The Ontology of Human Freedom

3 September 2010


This post is an extension and a development of the thoughts that I was working out in A Note on Human Freedom, which latter the reader is urged to consult if the following is to make sense.

One of my favorite stories of failure of communication between the magical world of the child and the pragmatic world of the adult — I can no longer recall where I encountered it — involves a mother whose young daughter was speaking of her future career plans, which consisted exclusively of work traditionally performed by women. After listening to this the mother gently urged her daughter to expand her horizons, and that she did not need to restrict her career plans to traditionally feminine roles. She told her daughter, “You can be anything you want when you grow up.” Her daughter beamed and asked for confirmation of this wonderful news, “Anything? I can be anything I want to be when I grow up?” And the mother reiterated her empowering advice. So the daughter took this into consideration, and played quietly for some time, deep in thought as children sometimes play in a meditative fashion. After some time had passed she approached her mother and said, “I know what I want to be when I grow up.” And her mother asked, “What?” The daughter replied, “A giraffe.”

Our freedom does not comprise the possibility of becoming a giraffe, and a pity it is, too.

Whatever options human freedom comprises, it does not include the freedom to become a giraffe. This is a shame. It is a wonderful thought experiment to imagine what the world might look like if only we had the freedom to become whatever we would like to be, whether that be a giraffe, a salmon migrating upriver, a comet streaking across the sky, or an insect so small that we might fly from house to house and crawl into whatever shelter we liked. Life unconstrained to this degree would be an adventure beyond our imagination, because only an imagination conditioned to unlimited possibilities could begin to limn the extent of the world open to us.

This would be a good occasion for a Latourian litany in which an account of spectacularly diverse objects would remind us of the astonishing breadth and variety of the world, which litany would surely become a dizzying exercise if we knew that we might at any point insert ourselves into the world, becoming, as it were, an object-oriented changling, swapping places with anything whatever as it strikes our fancy.

Our imaginations, unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) are not so purely or perfectly unfettered, and in so far as imagination accommodates itself to the contingent conditions of the world that we are forced to accept as our birthright, it becomes cramped, crabbed, and balky from infrequent exercise. Regarding the contingent conditions of the world I have frequently quoted a famous line from Marx:

“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”

Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, first paragraph

Not only do men make their own history, but in fact they make their own selves, their own identities, not as they please, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. These already existing circumstances transmitted from the past include all manner of things — again, one is tempted at this point to deliver oneself of a visionary recital of a Latourian litany — and I can imagine a reactionary maintaining that there is no reason that these transmitted circumstances should not include social distinctions of rank and hierarchy. Thus we have the birth lottery.

Life seems to be lived from a film noir script in which the fate that befalls us happens to us for no reason at all. It is not difficult to see how one can come to this total denial of freedom. A simple thought experiment will suffice: imagine an empty universe, a universe consisting of nothing at all, and then imagine an infant suddenly popping into being in the midst of this nothingness. This is not only impossible, it is instantly fatal. No one can live in a void. So we must imagine air for the infant to breathe, and water and food to sustain the life of the infant, and for these things we need something like a fertile planet (something, not surprisingly, like the earth). But infants don’t simply pop into being, they have parents, so we must also imagine the parents of the infant, and their parents, and so forth and so on, and these many generations have not culminated in a single infant but in many. For these many to go about the ordinary business of life there must be some kind of stable to society in which lives can be lived. And thus, one degree at a time, whole world, replete with all its necessarily evils, is brought back into being as remorselessly and as systematically as Descartes reconstructing the world entire from his cogito ergo sum.

This is as much as to say that human life constitutes a certain ontology, and that it is an ontology in need, a dependent ontology, and this dependent ontology calls into being the whole ontology of the world that makes the life of the individual possible. This context into which we are embedded — not of necessity, but as unavoidable contingency (and, yes, there is a difference) — both makes us possible (is the ground of our possibility) and limits us at the same time. We cannot have the existence without the limits, and we cannot have the limits without an existing object to be limited. This is the ontological formulation of human freedom.

We are so boxed in by the existential context that keeps us alive that it is no surprise that we readily accept limitations that are not intrinsic and ontological, and often for the same reason: we have imbibed them, as they say, with our mother’s milk. The ideas that we encounter before we have any ideas of our own have a strong advantage over anything that comes later. Our first ideas, drawn from the world and not from ourselves, constitute the norm to which everything later will be compared as the standard and archetype.

The absolute freedom in terms of which Sartre conceived man, and which I have suggested can itself be identified with the human nature that Sartre denies, is constrained by material factors even before we are born, we are born into a particular situation that further constrains our freedom, and then what remaining freedom we have to think for ourselves and decide who and what we will be we often employ by conceiving further constraints as an intrinsic “human nature,” thus conceiving ourselves as unfree and, in acting as though it were true, making it true ex post facto.

Because of the material constraints on our freedom, we are not free to become giraffes; because of the social constraints on our freedom, we are not, all of us, free to become kings and queens; because of the intellectual constraints on our freedom (which might better be called the moral constraints on our freedom), we are not free to take advantage of many of the possibilities open to us. When all is said and done, we seem to have little freedom remaining to us.

At least part of this constraint on our freedom (which we could just as well, in the spirit of ontology, call constraints upon our being) is due to our being (as noted above) dependent beings. In so far as we are dependent, we are not free. If we must dance, we must pay the piper. In so far as we cultivate our independence, we cultivate our freedom. If there is no need to dance, there is no need to pay the piper.

No cultivation of our independence will make us sufficiently independent of the world that we can become giraffes when we grow up; this is dependency of an ontological order that cannot be wished away. But we can cultivate an independence from social and moral constraints on our freedom. Some of these, too, are of an ontological order. The fact that we are conscious and think thoughts places limitations on us, but it also opens up more possibilities than it forecloses. Similarly, social differentiation places limits upon us, but it also presents possibilities that would otherwise not exist.

To strive for independent being, so far as it lies within the possibilities of the kind of beings that we are, is to strive for freedom. To repose in dependent being, to passively accept our dependence in so far as dependency is avoidable, is to accept unfreedom and to multiply the constraints upon us.

Liberation, then, is a function of self-reliance, and is secured through the moral effort of seeking independence.

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