Academic journal article Philosophy Today

"At What Price Freedom?": The Phenomenological Rudiments of Sartre's Cost-Benefit Analysis

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

"At What Price Freedom?": The Phenomenological Rudiments of Sartre's Cost-Benefit Analysis

Article excerpt

In this essay I want to situate the Sartrean perspective on freedom with respect to a topical, albeit broad, trend in contemporary Western civic discourse. I aim to do so, not only in the hope of showcasing some of the most compelling aspects of Sartre's treatment of human freedom, but also to show how such an account can serve to raise hard questions about the suppositions underlying and driving that trend.

Basically, the cultural phenomenon I want to focus on concerns the fact that the price of freedom is at issue nowadays as never before. Of particular note is the way recourse is unquestioningly taken to what one might call a "commodification" of freedom. We are not only asked to consider the value of freedom, but to do so in relative terms. In the process, therefore, the questions concerning freedom take on a different guise. On the one hand, what must one give up or trade for freedom? On the other, would one not rather wish to exchange freedom in favor of a life apparently more stable, less risky, and less uncertain?

There is nothing inherently new about this "commodification" of freedom, it being just another version of the idea that freedom takes on a (justified) meaning only with respect to that which opposes or threatens it. Yet its most curious and distinguishing feature is that, as with any form of commodity, freedom is quite simplistically made into an object of both "market nostalgia" and "market optimism." One quite easily harks back to a time when freedom appeared less of a gamble, that is, when it did not have to be traded off against anything, and one also hopes for a time when the costs of freedom will no longer be so great.

Within this framework of understanding freedom, a critical question can be raised from Sartre's perspective. One has to wonder whether the price of freedom is indeed subject to any such fluctuations. Can freedom really be now less costly, now more? As if its price were not fixed and absolute, instead of being determined on a case-by-case basis, in relation to this or that situation? As if at least certain aspects of human freedom did not involve certain costs that are incurred no matter what one values, and no matter the circumstances?

Precisely in order to show how trenchant this question truly is, we shall turn to the question of the price of freedom for Sartre. Indeed, in his eyes, where does this in fact lie?

Given the resurgence of interest in Sartre's phenomenology over the past few years, most readers will already be familiar with the stock answer to this question. It has to do with nothing other than the somewhat beleaguered notion of decentered subjectivity. Put roughly, this decentering or fracturing of subjectivity follows from the fact that human freedom can only be thought of as "my" freedom or "your" freedom with certain difficulties and a number of caveats.

As Sartre would have it, this is because, on the one hand, freedom lies at the core of our self-awareness-that is, the pre-reflexive cogito-in being that which individuates one's intentional acts or comportments (determining them as the intentionality of "just this" human being) in a way that the hic et nunc of temporal and spatial localization never can.1 On the other hand, despite crucially contributing to this sense of self or "ipseity" accompanying intentional acts, such freedom is nothing with which one can identify, and offers no position to be occupied within or with respect to it.2 In other words, insofar as freedom cannot be identified with any "egological" faculty or capacity (let alone calling into question the very need of an Ego for any basic form of self-identity), it cannot really be said either that one has such freedom or that any use is made of it. Rather, it simply is the mode in which intentional acts are accomplished; or put another way, we simply exist in light of our freedom, in the awareness of it pervading everything said, thought, felt, and done. …

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