Commentary on Political Economy

Monday 15 April 2019

The Concept of Freedom - Simone Weil and Hannah Arendt

Hegel was entirely right: what distinguishes the West from the East in world-historical terms is the concept of Freedom. Given that the East, now as ever - now more than ever? - poses a lethal threat to our Freedom, it is well to retrace the origins of this concept, as we attempt to do here.

Ainsi … apparaît déjà le mal essentiel de l'humanité, la substitution des moyens aux fins. Tantôt la guerre. apparaît au premier plan, tantôt la recherche de la richesse, tantôt la production ; mais le mal reste le même. (S.Weil, Reflexions, p.46)

In the Second Book of The World as Will and Representation, Schopenhauer takes aim once more at Kant’s misconception of metaphysics. By relegating the question of Being to the realm of “things-in-themselves”, Kant effectively removes it from all human attempts to know its essence: the thing-in-itself is impenetrable because all we can know is what we can perceive, and that is the world of mere appearances or phenomena. Yet, objects Schopenhauer, if all we can know are mere appearances (blosse Erscheinungen), then not only what we purport to be “knowledge” is a mere morphology – a sterile listing and classification – of phenomena, of empirical observations wholly deprived of any aetiological meaning as to the ultimate causes of these appearances or phenomena; but also we must renounce what is clearly the only certainty that we have in life and the world – our “experience” of the world, our very intuition (Anschauung) of existence! For Schopenhauer, Kant’s distinction between noumena and phenomena is genial in that it perfects the Platonic chorismos or separation of reality from appearance – and therefore poses correctly the problem of our awareness of Being. But then, in a bizarre and unjustified twist, Kant abandons the true quest of meta-physics as the prima philosophia to locate the essence of reality, of Being, to concentrate instead on the ordo et connexio rerum et idearum, that is, on the human faculties – the intellect or Understanding - that link scientifically what are the epiphenomenal and hence ephemeral representations of that Reality. At best, Kant can provide an epistemology, a science of knowledge – again, a morphology or classification, an anatomy -, but he has abandoned ab initio and indeed a priori any attempt by human beings to go beyond the evanescence of physics – to inquire into meta-physics. 

If we were to follow Kant, we would be “locked out” of reality – this would seal our alienation and estrangement from life; and instead we would be “locked in” or imprisoned within the fictitious realm of shadows: in short, we would abandon the quest for finality (the arche', the ultimate nature and causes of reality) and be relegated to the circuitous, nominalist and ultimately arbitrary netherworld of empeiria. (As Massimo Cacciari observed, in Krisis, Lukacs’s notion of reification – itself an elaboration of Marx’s Entfremdung and Weber’s Entzauberung - is unthinkable without the “screen” of Schopenhauer’s critique of Kant. Similarly, Heidegger’s denunciation of the Western “oblivion of Being” leading to inauthenticity [cf. Sartre] must then be viewed as an oblique riposte to Lukacs’s History and Class Consciousness – L. Goldmann, Lukacs et Heidegger.)
Reality would thereby be reduced to a sterile juxtaposition of empirical observations, to a surface of events lacking any ontological and existential depth – and therefore wholly mute about the ultimate ends or goal or telos of human existence. Metaphysics – the human attempt to go beyond “the kingdom of shadows”, the superficial connection of empirical observations, and to seek the ultimate substratum of reality and of Being, its arche' (ultimate origin or causa causans) and physis (its genesis and evolution) – represents the imperishable human attempt to evade “the false prison” (Wittgenstein) of the mundane, of worldly everyday-ness (Heidegger’s Alltaglichkeit, Lefebvre’s quotidiannete’), of human commonplace and conventional signification (Nietzsche’s “semiotics”), in order to penetrate the very core of reality, in order to trans-scend the world and illuminate its essence – an essence understood not as “presence”, Anwesen, as “facticity”, as a “thing” but rather as living experience, as living spirit (cf. Heidegger’s doctoral thesis on Duns Scotus, discussed in Gadamer’s Les Chemins de Heidegger).

Hence, human beings are wedged between these two extreme poles of objective necessity that is, however precariously and tentatively, open to scientific formulation; and subjective freedom, which is ineffable and unfathomable (Wittgenstein’s Tractatus: “That of which we cannot speak, we must pass over in silence”). Even in Schopenhauer’s pessimist conception, the introspection that leads to the awareness of the Will-to-Life transcends the necessity of the physical world: the depth of Being is intuitable yet not knowable through the Will-to-Life – but it is not a “thing”. Contrary to Kant, the true noumenon, the reality opposed to the meretricious screen of appearances, the “thing-in-itself” is not the Object, the world external to human intuition, reflection and introspection and unreachable to them: it is rather this intuition itself! The Subject is ultimately unknowable and unquantifiable and unclassifiable, whereas the Object – which is the world of perceived phenomena – is clearly knowable in this nomothetic sense, at least in principle, within the limits of the human intellect (Verstand as opposed to Vernunft, the Understanding as opposed to Reason) and of its scientific enterprise. Only the intuition and awareness of existence constitutes an unfathomable abyss that can alert us to the reality of Being. Kant’s “obscure veil” drawn over existence – the relegation of ontology to mere epistemology by “the cunning theologian” - is only a subterfuge to substitute philosophy with theology in the guise of Pure Reason. (The subsequent critiques of German Classical Idealism moved by Kierkegaard and Nietzsche are already foreshadowed by the “Schopenhauer as Educator” of the Untimely Meditations. On all this, vedi K. Lowith, From Hegel to Nietzsche.)

This trans-scendental reduction (Husserl) is quite evidently a process whereby human beings seek to unburden themselves from the bonds of necessity that tie them bodily, physically to the world to attain the ideal goal of freedom. Even for Schopenhauer the body is “the objectification of the Will”. And Nietzsche turned Descartes inside out with his “Vivo ergo cogito”. The quest of Western metaphysics is to dis-cover freedom as the truth (a-letheia, un-veiling) and final goal (intended even as summum bonum) of existence: - to reach beyond the means of existence to its ultimate meaning, telos and goal – freedom. But, once again, the prime mover of this freedom, its initial spark and repository is precisely the activity of reflection, the faculty of thought, whereby humans project a course of action that may or may not eventuate and succeed. 

Et pourtant rien au monde ne peut empêcher l'homme de se sentir né pour la liberté. Jamais, quoi qu'il advienne, il ne peut accepter la servitude ; car il pense. Il n'a jamais cessé de rêver une liberté sans limites, soit comme un bonheur passé dont un châtiment l'aurait privé, soit comme un bonheur à venir qui lui serait dû par une sorte de pacte avec une providence mystérieuse. Le communisme imaginé par Marx est la forme la plus récente de ce rêve. Ce rêve est toujours demeuré vain, comme tous les rêves, ou, s'il a pu consoler, ce n'est que comme un opium ; il est temps de renoncer a rêver la liberté, et de se décider à la concevoir. (S. Weil, Reflexions, p.57)

This is the new Cartesian meditation, then: I live, hence it is possible for me to think. It is first and foremost because I live that I can think. It is not the case that “I think because I live” – because Life is greater than thought. I think, therefore I am free because freedom is the abyss of thought as reflection (cogito cogitatum). If I am part of Life through my awareness of thought, then Life is greater than my thinking and must precede my thinking. Indeed, Life itself is not to be confused with Being, which we may call the Life-world. 

Within the Life-world, my existence can only be contingency – Dasein. Initium. Auctoritas. Contingency and thought can mean only existential freedom: I am condemned to be free (Sartre, Being and Nothingness). Between these two abysses of the Life-world to which I am subjected and the contingency of thought that makes me free – in this enigma - lies the problem of how I am to conduct my life in the world. I am thrown into the Life-world – in this consists my necessity, my destiny. I cannot know my destiny but thought allows me to decide, whence arises my freedom as contingency or finitude and decision (Heidegger’s “freedom toward death”). Between the unknowable past and the unpredictable future lie the possibilities of thoughtful action, of thoughtful living activity - activity that is author-ship, a beginning. Saint Augustine: Initium ut esset, homo creatus est. It was so that there may be a beginning that man was created. We do not create ourselves; we are within the Life-world, and not with-out it. This action is constrained, bounded by the Lifeworld – nature on one side (as physis) and other human beings on the other: - society and State.

Hannah Arendt contends [in The Human Condition at p.313] that “Marx and Nietzsche…equate Life and Being” . Had her targets been Hegel and Schopenhauer, we may have agreed wholeheartedly. There can be little doubt that, in any case, all four philosophers approach Being from this “active” side, from the side of the Subject – much in the tradition of Vico’s verum ipsum factum. This is a perspective to which we are very much sympathetic, as is obvious from our foregoing analysis. For it is difficult to imagine, in the aftermath of the rapid and formidable rise of capitalist industry and of secularism and the even speedier decline of Christianity and absolutism that have so conditioned our present, how radical critics of bourgeois society had much choice except to retreat into introspective reflection so as to rescue human historical agency from the commodification and reification of every aspect of social life under capitalism – what Arendt labels, perhaps too loosely, “secularism”. It is a fact that the near entirety of Western philosophy in the bourgeois or “secular” era retreats to introspection as the ultimate foundation of reality. It is a Schopenhauerian Welt-flucht (flight or retreat from the world), albeit not necessarily an Entsagung (renunciation) of the world. To be sure, even Arendt’s lifelong philosophical trajectory gravitates around this “phenomenological” sphere – so it is hard to see what her remedy for this condition would be, despite her recriminations. Here is how Arendt elaborates this point:

The victory of the animal laborans would never have been complete had not the process of secularization, the modern loss of faith inevitably arising from Cartesian doubt, deprived individual life of its immortality, or at least of the certainty of immortality. Individual life again became mortal, as mortal as it had been in antiquity, and the world was even less stable, less permanent, and hence less to be relied upon than it had been during the Christian era. Modern man, when he lost the certainty of a world to come, was thrown back upon himself and not upon this world; far from believing that the world might be potentially immortal, he was not even sure that it was real. And in so far as he was to assume that it was real in the uncritical and apparently unbothered optimism of a steadily progressing science, he had removed himself from the earth to a much more distant point than any Christian otherworldliness had ever removed him. Whatever the word "secular" is meant to signify in current usage, historically it cannot possibly be equated with worldliness; modern man at any rate did not gain this world when he lost the other world, and he did not gain life, strictly speaking, either; he was thrust back upon it, thrown into the closed inwardness of introspection, where the highest he could experience were the empty processes of reckoning of the mind, its play with itself….[320] 

The corrective for this consists not so much in reversing course but rather in re-emphasising the subordinate role of humanity in Life and of Life in Being – without thereby incurring the diametrically opposed error of reducing human reality to “natural processes”. As we saw earlier, despite his fundamental, formative Hegelian historicism, Marx himself reduced Being to Process by substituting means to ends in an attempt to present his critique of capitalism as “scientific” as Weil herself argued in connection with his misinterpretation of Darwin’s work and consequent scientization of revolutionary theory. Arendt makes a similar point:

…The only thing that could now be potentially immortal, as immortal as the body politic in antiquity and as individual life during the Middle Ages, was life itself, that is, the possibly everlasting life process of the species man-kind. We saw before that in the rise of society it was ultimately the life of the species which asserted itself. Theoretically, the turning point from the earlier modern age's insistence on the "egoistic" life of the individual to its later emphasis on "social" life and "socialized man" (Marx) came when Marx transformed the cruder notion of classical economy—that all men, in so far as they act at all, act for reasons of self-interest—into forces of interest which inform, move, and direct the classes of society, and through their conflicts direct society as a whole. Socialized mankind is that state of society where only one interest rules, and the subject of this interest is either classes or man-kind, but neither man nor men. The point is that now even the last trace of action in what men were doing, the motive implied in self-interest, disappeared. What was left was a "natural force," the force of the life process itself, to which all men and all human activities were equally submitted ("the thought process itself is a natural process" – Marx wrote in a letter to Kugelmann) and whose only aim, if it had an aim at all, was survival of the animal species man. None of the higher capacities of man was any longer necessary to connect individual life with the life of the species; individual life became part of the life process, and to labor, to assure the continuity of one's own life and the life of his family, was all that was needed. What was not needed, not necessitated by life's metabolism with nature, was either superfluous or could be justified only in terms of a peculiarity of human as distinguished from other animal life—so that Milton was considered to have written his Paradise Lost for the same reasons and out of similar urges that compel the silkworm to produce silk. (HC, pp.320-1.)

To recapitulate, within the Life-world, we initiate action, we are a beginning. We are born free (Rousseau) because we think (Heidegger). But we are con-ditioned by our physis (Nature) and our social institutions (Rousseau, Marx, Weil). These institutions determine our inter-est:  Inter homines esse (being among other humans)– and hence the problem of the Political. Two types of opponents we must fight: Those who wish to freeze freedom into an inalterable state, and so to reify existence and society through scientism; and those who instead seek to hypostatise the Political into political theology and the State into the descendant of God. Both these tendencies relegate freedom either to a nonexistent fantasy or else to an unreachable ever-receding utopian dream. We shall examine these matters more closely next.

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