Every little increase in human freedom has been fought over ferociously between those who want us to know more and be wiser and stronger, and those who want us to obey and be humble and submit.
--- Philip Pullman, The Subtle Knife


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At 2/15/2006 5:54 am , Blogger TaLieSin said...

That quote could've been made by the ghost of Nietzsche... or at very least, by someone writing unreflexively within the blinkers of the liberal Whig meta-narrative of history as the "progress of freedom".

It depends on whether "freedom" means doing whatever one's subjective whims and appetites dictate, or something else. I don't think the former definition necessarily holds the field at present, or ought to even if it does.

What's really behind the definition, I think, is a question of the Will to Power - are we going to dominate others so we can do what we like, or are they going to dominate us so that they can do what they like? Hobson's choice, if you ask me...

At 2/15/2006 9:31 am , Blogger ejl said...

i love the way philip pullman throws in such contemporary and mature themes into what is essentially a children's storybook.

he's out to subvert a whole generation of children. i love it!

but as an aside, i think freedom(s) must be carefully classified as positive rights or negative rights, i.e. you can have this right to freely do this thing, or we're not saying anything so you are free to do or not do it.

it makes a lot of difference substantially. the former empowers you to do things. the latter merely disguises itself as a right to freedom, but in fact only serves to perpetuate the status quo.

it's funny how the OB-markers issue is both a positive and negative right at the same time, they giveth with one hand what the other taketh away.

At 2/16/2006 4:35 am , Blogger TaLieSin said...

On thinking further about the quote, I realize that it ought to be reformulated as a recurring battle between two camps of people, both of whom think they know more and are wiser and stronger, and therefore the other camp (and the uncommitted others) ought to obey and be humble and submit to them.

This is as true of the revolutionaries, be they Jacobin, Marxist or Nationalist, as it is of the stuffy defenders of the old aristocratic/colonial/bourgeoisie order. The difference is that the revolutionaries have the sympathy-sucking advantage of being the underdogs, and have to appeal to that mythical entity, "the people", out of necessity because they don't control the normal levers of power.

But one wonders if "the people" ever existed - certainly not in our era of atomist individualism, in any case. And even if they did, as Schumpeter points out, they are only capable of one action: mass stampede. It's powerful when unleashed, but having used it to trample one's enemies, all demagogues inevitably find they have to put the genie back into its bottle - and so you get the language of law & order creeping back again. And perhaps this is a good thing, unless "freedom" really means everybody living in the Hobbesian state of Nature. But let those who would use this double-edged sword beware, for when one is no longer the underdog, it's easy to become the victims of the next revolution!

At 2/20/2006 8:47 pm , Blogger NARDAC said...

I'm not sure why half your commentors are trying to reword the original.

Perhaps they think there isn't any worth in beauty or knowledge, or that it doesn't exist. If so, why even bother having a debate?

At 2/21/2006 6:04 am , Blogger TaLieSin said...

That's a really good question, NARDAC, because it seems that the people whom Pullman refers to as the defenders of "freedom" don't believe in beauty or truth either.

"Freedom" in modern philosophy means exactly that - an existentialist vacuum in which beauty and truth are empty categories, mere nominal shells which you decide to fill any old how as you please. Any "authoritative" claims of true beauty or true knowledge are derided in Pullman's terms as the province of those who want us to be obey, be humble and submit to "their" equally subjective and meaningless standards of value.

And that's precisely what I don't agree with, for I don't think that freedom is merely acting on one's subjective, self-created valuations (which, if you want to be even more modernist, are only a post hoc rationalization of atavistic and irrational passions anyway). The good, the beautiful, the noble and the true are real things, not just names; and freedom lies in realizing and attaining them, not merely "doing whatever you want".

At 2/21/2006 8:55 pm , Blogger NARDAC said...

I see where you're coming from but I also have this suspicion that you think freedom is dangerous because you think people use it against others.

Freedom is only dangerous when people choose to use it maliciously against others. What is wise doesn't have to necessarily be chosen by consensus either. If beauty, truth and knowledge do exist in their absolute undebatable form, then surely the understanding of them wouldn't need education. Therefore, we might be wise enough, without consensus or education, to use or freedom wisely, non-maliciously.

Unless, of course, you think people are naturally bad and do horrible things without malicious intent out of just exercising their freedom.

Anyways, being an artist, I think the notion of absolute beauty and truth is something I have a hard time acknowledging, or even arguing for. The idea of beauty, an abstract, in my mind exists, but only according to my definitions. I have no idea how we could take something so intimate in understanding and make it into a universal definition.

Unless of course it's Mozart. I draw the line at Mozart... but of course, there's so many people who disagree with me on that.

It's the same way you never really know if someone really loves you. You really only have the physical proof, but the interior knowledge is something only known by the individual.

I'm no philosophy major, so don't get too heavy on the jargon with me.

At 2/27/2006 6:55 am , Blogger TaLieSin said...

A somewhat belated response:

Freedom isn't "dangerous" so much as it is problematic and of questionable value. Simply stating it as a "fact of nature" is not the same as making a case for its goodness - and any such case is going to eventually have to refer to objective moral norms and statements, i.e. "it is *good* that we have freedom because it is part of human dignity, which all humans *ought* to have". I suggest that such statements require a moral realm with standards of intrinsic value which isn't the product of either consensus or individual choice, but ontologically prior to both.

And if that is the case, then acting on misperceptions of what is good, beautiful and true is actually a kind of unfreedom. Nobody would be happy to think or know that their ideas of goodness and truth are just subjective constructs without any reference to reality - that is self-deception and unfreedom. And in the same way, to be acting with a warped and incorrect scale of values, such as the idea that the survival and improvement of the human race is the greatest good and is to be brought about by the elimination of the Jews, is tragic unfreedom of the highest degree although "freely" willed and chosen.

I think that history and life today provide us with good evidence that human beings in general tend to have exactly this problem of misperception. Firstly, competing individual wants cause conflict when spheres of "freedom" intersect in society and someone has to give way. Secondly ideas of broader social goods such as justice and security (and how to achieve them) are often wrong in theory and practice (as per my example above). Thirdly, people often use their "freedom" to cause real harm to themselves. But perhaps for you, the idea that something is self-chosen negates the possibility of harm being done to the person in the process?

If so, I presume you would not try to restrain someone trying to commit suicide - and you would think, neither should I nor anyone else interfere with that person's "freedom". But I disagree.


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