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October 17, 2018 · 7:00 am

Cars and Freedom

The Dodge Challenger commercial from early 2011 claims that “there’s a couple of things America got right – cars and freedom”. Aside from the fact that a Dodge Challenger would be a remarkably bad idea as a battlefield weapon, it does raise the question of what it would mean to get “freedom” right.

Everyone claims this concept as their own. No one proudly claims “I am not free” – at best, some may give up some freedoms in order to gain others. But all of this is based on the idea that freedom is a thing we can have more or less of. It’s a property. Let’s start by examining that. The central question here is, what would you consider real freedom?

1. We sometimes talk about “negative freedom” This is “freedom from”, or the lack of coercion. So long as people act of their own will, and are not coerced, then they are free. For many people in the US, this is what freedom amounts to, and it is the reason why anything that seems to “limit choice” or the exercise of one’s own individual will, is seen as a limit on freedom.

But what if there is no external limit on your will, but there are no choices available? Henry Ford used to say that people could have any color of Model T that they wanted, as long as it was black. Now, at the beginning, people probably didn’t care much about the color of the Model T. It was enough that it worked. But things didn’t remain like that – eventually people wanted other colors.

What’s negative about negative freedom? Just that we assume that freedom is a natural condition that we all have, but there are barriers to its exercise. So, having freedom means getting rid of things that stand in the way of exercising my free will.

2. So, let’s supplement this simple version of freedom. Let’s say that freedom is the lack of coercion plus a multiplicity of personal choices. So, I go to get my Model-T, and now it could be one of several colors. But how many do we need, at this point, in order that I consider myself free? Would it be enough to have three colors, for instance?

The issue is probably not that there’s a specific number of colors that provide freedom. Its relative, not absolute – if everyone else (or even a few others) have a choice from among hundreds of colors, and I only can choose from three, then I might see myself as not having freedom. If there are only three colors available to everyone (or, only three colors in the world), then I would probably not think much about it. But what that means is that freedom might be a relative rather than an absolute concept. In other words, the issue might be about having a range of options, but it is also about how my range of options compares to the range of options someone else has.

But there’s still a problem. I want that Model T. I know what color I want, and it’s available. Can I just go get it? Well, not necessarily. I might not have the money.

3. So, let’s supplement this version of freedom again. What if freedom = non-coercion + a range of personal choices + power to make the choices come to pass? Is this now freedom? Surely the mere fact that there are cars in the world, doesn’t mean that I can automatically have one. Even if we imagine a world which doesn’t run on the exchange of money for goods and services, things are unevenly distributed, and getting whatever I want isn’t possible for anyone.

We might just think that this is an argument for having lots of money, but it’s worth remembering that money is just a means to an end. You still have to know what end you want, and that’s harder to come by than people might realize. There are lots of cautionary tales about the folly of just acquiring whatever you want. You might, in fact, obscure your ability to know what your real ends and goals are, rather than enhance that ability. In other words, you might not get to know yourself well enough.

What does this have to do with freedom? Well, consider a drug addict. We might say that that person is free – he or she chooses to take drugs each time that the drugs are taken. But of course, addiction is the opposite of freedom – it’s compulsion. Even though you choose, you aren’t choosing freely. I had a friend who smoked, and when I told him he wasn’t acting freely (he was another philosopher – we talked like this all the time), he said, “No, I’m completely free, and I will now demonstrate it – I will choose to have a cigarette.” Every time, he’d make the same choice, and every time, he’d claim that he freely did so.

So, did he know himself? Well, in many ways yes, but I would say, not completely. And yet, do I, a non-smoker, know myself any better? Probably not. Where are my compulsions, where are the things that direct me to do something, when I tell myself I’m freely choosing (hint: it probably involves Oreos).

In other words, even if I have the ability to make my wishes come true, how do I know that I don’t have some inner compulsion that is nevertheless hampering my choice? One way to know this is to rely on those around me.

4. Let’s revise our definition of freedom again. Freedom = non-coercion + societal choices + the power to make the choices come to pass. What do I mean by societal choices? Not that society makes a choice for me, but that society lays out a range of choices, and a range of human experiences, and that helps me to decide. Do I want to become a drug addict? Well, no, but why not? Because I can see what it has done to others (and of course, I know that few drug addicts reflected on whether they wanted to become addicts, and chose to do so. It’s an illness, not a consumer preference). In other words, I look around at the experience of others, and that helps me decide. What if I was a slave, and emancipation came along, and I decided that my life was more comfortable living in the predictable reality I had known than in the new and uncertain world that I didn’t know. Could someone freely choose to be a slave? Or would we say, they are not yet aware of all their options, and haven’t seen a compelling model of what life looks like outside of slavery?

And there’s another issue here – is there a difference between being free and feeling free? Is it possible to in fact be free, but not feel like you are? Or, is the opposite the case? Surely that must be the case – as corporatization grows, our options in fact become more restricted in many ways (there are fewer car companies and computer companies than in the early days of either of those technologies). Yet, companies spend a lot of time convincing us that buying their products give us freedom, and is an expression of our own freedom. In other words, we can feel free, whether we in fact are or not.

Are we free by this point? Is it really possible to have non-coercion, and at the same time recognize that there are social choices, the sorts of things that people would choose if they knew what was good for them?

Note that what has been sketched out here is a kind of political spectrum. The first version is basically a libertarian version, whereas the final version is basically social democracy. In the first version, freedom just means a lack of constraint on your choices. It doesn’t say anything about the nature of those choices (and, that’s also built into classical economics – we can’t dispute over taste, and we can’t look inside the black box of people’s minds. All we can see is their action, and make inferences about their opportunities and constraints based on their preferences). The final version assumes that social models matter, and education matters, and social institutions that make up for past inequalities matter.

And you can probably see how, from each end of the spectrum, the other end looks like a lack of freedom. The libertarian looks at all those social institutions and says, that’s just a set of limits on choices. The social democrat looks at the libertarian and says, there’s no mechanism for anyone to get to know who they are, and realize their true selves. They’re wide open to manipulation, and while they may have choice, they have the same level of freedom that an addict does. They’re just in denial about the reasons for their choices, they’re not making truly free choices.

5. To this point, it’s all been about freedom as a property, or something that we can have more or less of, and that we strive for. What if it’s not like that at all? What if we can’t help but be free, and all our talk about a lack of freedom is just talk. At every point in our lives we make a choice, and there would be no greater or fewer choices if we were millionaires or paupers. It’s just choice, at every minute, but we spend a lot of time convincing ourselves that we don’t have choice. What if it’s not that we have freedom, but freedom has us?

This is existentialism in a nutshell, more or less. Freedom isn’t a property, it’s what it means to be human. We can’t escape it, except by dying. So, the issue really is, what are all the ways that we, and others, convince us that we don’t have freedom when we really do?

This has all been about freedom in the abstract. If you read my introductory diary on this series, you know that I want to get into the question of how concepts look different from different places. This is a start – it gets at the different senses of freedom in the US. But the world is a big place, and the US is only 4.5% of that place. Freedom has meant a lot of other things out there.

I’m not sure the Dodge Challenger ad is right about cars, and I’m quite sure that, while the American version of freedom has been absolutely crucial in the world, it’s not the only one out there. That’s what I want to think about next time.

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Conceptual Ecologies

This is my conceptual sandbox.

Philosophy is the study of concepts. Gilles Deleuze called the philosopher the “friend of the concept”. Unfortunately, concepts are not so much studied these days as they are used as slogans, or weapons, or shibboleths, or talismans. I want to do my small part in changing that.

I’m interested in how concepts are rooted in place, how they change and shift and adapt to new circumstances. I’m interested in the dirty little secrets that concepts have, the less-than-stellar parentage, the dubious associations, the bad neighbourhoods, and the ambiguous provenance. And, of course, I’m also interested in the fine upbringing and noble peerage within the world of concepts, when it occurs – it’s just rarer than most people think it is.

And, I’m interested in the ways in which concepts form ecologies. I think that no one owns concepts. There are, rather, “conceptual ecologies”, groups of related concepts and their supporting infrastructure, that make viable concepts viable. The life of the concept is one in which those shadings of difference can interact, and versions of concepts can uncover differences of human experience that make the world richer.

I am probably in the minority among my philosophical colleagues in this view of concepts. The classic philosophical approach to concepts is to find their truth, their intention. This goes all the way back to the standard reading of Socrates, who is seen in the Platonic dialogues as one who strips away faulty and mistaken understandings of concepts to reveal the truth about things. This is Plato’s dialectic.

What this assumes is that there is a truth about things. Personally, I’m not convinced. That is, I think that there are better and worse versions of concepts, but we don’t move toward The Truth. That’s what they thought happened in the 19th century (Hegel, Marx, others). What I think is closer to the reality of things is that we find concepts that are more or less adequate to the times.

So, I want to have it both ways. I want to say that some versions of a concept are better than others. We have progressed, in some ways. But I don’t think we’re progressing toward a cosmic truth about things. I think we are showing forth new ways of being in the world. If I have an article of faith on this, it is just this –  a conceptually rich world is better than a conceptually poor one.

What I want to show in these diaries, is that despite the older-style right wing slogan that they are the “party of ideas”, in fact, the rich conceptual ecology does not exist on the right, but on the left. That does not mean that the right has never had an interesting idea. It means that those ideas can’t, and don’t exist in a rich ecology of ideas. The prevailing wind on the popular right (and, they have all but overwhelmed any other kind these days) is toward conceptual simplification and, in many cases, superficiality.

This is also not to say that the left is the sole purveyor of good ideas. That, historically, can’t be maintained, I think. But the conceptual ecology is inevitably going to be richer. And, like an ecology, or a state, or for that matter, an economy, rich diversity is better than monocultures, monarchies, and monopolies. The prevailing wind on the left is toward that intellectual diversity.

Does this mean that there is historical inevitability about the triumph of the left? I’m not so optimistic as some on this. There’s too much of Thrasymachus around. He’s the guy who said to Socrates in the Republic that justice is nothing more than the interests of the stronger. So, I’m not suggesting that ideas win in the end – framing, organizing, and agitating take that historical pattern in other directions (as do co-opting, subverting, and outright bribing, as we have seen done on the right, and on Wall Street, in recent years).

So, yes, this is a partisan blog. But I also want to maintain that it is a blog about reason. While I believe that the conceptual prevailing winds favour conceptual diversity, there is no infallibility anywhere, and there is no conceptual version of original sin. I recognize that a partisan of the right will argue that markets bring diversity whereas bureaucracies destroy it, and so the prevailing winds toward diversity are on the right, not the left. I think that’s fundamentally incorrect, but it is not nonsensical. In other words, there’s an argument to be made. And this is where I want to explore those arguments. I think it’s possible to both take a stand on some concepts, and also find a space of reason to discuss those with others. I’ve long wanted to teach a course on “The Right and the Left”, looking at the conceptually rich texts from both of these, and from other political positions that don’t easily sort into one or the other. There once was a debate about ideas, and elsewhere in the world, there still is.

But this is not just a partisan blog, in the sense that not everything I want to talk about neatly sorts itself into the political right or left. I don’t mean this to be “post-political”, as if such a thing were possible. I meant that the ecologies of some concepts are not quite so close to the hot-button political issues as others.

My aim in these occasional diaries is modest. I just want to survey the conceptual ecologies around us. I want to think about what happens when the right lays claim to concepts such as freedom. I want to consider the American exceptionalist position, which is a particular kind of conceptual ecology (deeply mistaken, IMHO, but akin to a kind of utopian project that serves to diminish and impoverish the conceptual ecology in the US).

And, I want to recover the idea that concepts matter. In public life in the US, they’re in decline – they tend to be worn as badges or wielded as swords, rather than considered. The result is that they’ve become slogans, and that just makes the ecology poorer, and our political discourse harder. We end up arguing about things that don’t exist, or that assume other concepts that might be problematic or objectionable. This doesn’t have to happen – it doesn’t happen, in other advanced democracies. No one has perfect discursive and conceptual space, but other countries look at this one in disbelief much of the time, and I think for good reason. Whereas England or Germany or Canada has debates about actual ideas, and how they matter, we debate about procedures, and leave the concepts to be assumed by the faithful on all sides of any issue. The health care debate never raised the question of the nature of justice, or the nature of humans in society, or the nature of rights, obligations, and so forth.

Only in a country where a term like “socialism” has lost all meaning, could Obama be called a socialist. I want to try to recover some meanings, not to impose my meaning, but to make the conceptual ecology rich again.

So, that’s my idea for a series. I hope it will provoke some useful discussion. As you can probably tell from my description of conceptual ecologies, difference is welcome here. My reflections on any given concept are meant to do a couple of things – sketch out the lay of the land, as I see it, and serve as a provocation for further discussion.

We generally are more concerned on this list about the strength of the arguments and ideas in a diary, than the identity of the diarist. Appeals to authority take a back seat to clear writing and argumentation. That is how it should be, in my opinion. I am a professor of philosophy at a large American public university, but that’s not why I think anyone should consider these ideas. My intention here is not to lecture or impart knowledge, but to explore. I do not have the last word. I’m happy to hear from other philosophers on this, and feel free to bring in philosophical references. Everyone else is also welcome to join the discussion too, no matter what your background. Just make sure that this series remains accessible to everyone – keep jargon to a minimum, and if it’s needed, please explain it.

This will be an occasional series – I’ll do what I can, as often as I can. I’ve made an initial list of some concepts that I think it would be good to consider. I’m not planning on doing these in the order given. Feel free to add more.

  • Conceptual Ecology
  • Concept
  • Freedom
  • Individualism
  • Socialism
  • Equality
  • Character
  • Human Nature
  • Nature
  • Ethics
  • Reality
  • Society
  • Science
  • Humanities
  • Objectivity
  • Representation
  • Power
  • Emotion
  • Reason
  • Irrationality
  • Capitalism
  • Terror
  • Place
  • Culture
  • Victimhood

This post, and some in this series, will also go to DailyKos.

UPDATE: The discussion is quite interesting over on DailyKos to this post. Check it out.

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