What is Freedom?

Just another word for nothing left to lose?

At Jmeqvist, you’ll find a great post distinguishing between positive and negative freedom. I’d like elaborate on these to get you good and confused:

1. Negative Freedom. Here I’m quoting Johan at Jmeqvist as he says it so well:

“…we are free in so far as external forces do not prohibit us from making certain choices. This concept of freedom is negative in that it concerns an absence of something, which in this case is the absence of interference.”

I might call this concept of freedom “common sense freedom” since in ordinary language (esp. in North America, as Johan carefully points out), this is usually what we mean by the word.

2. Positive Freedom. Here again I’ll quote Johan and then elaborate with a few examples:

“…a free person will be one who has a psyche that is properly ordered, so freedom on this concept is not about an absence, but about a presence of order in the psyche. This way of speaking has become marginalized, and may strike us as antiquated, but we see it arise when people talk about the way in which people’s desires can render them unfree.”

Plato: Those of you who are familiar with Plato know that he often spoke of being a slave to desire (consider the metaphor in the Gorgias which likens the blind hedonist’s soul to a leaky jar that can never be filled). One cannot be free until one has knowledge of what is good. Otherwise one is left to snatch at random desires, which will only lead to dissatisfaction in the long run, even if you happen to get lucky from time to time. Freedom in the Platonic sense will lead to happiness, happiness and wisdom being inextricably tied.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau: One can be constrained in the #1 sense and still be free. “And all, being born free, alienate their liberty only for their own advantage,”—Ch 2 of the Social Contract. And: “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains. One thinks himself the master of others, and still remains a greater slave than they. How did this change come about? I do not know. What can make it legitimate? That question I think I can answer.” Here we have a sticky philosophy indeed, but I’m not capable of giving the best summary of it right now. What I will say is here we have a sort of Platonic idea of freedom, but replace knowledge of the Good with the Law and the General Will and you have a closer fit. The problem is the General Will need not be the general will of the majority, so Rousseau’s effort to bring the Good down to earth seems to have failed. The Good and the General Will remain just as abstract as before.

Kant: Freedom is unconditional, self-causing; in other words, it’s autonomy from the world of contingency for rational beings. Since we can’t control everything that goes on in the world of cause and effect, we, as rational beings, shouldn’t place our moral laws on empirical foundations, but instead on the Categorical Imperative. Freedom is noumenal and cannot be known, but must be assumed. Also, being a free agent doesn’t mean you’ll be happy. Morality and happiness do not necessarily coincide.

3. Existential Freedom. This area is not my forte, so there’s my word of caution. If we suppose, like Nietzsche, for instance, that there is no clear definition of what it is to be human, then there can be no ordering of the psyche. Achieving perfection cannot be a goal unless it is taken to mean something subjective (which, in my opinion, is not really the same thing as #2.) Without these definitions we move into a territory beyond black and white, beyond good and evil. One must scratch out one’s own meaning, own’s authenticity, in this world despite seeing beyond false, imposed definitions, and this self-invention ex nihilo is existential freedom.

Johan asked an interesting question of #1 and #2: Are these definitions of freedom contradictory?

It is certainly true that existential freedom (which Johan doesn’t go into) contradicts positive freedom, but what about positive and negative?

Johan says: “Unless we hanker after a single definitive sense of the concept of freedom, there is no reason to think that differing concepts of freedom that pertain to differing areas of life are fundamentally incompatible.”

I agree with Johan, but I wonder how the various relationships would play out in the extreme.

Suppose you are given a choice between two boxes, but you don’t know what’s inside either box. You are free in the sense that you get to choose a box and no one is stopping you, but since you have no knowledge of what’s inside them, you have no rational basis on which to make a decision and are therefore not free in a positive sense (Let’s leave aside the possibility of abstaining from choice, please). Here positive and negative freedoms don’t seem to be in fundamental conflict, they just refer to different aspects of the situation.

However, having only negative freedom puts you in a crappy place. You have to gamble, and you don’t even know what’s at stake. You still have reason in this scenario, of course, which is why Kant’s freedom would not apply here. But in this case, reason is rendered entirely inoperative.

Let’s amend this metaphor and put a thousand mosquitos inside one box and a magical infinitely delicious calorie-free cupcake in the other. Throw in world peace if the cupcake is not enough for you.

Reverse the scenario. Suppose you know the cupcake and world peace are in one box, and you know mosquitos are in the other box, but someone has your hands tied behind your back and your mouth taped shut and so on so you cannot engage in your choice. Here we have one freedom (positive, knowledge-based freedom) but not negative.

But what good is knowing which box the cupcake is in if no one can eat it? What good is knowing how to bring about world peace and absolute guilt-free deliciousness if these things cannot come to pass?

Is positive freedom necessary for negative freedom to thrive?

Is negative freedom necessary for positive freedom to thrive? 

How would you play out this thought experiment for a society?

In what ways do these thought experiments pertain to real life situations?

What is your conception of freedom?

As usual, feel free to answer any of these questions. In fact, feel free to answer this question: Would you take the cupcake or world peace? And would it be chocolate or vanilla? Or something involving cream cheese?

Many thanks to Johan for his insightful post!

19 thoughts on “What is Freedom?

  1. Thank you for this engaging and learned article Tina. I think I chimed most with Kant’s words, and in particular that ‘freedom is noumenal and cannot be known’. At the risk of appearing to take issue you, I would say that the whole question of whether freedom is anything more than an occasionally useful concept, rests upon a necessary presupposition of a choosing self-entity. You, I think, believe there is some instantiation of an enduring self-entity within or about each of us; and I do not. Whichever of us is right, neither of us has ever found any such thing, so the balance of evidence weighs exclusively in favour of no-self.

    ‘Choice’, I think, is largely determined by what some psychologists call ‘the limbic system’. In other words there’s a certain unalterable predisposition to make choices based on feelings rather than concepts. The brain has an array of apparent ‘choices’, and because the phantasmal self-construct is cognitively aware of these options, and because also there is a proprioceptive sense that accompanies any apparent decision, then so it is that our imagined ‘self’ thinks it has made a choice; and it thinks it was free to do so. There’s something of an illusion occurring here in that as with the magic trick, the sleight of hand is never noticed.

    So as with ‘truth’, I personally regard ‘freedom’ as a concept alone and which is in any case always relative. That’s to say it is dependent upon determinations made outside of conscious awareness, and is always subject to prior conditioning. How can, as Kant suggests, freedom ever be known if hidden influences are always in play? You may, at an implausible stretch, say that those influences occur within and about the body/mind of the individual, and so the individual was free to choose. And yet still we come back either to quite what this homunculus within is – the imaginary ‘chooser’ of the supposed ‘self’ – or to the evanescent nature of the cellular body and how that could ever constitute any fixedly enduring ‘chooser’.


    • Indeed, Kant is cautious in saying we have no knowledge of freedom. However, he thinks we must assume that we have it. But remember, Kant also posits a self, an “I” that accompanies all my representations. We discussed this too, and how Kant’s “I” seems empty. (And to everyone reading this, don’t take my word on Kant’s conception of the self. The other stuff I’m more certain of.)

      I didn’t want to get into a discussion about free will/determinism because the truth of it is, we experience something like freedom whether it’s real or not. I wanted to take this assumption as my jumping off point. Even though we experience freedom, we often don’t have a clear idea of what it is we’re feeling, and I wanted to get a better grasp of it.

      When asked whether I will take cream in my coffee, I’m not gonna say, “Ask my limbic system.” (Although it would be funny!)

      The question of positive/negative freedom is interesting both for the individual and when you think about how society ought to be structured. I was hoping some people would jump on the latter, because it’s a pretty complex issue that I find fascinating.

      And so as not to appear mysterious, and this is going to sound very uncool: I believe in the harmony of the soul. I think knowledge is important for freedom (even if it’s just a ‘feeling’ of freedom), and wisdom and happiness coincide for the most part. None of this precludes the possibility that we are in some way determined by our genes (hell, that’s in Plato too). I just think there’s wiggle room. I have the sense that I can either get things right or wrong, and that my happiness and other people’s happiness depends on my getting things right.


      • ‘Kant is cautious in saying we have no knowledge of freedom. However, he thinks we must assume that we have it.’ That seems a reasonable enough assertion, and for survival purposes, the same could be said of the self. Ideas are helpful, even if they may have no referents in actuality.

        ‘Even though we experience freedom, we often don’t have a clear idea of what it is we’re feeling.’ By my lights, all we’re experiencing is a feeling. It begins and ends there. There’s nothing outside of the feeling and the accompanying belief that the feeling denotes freedom. It’s rather like when religious people insist they can feel their soul within, and hence ‘know’ they possess such a thing. But again, what they feel is a bodily feeling, and clearly not any spiritual or metaphysical referent.

        When asked whether you will take cream in your coffee Tina, aside from the fact that your answer will be a conditioned response, your apparent decision, when first arrived at, will indeed have been informed by feelings within the nervous system.

        I will leave this here just now as I’ve just had an email alert saying you’ve followed up – so more anon!

        Liked by 1 person

    • I’m afraid I didn’t address your point, Hariod. So sorry about that! I should have read more carefully.

      “So as with ‘truth’, I personally regard ‘freedom’ as a concept alone and which is in any case always relative. That’s to say it is dependent upon determinations made outside of conscious awareness, and is always subject to prior conditioning. How can, as Kant suggests, freedom ever be known if hidden influences are always in play?”

      It sounds to me like your saying that even the experience of freedom cannot be further elucidated because so much of it is “outside conscious awareness” and is “always subject to prior conditioning.” Which would make pretty much everything I said in my last reply beside the point.

      Am I getting this right?


      • Any ‘experience’ can always be elucidated conceptually, but only up to a certain point. The qualia of consciousness are slippery; how am I to ‘elucidate’ the scent of a rose? What happens when you attempt to elucidate your claimed ‘experience of freedom’? Can you get anywhere beyond other than what I have said above, which is to say that all you’re experiencing is a feeling? It begins and ends there. There’s nothing outside of the feeling and the accompanying belief that the feeling denotes freedom.

        And above this, is it right to say that this experience you call ‘freedom’ is in fact just that, when:

        a) No one is able to identify what the entity is that is free. A ‘self’ – and that is what exactly?
        b) Prior conditioning and non-conscious functions brought your awareness to this state.

        Please forgive my rather unforgiving tone Tina. I am just trying to keep this concise rather than getting bogged down in streams of qualifiers. I come in peace! H ❤


  2. Well, I think you can elucidate experience quite a bit. How is the scent of a rose like the scent of other flowers and plants? Do all roses smell the same? Is it just a matter of potency? What does the scent of a rose bring to mind? Why is it appealing? Someone who’s very articulate might be able to elucidate such experiences, in turn heightening them when you experience them again. Consider what it’s like to have a nice scotch. My friend and I can go on and on about it. There’s a certain joy in being able to describe experience accurately so that others hear your words and say, “My god, you’ve got it! And I didn’t even know what I was experiencing until you said it!”

    Now the rose may not be there, and I may just be a floating mind experiencing nothing at all. But I can talk about those experiences as they appear to me.

    Same goes for the self and for freedom. And I may be inarticulate, but I believe someone out there can do a proper job of it!

    That said, I don’t distrust experience as much as you do.

    Don’t worry about any unforgiving tones, Hariod. I know you come in peace! As do I!


    • ‘I don’t distrust experience as much as you do’

      Aagh! No, it’s not that I ‘distrust’ experience in the least Tina. The points I keep stressing are that experiences should not be misunderstood; they should not be interpreted falsely; they should not be attributed qualities or functions that are not inherent to them.

      When you talk above of how you might elucidate the scent of the rose, you are only referencing notions about the rose and its scent; you are not elucidating the scent itself; you are not describing the scent to me in the least. You can make comparisons; you can describe the patterns that form on the neuro-receptors that line the olfactory passage; you can go into incredible detail about the rose, its scent and their collective attributes; but you are not elucidating – making clear – the qualia of the scent itself. As you say, you ‘can go on and on about it’; and you ‘can talk about those experiences as they appear’, but you can never make clear the scent of the rose or the taste of the Glennfiddich; it is only in the experience of smelling the rose and tasting the whiskey that the qualia they induce become clear and are elucidated.

      So if you don’t object to me turning the tables, and as you claim to be able to elucidate subjective experience, then the challenge remains: what is ‘the experience of freedom’? H ❤


      • To be clear, it’s not possible to describe an experience and make someone who’s never experienced anything like it before experience it the same way. I can’t “put sight into blind eyes.” But I can point to aspects of the experience that one may not have been conscious of at first. I think these descriptions do elucidate the experience. When my friend notes that Lagavulin has a medicinal quality, I remember the experience and take note of those qualities that I had passed over before, even though they were there all along. You could say I never experienced “medicinal” in the first go-round, that reflection has altered the truth, but I find that a bit off the mark. My friend could say he experiences “fruity” and I could disagree with him. I don’t want to cheat memory of what it deserves, even if it is very little!

        I don’t experience freedom as a conditioned response, but I can only speak here in the 1st person, and I won’t claim that I personally can ‘elucidate’ it or make it clearer to those who don’t experience it this way. In describing these experiences I just have to assume others experience it the way I do. I think describing such all-pervasive choice as a conditioned response is falsifying the experience, certain situations excluded. My what a task you put on me! In any case, I experience in almost every moment a choice. What will I say right now? Do I need to get my butt off this chair and do my errands?

        Probably so. At least this way I can run away from your challenge and I don’t have to be so damned articulate!


        • Tina, I have much enjoyed this exchange with you, and am quite happy to leave it that our minds don’t meet on this one, which I think is par for exchanges between the two of us. I love your humour – you had me in stitches back at my place yesterday – as well as your intellectual resilience, and I think that our disagreements make the exchanges all the more agreeable! As you will by now know, I like to lay down my position quite firmly (as do you), so that if there is some flaw within then it may be revealed. I would much rather that than appear to be correct when in fact I am not. So, thank you for allowing me the space to engage here, and I look forward to reading what other commenters may say on the subject of freedom.


          Hariod. ❤

          Liked by 1 person

  3. “What is your conception of freedom?”

    Hmmm. I’m probably utterly missing the point on this one, but I’ve never let that be much of an impediment 🙂

    I think of “freedom” as one of those words that simply can’t stand alone, unless it’s within context. The term, it seems to me, is always relative, kind of like the word “big”. You can be more or less free, and there are different types: political, economic, cultural, etc. So, my conception of freedom as a stand alone term is pretty much what the dictionary says: absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint.

    What are my conceptions of the various types? Of course, we’re never free to ignore the laws of physics, so we always have some constraints on our actions. Political freedom seems to involve being able to espouse opinions hostile to the state without severe consequences, or to have some say in who runs it. I think economic freedom means having money and the ability to spend it. Cultural freedom might mean being able to be unconventional without fear of being ostracized. Psychological freedom might mean being free of uncommon mental challenges.

    As I said above, possibly clueless in relation to what you asked.

    “Would you take the cupcake or world peace?”
    World peace. My chances of having more cupcakes in the future are higher that way.

    “And would it be chocolate or vanilla? Or something involving cream cheese?”
    Chocolate of course, although if it’s not available cream cheese is quite satisfactory.

    I must stop writing now to take care of a sudden craving for something sweet.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You haven’t missed the point, you just see many different kinds of freedom. Which is okay! I posed the question in a way that makes it seem as if there is only one, but that was in a misguided attempt to continue my “What is…” series.

      I just realized my cupcakes and mosquito bites example has to do with the fact that I’m on a diet and I’m sleeping with a tube of hydrocortisone cream next to my pillow each night. Funny how these things creep in in unexpected places.

      Well, cream cheese was the correct answer. Then vanilla, then chocolate. That’s the only thing you missed. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Interesting post as always, and thanks for referencing my entry.

    I would choose the cupcake because I don’t know what it would mean for an individual to possess world peace. (Is world peace bigger than a cupcake or smaller?) Although, I will say I prefer amandine croissant to any kind of cupcake, and I am an expert on these matters as I worked at a bakery for a few years when I was in university. 😛

    In a sense I think my answer to your first two questions would be an affirmative. We can understand the value of negative and positive freedom separately, but their value is enhanced by the presence of the other. For example negative freedom is rendered less valuable if one is in the grip of addiction or some other enslaving set of desires. Likewise, positive freedom seems less valuable if one is externally constrained, as part of the value of positive freedom is that one’s psyche is properly ordered or one is acting on proper reasons even though one is not externally forced to act in this way. This is more of an assertion than an argument, but it seems intuitive as we tend to praise the generosity of someone who sacrifices their time to assist the poor more than we praise someone who dutifully pays their taxes, as the former person is not coerced to engage in their action, while the latter person is.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I tend to agree with you in that the two enhance each other. Your point is really interesting.

      “…part of the value of positive freedom is that one’s psyche is properly ordered or one is acting on proper reasons even though one is not externally forced to act in this way.”

      I just wanted to go further with this and bring it into a political context. In America for example we think of positive freedom as being outside the political sphere; in other words, it’s not the government’s business whether we order our psyches properly. That’s up to the individual. The government’s in the business of dealing with negative freedom. This is reflected in freedom of religion, freedom of speech, etc.

      Rousseau’s point of view is different. So is Marx’s, for that matter. They think it is the government’s job to constrain the populace to be free in the positive sense. But as you say here, that constraint would render the positive freedom less valuable.

      It’s not possible for the government to induce through constraint positive freedom for the individual if by “positive freedom” we mean something like the ability to act rationally. If I don’t know that 2+2=4, I’m not gonna know it any more if I have a gun to my head (but I might say it just to get the gun to go away).

      Of course, there’s more to the government’s job than just promoting negative freedom. Education seems like an example of promoting positive freedom. And with social security and health care, matters get stickier.

      I’ll totally take your amandine croissant over a cupcake any day. Actually a really good plain croissant beats everything in the pastry case for me. I’ve never attempted to make them myself—if I ever mastered it, having them around would be dangerous.


      • Interesting, and I agree that education, and to some degree social insurance and healthcare can be viewed as tools of governmental policy that help to realize positive freedom without directly trying to coerce people to have particular values or dispositions. This was precisely the point of TH Green. I do not know how familiar you are with his work, but his ideas were very instrumental in the development of social liberalism, and the notion that a more interventionist state need not be something that liberals oppose on the grounds that freedom was connected with the realization of certain fundamental capacities, and this required more than a mere nightwatchman state. Unfortunately, the fact that he was a part of the British Idealist tradition has meant that he is not studied a ton in the anglophone world.

        Sorry for taking so long to respond I have been quite ill for the last week or so.

        Liked by 1 person

    • I haven’t read TH Green, but the coercion seems to be key. What is coercion? Some people feel like having to pay taxes is coercion, whereas I’m probably more on the government intervention side of the spectrum when it comes to a lot of things.

      In any case, it’s sort of a balancing act of government intervention on behalf of the public. A tricky situation. On the other hand, if we had a better educational system, that would take care of a lot of positive freedom problems.

      I hope you’re feeling better!


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