Our modern idea of freedom began to take shape back in the XVI century after the Reformation when philosophers, politicians and intellectuals were struggling to come up with a concept that would allow a peaceful organization of a now fundamentally divided society. Given this special situation, brilliant philosophers like Locke and Mill came up with ways in which we could organize ourselves politically to avoid conflicts but that at the same time would allow us to hold on to our personal beliefs. It was then when concepts like tolerance and freedom of conscience were born. The result of this process is what we know today as the concept of “Political Liberalism,” which is the intellectual backdrop of our everyday idea of freedom. In John Stuart Mill’s words, “the only freedom that deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it.” And so, after four hundred years of Political Liberalism, our idea of freedom is today inevitably tied up with freedom of conscience and the ability to hold our beliefs as long as they don not interfere with the purely procedural rules of the social game; in Mill’s language, freedom today is understood as “liberty”.
Freedom for us average westerners means to be able to believe whatever we want given a set of political restrictions; or in other words, freedom for us is freedom of conscience safely guarded by tolerance and political rights. In this sense America is indeed a free country, or to use Karl Marx’s terminology, America is indeed a politically emancipated society. The fact that political forces have no grip upon our beliefs —as long as they don’t pose a threat to others— is what makes our society a politically emancipated and “free” society.
What I want to show here is that despite what we think, we have not advanced much in our idea of freedom since the days when religious tolerance was born and we have always remained within the scope of political emancipation. We are definitely a more politically emancipated society now that we were back in the 1950’s —as beliefs that can be held today without political consequences were heavily repressed back then. In other words, we have managed to expand our concept of tolerance to areas that we were not able to before and so, if freedom is freedom of conscience, then yes, we are freer today than a few decades ago. It is a simple equation: as tolerance expands, the bigger our freedom of conscience and the smaller the need for political intervention.
However, as I pointed out in a previous post, a fundamental contradiction remains intact: while we have gained the greatest scope of political freedom we remain, on the other hand, enslaved to our private beliefs.
The main issue with the concept of freedom of our liberal tradition is that it was built from an inflexible start-point where we assume that our private world-view is always the right one and that the whole point of the political organization is to protect our own private beliefs. As I explained in a previous post, the concept of tolerance is nothing more than the resulting trade-off between wanting to live in a peaceful multicultural society and wanting to hold on to my beliefs. In this state of affairs, the largest amount of beliefs I can hold privately without disrupting the political organization, the freer I am. Today, the more tolerant a society is, the more we view it as a “free” society.
I don’t mean to deny the powerful role that tolerance and political emancipation have played in providing access to much needed political freedom and freedom of conscience. I completely agree with Mill when he says that “the appropriate region of human liberty (…) comprises, first, the inward domain of consciousness; demanding liberty of conscience, in the most comprehensive sense; liberty of thought and feeling; absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects practical or speculative, scientific, moral or theological” I am not an enemy of political emancipation or liberty at all, I just want to point out that because it was built from the assumption that we privately can hold beliefs that should not be questioned publicly (if they do not interfere with overall stability) it has lead to the impoverishment of areas of knowledge that are now excluded from public discussion and has lead to the sprouting of all kind of fundamentalisms. My preoccupation with the current state of affairs is that we prefer to tolerate rather than to dialogue and this is why I believe that we need to move beyond liberty and move towards human emancipation. A new understanding of our concept of freedom and what it means to be free in a postmodern society should enable and encourage dialogue surpassing the original barriers set up by the concept of tolerance.
This new concept of freedom that I propose can only be realized when we gain consciousness of the interpretational character of life; or in other words, when we acquire a postmodern perspective. Gaining consciousness of the interpretational character of life is a powerful transformation that shakes the core idea that our beliefs embody the true nature of reality and by doing so it reminds us constantly that we are pure possibility. Borrowing from Hegel’s dialectic method, we can say that the current configuration of reality, where the multiplicity of ways of life are broadcasted as never before in human history has shown the contradictions of the idea that there is something out there called the truth or the right interpretation in absolute terms or the right way to live. This contradiction between the undeniable evidence of multiplicity and our willingness to affirm our own world-view can only be surpassed by gaining consciousness that our own world-view is also part of the multiplicity, that it is just one among the infinity of interpretations.
Thus follows my definition of what freedom as human emancipation should be: human emancipation is the ability to view one’s beliefs as interpretations; to be free, for us postmoderns, is to acquire consciousness of the interpretational character of life. Only those who acquire this consciousness can go beyond political emancipation and achieve real freedom, real human emancipation, since the wall that divided our own beliefs from those of others is no longer needed. Only when I gain consciousness that my beliefs are an interpretation –when I view them as the result of the project of life that I have embarked on, but that is no more than that, no more than a project– I can free myself from my own beliefs, distance myself from them and contrast them, expose them, challenge them and defend them for what they are: ways to live and understand life. By gaining consciousness of interpretation we insert our private world-view into the multiplicity of ways to live life, and by doing so we free ourselves from its tyranny and put our own take on life under a new perspective.
Gaining consciousness of the interpretative character of life enables us to drop the original assumption of Political Liberalism –the assumption that we all have an irreconcilable set of beliefs that we consider to be true– and start from a new perspective, the perspective that our set of beliefs is just one among an infinity of interpretations, of world-views. Only when I free myself from the idea that my beliefs are “true” –that my beliefs are the ones that really grasp what things really are– I can establish a real dialogue with the holders of different beliefs. Only then I move towards human emancipation. In a poetical way, freedom can be described as the moment we start dreaming knowing that we are dreaming; I like to think that this new concept of freedom is what Nietzsche glimpsed when he wrote those words.
John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, Page 13
John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, Page 13