GV4B7      Half Unit
The Idea of Freedom

This information is for the 2021/22 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 has a limited number of places (it is controlled access and is capped at two groups) and demand is typically very high. Priority is given to students on the MSc in Political Theory; students from outside this programme may not get a place.


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 a combination of lectures and 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 lectures and seminars. There will be a reading week in week 6 of the MT.

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).

Course selection videos

Some departments have produced short videos to introduce their courses. Please refer to the course selection videos index page for further information.

Student performance results

(2017/18 - 2019/20 combined)

Classification % of students
Distinction 26
Merit 61.5
Pass 11.5
Fail 1

Important information in response to COVID-19

Please note that during 2021/22 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 differing needs of students in attendance on campus and those who might be studying online. For example, this may involve changes to the mode of teaching 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 2020/21: 31

Average class size 2020/21: 16

Controlled access 2020/21: Yes

Value: Half Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

Personal development skills

  • Self-management
  • Problem solving
  • Communication