Genuine Freedom Is Beyond Active and Passive, Composing, 03/09/2013

Re-working a dissertation project into a book results in some very interesting editing. Some chapters get total overhauls, some only minor edits. Chapter five, for the most part gets a minor edit. It has the most tortured history of any part of the dissertation. The original version was completely lost when the hard drive it was on crashed. It was the only dissertation chapter that didn’t have a backup yet. But it was for the best, because my newer version was better. It still needed a complete overhaul before it would fit coherently into the rest of the project, though. I was writing too much about my critiques in philosophy of mind, where the concept of autopoiesis I was using for my theory of subjectivity had its highest cachet. So by the end of the dissertation project, there were three chapter fives, only one of which saw the light of day, and the first of which no longer exists.

Now, there’s a fourth chapter five. It’s mostly the same as the third chapter five from the dissertation, but there are some edits. The most radical so far is entirely re-working a key paragraph. Its original form was very confused. I think my supervisor knew what I meant, but it wouldn’t fly in a book for public consumption. The current version is very clear about what I think the power of our self-conception is relative to whether we’re free.

I think the ability to change, whether or not those changes can be predicted mathematically, constitutes a radical freedom. Existence doesn’t tend toward stability or equilibrium, but dynamism and flux. Every moment is open to the radically novel. So every single body in the universe is, in this sense, free. But self-consciousness gives humans a very peculiar power: the power to enslave ourselves. If we conceive of ourselves as separate from the world, an island of stability in a dynamic universe, we achieve more than just alienation from nature. We also make ourselves passive because we have no sense of our relationships with the fluctuating fields of affects that connect us to the freedom of all bodies. Imagining ourselves as self-contained egos separate from nature’s dynamisms destroys our natural freedom. But when we conceive of ourselves as connected with these fluctuations, our natural freedom gains deeper dimensions, because our power of self-awareness lets us investigate and come to know the conditions of our freedom.

Benedict Spinoza was excommunicated from
Judaism in his lifetime, which sounds
incredibly serious. But in the Amsterdam
Jewish community of the time, the same
person could be excommunicated and taken
back three times in a month, depending on
who bribed who.
So yes, I’m a Spinozist. I de-emphasize the determinism of Spinoza’s philosophy, because determinism is just an ontological implication of the ability to predict motion with mathematics. Ultimately, it’s inconsequential — just because future developments of motion are knowable doesn’t make them any less free. Imagine a couple who’s been together so long and knows each other so well, that they can predict precisely what the other will do. This doesn’t make either partner less free; it just makes them known.

So about that Spinozism, then. I think of myself as updating several central insights of Spinoza’s philosophy into the era of contemporary science. I don’t consider myself a Spinozist in the sense that I think every word in The Ethics is an exactly correct description of the eternal nature of the world. But I consider myself as part of a tradition of thinking about freedom and knowledge of which Spinoza is a central figure. I once identified myself as something of a Spinozist in conversation with a professor emeritus at University of Toronto, who I consider the closest analogue Canadian philosophy has ever produced to Yoda. (Readers who know me well will understand what a profound compliment this is.) He then proceeded to probe whether I thought that everything that can be imagined has a material existence. It was very elfin of him, and I could tell he was only having me on. 

But it shows exactly why I try to avoid identifying myself as an -ism: I have no idea what other people’s conception of that label is, and I end up painting myself into conversational corners where I’ll be accused of contradicting myself just because my own very specific and singular philosophical views are disparaged because they don’t conform precisely to another’s conception of a descriptive term. I often find conversations like this prevent people from discussing philosophy, and just devolve into counter-productive bickering more often than not. So I just try to talk about figures from the past who have influenced me. People can’t read as much into that.

That passage is pretty Spinozist, though.

1 comment:

  1. Just got around to reading this, and while I don't know much Spinoza, it did resonate with something else I happen to be reading -- a book called Born to Sing by Charles Hartshorne.

    Hartshorne was a long-lived process philosopher who wrote a good deal about contingency (hence his possible interest to you). I drew on his work during my MA since his view of the world was similar to that of a writer I was then studying, but he stuck with me for his resolute commitment to an ethic of intellectual moderation and curiosity. In professional terms, I guess he's a sort of Peircian Spinicist or something, but as you say labels aren't very important.

    Anyway, the passage in question comes from a book he wrote about birds singing -- a truly odd book, since it is both an earnest work of philosophy and written for a birders (!). (I feel compelled to note that I'm not a birder.) I think he's quite fascinating for his desire to posit aesthetic experience in a central position of human (and indeed animal) experience, and does so very thoughtfully:

    "we shall never understand ourselves or any other animal in a fully satisfactory way until we see that all activity is motivated by the sense of possible harmonies and by the flight from the twin evils of discord and monotony. Novelty is not boring, but it may be either disturbing or pleasing, depending partly upon broadly aesthetic factors of contrast and unity, including contrast and unity between present and in some fashion remembered past experiences" (2).

    He goes on to say that these experiences may be sensorial but need not be viewed as cognitive -- i.e. the bird isn't thinking it's enjoying harmony, it just prefers a certain degree of variation to repeating the same note over and over. The temporal component (to link this to today's post) comes from the two time scales of aesthetic preference of individuals leading to evolutionary patterns for the species (essentially Saussure's position).

    Why do I mention this? Well, you write about freedom as the radically novel, which sets up the question why we repeat things. Marxists would say false consciousness or some variation. Foucault to Giddens would say something like the structures of society are internalized and we helplessly reproduce them. I think Hartshorne, in his way, is on to something: we are animals that gain a great deal from being free, but we also seem to intuit our own limits for that freedom -- between monotony and shock, we tend to be happiest in a middle ground.

    Now, whether things are a state where we are advised to endure a greater degree of discord than we'd like is a separate question, but I just thought I'd raise this (to my mind) rather elegant solution to the deepest of social questions for your consideration. And of course there are unintended consequences and evolutionary dead-ends to consider... the costs of freedom, I suppose.