2006/02/13

Existential freedom, DeBeauvoir

A quote:
We think that the meaning of the situation does not impose itself on the consciousness of a passive subject, that it surges up only bu the disclosure which a free subject effects in his project.
...
Now, neither scorn nor esteem would have any meaning if one regarded the acts of a man as a purely mechanical resultant. In order for men to beome indignant or to admire, the must be conscious of their own freedom and the freedom of others. Thus, everything occurs within each man and in the collective tactics as if men were free.(1)
Simone De Beauvoir reminds us of the intuition common in latter-day western society that some sort of radical freedom is necessary for (moral) responsibility for (and indeed the intelligibility of) our actions. She has placed existentialist thought in the tradition of DesCartes, Kant, and Hegel. She continues:
But then what revelation can a coherent humanism hope to oppose to the testimony which man brings to bear upon himself? So Marxists often find themselves having to confirm this belief in freedom, even if they have to reconcile it with determination as well as they can.
That is to say, in contradistinction, that existentialism does not need to reconcile with determinism: it denies it. The justification for the denial is apparently the conceptual necessity of regarding ourselves as free actors. But just because we are constituted in such a way that we cannot conceive of ourselves as nonfree (determined) actors, or as actors who are morally responsible when such responsibility comes only with freedom, does not entail that we are free. This is just the mistake committed by the ontological argument for deity, i.e. in sum:
P1. it is necessary that God exists (by definition)
C. therefore God exists.
The argument (God exists -> God exists) anyway does not pass muster. Modal arguments of this sort have a tendency to grasp the minds of folks who accept that a possible necessity is a necessity but not those who accept that a possible necessity is necessary only if it does (contingently) exist. The value of existentialist philosophy is supposed to be how we can deal with this bifurcation in our thought between our empirical knowledge that we are not radically free and our need to believe, for various reasons, that we are:
As for us, whatever the case may be, we believe in freedom. Is it true that this belief must lead us to despair?
... it appears to us that by turning toward this freedom we are going to discover a principle of action whose range will be universal. The characteristic feeature of all ethics is to consider human life as a game that can be won or lost and to teach man the means of winning.
As a not-so-closeted Wittgensteinian, I find this terminology appealing. In fact, I am surprised that there is not more collusion between analytic philosophers of language and (a) existentialists or (b) historical constructionists (some postmodernists are this, the view being that our nature is sociohistorically determined), since these views really can appeal to scientific inquiry as a comon ground if you look at the problem the right way. Anyway, what you need to not do in the case is to take the psychological demand for free agency to be justificatory of metaphysical claims. This is perhaps the source of (part of) what is wrong, in the first instance, with Kant's noumena. But I digress. The metaphysical claim is made weaker, and it is unclear whether it is to be maintained:
To convert the absence into presence, to convert my flight into will, I must assume my project positively. ...my will, establishing the content of the act, is legitimized by it. I realize my escape toward the other as a freedom when, assuming the presence of the object, I thereby assume myself before it as a presence. But this justification requires a constant tension. My project is never founded; it founds itself. [And assuming this choosing role is fulfilling moral freedom.]
...
We have just describged only the subjective and formal aspect of this freedom. ....no moral question presents itself to the child as long as he is still incapable of recognizing himself in the past or seeing himself in the future. .... I can not genuinely desire an end today without desiring it through my whole existence, insofar as it is the future of this present moment and insofar as it is the surpassed past of days to come. To will is to engage myself to persevere in my will.
So far as a person is unable to make herself static (i.e. in a state of "being) she is forced into a state of existence from which standpoint she is forced to choose how to go on. This is the essential idea of the formulation, that from within it is impossible without abnegating one's identity (and this is only possible to a limited extent, apparently) to avoid acting "freely." This then can be a merely psychological claims about the way were are, as it were, in our social practice, that is the way we are as we see ourselves. In this view the mysteriousness to normal experience of the causal processes that lead many philosophers to deny the existence of free will leads to the subjective view that there is such a thing as radical freedom. So be it. Still, from the remote and philosophical standpoint from which I am viewing things, I do not find that I must tacitly assume that I have radical freedom in order to believe that my choices are morally culpable. My intuitions, however, seem to run counter to the mainstream. Still, one's ordinary intuitions also provide quite convincing evidence that the surface of the earth is flat.

1. The Ethics of Ambiguity. Bernard Frechtman trans. Discussion here is limited to the first section, "Ambiguity and Freedom."

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