Posted by: gcarkner | July 21, 2015

Consequences of Radical Freedom

Radical Freedom and its Discontents

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According to Charles Taylor (Hegel and Modern Society, 1979, pp. 156f), historically the trend toward the radicalization of freedom comes from four key moves. It is an adventure in nihilism. It involves a decontextualization, a shaking loose of the self from definitions of human nature and from the natural world, the cosmic order, social space, or history. This gets back to Michel Foucault’s notion of getting free of oneself and his critique of the present. There are four stages to this move and four consequences.

Stage (a) The new identity of the self-defining subject is won by breaking free of the larger matrix of a cosmic or societal order and its claim. Freedom is defined as self-dependence, and self-sufficiency. It entails a negative concept: freedom is won by breaking the hold of the lower oppressed self (constructed by a disciplinary society for Foucault) so that one might explore one’s potential, experimental self. (Ibid., p. 156)

Stage (b) Human nature is not simply a given, but is to be remade, reinvented. To be integrally free, one must reshape one’s own nature. The only kind of situation which this view can recognize is one defined by the obstacles to unrestricted action, which have to be conquered or set aside as external oppression; liberation is a process which results in freedom from shackles. One of the key shackles is the identity given to one’s self by others. (Ibid., pp. 155, 156)

Stage (c) In this stage, there is a celebration of the Dionysian expressive release of instinctual depths (the uncensored self) of the human animal. ‘Modern society is seen as the oppressor of the spontaneous, the natural, the sensuous or the “Dionysiac” in man’ (Ibid., p. 140). Rooted in Schopenhauer, this dark and pessimistic view of freedom and the human condition leads to despair about freedom understood as self-dependence, because this sort of freedom can release violence and many other forms of negative human self-expression. There is both fear of, and celebration of, such human desires in the third part of Foucault’s oeuvre, the later ethical works.

Stage (d) The final stage of this Nietzschean nihilism is the death of all traditional values (transvaluation of all values) and the admission that ethics is grounded in the will to power. The empty self risks ending in nihilism, that is, self-affirmation through the rejection of all values. One after the other, the authoritative horizons of life, Christian and humanist, are cast off as shackles on the will. Under these circumstances, freedom means dependent in one’s actions only on oneself, lacking accountability to God, principle or society (Ibid., p. 157). Foucault’s ethics seems to include all four stages. He points enthusiastically in the direction of freedom, but does not offer parameters or guidelines of how to proceed, intentionally so. Nor does he offer ways of avoiding or managing the most negative results of this kind of freedom.

Taylor’s Moral Self-Construction Diagnostics (structure for articulation of freedom)

~from Malaise of Modernity

Category A (Creativity)

(i) Creation and construction (as well as discovery) of the self.

(ii) Pursuit of originality in one’s self-crafting.

(iii) Opposition to the rules of society and even potentially to what one recognizes as morality, or the moral order.

Category B (Social and Moral Accountability)

(i) Openness to horizons of significance prevents one’s self-creation from losing the background that can save it from insignificance and trivialization (self-destruction of meaning).

(ii) Self-definition needs to be developed in dialogue with significant Others, that is, fellow moral interlocutors within a community and a narrative. (Taylor, 1991, pp. 65, 66)


Consequences of Radical Freedom: Taylor argues that there are four significant dangers in this type of self-determined, atomistic, situationless freedom. He saw the same problems in Hegel.

(a) Self-trivialization: The feeling of emptiness emerges within this notion of freedom; it produces a self that is hollow.

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, 1979, p. 157)

The goal of freeing the self for creativity is not sufficient as a defined moral purpose; it is yet undefined or indeterminate as a criteria of human action or mode of life; moral action needs to impart a shape to this creativity. The aesthetic self exists in a void of situationlessness, that is, form and style without defined moral content. Aesthetic-freedom does not offer significant discernment between good and evil, higher and lower trajectories of the will, the nobel versus the ignoble, benevolence versus terrorism. This is why nihilism is attractive to fundamentalists. Taylor the philosopher is inclined to ask about the telos of freedom: Creativity? Serving others? Community? Worshipping God? Character development? Self-indulgent sensuality? Violence? Egoism? Any of these could constitute the aesthetic ethos that Foucault purports. Art and poetry have been use to justify oppression, as well as oppose it.

(b) The Dionysian problem: Taylor (1979) writes of this danger in the following way.

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. (p. 157)

There is definitely the positive side of the expansion of one’s individual freedom through taking responsibility for oneself and the world, but also a dark side to this release of the passions and appetites, on a trajectory of pleasures without end. The sadistic, unhealthy sociopathic self can gain pleasure from causing other people pain. One ought to be able to distinguish between base compulsions and the ability to hold those compulsions in check for a higher purpose, for example, to save the life of a child or feed the poor. The moral advance accomplished by Foucault’s self in the pursuit of justice as a release of the captive self from repression is one side. But we cannot miss the darker possibilities (as continental people do) of the desires of the moral self: toward a possible addiction to anti-human irrational hatred, or racism as one notes on the uncensored Internet. This is what Taylor (1979, p. 158) cautions:

We have to be able to distinguish between compulsions, fears, addictions from those aspirations which we endorse with our whole soul. It is a key point that absolute freedom misses the point about the distortions of inauthentic (suspect) and malevolent desires, and how they can lead to a life of mediocrity, self-indulgence, or self-destruction.

Freedom, both in its resistance and self-actualization, is both ontological ground and telos for Foucault. But what does freedom for freedom mean? Does it add up to a self-reflexive tautology. Should it not be connected to the good or a higher purpose? The Foucauldian self wants to break free from the social, historical and institutional webs which, in his view, seek to control it. His ideology of the expressive, artistic self needs radical decontextualized freedom, a freedom that is also transgressive of limits and questions social boundaries on the self. It slips into ideology. See the documentary The Human Experiment.

(c) Problem of Despair: How is despair entailed in self-determining freedom? Without any larger horizon of meaning than that within the borders of the self, the burden weighs heavily on the individual self to invent all meaning. Despair is the term used by Kierkegaard (1941) and noted by Taylor (1979, p. 159). It entails the inability to accept oneself, and the sense that one is trapped inside oneself, obsessed with getting out, getting free of oneself to use Foucault’s language. Is the call to continually recreate self, and get free of self, in the thinking of Foucault, a symptom of a battle or dialogue with despair? We believe it is. Kierkegaard would see this trap in the loop of Foucault’s self-reflexive relationship with self in his work Care of Self. His discourse on ethics implodes into self-love and self-protection.

For Foucault, is the self really free, or is it caught in a self-enclosure that Kierkegaard labelled despair? This is similar to Jean Paul Sartre’s play Exit. Foucault exits into the tradition of freedom as autonomous self-determination; Kierkegaard makes the exit altogether outside the tradition of freedom as self-dependence and into interdependence with God and other persons. In Kierkegaard’s estimate, despair can only be overcome by relating oneself to the external Self (to receive and give love). This external and transcendent Self (God) constitutes the whole relational possibilities of the self. For him, one is free only when relating to other persons freely in a way that promotes their freedom.

Again, Foucault’s position is a refusal of context. Taylor (Ibid., p. 159) reiterates,

If the radical freedom of self-dependence is ultimately empty, then it risks ending in nihilism, that is, self-affirmation through the rejection of all “values”.’ Radical freedom paradoxically creates a trap for the self. The only way out of this despair is to situate freedom in relationship to the good, to world, to society, and to one’s calling and purpose.

Taylor (Ibid., p. 160) leaves us with much to ponder:

This means recovering a conception of free activity which sees it as a response called for by a situation which is ours by virtue of our condition as natural and social beings. Crucially, this means acceptance of our defining situation as a positive place to stand, rather than a place from which to escape.

(d) Lost Potential in Relationships: Complementarity or Incommensurability?

Furthermore, on the issue of the dangers or drawbacks of self-dependent freedom and the culture of self-love, there is the avoidance of the good of complementarity between persons. In the book, A Catholic Modernity?, Taylor (1999, pp. 114f ) makes an important point about Foucault’s definition of freedom as self-dependence. It offers a good test of Foucault’s doctrine of freedom. In contrast to the Herder-Humboldt model of complementarity (Ibid., p. 115), freedom as self-dependence rejects the possibility of human complementarity. Foucault noticeably never uses freedom as a form of interdependence with others; he is quite suspicious of this association and its potential harm. Foucault’s appeal to difference is in fact a refusal of exchange, of complementarity, which turns difference into incommensurability. That promotes an anti-social stance in life and leaves one in intense loneliness. It can also tend towards elitism as we see in Nietzsche (Human all too human).

Taylor, in contrast, sees much potential in complementary relations, and has dedicated much of his thought to conciliatory relationships, even amidst difference of opinion. He points to Hannah Arendt as a key intellectual who promotes the empowerment of collaboration, or mutual association. The posture of decontextualized freedom is always one of independence of the control of others. Taylor (1999) captures Foucault in a lucid manner as a philosopher of freedom but not necessarily a philosopher of hope. It is a negative view of freedom according to the categories of Isaiah Berlin.

Foucault in an important sense was a philosopher of freedom … that is, he was a philosopher who claimed to unmask and lay bare domination, the interiorization of power relations by victims, and although he often claimed that power had no subject he certainly portrayed it as having victims … The moral thrust of these analyses … was implicit in the language in which it was cast. They called for opening a line of resistance for the victim, a disengagement from the full grip of the current regime of power, particularly from its hold on our self-understanding. Foucault’s own intervention in politics and public life … bore out this interpretation … In his History of Sexuality 2 & 3 and latest interviews, he made clear his view of freedom, the building of an identity relatively uncolonized by the current regime of power. (p. 115)

This reveals insight into appropriate resistance under oppressive circumstances, but those who celebrate Foucault and advocate for radical freedom should reflect on these negative consequences. Taylor suggests that one needs a positive stance on freedom as well; it needs to have content, attention to one’s situation and direction. His recovery of the language of quality of the will (relationship to the moral good) applies here. See other posts on this topic.

~Dr. Gordon E. Carkner Ph.D.

Dr. Francis Collins at UBC: Are We More than Our Genes?

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