What is Freedom?
When one asks after the meaning of the word freedom, one is actually asking about the system in which this word has it's meaning. The question deals with the description of philosophical, judicial, political, economic, and societal system in which freedom displays itself. One asks after the meaning of the word liberalism. This question takes it concrete form through the specific historical process, in which it is asked. When asking this question in Boston one refers to the events which paved the way in America's experiment in the realization of freedom. The place Boston marks a point in the development of the concept of freedom upon which my speech will make a connection. In that places coin the meaning of a conception, conceptions are concrete: they appear individually in historical manifestations, in symbols, or in linguistic expressions. I do not, however, wish here to go into the appearance of a conception in a specific historical situation, instead the appearance of a conception in philosophical texts. More specifically, the appearance of the conception of freedom in the writings of Immanuel Kant.
However, when one speaks in Boston in 1998 about Kant/s conception of freedom, one is speaking from a position which takes its meaning from the above mentioned development to the present popular experiences of the words freedom and liberalism. When one examines Kant's conception of freedom, one presupposes the conceptual history of the idea which has given the conception its meaning. This meaning is marked from the Greek use of the conception in the Polis, through the individualizing and politification in Rome, through the theological discussion of the middle ages and the political discussion of the modern age up to its practical realization-that is to say, its catastrophe-in the revolutions around 1800. The concept freedom is always context-dependent. In various discussions it always has a meaning that is important to that discussion.
What, for me, is interesting in this discussion, is the question: what defines the concept of freedom here and now. In which context do I use this word?
When one analyses a specific appearance of a word, symbol, or metaphor-such as the concept of freedom in Kant/s writings-one should look at it's appearance in different epochs in order to answer the question in what way Kant's concept is different from that of Plato, Aristotle, the middle-ages or Hobbes. I will mainly concentrate here on Kant's texts because they discuss the concept in its many forms and because his views have set the tone of discussions of freedom since then.
Kant himself distinguished multiple meanings of the concept. These reach from the transcendental idea of freedom to freedom which grounds the moral law as factum of reason and to freedom as "einziges, ursprüngliches, jedem Menschen, kraft seiner Menschheit zustehendes (...), angeborenes Recht" up to freedom without a concept to schematize. The concept of freedom is an important component of all three of his works of critical philosophy: Critique of Pure Reason, Critique of Practical Reason, and Critique of Judgement. Its use, however, is in each of the three works a different one. Can one separate these three uses from each other?
In the Critique of Pure Reason freedom points to its practical use. Despite this it is set first as a pure concept. As is well known, the third antinomy in the Critique of Pure Reason is the antinomy of freedom versus the laws of nature.
Kant's practical philosophy is based on the concept of freedom which he there works out. This act of working out a foundation will play a decisive role in a systematical view. The law of the categorical imperative is derived from the concept of freedom, in which freedom is the condition of the possibility of this imperative, the factum of reason. The tone of the use of this concept betrays, at the same time, the emotional meaning Kant couples with this concept. Which central role this concept approaches can be seen in formulations which, even over 200 years after they were written down, have lost none of their power:
Kant's philosophical system is made up of a speculative and a practical part. The concept of freedom represents the connecting piece between the two. Kant's practical philosophy is based upon the concept of freedom which is worked out in the speculative part just as the concept of freedom, which is proven in the practical part brings to a close the speculative part. "Der Begriff der Freiheit, so fern dessen Realität durch ein apodiktisches Gesetz der praktischen Vernunft bewiesen ist, macht nun den Schlußstein von dem ganzen Gebäude eines Systems der reinen, selbst der spekulativen, Vernunft aus." Freedom remains, although a central and emphatic concept, problematic. Problematic because it must bridge between two parts of systems while at the same time playing an important roll in both-despite the fact that it can not be, in either of the two parts, completely defined and grounded. Kant repeatedly points to the other part, without actually being able to come to a conclusion in the current one.
The system of philosophy stays in Kant's formulation unfinished, despite the apparent conclusion, his comments to the contrary and the line of his critical works. Thus Kant ran ahead. In the Metaphyic of Morals he gets down to actual concrete work. He outlines the judicial system of a society which should be worthy of his philosophy.
In the Metaphysic of Morals freedom is again the central concept. It stands in the middle and gives structure to the whole work. It is firstly the central right: "Freiheit (Unabhängigkeit von einer anderen nötigenden Willkür), sofern sie mit jeder anderen Freiheit nach einem allgemeinen Gesetz zusammen bestehen kann, ist diese einzige, ursprüngliche, jedem Menschen kraft seiner Menschheit zustehende Recht." Secondly, it orders the Metaphysic of Morals into two parts: The seperation of the lesson of the virtues and the lesson of rights, "gründet sich darauf: daß der Begriff der Freiheit, der jenen beiden gemein ist, die Einteilung in die Pflichten der äußeren und inneren Freiheit notwendig macht."
Reading the Metaphysic of Morals in detail leaves one with little doubt to the fact that Kant made himself no illusions about the reality, or the realization of freedom. For him it was important to show the normal, land-owning, and active citizens that they should so act as if they were free-despite all the empirical evidence to the contrary which he neither attempts to contradict nor weaken.
We have followed Kant's path to the realization of a system, a closed and completed whole. This whole is, despite it's claim of being finished, a fragment. This failing to realize the claim shows the tragicness of its failure. A final problem is represented in the convolution which is found in the fragment mentioned in the Reflections in respect to the concept of freedom. How are these fragments to be ordered in the picture which we have created up to now? It is not possible to explore these question now. But I would like to make the suggestion that all of Kant's texts, because they are fragments of a system, should be read like these Reflections, that is, as broken pieces of a necessarily considered and emotionally longed for completion.
If, after this overview of the use of the concept of freedom in Kant's works, this concept proves to be continuingly problematic, we still can't get around having to ask the connecting question: What is the problem of freedom inside Kant's philosophy?
Freedom is used in different connections in Kant's philosophical writings. I have attempted to call a few familiar passages into memory. With this attempt we answered the question of whether these passages could be brought together with one another with: no. Whether the concept of freedom has its place in a systematical whole or not, although the concept is observed in different connotations, was not answered. Although this system exists quite rightly. I called this system at the beginning of this speech the system of liberalism.
Kant uses the concept of freedom in many different ways in his writings. Which uses have we come in contact with? First, in the Critique of Pure Reason it was freedom in a cosmological sense as a transcendental idea. Further, freedom in a practical sense as independence of the arbitrariness from the coercion of urges through sensuality, or in the Critique of Practical Reason where freedom is seen in speculative as well as practical uses. If one were to line up all the names, terms, and the connected problems, freedom takes on such a multitude of meanings that it would be impossible to deal with them all here. Freedom appears as the opposite of necessity, as freedom of action, as freedom of will, as practical freedom, as psychological or comparative freedom compared to transcendental freedom, as the ability for pure reason to be practical for itself, as transcendental and absolute freedom. Kant lays down his foundational structure as such: he differentiates between theoretical and practical use of the concept freedom. Inside of the theoretical use he further divides between psychological or comparative freedom on the one side and transcendental or cosmological freedom on the other. Kant differentiates between negative and positive freedom in practical use. Kant orders the many different forms of freedom in that he attributes freedom a central importance.
What Kant does not talk about is the abuse of freedom and arbitrariness. He fails to do so because he holds his philosophical system for finished and because he holds his action and justice guidelines for understandable and followable. The central problem with freedom for Kant is not those mentioned above, rather it is the impossibility of defining freedom in a speculative way. Kant promises "die Deduktion des Begriffs Freiheit aus der reinen praktischen Vernunft, mit ihr auch die Möglichkeit eines kategorischen Imperativs" at the beginning of the third section from the Foundation of the Metaphysics of Morals. It happens from the fact of a categorical imperative. The acceptance of freedom is a condition for the possibility of a moral law. Neither the societal reality nor the logical derivative of the concept can be seen as unproblematical. When comparing the emphatic determination of freedom with the societal reality of liberalism, one realizes how damaging the latter is and what the consequences from Kant are. To this come the problems which were formulated in the philosophical tradition regarding freedom and the question of which solutions Kant has prepared for these problems. The question, as well as the history of the concept, and Kant's use of the concept, which I have described as problematic, is whether we are dealing with just apparent problems. Apparent problems because the concept is used in many different connections and at different times and because the concept is complex. In order to answer this question we must first clear up the concept and isolate its elements.
The difficulties with freedom are many. Freedom is not a fact, rather an assumption. It is assumed in order to promote the following of a binding law. In the same moment that freedom is accepted it must also be negated. Freedom of practical and speculative reason are mutually dependent upon one another. It can only be speculative in relation to its practical use. On the same hand a practical side can only come about with the assumption of the speculative side. These are the problems within Kant's philosophy. Further problems occur when one views freedom as a societal reality, even when this occurs only philosophically, such as in respect to Kant's Metaphysic of Morals. What Kant postulates here as freedom is actually freedom for the citizens and a lack of freedom for all others.
Freedom is the concrete experienced and personal freedom as a dimension of life. It is also experienced in a negative sense, as an absence of freedom, non-freedom, limited freedom, or the taking away of freedom. It is experienced not only positively as freedom of movement, freedom of thought or development. Freedom is experienced exactly as freedom and absence of freedom of the individual. I can experience my own personal freedom at the cost of others and vice versa. Freedom is always concrete: dependent both on time and place, as well as subjective. Deduced from these single-cases the concept is the same that Kant uses in his practical philosophy. The practical concept is set over the speculative. Last in this row is the freedom which Kant describes as indubitable transcendental freedom.
To dissect the concept freedom is the same as analyzing it in it's many different applications within a system with other concepts and to deduce the concept itself.
The problem which Kant took a look at is this: how can I be free when I am obviously not free? After this overview we know Kant's answer. Whether we are able to build a philosophy of justice upon this concept remains, after this discussion, more than questionable. What remains, whether one believes the solution or not, is the problem. And that is the actual problem, one can not solve this problem philosophically, at the same time one must really solve the problem because it is concretely dealt with.
All our efforts seem to have been for nothing. When one asks what freedom is one discloses the powerlessness of reason. One may contemplate freedom, one can experience it in short moments, one can experience it looking back or as an open future. One can emphatically defend it and fight to implement one's practical ideas. What is left over when one has dissected freedom? Something that is, purely logically clear, but which does not have much left over from the complexity of the concept of freedom, something which is no longer useful, something which is not my concept.
One choice is left: to live with the contradictory concept. Such as in a discussion to which this speech was intended for.
(1) Kant I., Metaphysik der Sitten, 1797 A 45
(2) Kant I., Verkündigung des nahen Abschlusses eines Traktats zum ewigen Frieden in der Philosophie , 1796, A 492
(3) Kant I., Kritik der praktischen Vernunft, 1788 A 4
(4) Kant I., Metaphysik der Sitten, 1798 B 45
(5) Kant I., Metaphysik der Sitten, 1797 A 48
(6) Kant I., Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten, 1785 A 100