A Note on Human Freedom

10 April 2010

Saturday


The ideas that we have of things often trump the reality of the things in themselves. The idea we have of human freedom or the idea we have of human nature can end up being more powerful than human freedom or human nature are in themselves.

I have several times cited Sartre’s contention that there is no such thing as human nature. In Existence precedes Essence and Human Nature I quoted at length from Sartre’s famous “Existentialism is a Humanism” lecture to the effect that “If man as the existentialist sees him is not definable, it is because to begin with he is nothing. He will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself.” In his later life, after he became a Marxist, Sartre repudiated his earlier absolutizing of human freedom, but certainly the earlier Sartre is more interesting that the later, compromised Sartre.

I have also had occasion to point out one could say that, for Sartre, human nature is simply identical to this absolute freedom he posits. Now I see that an absolutely free human nature is free to conceive of itself as unfree: human nature is nothing but human freedom, but human freedom is constrained both by material circumstances as well as by an idea of an authentic human nature, and these constraints in turn become de facto human nature. These constraints on human freedom are not necessary constraints; they do not inherently, ontologically limit human freedom. Nevertheless, they do constrain human freedom as a part of what Sartre called man defining himself.

As we all know so well, material circumstances vary considerably among individuals and social classes of individuals, so that what functions as a constraint for one individual or for one social class functions as a facilitation for another individual or another social class.

The idea of human nature that we entertain as a consequence of our place in history and society lacks the vulgar directness of material constraints, but for the same reason is all the more pervasive because abstract and apparently inevitable, as belonging to the realm of ideas rather than to the realm of things in an ever-changing Heraclitean flux. Our individual human nature is free, and because it is free we can impose upon it an idea of human nature. Because we are free, we are free to entertain any idea we like. But because we find ourselves in the midst of an existential context of family, community, society, and political subdivisions of humanity — that is to say, we find ourselves in history — we are likely to find in these pervasive, enveloping milieaux some already existing idea of what a man should be, or what a human being should be.

These twin constraints on human freedom — the material constraints that are imposed upon us and the intellectual constraints that we impose upon ourselves — are nicely summed up in a passage from Simone de Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, when she recounts her first and only meeting with Simone Weil:

“She intrigued me because of her great reputation for intelligence and her bizarre outfits… I managed to get near her one day. I don’t know how the conversation got started. She said in piercing tones that only one thing mattered these days: the revolution that would feed all the starving people on the earth. I retorted, no less adamantly, that the problem was not to make men happy, but to help them find a meaning in their existence. She glared at me and said, ‘It’s clear you’ve never gone hungry.’ Our relations ended right there. I realized she had classified me as a high-minded little bourgeoise, and I was angry.”

In this exchange Weil represents the hard facts of materially imposed constraints on life — viz. hunger — while de Beauvoir represents the intellectual constraints upon life — viz. meaning. The early Sartre, with his emphasis upon the freedom of consciousness, is given voice by de Beauvoir; the later Sartre, with his emphasis upon the force of circumstances and practical ensembles, is already anticipated by Weil.

To a certain extent, the absolute freedom that the early Sartre expressed was more true in his milieu than it had been for previous generations. In a stable society, the idea of human nature is also stable. But from the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century, previously existing society and its social conventions were profoundly called into question. The Industrial Revolution changed societies and changed the social roles and life histories of individuals. I noted in Social Consensus in Industrialized Society that ever since the Industrial Revolution those societies that have industrialized have sought some kind of social consensus by which to live in industrialized societies. Two paradigms (or, if you prefer, two models) of industrialized life were tried and found wanting. The advanced industrialized regions of the world are still groping after the formulation of a third paradigm of life in industrialized society.

In times of social change the gap between the individual’s absolute freedom and the idea of human nature that he may impose on himself narrows: freedom has greater range to express itself, and the idea of human nature itself becomes more fluid and open to revision. In times of long term social stability (say, the tens of thousands of years of anatomically modern human existence prior to the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution, or the period from the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution to the Industrial Revolution), human nature becomes an idée fixe and the gap between ideal, absolute human freedom and the idea of human nature becomes greater the longer these conditions obtain. This is one of the sources of acculturation to absence of change that I discussed in my Political Economy of Globalization.

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