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The Ambivalence of the Notion of Freedom

Freedom is an omnipresent concept that is increasingly degenerating into a marketing tool. Philosopher and theatre director Mériam Korichi, "Freiraum" partner of the Goethe-Institut in Paris, is attempting to fill it with substance. She examines its ambivalences, with stopovers in the history of theory with Spinoza, Hobbes and Rousseau - and ultimately ends up on the road to autonomy. An essay

By Mériam Korichi

Freedom is a major question and also is a major problem. When it comes to defining freedom, it is not “only” difficult – because of the richness and complexity of the notion–, but it may also lead us to some dead-ends, because of ethical and political contradictions with no resolution. We may be faced by the impossibility to define human freedom as real. We are dealing here with a notion loaded with a spectacular theoretical and political history, which makes the notion of freedom very thick. The words “freedom” or “liberty” are easy to manipulate, to utter, to proclaim, but it is problematic to have a clear understanding of the content of the notion, for it is fundamentally ambivalent. In particular, this ambivalence builds on the contradiction between the individual’s power of self-determination and the social, economic and political powers determining society.

Here is an example showing the ambivalence and complexity of the notion “freedom” today. I just saw a man wearing a t-shirt with bearing the words:“Live free Levi’s”. It has become very common for us to see these sorts of things. Big brands claim the authorship, so to speak, of a philosophical motto. As a matter of fact, the words “Live free” can easily evoke Nietzsche and his idea of

“great health, an excess that gives the free spirit the dangerous privilege of being permitted to live experimentally and to offer himself to adventures” 1

, whereas the occasion of this philosophical reference in everyday life is purely for the purpose of merchandising. Indeed, one wonders, what is the articulation between “Live free” and “Levi’s”? We take it for granted, but when you look into it, you really ask yourself: what does it mean that this injunction is signed by a powerful commercial brand?

The very fact that it appears as an injunction shows that freedom is a hard-core problem. If freedom is an injunction, it means that certain people are thought of as being free (or living freely), and some others are not, within the same society, not to mention how great the difference is between our “liberal democracy” and the other societies which don’t follow (economic) liberalism.

Therefore, first of all, we find that freedom is indeed a major question because a trivial commercial slogan can shake our certainties and force us to wonder what is it to live freely – do we really know? Is freedom an (ideal) principle? Is it a (moral and political) value? Can it be a fact?

Second of all, the very fact that freedom is a question constitutes a problem, a pragmatic problem. One the one hand, we wonder about the nature of a free life, meaning that we acknowledge that we do not master the concept, and at the same time, on the other hand, we proclaim freedom to be our value, hence being seen as positive idea, to promote. But what are we promoting exactly today? The sale of more Levi’s T-shirts and the likes? And by doing that, and contributing to radically reduce public space conceived as a neutral, non-commercial space, are we acting freely? This questions the reduction of human freedom to economic “freedom” in the pure liberal classical tradition that provided the core principles to structure the present European Union. It can be good here to remind us that many advocates of social justice criticize the absolute privilege the notion of freedom has acquired in the western societies, this privilege leading to abandon or neglect other values such as equality and fraternity. But to speak fully the language of the French Republic motto (where Freedom comes first), precisely, we sense that we cannot abandon freedom as a fundamental metaphysical and political concept. And that is a major problem because we do not even know if it is in our nature to be free. On that account, I will consider the three following points:

1. The common conception of freedom is a pure subjective illusion maintained for ideological (and commercial) reasons. 2. Freedom is a political concept and a political reality. 3. How the consideration of “individual autonomy” makes possible a transition from politics (the collective realm) to ethics (the individual and inter-individual realm).

1. Freedom is a subjective illusion

If I were to ask you “Do you think you are free”?, your inner conviction would make you answer positively straight away: “I am free”. But to affirm straight away “I am free” means in fact most of the time “I believe I am free”. Most of the time, it is a mere belief when one has never reflected upon the arguments to prove it is really true. Most of the time people do not have reasons, arguments, to support the claim “I am free”. But then you would be right to ask: why on earth do I think I am free if really, I am not? Where does this thought come from? One very convincing way to look at it, is to acknowledge that it comes from the fact that the word is available and is very much used in our society. This apparent intimate thought comes from the massive circulation of the word “freedom” and what goes with it, what we think is our experience of freedom. There is this common notion that we, as human beings, experience that we are free. But what is this experience? This experience is consciousness, subjective consciousness. Spinoza is the first philosopher to really articulate the belief in a certain absolute human freedom and the data of subjective consciousness: as Spinoza states,
“men think themselves free inasmuch as they are conscious of their volitions and desires, and never even dream in their ignorance of the causes which have disposed them so to wish and desire.” 2

It is because men are conscious of their desires and actions that they think they are free. Now, here is the rub: consciousness is a major source of illusion, as Spinoza continues to state most convincingly in his Appendix to the first part of Ethics:

Men are deceived in that they think themselves free, an opinion which consists simply in the fact that they are conscious of their actions and ignorant of the causes by which those actions are determined. [...] The decrees of the mind are simply the appetites themselves (...). (...) So the decrees of the mind arise in the mind with the same necessity as the ideas of things that actually exist. Therefore, those people who believe that they (...) do anything by a free decree of the mind, dream with their eyes open (…) 3

Consciousness, combined with ignorance of the origins of one’s actions (what made me do or think that?), leads to an erroneous conception of human freedom, mistaking freedom for free will. Determinism is used to contradict the claim that freedom of the will exists. It is the argument of incompatibility between a conception of nature being totally governed by necessity (natural determinism) and a conception of human freedom as being the opposite of determination.

And in a determinist context the rejection of free will is simply a logical consequence. We are finite beings, thus necessarily in contact with and pressed by others, necessarily determined, consequently in the absolute impossibility of doing and thinking things in an undetermined manner: when we think this or that, when we do this or that, we are necessarily determined to think this or that, do this or that. The necessity of determination is in direct conflict with the claim that will can be free, i.e. not subject of determination. We are part of an “infinite chain of causes” and our will is always determined (not only influenced) by external causes. Hence it cannot be free, if by “free” we understand “uncaused” or having the power of absolutely beginning something, as we genuinely imply when we use the word “choice” or the verbs to choose and to decide. As a matter of fact, we never decide anything in this particular sense. Spinoza rejects and radically criticizes the idea of defining freedom by choice. This freedom defined by free will, is a sheer illusion.

Of course, one of the major problem if one denies the existence of free will is apparently: what is left of moral responsibility then?

Let us continue to follow Spinoza. Here is what he puts forward:

“If men were born free, they would, as long as they remained free, form no conception of good and evil.” 4

It means that if people were born free, they wouldn’t need any moral principles. And, when we consider that latter idea, we are contemplating a thought radically opposed to common opinion. Now, if men and women need principles of morality, it is because men and women are not free, in the sense that they have absolutely no free will. The formulation of Spinoza’s proposition stresses not only that being born free for human beings is a hypothesis but an impossible hypothesis. And indeed, Spinoza claims in the following demonstration:
“It is evident that the hypothesis of this Proposition is false and inconceivable”. 5

We need to acknowledge that men are not free as part and taken in infinite networks of causes that absolutely determinate their actions and thoughts. As Spinoza states:

It is impossible that a man should not be a part of Nature, and that he should be able to undergo no changes except those which can be understood through his own nature alone, and of which he is the adequate cause. 6

If we follow this philosophy denying the existence of free will, we might think that we should get rid of the word “freedom”, in order to stop being mistaken and feeding the illusion that it is in human nature to be free. Since there is no free will, one can be strongly tempted to affirm freedom doesn’t exist. Isn’t it a human fiction, a dream?

To put forward the (subjective) illusion of freedom (defined as free will), however, does not entail that human freedom does not exist. Precisely Baruch Spinoza, the 17th-century Dutch thinker, remains one of the most relevant thinkers, to his time and to ours, to think this ambivalence. For while he denied metaphysical freedom as inscribed in human nature, he was an eloquent proponent of a secular, democratic society, and was the strongest advocate for freedom and tolerance in the early modern period. The ultimate goal of his Theological-Political Treatise (1670), as indicated by the subtitle of the book and strongly claimed in the last chapter, is to
“demonstrate that freedom to philosophize may not only be allowed without danger to piety and the stability of the republic but cannot be refused without destroying the peace of the republic and piety itself.” 7

2. Freedom as a political concept

While Spinoza makes necessity and determination the fundamental principles of reality, he does not deny the existence of human freedom, understood as political freedom. And rather than defining freedom by the absence of determination, he defines it through this very notion, as “self-determination”. And there is indeed in Spinoza’s Ethics a definition of a free thing, at the very beginning of the book:
That thing is said to be free which exists solely from the necessity of its own nature, and is determined to action by itself alone. 8

But how could this definition apply to men? We could conceive it by acknowledging that freedom is a matter of degrees. The idea of absolute freedom (one is either totally free or totally unfree) is misleading. One human being can acquire more freedom gradually, for instance by seeking a certain degree of autonomy through adequate knowledge. Spinoza’s contribution focuses on the role of ignorance and inadequate knowledge in preventing people from being freer by imposing constraints on them – determinations that they are not aware of and do not master. To understand what it is to be free in following Spinoza’s reflexion is to understand that being free is always therefore breaking free.
Freedom is hence not a given state. We are not born free, but we might become freer, at times capable of self-determination, enjoying the harmonious development and affirmation of our natural powers, on which are based our individual rights.

Hence, Spinoza’s philosophy offers a good basis to grasp the ambivalence and difficulty of the notion of freedom. On the one hand, it can be fully denied while, on the other hand, it can be fully defended as a crucial human endeavour, as a project which makes sense in so far as freedom is always already a given political reality. This human project has indeed achieved a certain visibility through the historical fights to impose political freedom for the multitudes, and also through the western modern tradition of philosophical and political thoughts, which resulted in particular in what the classical liberal tradition has called civil liberties under the rule of law.  

The notion of political freedom has a strong historical meaning. The concept of freedom is therefore not empty. Having forged its modern content through the political history of 17th century Europe, the modern meaning of freedom is strongly linked to the emerging liberal tradition (Spinoza, Locke) starting to put forward arguments against absolutist or authoritarian political ideas which justified severe constraints on the people in exchange for security and prosperity (Hobbes, Rousseau). When things are analysed in terms of absolute transfer of natural rights (or powers) from the people to the political authority (whether a monarchy or a republic), individual freedom is at risk, or even its concept is simply dismissed in the political realm. The idea that a social contract disrupts the realm and power of nature has become familiar, creating an artificial being: the state. And the costs for the advantages of the social state is generally individual powers, those the individual are supposed to accept to transfer to the sovereign. The argument of the authoritarian tradition is perfectly expressed by Hobbes’ description of the state of nature of men let free to exercise their powers: a state of war, the war of all against all. 9

One can have an idea of the deep practical and theoretical difficulties to reconcile individual powers or natural rights and a viable and united social state when one looks at Rousseau’s concept of individual political freedom. Now his conception is indeed very puzzling because he defines freedom by its opposite: obedience. Furthermore, he does not hesitate to claim that a citizen can be “forced to be free” to remain free, when he is constrained to obey the general will of the people:

(…) in order for the social compact to avoid being an empty formula, it tacitly entails the commitment—which alone can give force to the others—that whoever refuses to obey the general will will be forced to do so by the entire body. This means merely that he will be forced to be free. 10

Now, it seems that we should agree that freedom is at least defined by its opposition to constraint or force.
This reference to Rousseau’s political theory, major in the history of modern political theories, is the occasion to consider how the notion of political freedom – as we indeed experience it today very vividly – is very problematic when it refers to individual freedom (always) facing power relations which are intricate in political and social life.

3. From politics to ethics: from the essential democratic conception of human freedom (“negative liberty”) to the notion of individual autonomy

In the rise of modern political thought, a distinction was put forward to defend individual rights in society against absolutist government, tyranny and totalitarianism, and to promote our liberal democracies as we know them today, and this distinction has been a fundamental principle for the institutional construction of the European Union. This distinction is between what has been characterized as negative liberty and positive liberty. 11
Negative liberty is the absence of obstacles, barriers or constraints. One has negative liberty to the extent that actions are available to one in this negative sense. Positive liberty is the possibility of acting — or the fact of acting — in such a way as to take control of one's life and realize one's fundamental purposes. Liberal theorists tend to suspect positive liberty of ideology or metaphysics obscure preconceptions, and would rather focus on political & social conditions to define individual freedom by identifying the range of obstacles that prevent an agent to be free. Those obstacles to individual freedom are generally thought to be brought about by other agents - meaning other human beings and not natural causes, for agents must have intentions. In the perspective of this distinction, I am unfree only to the extent that other people (to whom intentions are imputable) prevent me from doing certain things. If I cannot act due to natural causes — by a genetic handicap, for example, or by a virus or by certain climatic conditions — I may be unable to do certain things, but I am not, for that reason, rendered unfree to do them. Freedom would thus be identified as the ability and “unfreedom” as the prevention (by other agents) of the agent to make things happen that they would otherwise be able to bring about.

However, the attempt at distinguishing clearly natural obstacles and human or social obstacles is in fact very difficult and dubious. For instance, let us take an apparently clear case: if I am incapacitated by natural causes — by a genetic handicap or by a virus or by certain climatic conditions — what if those handicaps are produced by social causes, social inequality or and ecological damages? The libertarians are forced thus to put forward the distinctive feature of obstacles which count as restricting individual freedom: those brought about intentionally. In this perspective, and this was the objective, the economic forces appear as impersonal, being brought about unintentionally. This would support the argument to prove that economic forces do not restrict people's freedom, even though they undoubtedly make many people unable to do many things. This last view has been taken by a number of market-oriented libertarians, including, most famously, the 20th century economist Friedrich Hayek.
To critique this view is to endorse a broader conception of constraints on freedom that includes not only intentionally imposed obstacles but also unintended obstacles for which someone may nevertheless be held responsible. To the point that “unfreedom” can become identical to inability.

The debate here is between what nowadays we call the libertarians and the egalitarians: leftists and egalitarians tend to claim that the poor in a capitalist society are as such unfree, or that they are less free than the rich, whereas libertarians tend to claim that the poor in a capitalist society are no less free than the rich. It is certainly worth considering that freedom requires not merely the absence of certain social relations of prevention but the presence of abilities, or what Amartya Sen has influentially called “capabilities”. 12

Let us stop here to notice the actual influence of the metaphor of chains on the very basic idea we have of our freedom. It is indeed very powerful as it seems to determine the mental image of being free, as breaking free… as if from chains. Is it not obvious that if someone is in chains, this individual is not free? And for this person getting rid of his or her chains means breaking free.  Hence it is very common to see the obstacles against freedom as exterior to the self. And the apparently very clear & fundamental distinction between a slave and a free man is based on the belief that a slave is enslaved by another man.
But let us consider further: Are all the men who are unchained free? What about individuals who are subdued to themselves and to their untamed impulses they regret afterward? If the only source of creating constraints is limited to the actions of other agents, natural or self-inflicted obstacles are not seen as decreasing an agent's freedom. But on the individual scale, isn’t because men are not masters of themselves, and do not learn to be, that they can justly considered as not free? And on the collective or bigger picture scale, can History be seen as men’s intentional action? Is it not rather very similar to natural forces? What about historical inheritance? Does not history provide non-intended major obstacles, a heavy burden that is present in every aspect of social and political life, language, memories, social habits and customs, laws and institutions, common and public opinions?

If freedom is to be defined by the absence of obstacles, of constraints, of limitations, human beings being finite beings – they have very limited powers considered as isolated individuals -, it seems that the logical consequence of this view is never to see freedom instantiated in real natural and social life.  This is a major limitation of the concept of freedom when it is defined only by the possibility of doing something whereas the real issue seems really to be: what can be done actually with self-mastery or control? Therefore, the focus here shifts from the absence of constraints to the notion of self-direction, self-mastery, in one word: autonomy. Individual autonomy can be envisaged as involving an essential reference to the self as an agent and an automaton, processing operations (thinking and actions) independently, through his or her own “machinery” (mind and body). Autonomy seems a better notion to try to define positively freedom as involving a reference to the partly independence the individuals negotiate within constraining social and political contexts and defend against a total appropriation of their powers by more powerful political, social and economic entities.
Here we might need indeed to put forward and value this notion of “autonomy”, while keeping in mind however that the term has an ambiguous political meaning as it has historically been used to name regions or territories with population wishing to assert their independence from a larger and dominant state whereas precisely these regions or territories have no independent sovereignty. But now it appears that putting forward the absence of constraints is not enough to argue against the denial that freedom exists. As one may be constrained by internal factors, such as irrational desires, fears or ignorance, to know it is already a step towards autonomy.

The illusion of freedom does not imply that a certain freedom does not exist and that we should not strive to live freer. To go back to the beginning of our present reflexion, “Live free” might have less meaning than “Live freer”, which means “live better” or in other words: Live a “humaner” live. As Spinoza states in his Political Treatise:
So when we say that the best state is one where men pass their lives in harmony, I am speaking of human life, which is characterized not just by the circulation of the blood and other features common to animals, but especially by reason, the true virtue and life of the mind. 13

To live “humaner” lives certainly depends on the political conditions of the city, country and region we live in. But it also depends on the personal and inter-individual abilities to claim individual power of action operated at an individual and inter-individual scale, in order not to be totally dependent on social and economic forces way more powerful than the individuals when isolated. The ambivalence of the notion of freedom is linked to the ambiguity of the conception of the individual autonomy or independence. While the economic representation stresses on the absolute independence of each individual as pure rational agent, the social and truly political conception puts forward the interdependence of the individuals who cannot live alone, who do not live alone. The ambiguity is due to the fact that the scale of individual autonomy remains obscure: it might well be that freedom is not an individual property but a group, a collective one. On this basis, the major ambivalence we have put forward here (most of the time freedom is claimed for what it is not – freedom of choice) relates to the fact that we attribute freedom to one individual whereas freedom should be considered as an inter-individual reality. 

Warsaw, December 5, 2017

1: Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits, Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1984, § 8.
2: The quotes from Spinoza’s Ethics are from the English translation by R. H. M. Elwes (1884) which can be consulted on line (https://www.gutenberg.org/files/3800/3800-h/3800-h.htm). Emphasis mine.
3: Ibid. Emphasis mine.
4: EIVP68, op. cit.
5: Op. cit.
6: EIVP4, op. cit.
7: Theological-Political Treatise, trans. Michael Silverthorne & Jonathan Israel, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2007.
8: EIDef7, op. cit.
9: Leviathan (1651), Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1998, I, chapter 13.
10: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Basic Political Writings, On the Social Contract (1762), Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis, 2011, Book 1, Chapter 7, p. 167.
11: Cf. in the 20th c., after the liberal thinkers of the 18th and 19th centuries (Locke, Kant, Stuart Mill, Constant, Isaiah Berlin: ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’ in Four Essays on Liberty (1969), London, Oxford University Press, 2002.
12: Cf. Sen A.K., On Ethics and Economics, Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1987; "Freedom of Choice: Concept and Content", in European Economic Review, 1988, March 32(2-3), p. 269-94; "Markets and Freedoms: Achievements and Limitations of the Market Mechanism in Promoting Individual Freedoms", in Oxford Economic papers, 1993, October, 45(4), p. 519-41; "Capability and Well-Being", in Nussbaum M. and Sen A.K. (eds.), The Quality of Life, 1993, Oxford, Clarendon Press, p. 30-53.
13: Political Treatise (1677, unachieved), trans. Samuel Shirley, Indianapolis, Hackett, 2000, Chap. 5, Section 5.