Schelling, “The Nature of Philosophy as a Science”

This will be our reading for Saturday, September 23.  You can find the location and time at our meetup.com page.

1. This essay by FJW Schelling is an attempt to explain, or perhaps create, an underlying unity of all philosophies.  He wants a philosophical system that can account for the validity of wildly disparate positions such as Spinoza’s monism or Hume’s empiricism.  This underlying unity is what he calls the absolute, or the freedom of the world to appear or be apprehended in multiple ways.

2. Schelling uses the word system in two ways.  There are many individual systems, and there is the over-arching system he is trying to describe.  Hopefully, the the context of each use of the word will make clear which usage he intends.

3. The attempt to find a unified system of human knowledge presupposes that it does not already exist as a unity.  We can recognize this unity because of previous attempts at discovering unity, culminating in Eleatic oneness, an ancient Greek version of monism.  However, the Eleats posted mere unity, but it would be just as legitimate to posit disunity; a true system must establish the unity of unity and opposition, and it must show how one is necessary for the other.  All of that had to take place before the idea of a system could arise in Plato: “The need for harmony arises first of all in disharmony” (210).

4. For any real attempt to find a system, we need to see that this conflict between unity and opposition is not just a matter of incidental errors.  It has an objective basis, and is built into the “primary roots of all existence” (211).  All exclusive systems are partial, though one can still be a a “higher level” than another.  More precisely, within all the contradictions between systems, there is only one great contradiction: one asserts that A=B, and the other asserts that A=C.  Someone else can come along and develop A=B to a higher level, and for that short time, A=B is higher than A=C.  But then, A=C will be developed, and the conflict will play out all over again.  For example, one philosopher might argue that everything is fundamentally a single substance, and then another philosopher might give better arguments that there are infinitely many substances.  Eventually, however, monism might upgrade itself and temporarily refute the idea of infinite substances.  One system can only appear to beat another, and only for a short time.

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Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom

This is our reading for September 9th.  You can find the details and location at our meetup.com page.

1. JFK’s famous line, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” produced controversy over its origin, but not over its content.  Friedman thinks neither side of the statement “expresses a relation between the citizen and his government that is worthy of the ideals of free men in a free society” (10).  One suggests a paternalistic state, the other suggests the state is a master.

2. To both sides, Friedman says, “To the free man, the country is the collection of individuals who compose it, not something over and above them” (10).  The government is a means, not a master.  There is no national purpose except the consensus of the citizen’s purposes.

3. The free man asks wants to know how government can be used to achieve goals and protect freedoms, and how to stop government from squashing the freedoms it is meant to preserve. Two principles in the American Constitution can help us enjoy the benefits of government while avoiding the threat to freedom.  

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Hannah Arendt, “What is Freedom?”

This is our reading for Saturday, August 26.  You can find the location and other details at our meetup.com page.

The word freedom has two common senses: the philosophical idea of free will, and the political idea of action.  Arendt argues that free will as a property of individuals is a relatively recent invention, having been created by Christians for theological reasons.  Freedom as a matter of action in the world is the original sense of the term, stemming from the Greek and Roman experience of public life.  Given the endless philosophical problems with the idea of free will, Arendt argues that we ought to think of freedom as political first and foremost, not as a property of individual will but as the human capacity to interrupt old processes and begin new ones.

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Berlin, “Two Concepts of Liberty”

This is our reading for August 12.  You can find the location and details at our meetup.com page.

In this essay, Isaiah Berlin describes two forms of freedom.  Negative freedom is freedom from interference; it seeks to maximize the choices an individual has in life.  Positive freedom is slightly more complicated; it is the freedom of the group to decide how the group will behave, or how it will be governed, or in other words: who has the right to coerce?.  While both forms of freedom are necessary for human life, Berlin thinks that positive freedom relies on the assumption that all real problems have single solutions, an assumption he considers false.  Because problems have a variety of solutions and some measure of conflict over these solutions is inevitable, he thinks we ought to maximize negative freedom.

Negative Freedom

1. The standard image of freedom is to be free from interference.  Once interference hits a certain point, we call it slavery.

2. Coercion does not cover every form of inability; we do not think of ourselves as coerced because we cannot jump ten feet.  Coercion implies the deliberate interference of others.  We might legitimately call someone a slave to their passions, or we might say that poverty and sickness restrict freedom, but these are non-political uses of the term.

3. The basic criteria is the role we believe others are playing. This is what the classical English philosophers like Locke thought of freedom.  They disagreed about the extent of other’s roles in coercion, but all agreed that interference needed to have a limit.  There has to be some baseline limitation by law, but just as much, there has to be a sphere of freedom which cannot be violated for any reason.  How large these limitations and freedoms should be was a matter of debate.  More optimistic philosophers like Locke thought that sphere of freedom should be large, while pessimists like Hobbes thought we needed more expansive laws in the name of security.

4. The minimum sphere of freedom has to be “That which a man cannot give up without offending against the essence of his human nature” (8).  Exactly what this essence is has been complicated debate.  

5. Mill said, “The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way.”  If that is true, is compulsion ever justified?  Mill thought it was—it is legitimate to use force to prevent someone from depriving others of freedom.  Mill thought this freedom was necessary to prevent society from being crushed under the weight of “collective mediocrity,” in which everything devolves into conformity.  Whatever mistakes a person might make, the value of being able to make them outweighs the evil of constraining the person.  Berlin says, “Every plea for civil liberties, against the encroachment of public authority or the mass hypnosis of custom or organized propaganda, springs from this individualistic, and much disputed, conception of man” (9).

6. One of the problems with Mills’ individualist account is that it is not incompatible with an enlightened dictatorship that allows its subjects a great deal of freedom: “The despot who leaves his subjects a wide area of liberty may be unjust, or encourage the wildest inequalities, care for little order, or virtue, or knowledge; but provided he does not curb their liberty, or at least curbs it less than many other regimes, he meets with Mill’s specification” (11).

7. This idea of freedom is not logically connected with democracy or self-government; there is no necessary connection between the questions Who governs me? and How far does government interfere with me?.  This is what the difference between positive and negative liberties consists in.  The positive sense of liberty appears not when we ask, What am I free to do or be? but By whom am I ruled?, or Who is to say what I am, and what I am not, to be or do?.  The connection between democracy and individual liberty is more tenuous than it seems to advocates of either.

Positive Freedom

8. The “positive” sense of liberty comes from the individual’s wish to be their own master:

“I wish my life and decisions to depend on myself, not on external forces, of whatever kind.  I wish to be a subject, to be the instrument of my own, not of other men’s, acts of will.  I wish to be a subject, not an object; to be moved by reasons, by conscious purposes which are my own, not by causes which affect me, as it were, from outside.  I wish to be somebody, not nobody; a doer—deciding, not being decided for, self-directed and not acted upon by external nature or by other men as if I were a thing, or an animal, or a slave incapable of playing a human role, that is, of conceiving goals and policies of my own and realizing them.”  (13)

9. This is basically what we mean by being rational, and what distinguishes one from the rest of the world.  The freedom of being one’s own master, and the freedom which comes from not being prevented from doing what one wishes, eventually come into conflict with one another.

10. This idea of self-mastery has two parts.  First, we might say, “I am a slave to no man,” but there is also the sense of being a slave to nature or one’s passions.  Many have had the experience of liberating themselves from “spiritual slavery,” in which they become aware of a “higher nature” and a “lower nature.” The dominant, higher self is associated with reason and autonomy, and the irrational, lower self is associated with heteronomy and impulse.

11. Some might argue that the real self might be larger than the individual, a social “whole” of which the individual is a part, such as a race, the Church, or a state: “This entity is then identified as being the ‘true’ self, which by imposing its collective, or ‘organic’, single will upon its recalcitrant ‘members’, achieves its own, and therefore their, ‘higher’ freedom” (14).

12. The problem with such organic metaphors is that it can justify coercion in order to raise people to their “higher” freedom.  It is plausible to think that sometimes, we have to coerce people for their own good.  This entails the claim that we know what is good for someone better than they themselves know.  We could also claim that they are latently aiming at the higher goal, and we are just helping them towards it.  Once we take this view, we are free to ignore the stated wishes of people and to bully and oppress them in the name of their “real” selves.

13. It is one thing to say that I know what is good for X, even if he does not; it is a very different one to say that he has already implicitly chosen it, unconsciously, under the guise of his higher self.  It is basically the difference between coercing one for their own good, and coercing one while claiming they are not being coerced because they have already implicitly willed the higher good.

14. This sort of move can also be made with the negative concept of freedom, in which the self that should not be interfered with is no longer the individual with their actual wishes and needs, but the “real” man within, pursuing an ideal purpose which his empirical self may never have dreamed of.  This ideal self can be inflated into a super-personal entity such as the State or class.  The move is less easy than it is with positive freedom, however.

15. The important point here is that our concept of freedom derives from what we take a self to be; with enough manipulation of the concept of “man,” freedom can be made to mean anything.

16. Another element in the “two selves” idea is the two different politics that has arisen from it.  One is “self-abnegation,” a stoic pursuit of independence, and “self-realization,” a total self-identification with an ideal.

17. First, he discuss self-abnegation.  If we are blocked from achieved our goals, we do not experience ourselves as masters of the situation.  We can be blocked by various forces, from accidents to the intentional or unintentional effects of institutions.  When these forces are too much, the only way to avoid being crushed by them is to liberate oneself from unrealizable desires.  This is a retreat into one’s “soul” or noumenal self, a master of what one can practically possess.

18. It is like having a wound in one’s leg, and seeing there are two ways to free oneself from the pain.  One way is to heal the wound, and the other is to cut the leg off.  One trains oneself to want nothing that one does not need the leg for.  The idea is to eliminate the obstacle by eliminating the path.  It is a form of the search for security, but it has also been called a search for national freedom or independence.

19. This is quite close to people like Kant, who identify freedom not with the elimination of desires but with resistance to them and control over them.  One obeys laws, but they are laws that one has placed on oneself; “Freedom is obedience, but ‘obedience to a law which we prescribe to ourselves’, and no man can enslave himself” (18).  If the essence of man is autonomy, the author of values, then nothing is worse than to treat them as objects or as not self-determined.

20. In its individualistic form, the stoic retreat only happens with the outside world is particularly cruel or unjust.  If action is blocked at every turn, then the withdrawal into private freedom becomes attractive.  This asceticism might be a source of spiritual strength, but it is not an enlargement of liberty.  The end point is suicide; total liberation is only achieved through death.

21. On the other hand, the self-realization account of freedom says that “Knowledge liberates by automatically eliminating irrational fears and desires” (24).  Critical reason is what helps us understand what is necessary and what is contingent.  For example, school children find the rules of mathematics to be impossible obstacles, imposed by an external authority.  Once they understand how the symbols function, and grasp that they cannot be otherwise, their use appears as something the child freely wills out of the natural functioning of their rational activity.  All obstacles function this way; once you understand the rational necessity of something, it can be freely accepted.

22. We are free only if we live by a conscious plan, which is to say self-imposed rules. Those who understand freedom as rational self-direction eventually had to think about what this means for society: is a rational life possible not only for individuals, but also for societies?  If I am rational, then it seems that what is right for me is also right for others.  But who can decide what is right?  Some these thinkers argued that there must be single solutions to genuine moral and political problems.  They said that all truth is, in principle, discoverable by all rational thinkers.  The hope was for an ideal, harmonious state of affairs.

23. This can be phrased another way.  Freedom is self-mastery and the eliminations of obstacles to my will, whether these be my own passions or the wills of others.  Nature can be technologically moulded, but what about recalcitrant humans?  I could mould them in my image, but this could mean that I alone am free, and they are slaves.  They would only be slaves if my plan has nothing to do with their wishes or values, but if my plan allows for the full development of their “true” natures, then the realization of their capacities coincides with my own.  For this to work, it would have to be true that “All true solutions to all genuine problems must be compatible; more than this; they must fit into a single whole; for this is what is meant by calling them all rational and the universe harmonious” (28).

24. If these underlying assumptions are correct, then in the ideal case, law and authority would coincide with liberty and autonomy.  

25. The practical problem is how to make currently irrational men into rational ones.  Education is one obvious route, because “only the uneducated are irrational.”  Fichte said education has to say, “You will later recognize the reasons for what I am doing now.”  Compulsion becomes a kind of education.  Even Mill says we can forcibly prevent a man from crossing a bridge if there is no time to warn him that it will collapse, because whatever we see in his current behaviour, we know he will not want to drown.

26. The big problem with this line of thought is that “This is the argument used by every dictator, inquisitor and bully who seeks some moral, or even aesthetic, justification for his conduct.  I must do for men (or with them) what they cannot do for themselves” (32).  I have to do it with or without their permission, because they are not in a position to know what is best for them.  

27. This opens the door to rule by experts, for two reasons.  First, not everyone can be consulted about everything all the time.  Second, not everyone is as “well attuned to the voice of reason” as others.  There must be some assumption that if someone opposes a “rational” law, then they must be irrational, and I take it upon myself to save you from your irrationality.  If this argument leads to despotism, even an enlightened despotism, then it might be there is something wrong in the premises.  

28. There is another approach to the topic: the demand for recognition.  The question of what the individual is was first raised in the eighteenth century, and it is very difficult to find accounts of individuality which are not wholly social.  To some degree, we are what we are due to how others see us.  When we analyze our identities, we discover that our identities are made up of identifications that exist because they are recognized by other people.  We are not disembodied or Robinson Crusoes.  My ideas about myself “are intelligible only in terms of the social network in which I am … an element” (37).

29. Many complaints about a lack of freedom amount to complaints about a lack of recognition.  I might be trying to escape what Mill thinks I should want to escape, which is coercion.  Or I might not be seeking a rational plan for my life.  Rather, I might be seeking an escape from being ignored, or not being treated as individual.

30. The limit is that this demand for recognition cannot be easily identified with liberty, either positive or negative.  It is a requirement of the good life, but it is not identical with freedom.  We could call it  a collective self-assertion, but one compatible with despotism and a minimum of negative freedom.  For these reasons, Berlin insists on making a firm distinction between recognition and freedom as such.

Liberty and sovereignty

31. The French Revolution was a demand for positive freedom as collective self-direction, and the liberals of the nineteenth century saw that this positive liberty could destroy every negative liberty. As Mill argued, those who govern are not necessarily the same as those who are governed, and further, can become a tyranny of the majority.  Berlin says, “Equality of the right to oppress is not equivalent to liberty.  Nor does universal consent to loss of liberty somehow miraculously preserve it merely by being universal, or by being consent” (45).  Consenting to slavery is still slavery.  He continues, “The triumph of despotism is to force the slaves to declare themselves free.  It may need no force: the slaves may proclaim their freedom quite sincerely; but they are still slaves” (47).

32. Democracies suppress freedom without ceasing to be democratic, so what makes a society free?  For the nineteenth century liberals, the answer had several parts.  First, no power, but only rights, could be considered absolute.  Second, there are borders within which liberty is inviolable.  These borders have to be defined in terms of rules which have been widely accepted for a long time, so that they have come to be a part of the definition of a civilized person, and to violate them would be barbarous.  For example, one of these rules is that a man cannot be declared guilty without a trial or punished under a retroactive law.

33. The freedom of a society is measure by the strength of these barriers.  This is almost the opposite of positive freedom.  The partisans of negative freedom want to curb authority; the others wish to have it in their own hands.  These are two widely divergent views of life, even if in practice we have to find a compromise between them.  Their fundamental claims are in conflict, but both are among the deepest interests of mankind.

34. The belief most responsible for the slaughter of individuals is the believe that individuals must be sacrificed for the freedom of society.  It involves the belief that there is a final, perfect solution for society.  Without such a rationalist guarantee, we have to accept that not all goods are reconcilable with one another.

35. It is not that we live without constraints; the strong’s power over the weak must be limited in some way.  But this is not a rationalist a priori rule, but because the desire for justice and equality is just as basic as the desire for freedom.  In the end, Berlin thinks negative liberty is a much more humane and truer image of freedom than the rationalist account of positive liberty.  It is more true because it recognizes that not all goods can be reconciled.  It is more humane because it does not deprive us of individual self-determination.

Pippin, Hegel’s Practical Philosophy: Ch. 4

This will be our reading for July 22.  You can find the details at our Meetup page.

1. The previous chapter argued that freedom is fundamentally the capacity to “give oneself the law,” to legislate norms and bind ourselves to them.  This self-legislation is not the ratification of passing desires or opinions, some sort of pure subjectivism, but a strange combination of self-creation and self-limitation.  These self-created norms create and sustain social roles and reasons which we can use to justify or criticize behaviour.  We looked at two different models of self-legislation: Kant’s deductive model, which begins with the generic, ahistorical individual, and Hegel’s historical/developmental model, which begins with actually-existing groups.

2. For both Kant and Hegel, a key motivating factor in ethical behaviour is respect for the life-leading capacity of humans, which eventually cashes out in the claim that all value depends on recognizing the value of humanity as an ultimate moral identity.  As Korsgaard says, “A good soldier obeys orders, but a good human being does not massacre the innocent.”  Pippin thinks the Kantian framework cannot establish this value of humanity, but the Hegelian one can.

3. This self-legislation is not only about practical norms, but cognitive norms as well; all of this is attached to a much larger account of rationality in general.  Chapter 4 is about Hegel’s account of concept-formation, and is relevant here because it helps respond to a common criticism of Hegel: that he is an anti-individualist authoritarian.

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Pippin, Hegel’s Practical Philosophy: Ch. 3

This is the reading for June 24th’s meeting.  You can get the location and other details at our meetup.com page.

1. In chapters 1 and 2, Pippin argued that Hegel’s practical philosophy—which Hegel would have called a philosophy of spirit—is primarily a theory of freedom.  His idea of freedom is quite far from our usual notions of freedom, which tend to revolve around abstract questions of free will and political questions of what we ought to be free from or to do.  To some degree, Hegel combines these two sides of freedom when he says that a free act is not necessarily one freely caused by me, but rather an act which I can, on reflection, fully endorse.  Further, this sort of reflective endorsement is only possible when one understands one self and others in particular ways and stands in rule-governed institutional relations.

2. Pippin also introduced the claim that “spirit is a product of itself.”  Spirit is the industry-standard translation of the German word Geist, and for our purposes, we can basically define it as both the development and actual existence of a given historical period’s package set of fundamental concepts and practices.  

3. This claim that spirit is a product of itself is important for two reasons.  First, it both connects Hegel to, and differentiates him from, earlier German idealists like Kant and Fichte.  Second, it is one of the main points in his social, collective idea of freedom.  These two points are connected: for Kant and Fichte, cognitive and practical normativity (how we ought to think, what we ought to do) find their origins in the (either logically or practically necessary) cognitive acts of individuals, while for Hegel, both kinds of normativity are the result of collective, historical development.  

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JS Mill – On Liberty, Ch. 1-2

This is the reading for our June 17th meeting.  You can find all the details at our Meetup.com page.

Chapter 1 – Introduction

This essay is not about the freedom of the will, but civil liberty—the nature and limits of the power which society can wield over the individual.  In the past, liberty meant protection against government tyranny.  Since the power og government could be used against anyone, citizens had to be in a perpetual state of defence against this power.  This limitation could be carried out in two ways.  First, a set of immunities, called liberties.  Second, constitutional checks.  Constitutional checks eventually became the main defence of liberty.

Eventually, societies decided that government should not be an independent, antagonistic power; rather, government power should be a delegated power and representative of the people.  Once this sort of democracy appeared, people began to think that too much importance had been attached to the limitation of power, since the idea that the people could oppress themselves appeared to be so odd.  As Mill puts it, “The nation did not need to be protected against its own will.  There was no fear of its tyrannizing over itself.” (89)  His response to this is to say that phrases like “the power of the people over themselves” does not actually describe what goes on in democratic republics.  For example, the “people” who exercise the power are not the same people over whom it is exercised, and the “will of the people” means nothing more than the will of a numerical majority.

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