Posted by: gcarkner | January 28, 2013

Are We Free Indeed?

The Ambivalent Quest for Freedom

Freedom is one of those central ideas by which the modern notion of the subject has been defined, and it is quite evident that freedom is one of the values most appealed to in Western identity. We all want to be free, to have as much freedom as possible and as soon as possible. But what definition or illusion of freedom are we operating under? We are often confused by a hyper-real understanding of freedom, a concept which can be abused for private self-interest, and insensitive to the common good. It can become a vacuous freedom without parameters, without situation. Charles Taylor, who has done much thinking about freedom (Hegel and Modern Society), wants to caution us, as he looks back on the experiments with freedom in the past (including the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution). He calls some of the current myths about freedom (freedom as an ontology)  into question. He asks us to move away from a radical freedom of pure unlimited choice (taken as an absolute category of the will), freedom as self-determination or self-sufficiency. He points toward a situated freedom of interdependence where he believes we can recover a healthier understanding of self in a larger and richer horizon of meaning, and also recover an empowerment of moral agency. This is part of his solution to the current malaise of modernity. Complete freedom is quite absurd; it seeks to escape all historical-cultural situation and narrative. Pure freedom without limits is nothing and dwells nowhere; it is chaos, destructive; it is no place, a void in which nothing would be worth doing and anything is possible. It leads to all sorts of extreme self-constructions. What does Taylor mean?

In my doctoral dissertation, I critiqued Michel Foucault’s concept of the constitution of the moral self which is rooted in an ontology of freedom (I introduced Taylor as a serious interlocutor for Foucault’s attempt to recover self and agency after his previous deconstruction of the early modern self). Liberty is the alpha and omega of his ethics; it is both foundation and trajectory.  Self-construction goes all the way down. Foucault’s view of aesthetic-freedom, although attractive for its pioneering spirit and some of its tools for creative self-articulation, or even release from oppression, is actually quite vulnerable to manipulation (a precarious autonomy). He fears connecting it to any moral good outside the self, any norm or code. In fact, he undermines human rights discourse. His definition of freedom is at once both exhilarating and dangerous, becoming an ideology of the aesthetic (Terry Eagleton). Why would such a brilliant intellectual take us down such a risky cultural path?

This empty freedom devoid of parameters hollows out the self and the will, makes it more trivial, produces a thin self. It can be filled with almost any moral trajectory or motive, whether constructive or destructive: community development or pure self-indulgence and narcissism, compassionate healing or violence, character development or ironic self-trivialization, militarism or peace-making, generous philanthropy or a Bernie Madoff Ponsi scheme. We recall that both Doctors Without Borders and the Taliban see themselves as ‘freedom fighters’. Radical, unsituated notions of freedom plays well into the hands of the con artists, exploiters and people of violence. It would seem that all of these radically different values can be a form of self-disciplined exercise of freedom. Cruelty and hate-filled racist expressions are not excluded. Choice is necessary but not sufficient for ethics. Pure unlimited choice lacks discernment concerning the wide variety of human expression and motives, constructive and destructive. It is seriously naive and open to extremes.

Taylor, in laying out the problematic of this illusion of autonomy, wisely notes that the identity shift of radical freedom proceeds in four main stages in our Western narrative: a. Breaking free of the larger matrix of cosmic and societal order, then b. Reinventing self or reshaping human nature, c. Celebrating the Dionysian expressive release of instinctual depths in an uncensored way, and finally d. The death of all traditional values and the admission that ethics is grounded in will to power (transvaluation of all values). All obstacles and constrictions to personal freedom are banned. Choice is sovereign. Foucault resonates with this process in Late Modernity, and sought to be an active philosophical agent in its societal emergence as we can see in the third period of his oeuvre on ethics.

Taylor sees four dangers with this inheritance: a. Self-trivialization and loss of depth of personhood, b. The Dionysian malaise where good and evil are celebrated equally, c. The problem of despair (articulated by Kierkegaard), and d. Lost potential in relationships (failure to accomplish complementarity and synergy). He writes:

Complete freedom would be a void in which nothing would be worth doing, nothing would deserve to count for anything. The self which has arrived at freedom by setting aside all external obstacles and impingements is characterless, and hence without defined purpose. (Taylor, Hegel and Modern Society, 1979, p. 157)

The Dionysian Problem:

If free activity cannot be defined in opposition to our nature and situation, on pain of vacuity, it cannot simply be identified with following our strongest, or most persistent, or most all-embracing desire either. That would make it impossible to say that our freedom was ever thwarted by our own compulsions, fears, or obsessions. One needs to be able to separate compulsions, fears, addictions from higher more authentic aspirations. (Taylor, 1979, p. 157)

Problem of Despair:

This type of freedom can be a ruse to trap one inside one’s self, as Kierkegaard wrote—with the risk of nihilism and the death of meaning. There is a serious retreat into the self and away from responsibility for the Other. Perhaps Foucault’s suggestion of continuous self-invention and re-invention is a quest to escape the despair of this nihilism. The despair comes in the attempt to escape interdependent relations within a community. Aesthetic-freedom can be an implosion of the self into a self-reflexive tautology.

Lost Potential in Relationships:

It rejects the possibility of human complementarity through a quest for an uncolonized, suspicious self. It is a key insight that absolute freedom misses the point about the distortions of inauthentic and malevolent desires, and how they can lead to a life of mediocrity, self-indulgence, or even self-destruction, as well as destruction or exploitation of the Other. It misses the brilliance of a Hannah Arendt.

We see in this illusion of freedom the contrast between freedom as an escape from responsibility to community (Foucault) and freedom as calling within community (Taylor) grounded in the acceptance of one’s defining situation, together with its opportunities and responsibilities. Freedom that limits itself to discussion of new possibilities of thinking and action, but heroically and ironically refuses to provide any evaluative orientation as to which possibilities and changes are desirable, is in danger of becoming empty or worse, predatory and malevolent. This is the darker side of today’s radical interpretation of freedom, rendering it a suspect first principle, and a naive trajectory for life. Aesthetic-freedom is Foucault’s hypergood. We long for a more full-blooded conception of freedom and individuality which is connected to the good and to one’s context in in nature, in history, the world and society.

David Bentley Hart reflects on ancient qualities of freedom as a fair contrast (however imperfect):

“In the more classical understanding of the matter, whether pagan or Christian, true freedom was understood as something inseparable from one’s nature: to be truly free … was to be at liberty to realize one’s proper “essence” and so to flourish as the kind of being one was. For Plato or Aristotle, or for Christian thinkers like Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, Maximus the Confessor, John of Damascus, or Thomas Acquinas, true human freedom is liberation from whatever constrains us from living the life of rational virtue, or from experiencing the full fruition of our nature; and among the things that constrain us are our own untutored passions, our own willful surrender to momentary impulses, our own foolish or wicked choices….We are not free merely becuase we can choose, but only when we have chosen well.” (Atheist Delusions, p. 24)

Gord Carkner

When asked what she thought of his recent confession of doping, disgraced Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong’s wife said, “The truth will set you free.”

Freedom & Structure


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