Posted by: gcarkner | November 12, 2013

Freedom, Identity and the Good…3

Freedom, Identity and the Good, Part 3

Proposition Two: Redeemed freedom by definition takes on a distinctively communal character; it is contextualized within a discussion and relationships between fellow interlocutors, against the backdrop of larger narrative which makes sense of self. Individual freedom gives up ground to community and makes space for the Other, in order to avoid some of the pitfalls of radical autonomy and provide for a richer moral experience.

This transformation of the Foucauldian thin aesthetic self is desirable under this proposal; the move is towards a deeper, more complex communal character of self, a thick self. Foucault articulates freedom as flight from one’s neighbour; the aesthetic self is part fugitive, part manipulator; its context is reduced to a life of contest with the Other, within power relations and truth games. There is a certain validity to these concerns, but from the perspective of Taylor’s comments and those on trinitarian goodness, they lack vision for relationships that are other than manipulative, that is, those informed by love, compassion and cooperation. In the light of this investigation, it is suggested that there is a need to rethink Foucauldian freedom in terms of a reconciliation between self and the Other, self and society, to put it metaphorically, in terms of self and one’s neighbour. The direction of reformulation is the recovery of a social horizon, including a stronger concept of the social body, and the common good—the courage to face the neighbour as a good.

A radical pursuit of private self-interest, to the exclusion of the presence and the needs of the Other, is a far less tenable option after this critical dialogue. Foucault holds to a faulty assumption of chronic distrust, that is, that the Other will always try to control and manipulate my behaviour for its own purposes, or try to impose its agenda on me. Although such manipulation exists, this is a jaded and cynical perspective on human society, and the potential of human relationships. The autonomy that modernity cannot do without, needs a dialectical relationship with community as a balance to one’s self-reflexive relationship to oneself. The nature of autonomy cannot be confined to a radical self-determination but must involve the possibility of recognition by and dependence upon other people within a larger horizon of significance. Flight is the easier and least complex default option; it is more challenging to take other selves seriously in terms of the good that they are, and the good that they can offer. We suggest that trust building is a tentative but necessary exercise for the moral health of the self. Redeemed freedom can emerge through a wiser discernment and exploration of the communal dimensions of subjectivity, as freedom to cooperate with, and freedom to serve the Other.

This newly discovered type of freedom is destined to find its fulfilment, not in a self- justifying control, alone in self-sufficiency, but in seeking out a communion of love, a healthy vulnerability, interdependency and mutuality, with an ear to the voice of the Other. It promotes the relocation of the dislocated self into a new narrative, a new drama which involves us, within the relational order of creation. Human experience is intensely relational; one weakness in Foucault is that, by contrast, he assumes a denial of the social body when it comes to ethics. This conclusion suggests the positive outlook for the future of the self will involve a communal experiment. The word discernment above speaks of exploring the potential of these relationships as they relate to a communal horizon of the good, the good that can be carried in the community and its narrative as Taylor articulates in his ethics of the good. Others can help discern the self, in order for it to find its own space for freedom and calling with responsibility.

Foucault highly values individual creativity, but he lacks appreciation for how this relates to communal creativity of interdependencies and complementarity. Fulfilment in community prevents the self from extreme forms of self-interest, narcissism and solipsism (R. Wolin, 1986). McFadyen (1995) offers a helpful reflection on this point concerning the deceptions and distortions of radical freedom.

The free pursuit of private self-interest has a naturally conflicting form, since the otherness of the individual means their interests must be opposed. One needs freedom from what is other in order to be oneself. Personal centeredness is essential, for autonomy is a private place that has to be protected by fencing it off from the sphere of relation and therefore from the otherness of God and one’s neighbours … Autonomy is something one has in self-possession, apart from relation to God and others in an exclusive and private orientation on an asocial personal centre …. Freedom and autonomy are had apart from relationship: they inhere within oneself. (p. 35)

Foucault’s language of freedom has a mythological flavour that offers a mask for a disguised self-interest, the freedom to be and do whatever I want. Redeemed freedom reveals this outlook as a distorted reality-construction. M. Volf in Exclusion and Embrace (1996) shows how this reconciliation or redemption of sociality can occur even amidst the most abusive and oppressive of situations. The lack of communal discernment is one of Foucault’s significant limitations.

In this anatomy of community, the good can be mediated and carried more fruitfully and robustly. One’s individual relationship to the good can be strongly enhanced by involvement with a group that allows the good to shape its identity; not just any, but the right community environment can provide a positive school of the good. Mirrored through others, the good can offer both accountability and empowerment to the self. Group covenant and commitment to one another sustains the self in its agency; the younger self especially is released from the burden to invent its whole moral universe. Moreover, communal discernment supports the weak and challenges the strong with accountability, promoting societal justice. Moral self-constitution of this thicker, weightier, and more complex sort exceeds the capacity of the individual self; it requires a community. J. Habermas in response to Foucault argues that the preoccupation with the autonomy or self-mastery is simply a moment in the process of social interaction, which has been artificially isolated or privileged:

Both cognitive-instrumental mastery of an objective nature (and society) and a narcissistically overinflated autonomy (in the sense of purposively rational self-assertion) are derivative moments that have been rendered independent from the communicative structures of the lifeworld, that is, from the intersubjectivity of relationships of mutual understanding and relationships of reciprocal recognition. (Habermas, 1987, p. 315)

~Dr Gordon E. Carkner PhD Philosophical Theology

Habermas, J. (1987). The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press.

McFadyen, A.I. (1995). Sins of Praise: the Assault on God’s Freedom. In C. Gunton (Ed.). God & Freedom: Essays in historical and systematic theology (pp. 36-56). Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark.

Volf, M. (1996). Exclusion and Embrace: A theological exploration of identity, otherness and reconciliation. Nashville: Abingdon Press.

See also posts on Quality of the Will which articulates Charles Taylor’s Ethical Framework.


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