcome by 17:00 on Wednesday 30 September 2020.


Basic familiarity with concepts and methods in normative political theory.

Course content

The concept of freedom is often invoked in political life. Many policies and broader political agendas are justified in its name. Nearly all modern ideologies from liberalism to socialism and conservatism claim liberty as a central value. But what, exactly, does freedom mean? Is freedom best understood in terms of absence of interference or in terms of non-domination? Is one made unfree only when one’s rights are violated? Does poverty constitute a constraint on freedom? Does wage-labour make workers unfree? And could citizens of an authoritarian regime be described as free? These are some of the questions addressed in this module. Depending on the particular year in which the module is taught, the approach taken may be either historical or contemporary-analytic or a combination of the two. Consequently, authors discussed may include key historical thinkers such as Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Kant, as well as contemporary scholars such as Isaiah Berlin, Hannah Arendt, Charles Taylor, Philip Pettit, Nancy Hirschmann, Quentin Skinner, Amartya Sen, Martha Nussbaum and others. The overall aim of the course is to enable students to assess the quality and strength of different theorists' conceptions of freedom and to deploy those conceptions in the analysis and justification of some core institutions within the modern state.


This course is delivered through seminars totalling a minimum of 20 hours in the Michaelmas Term. Some or all of this teaching will be delivered through a combination of online and on-campus seminars. There will be a reading week in week 6 of the MT for advice and feedback.

Formative coursework

All students are expected to submit one formative (non-assessed) essay.

Indicative reading

Isaiah Berlin, ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’ in Berlin, Liberty (edited by Henry Hardy); Hannah Arendt, ‘Freedom and Politics’, in Miller (ed.), The Liberty Reader; Gerald MacCallum, ‘Negative and Positive Freedom’, in Philosophical Review, 76 (1967); Nancy Hirschmann, The Subject of Liberty; Phillip Pettit, A Theory of Freedom; Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia; G. A. Cohen, ‘Capitalism, Freedom and the Proletariat’ in Miller (ed.) The Liberty Reader; John Stuart Mill, On Liberty; Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract; Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan; John Locke, Second Treatise of Government.


Essay (100%, 4000 words).

Student performance results

(2016/17 - 2018/19 combined)

Classification % of students
Distinction 26.1
Merit 59.8
Pass 12
Fail 2.2

Important information in response to COVID-19

Please note that during 2020/21 academic year some variation to teaching and learning activities may be required to respond to changes in public health advice and/or to account for the situation of students in attendance on campus and those studying online during the early part of the academic year. For assessment, this may involve changes to mode of delivery and/or the format or weighting of assessments. Changes will only be made if required and students will be notified about any changes to teaching or assessment plans at the earliest opportunity.

Key facts

Department: Government

Total students 2019/20: 35

Average class size 2019/20: 17

Controlled access 2019/20: Yes

Value: Half Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

Personal development skills

  • Self-management
  • Problem solving
  • Communication