Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

The Persistence of the Problem of Freedom

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

The Persistence of the Problem of Freedom

Article excerpt

A CONCERN TO UNDERSTAND THE POSSIBILITIES AND LIMITS of human freedom is as old as philosophy. Yet the question whether and in what sense human beings are free agents still provokes heated debate. Even a century ago, as William James began his discussion of the issue, he wondered, with some bemusement, whether there could possibly be any "juice" left in it! (1) Happily, he concluded that there was still more to be said, but his eloquent defense of free will failed to convince; it became just another chapter in the ongoing and seemingly endless dispute. In the years since, many additional essays and books have been written, covering every aspect and espousing every possible view of the matter. The deep disagreements continue. It is this very phenomenon, the remarkable persistence--and resistance--of the problem of freedom, upon which I wish to reflect. Why is it that after such a long history the same vigorous differences endure? Is it more than mere philosophical partisanship that keeps the discussants talking past one another? I believe that there is more to it. I suspect, much as Kant thought, that there is here a sort of antinomy in which valid but seemingly incompatible intuitions are expressed over and over again. Perhaps by considering this possibility we can, even now, squeeze out a bit more juice.


Let me sketch the context of the debate as I see it. There is a kind of freedom that seems to everyone to be clear and uncontroversial: Political philosophers call it liberty, we can call it freedom of action. To be free in this sense is to be able to do what one wishes to do--within some acceptable range of actions, to be sure--without external (physical or social) interference. It means to be able to carry out one's intentions, to do what one chooses. Actualizing this freedom requires that one have, or develop, the appropriate abilities and resources and, as philosophers of all cultures remind us, it helps to be blessed by nature and to enjoy a benign social order. Politically, the force of this sort of freedom is largely negative--that one not be unwarrantedly prevented by others from acting as one chooses, or compelled to act contrary to what one chooses, that is, against one's will. Philosophers of every sort agree that this kind of freedom is crucially important for healthy political life, even though necessarily limited in certain respects. They agree that while human societies regularly repress appropriate expression of this freedom and may require reform or revolution, nothing in human nature, nothing in principle, prevents us human beings from exercising it as fully as desirable.

There is another, closely related dimension of the freedom of action which seems to be commonly understood and accepted as well--namely, that one be able to do as one chooses not only without external interference, but also without internal (bodily or mental) interference due, perhaps, to some impediment, injury, or illness. Insofar as something in our individual natures or personal histories prevents us from carrying out actions we choose to undertake, or fully to realize them, we know generally what to do. We treat such "unfreedom" as an empirical problem, and we call upon medical or psychological therapies to provide whatever measure of remediation is possible.

We easily recognize that freedom of action, in this twofold, external and internal sense, is necessary in order for a person to take or be assigned responsibility for his specific actions, and that the measure of one's responsibility is proportioned to the extent of one's freedom in these respects.

But there is another kind of freedom, we might call it freedom in action, upon which philosophers have never been able to agree. This is the freedom not only to do what one chooses without external or internal interference, but the freedom to choose in the first place, the freedom to form and resolve to pursue one's own purposes--what the tradition, at least since Augustine, has called the freedom of the will. …

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