“Only something which has no history is capable of being defined.” — Friedrich Nietzsche
“The fundamental sense of freedom is freedom from chains, from imprisonment, from enslavement by others. The rest is an extension of this sense, or else metaphor.” — Sir Isaiah Berlin
“Freedom… is actually the reason that men live together in political organization at all.” — Hannah Arendt
In Isaiah Berlin’s famous essay “Two Concepts of Liberty,” he sets out his two conditions of negative and positive liberty. In short, negative liberty involves freedom from as a response to the question “what is the area within which the subject—a person or group of persons—is or should be left to do or be what he is able to do or be, without interference by other persons?”
We therefore think of it as the freedom from coercion, interference, and authority. Positive liberty involves freedom to, such as the liberty to speak freely, to obtain personal property, and to openly express religious views. These two aspects of freedom make us constantly aware of the boundary that lies between private life and public authority. Which brings us to the issue of the constraints of freedom in regards to harming others, or being dominated by our own irrational impulses under the influence of bad company, among other misfortunes that make us less free than we aspire to be. Additionally, if we were to consider our passions along with other human pleasures as constraints upon our freedom, we could say that we may not be coerced by them externally, but rather surrender to them internally, coerced by a different type of interference. On the other hand, positive liberty, as a potential response to the question “what is the sort of control, when it exists, which can prevent someone from doing what he wishes?” is the freedom to. Here we may consider that there are two options: “lower impulses,” which are capable of seducing us to be dictated by the excesses of pleasures; or “higher impulses,” which provide resistance through a process of self-mastery, a self-directed pathway toward autonomy. Positive liberty is hence about knowing, and this knowing can be activated into a form of social and political action.
In considering liberty as a core concept in our thinking about the dignity and worth of the individual, both in historical development and its present significance, which has been constantly explored since the age of Enlightenment—and which in turn gave birth to Nationalism, Rousseauism, Marxism, Paternalism, Authoritarianism, and the welfare state—we’ve come to accept that countless attempts to create meanings and applications of the term “liberty” or “freedom,” often used interchangeably, have been contested throughout the history of the modern world. From the outset of the classical liberal tradition as we know it, from Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), John Locke (1632–1704), and Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832), for example, to John Stuart Mill (1806–1873), Karl Marx (1818–1883), and to Sir Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997), this singular topic of freedom was heavily debated. In the Hobbesian analysis, government is primarily seen as ensuring collective security, justified by a speculative social contract that provides the individuals the options to exercise their freedom depending on how they are able to perform their actions of freedom or not, as well as what would be considered interference. In the Lockean view, all individuals are seen as being given by nature the right to life, liberty, and property, and the existence of government is to be recognized by its citizens’ consent. Bentham’s moral theory, on the other hand, argues that individuals should be judged as right or wrong to the extent that they amplify or lessen the individual’s well-being or utility. In Mills’s extension of utilitarianism, individuals (along with all forms of institutions) are assessed by their actions, based on how well they promote human happiness. In thinking of freedom in its varieties of inquiry, we may well ask ourselves, “Why do we want to be free from certain impediments? What is freedom for? Why is it considered a value for us, granted that what we want does not impede the rights of others?” And in doing so, we’re forever caught in our meditations on how the presence of freedom has always been marked by the absence of interference, or how, in respect to the individual’s freedom in relation to the state, we agree or disagree with the demands for conformity to convention of social behavior—as the yoke of opinion, in Mill’s perspective, poses as much of a threat to human liberty as the yoke of the law.
We should remind ourselves that with the emergence of the age of Enlightenment, there was at the same time created the dominant machine of empire, under which all who lived in its colonies did so without freedom. And we should remember Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense,” which was in part an incisive polemic against British rule that effectively and quickly shifted American sentiment towards independence. (This 47-page pamphlet had an estimated half-million copies in circulation through the thirteen colonies, and was the eighteenth century equivalent of today’s best-selling paperback book.) As we think of how various individuals, our fellow human beings, don’t always reflect upon their choices, or allow the circum-pressure of social surroundings to dictate what they think of as their choices, we have to ponder the consequential question of how one can existentially enslave themself through the search for authenticity—a phenomenon that evolved from Marxian social philosophy, which argues each social being determines their consciousness.
Finally, if we understand, and even embrace, that different conceptions of freedom will always be irresolvable, we can accept freedom as a dialectical movement, from which we can obtain freedom from something, and also be free to do something. We should be conscious of the fact that concepts that have history cannot have definitions, and that we may not be able to define the impetus that compels us to rise above our limitations, as we at the present undertake freedom as politics. This is to say that freedom may or may not require engagement in politics, but that the activities of politics are rather perceived as platforms from which our virtues and our talents can be materialized in the ways that make us most fully the free individuals that we have it within ourselves to become. In spite of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s concept of history as constant assembling reminders, we must activate our freedom of action by being fearless with our ideas and concepts, for they can serve as useful tools against oppressive power. To be free is to have realized within ourselves the co-existence of being and becoming which needs to manifest in a form of made-action or made-object. The presence of freedom means the absence of dependence.
In solidarity, with love and courage, as always,
Phong H. Bui
P.S. This issue is dedicated to the remarkable lives and works of Ann Wilson (1931–2023), Yvonne Jacquette (1934–2023), Bernice Rose (1935–2023), and Ted Bonin (1958–2023), whose contributions to our cultural community here in New York and elsewhere across the world were profoundly important in how works of art in all forms, from the made-objects to their presentations, and scholarships are seen with universal respect and admiration. We send our deepest condolences to their families, friends, and admirers. We're excited to welcome Elizabeth Lothian who joins Joe Salvatore as co-editor of the Books section. Lastly, we’d like, also, to send our huge birthday greetings to two beloved friends Susan Harris and Trina McKeever, both of whom have been the Rail’s greatest advocates from the beginning of time.