What if there weren't any hypothetical situations?

We are never free, but we can become more and more free

Freedom is an omnipresent term that is increasingly degenerating into a marketing tool. The philosopher and theater director Mériam Korichi, Freiraum partner of the Paris Goethe-Institut, tries to fill it with substance. She examines his ambivalences, makes theoretical stops with Spinoza, Hobbes and Rousseau - and finally ends up on the road to autonomy. An essay

By Mériam Korichi

The question of freedom is an essential one. And it is also a major problem. Defining the term 'freedom' is - because the term is so extremely complex and multi-faceted - not only a difficult undertaking, but also leads us into several dead ends because of some irresolvable ethical and political contradictions. We may even find that it is impossible to define human freedom as something that actually exists. We are dealing here with a term that is heavily laden with a sensational theoretical and political history - which is why the concept of freedom can be described as extremely dense. How easily can the words "freedom" or "independence" be expressed or occupied, and even manipulated in their meaning. And yet it is more than difficult to get a really clear idea of ​​the substance of these terms. After all, they are ambivalent in their deepest essence. And this ambivalence is primarily related to the contradiction between the ability for individual self-determination and the social, economic and political forces that determine the social as a whole.

When Levi's commands us to be free

An example that illustrates the ambivalence and complexity of the concept of freedom very well today: I saw a man today who was wearing a T-shirt that said "Live free Levi's". Such a thing is absolutely nothing unusual in today's streetscape. Big brands naturally lay claim to the authorship of big philosophical mottos. In fact, the words live free, “Live free!” Quickly make one think of Nietzsche and his idea
"Great health (...), that excess which gives the free spirit the dangerous privilege of trying to live and being allowed to offer itself to adventure".1

And that although the reason for this philosophical reference in everyday life is exclusively advertising, marketing strategic. The question remains: Is there a meaningful connecting element between "Live free" and "Levi's"? Far too often we assume that there is already a meaningful connection, but one would actually like to know what it means to us when this almost command-like request is signed by a powerful brand company.

The very fact that it comes in the form of a disposition shows that freedom is particularly problematic. Because if freedom is decreed, it means that some people are allowed to be (or to live freely), while others are not, within one and the same society - although we are not even talking about the huge differences between our “liberal democracies” and other societies that are not disciples of (economic) liberalism.

Freedom: an ideal, a value, a fact, a marketing tool?

Let us first state that freedom is indeed a major problem when a trivial advertising slogan can shake the very foundations of our certainties and ask us the pressing question of what it actually means to live in freedom. Do we even know that? Is freedom perhaps nothing but an (ideal) principle? Or a (moral and political) value? Can it be a real fact?

In addition, the mere fact that 'freedom' is something questionable raises a problem per se, and a very pragmatic problem at that. On the one hand, we ask ourselves what a free life could be and what it could look like, which in turn means the admission that we do not have a coherent, comprehensive concept. On the other hand, however, we nonchalantly set 'freedom' as one of our central values, do not occupy it for me, nothing for you, exclusively positive and represent it loudly all over the world. What exactly do we represent today? Perhaps the wish that more Levi's T-shirts are sold around the world? And if that is exactly what we are after, if we are making a contribution to the radical curtailment of a neutral, non-commercial public space, are we acting freely?

All of these considerations call into question the shortening of human freedom to purely economic “freedom” - and thus also take a critical look at the classic liberal tradition of thought, this core element of today's European Union that provides structure. At this point it can help to remember that many advocates of social justice are already critical of the absolute privilege that the concept of freedom has accrued in Western societies, a privilege that leads to the neglect of other values ​​such as equality or brotherhood or give up completely. But if we look at the motto of the French Republic as a whole - 'freedom' comes first - we realize that we cannot just give up freedom as a central metaphysical and political concept. Which is again a major problem, after all, we don't even know whether it is in our nature to be free.

Based on this, I would like to take a closer look at three points in the following:
1. Freedom, as commonly conceptualized, is nothing but a subjective illusion that is upheld for ideological (and commercial) reasons. 2. Freedom is a political concept and a political reality. 3. How thinking about “individual autonomy” enables the transition from the political (the realm of the collective) to the ethical (the realm of the individual and inter-individual).

1. Freedom as a subjective illusion

If I were to ask you now, “Do you think that you are free?”, You would immediately answer in the affirmative out of inner conviction: “Yes, I am free.” However, this statement usually means nothing other than: “I believe that I am free. ”Because often it is nothing but a belief, because one has never thought further about how one could prove that it really is so. Usually people cannot substantiate the claim “I am free” with reasons or arguments. But then it would be only logical to ask: Why on earth do I believe that I am free when in truth I may not be? Where does this belief come from?

A perfectly plausible answer to this could be: The word 'freedom' is very common in our society, is available everywhere and is also used all the time. In this case, our actually quite intimate self-perception - that we experience ourselves as felt 'free' - would only be conditioned by the massive circulation of the word 'freedom' and everything that is related to it. There is a common notion that we as humans actually experience being free. But what does this lived experience consist of? Out of consciousness, out of nothing but subjective consciousness. Spinoza was the first philosopher to formulate that a certain human freedom is a matter of belief and depends on subjective consciousness. He states
"That people consider themselves free, because they are conscious of their will and their instinct and do not even dream of the causes by which they are determined to desire and want, because they do not know them". 2

It is only because people are aware of their wishes and what they do that they consider themselves free.

But that is exactly the catch: Consciousness is at the same time an essential source of hallucinations, as Spinoza explains very convincingly in the appendix to the first part of his ethics:
“For people are mistaken in believing that they are free; and that opinion rests solely on their awareness of their actions and ignorance of the causes by which they are determined. […]… The resolutions of the spirit [are] nothing other than the instincts themselves… (…) And consequently these resolutions of the spirit arise in the spirit with the same necessity as the ideas of things that really exist. So whoever thinks he is talking or keeping silent or doing something of the free resolution of his mind dreams with open eyes. " 3

Consciousness combined with ignorance of the causes of one's own actions (what made me do or think this or that?) Thus leads to an erroneous conception of human freedom, one in which the terms 'freedom' and 'free will' be completely misunderstood. The concept of determinism is usually used against the assertion that free will exists: Its existence is questioned because there is an obvious incompatibility between a nature completely regulated by mere necessity (natural determinism) and the concept of human freedom as one that opposed to all determination.

How Spinoza denies free will - but still needs morality

In a deterministic context, denying free will is simply a logical consequence. We are finite beings, therefore necessarily in contact with and influenced by others, correspondingly necessarily determined, and logically absolutely not in a position to do or think anything indefinitely: When we think this or that or this or that do we are committed to this thinking or doing of necessity. This necessary, inevitable determination is in direct conflict with the assertion that the will can be free and is therefore not subject to any definition. In determinism we are part of an “infinite chain of causes”, and our will is not only influenced by external causes, it is entirely fixed.

Accordingly, this will cannot be free if we understand by 'free' 'not caused' or equipped with the ability to begin something absolutely - which we always do when we speak of a 'choice' or when we choose the verbs' Use 'and' decide '. In the deterministic understanding we never decide even the slightest thing. Spinoza also rejects the idea of ​​defining freedom through the possibility of choice and subjects it to radical criticism. For him, freedom defined by free will is nothing but mere illusion.

Of course, if you deny that there is such a thing as free will, you are dealing with another essential problem: what is left of moral responsibility?
Let's follow Spinoza a little longer. He is arguing:
"If people were born free, they would not form the concepts: good and bad [bad], and indeed not as long as they remained free". 4

Which in turn means that if people were born free, they would not need any moral principles.

On closer examination of this thesis we find: Here we are dealing with a thought that differs radically from the general view. At Spinoza, women and men need moral principles because they are not free. In the sense of: You have absolutely no free will. The way Spinoza formulates his thesis, he not only emphasizes that this being born free is purely hypothetical for humans, but also that this hypothesis is completely impossible.

Indeed, Spinoza claims that
"The assumption of this sentence is incorrect". 5

We should recognize that people, as always contextualized, are not free, but entangled in infinite causal networks that completely determine their thinking and acting. Spinoza puts it this way:

"It is impossible that man should not be part of nature, and that he should not be able to undergo changes other than those that can be understood from his nature alone, and of which he is the fully corresponding cause." 6

Of the freedom of philosophizing and of belief

If we go along with this philosophy and question the existence of free will, we might get the idea that the best way to get rid of the word 'freedom' is to stop being deluded and nurturing the illusion that it is in human nature to be free. If there is no free will, one can be tempted to question the very existence of freedom itself. Is it just a human fantasy, a mere dream?

But anyone who speaks of the (subjective) illusion of freedom (in its meaning as 'free will') does not at the same time say that human freedom does not exist at all. Here, too, it is the Dutchman Baruch de Spinoza, who has been one of the brightest minds ever since his time, the 17th century, who has ever tried to think about this ambivalence. For although he denied that a metaphysical freedom should be inscribed in human nature, Spinoza was nevertheless an eloquent advocate of the secular, democratic society and one of the most vehement early modern advocates of freedom and tolerance.

The aim of his Tractatus theologico-politicus (1670) was ultimately - and this is especially worked out in the last chapter - that a "good state" should be for everyone
“Undoubtedly (...) can grant the same freedom of philosophizing as of belief. However, this can result in individual inconveniences; but where was there ever an institution so wise that no disadvantage could arise from it? Anyone who wants to regulate everything through laws is more likely to cause errors than improve them. (...) That is why the freedom of judgment can be granted all the more, which is in truth a virtue and cannot be suppressed. " 7

2. Freedom as a political concept

Although Spinoza posits necessity and determination as the fundamental principles of our reality, he does not deny the existence of human freedom - provided that it is understood as political freedom. But he does not define it through the absence of determination and determination, but precisely through this: as "self-determination". There is indeed such a thing as a free thing in Spinoza's ethics, right at the beginning of the book:

"Free should mean that thing that only exists by virtue of the necessity of its nature and is determined to act by itself." 8

But how should this definition ever apply to a person? We could understand it to mean that freedom is always just a matter of degree. The idea of ​​absolute freedom (one is either totally free or totally unfree) is misleading. A person can only attain greater freedom step by step, for example by gaining a certain degree of autonomy through appropriate knowledge. Spinoza focuses in his thinking on what prevents people from being more free - such as ignorance and insufficient knowledge doing their part by imposing compulsions on people, determinations of which they are not aware and which they do not control .

Liberation as an ancient political project of the multitude

Seen through Spinoza's glasses, being free is the realization that being free always means the process of liberation. Because freedom is not a given condition. We are not born free, but we may become even more free. Every now and then we may even be able to determine ourselves. All we have to do is feel joy in the harmonious development and affirmation of our natural abilities on which our rights as individuals are based.
Spinoza's philosophy is a good starting point for understanding the ambivalences and difficulties of the concept of freedom. Freedom can on the one hand be rigorously denied and at the same time defended as an essential human undertaking, as a project that only makes sense if freedom is always a given political reality. This human project has achieved a certain visibility in the course of the historical struggles for the political freedom of the multitude on the one hand and through western-modern philosophical and political thinking on the other. As a consequence, both have come down to what classical liberalism calls civil liberties in accordance with the law.

The concept of political freedom is of great historical importance. It is by no means unfilled. Its modern substance is shaped by political history in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries.Century, its modern meaning stands in a clear connection with the developing liberal schools of thought (Spinoza, Locke), which developed the first arguments against absolutist or authoritarian political ideas, whereby also large freedom cuts were accepted in exchange for security and prosperity ( Hobbes, Rousseau). When the full transfer of natural rights (or natural abilities) from the people to the political authorities is called for, then individual freedom is at risk.

Perhaps this term is simply taken ad absurdum in the field of the political. On the other hand, the idea of ​​the social contract has asserted itself, through which the predominance of the natural is torn and thus created into an artificial being: the state. The advantages of a welfare state normally come at the expense of the individual power of disposal, which the individuals have to hand over to the sovereign without complaint. The arguments of the authoritarian school of thought find their most perfect expression in Hobbes ‘Description of a natural state in which man has every freedom to exercise his power: This natural state is a state of war, a war of all against all. 9

Freedom through submission: Rousseau

If one looks at Rousseau's concept of individual political freedom, one gets an impression of the massive practical and theoretical difficulties one encounters when one wants to reconcile individual control or natural rights with a functioning, integrated welfare state. Rousseau's concept is also quite surprising, as it defines freedom in terms of its counterpart, obedience. Nor does he hesitate to claim that a citizen can also be forced to be free, if only he can remain free - which is always the case when a citizen is compelled to submit to the general will of the people.
“So that the articles of association are not an empty form, they tacitly contain the following obligation, which can only be granted to the other parties; it consists in the fact that anyone who refuses to obey the general will should be compelled to do so by the whole body; that has no other meaning than that he will be forced to be free. "10

We would rather look for a definition of freedom that is characterized by the fact that it is the opposite of restriction or compulsion. However, referring to Rousseau's political theory, which has pioneered the history of modern political theorizing, gives us an opportunity to ponder how the concept of political freedom becomes particularly problematic when it relates to an individual freedom that is (always) confronting is with power relations that have become an integral part of political and social life. What we experience very vividly, especially in today's world.

3. From negative freedom in democracy to the concept of autonomy

In the emerging political thought of modernity, a distinction was made above all to defend individual rights in a society against absolutist governments, tyranny and totalitarianism and to stand up for liberal democracy as we know it today. This distinction is a fundamental principle of the institutional constitution of the European Union - and it is the distinction between what has been determined to be negative and what has been defined as positive freedom. 11 Negative freedom is what is possible within certain obstacles, hurdles, or limitations. One has negative freedom to the extent that one has room for maneuver in precisely this negative sense. Positive freedom, on the other hand, is the possibility of being able to behave in a way - or actually behaving in such a way - that you take control of your own life and implement your own central goals and projects.

Liberal theorists tend to suspect positive freedom as an obscure ideological or metaphysical forerunner and prefer to concentrate on political and social conditions in order to define individual freedom. Rather, they determine the different stumbling blocks that keep an agent and an agent from being really free. In general, it is assumed that these obstacles standing in the way of individual freedom are other actors - that is, other people and not natural causes - after all, agents must have intentions. Given this distinction, I am always unfree to the extent that other people (for only they can be ascribed intentions) prevent me from doing certain things. If I am unable to act due to a natural cause - a genetic defect, for example, or due to a viral disease or certain climatic conditions - then in this perception I am only unable to do certain things, but not unfree. Freedom would be at one with being able to do so, whereas lack of freedom would coincide with the prevention (caused by other actors) of putting things into practice that one as an agent could otherwise.

Why the economic can take freedom after all

The attempt to separate clearly natural, on the other hand, human or social obstacles is indeed very difficult and dubious. For example, let's look at a case that at first glance seems very clear: What if I am handicapped in my ability to act due to natural causes - a genetic defect, a viral disease or certain climatic conditions - but these handicaps have social causes, for example social inequality or ecological damage? The liberal theorists had to present a differentiating criterion here, which sorts out the obstacles that may be considered a restriction of individual freedom - and they found the concept of intentional causation. If you look at things from this perspective, economic power factors suddenly appear to be impersonal and not to have an intentional cause - which was so entirely deliberate.

With this logic, the thesis was then proven that economic factors never restrict human freedom, although they undeniably deprive many people of many opportunities to do things. A whole series of market-oriented liberals have adopted this perspective last outlined here, including the economist Friedrich Hayek, who became well-known in the 20th century. If you want to criticize this point of view, you need an expanded concept of the restrictions on freedom, one that is not content with intentionally created cuts, but also takes into account the hurdles that were not deliberately created, for which someone can often be held responsible anyway. Which can go to the point at which "bondage" is synonymous with non-ability.

Chains for realization

The discussion on this point is carried out today between the so-called liberalists and the so-called egalitarians: Leftists and supporters of egalitarianism tend to perceive the poor in a capitalist society as unfree per se - or at least as less free than the rich - whereas the liberalists would rather claim that the poor in a capitalist society are no less free than the rich. That freedom perhaps not only requires the absence of certain obstacles, but rather the presence of opportunities - what Amartya Sen is very well known as "chances of realization" 12 has designated - is certainly worth a second thought.

At this point, let's pause and think for a moment about the influence of the chain metaphor on our idea of ​​freedom. It seems to be a very powerful notion, this image of being free as freeing oneself ... breaking the chains. It is obvious that a man in chains cannot be free. Of course, it is a release for him when he gets rid of his chains. It is therefore very common to seek the limitations of freedom outside the subject. At first glance, the very clear distinction between a slave and a free man is based on the belief that a slave must always be enslaved by another person.

But let's go one step further: Are all people who are not in chains then free? What about those individuals who are subject to themselves and their uninhibited impulses and do things that they always regret afterwards? If every incision in the freedom of the action of other agents has to be brought about, then natural or self-imposed restrictions cannot count as a reduction in the freedom of an agent. But shouldn't people who are never in control of themselves and who cannot learn to do so, rightly be called 'not free'? And if one extends the picture to the large collective: can history at all be interpreted as the intentional action of humanity? Isn't the story much more comparable to a force of nature? And what about historical legacies? Doesn't history itself signify a great - unintentionally established - restriction of freedom, a heavy burden that is present in every aspect of social and political life, in language, memory, in social customs and traditions, in laws and institutions, in popular and public opinion?

Being aware of one's own bondage creates autonomy

If freedom is to be defined as the absence of obstacles, cuts, restrictions, and people are defined as finite beings - because viewed as isolated individuals they have very little power - then the logical consequence of this view seems to be: There is no true incarnation of freedom in natural and social life. What, in turn, is one of the major weaknesses in the concept of freedom, which is defined solely by the possibility of doing something. But the real problem is slowly emerging: What can actually be achieved through self-control or control? Here the focus is now shifting from the absence of restrictions to the concept of self-government, self-control, in short: autonomy.

Individual autonomy can be imagined as something that has a strong connection to the subject as an agent on the one hand and as an automatically functioning on the other hand: A subject performs operations independently (it thinks and it acts) with the help of its "machinery" (body and mind). For the attempt to arrive at a positive definition of freedom, autonomy actually seems to be the better term, since it refers to the only ever partial independence that an individual has to deal with within his restrictive social and political context - a Independence which, despite its incompleteness, the individual continues to defend against total dispossession by more powerful political, social and economic entities. Indeed, it may well be necessary to take the approach of autonomy with appreciation. We must not forget that the term 'autonomy' is politically ambivalent, as historically it was often used to designate certain regions or territories that wanted to make themselves independent of a larger, more dominant state, although they were strict taken do not have the sovereignty to declare themselves independently. Nevertheless, I think that the constant limitation and curtailment of freedom is not enough as an argument to claim that there is no such thing as 'freedom' per se. Personal freedom can be restricted by internal factors such as irrational needs and desires, fears or ignorance. But: Just being aware of this is a step towards autonomy.

Live freer, live better, live more human

That freedom is an illusion does not mean that some degree of freedom does not exist and that we should not strive to live more freely. To come back to the beginning of our considerations: “Live free!” Overall could have significantly less meaning than “Live more freely!” The latter in turn would then be synonymous with “Live better!” Or “Live a more humane life!” Spinoza writes in his treatise about politics:

"So when we say that government is the best where people live in harmony, we mean human life, which does not only consist in the circulation of blood and other things common to all living beings, but that which is mainly based on reason, true virtue and true life of the spirit. " 13

How a “more humane” life can be lived certainly always depends on the political conditions in the city, the country and the region in which we live. But it also has to do with the personal and inter-individual abilities to empower oneself to act, on an individual and inter-individual level, in order not to be completely dependent on social and economic forces that are significantly more powerful than isolated individuals.

Thinking of freedom as an inter-individual reality

The ambiguity of the concept of freedom goes hand in hand with the ambiguity of the concept of individual autonomy or independence. While the economic presentation focuses on the absolute independence of each individual as a purely rational agent, the social and actually political approach puts the conditionality and interdependence of individuals in the foreground - of individuals who cannot and have never lived alone. The ambiguity of the concept of autonomy is due solely to the fact that the degree of individual autonomy often remains unclear and it is entirely conceivable that freedom is not an individual, but a collective good. On this basis, the ambivalence we have dealt with in this text (that freedom is mostly associated with exactly what it is most certainly not: namely, freedom of choice) has to do with the fact that we usually always have freedom Attributing to individual.
Rather, we should think of freedom as an inter-individual reality.

1: Cf. Friedrich Nietzsche, Menschliches, Allzumenschliches I, Critical Study Edition, Munich 1988 (dtv / deGruyter), p. 18.
2: Baruch de Spinoza, The Ethics. Writings and letters, Stuttgart 1955 (Alfred Kröner Verlag), p. 41.
3: Ibid., Pp. 86, 119, 120. Italics by the author.
4: Ibid., P. 254
5: See ibid., P. 254.
6: Ibid., P. 198.
7: http://www.zeno.org/Philosophie/M/Spinoza,+Baruch+de/Theologische-politische+Abhandlung/20.+Kapitel
8: Spinoza, Ethik, loc. Cit., P. 2.
9: See Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, chapter 13.
10: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract or The Principles of Constitutional Law, 1758, Book 1, Chapter 7. Quoted from: http://www.textlog.de/2349.html
11: According to the liberal thinkers of the 18th and 19th centuries (Locke, Kant, Stuart Mill, Constant) see for the 20th century: Isaiah Berlin, Freiheit. Four attempts. Frankfurt a.M. 2006 (Fischer TB).
12: See Amartya Sen, On Ethics and Economics, Oxford 1987 (Basil Blackwell); “Freedom of Choice: Concept and Content,” in European Economic Review, March 1988, pp. 269-94; “Markets and Freedoms: Achievements and Limitations of the Market Mechanism in Promoting Individual Freedoms,” in Oxford Economic Papers, October 1993, pp. 519-41; “Capability and Well-Being”, in: Nussbaum M. and Sen A.K. (Eds.), The Quality of Life, Oxford 1993, (Clarendon Press), pp. 30-53.
13: B. v. Spinoza’s Complete Works, Volume 4, Stuttgart 1841 (J. Scheible’s Buchhandlung), p. 56.

Translation: Translated from the English by Kirsten Riesselmann
December 2017

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