Absolute freedom and co-determination.

This thread is conceived as a supplement to Stuart’s thread on Sartrean freedom: “Acting in Good Faith,” viewtopic.php?f=1&t=184893. There, he speaks at length about Sartre’s conception of the absolute freedom of conscious decision, action, and responsibility. These are the existential concepts par excellence. I do take a fair bit of familiarity with Sartre’s vocabulary for granted in what follows, but even the most cursory of searches will reveal an index of the terms used.

[tab]Though the world does not determine action, it does resist it. In an expression of freedom, the for-itself chooses a goal and projects an aim upon the world. It is through the projection of an aim that the indifferent world is brought to light as resistant and populated with obstacles. The in-itself “waits to be illuminated by an end in order to manifest itself as adverse or helpful.” Thus, if a particular object seems to limit my freedom to act, it is only in light of a freely chosen project that first characterizes the object as a limit instead of an aid. On its own, the object is simply neutral. To take up Sartre’s example: if I come upon a crag that is too difficult to climb, it is “revealed as such only because it was originally grasped as ‘climbable’.” First, I must project an end ––in this case, I want to climb the mountain; I grasp it as climbable––before the crag can come to light as an obstacle and a limit to my freedom to act. And I could have always chosen otherwise. I could have decided to simply gaze upon the mountain as I would a painting, in which case the crag would be neither resistant nor helpful: it would have merely come to light as an interesting asset of the mountain’s topography. It is therefore nothing other than my freedom––my ability to freely project an aim upon the indifferent world––that “constitutes the limits which it will subsequently encounter.”

For freedom to realize itself at all, it requires a distinction between the factical and the possible. The projected end of action always resides in a nihilation of the in-itself; it always transcends it. If my aim is to climb the mountain, it is because I have not yet climbed it: I nihilate the fact of my “not-yet-climbed-it” toward the possibility that I will climb it. In short: I must be separated from my end. And “only an ensemble of real existents,” Sartre claims, “can separate us from this end.” Put differently, the ensemble of “brute existents” that emerge as a resistance to my freedom (as in the Crag that limits my ability to climb the mountain) work to separate me from my end. As such, it is this very ensemble of resisting existents that allows my freedom to realize itself. “Far from being a danger to freedom,” the world that freedom brings to light as resistance “results only in enabling it to arise as freedom.” The two are almost paradoxically intertwined: there is freedom only within a resisting world, and there is a resisting world only through freedom. Even still, Sartre is emphatic that the necessary engagement of freedom with resistance comes to be in and through a “free upsurge of freedom.” Freedom is the ground of its relation with the resisting world and is therefore still primary, fundamental, primordial, and absolute. Freedom necessitates a world out of which it can emerge, but this world is itself shaped by freedom.

II.
––“The reeds give way to the wind
and give the wind away.”

While Sartre at times seems to characterize freedom relationally, he is careful to underscore that this is not the case: freedom, for Sartre, is absolutely distinct from determinism. “Either man is wholly determined,” he insists, “or else man is wholly free.” What Sartre gives to us, then, is a dichotomy: freedom versus determinism. One comes at the expense, the exclusion, of the other: if we are to be free, we must categorically not be determined; if we are to be determined, then freedom must itself be perfectly unrealizable. Sartre’s conception of an absolute freedom stands or falls with this dichotomy.

In A.R. Ammons’ “Small Song”––quoted as the preface to this section––the reeds exist in a reflexive engagement with the wind: while giving shape to the wind, the reeds are, in turn, shaped by it. The wind depends upon the reeds for its disclosure: the reeds themselves give articulation to the wind; they give it a shape, a presence. In short: the reeds make possible the windness of the wind. And at the same time, the wind has shaped the way the reeds self-organize, the way that they have come to be reeds: the form of a reed––its flexibility and shape––is the manifestation of a historical relationship with wind and the state of its environment. By putting to us the fundamental relationship between wind and reeds, the co-disclosure that lies at the heart of their engagement, Ammons has given us a language which we can now apply to the relationship between for-itself and in-itself, freedom and resistance.

For Sartre, obstacles to freedom are only obstacles through freedom. Their meaning as obstacles is given to them by freedom; without freedom, they are without meaning. Thus, freedom is free to conceptualize the brute in-itself with which it is engaged as either limit or aid. However, Sartre concedes that “outside this engagement the notions of freedom, of determinism…lose all meaning.” Thus, there exists a tension between Sartre’s claim that the essence of freedom is “nothing” and what seems to be an essential engagement between freedom and situation. Indeed, what could it mean to speak of freedom as nihilation in the absence of that which it might nihilate? What could it mean to speak of transcendence without first positing a given beyond which transcendence transcends? The two are intimately bound; they depend on each other for their own meanings. So, even if freedom is free to conceptualize the in-itself as either limit or aid, it must in either case still conceptualize it. The crag is either conquerable or not, but I cannot remain indifferent to it if it blocks my way: freedom must always wrestle with the world in which it is situated, with which it is engaged. In the very moment we grant to the for-itself the freedom to construct brute existents as obstacles, we concede that these existents inhabit the world within which we live and act; we must deal with them in one way or another. Indeed, they cannot be insignificant, for (as is the case with Ammons’ reeds) they give freedom away: they disclose it by providing a context out of which freedom can emerge. The existents also give way to freedom: they render it possible by separating freedom from its end so that it can realize itself. Consequently, we might risk a rephrasing of Ammons’ poem:

The resistant world gives way to freedom
and gives freedom away.

While it is true that I shape my situation, it is also difficult to deny the degree to which I am shaped by it. The world is already there; I am thrown into it without warning and find myself in its midst without exemption. I am free to give meaning to my situation, to construct it in one way as opposed to another, but I must construct it; I cannot simply remain indifferent to the context within which I act. The prisoner cannot, for example, undertake a project of escape while remaining wholly indifferent to the matter of her bars. She is free to give meaning to them––to construct them as an obstacle to her projected escape––or to turn away from them completely, taking up instead the project of discovering her faith, dedicating her time to prayer and repentance. But it is foolish to claim that the prisoner’s decision to dedicate her time to prayer instead of escape is not at all motivated, not at all shaped or affected, by the fact of her prison cell. And Sartre realizes this: he acknowledges the fact that both freedom and determinism are meaningless outside of situation. In the prisoner’s situation, then, what term are we to apply to her decision to discover her faith instead of to attempt an escape if not “determined,” even if only partially so? What sense can it make to claim that the prisoner is wholly free to undertake whichever project she wishes when she is confronted with the fact of her imprisonment, with the hopelessness of her escape? Surely, she is still free to some extent: she might still decide to occupy her time by reading the Bible. But at the same time, she is still determined to some extent as well: she cannot decide––in the same way she might decide to read the Bible––to take a trip to Vienna or play soccer with her friends. She is both free and not free; her freedom both is and is not. Consequently, Sartre’s dichotomy between freedom and determinism, his insistence that we can have one only at the cost of rendering the other wholly unrealizable, cannot hold any weight. The two terms of the binary cross over into each other; the boundary between them is blurred and ambiguous. Though Sartre insists that even situated, freedom is absolute and man is wholly free, there is a sense in which he acknowledges the questionability of such a freedom: he concedes that the situation “is an ambiguous phenomenon in which it is impossible for the for-itself to distinguish the contribution of freedom from that of the brute existent.” The co-disclosure that characterizes Ammons’ “Small Song” is useful in speaking of such ambiguity: like the reeds, freedom shapes its situation while at the same time becoming shaped by it. The relationship is reciprocal; there is no clear, distinct line separating the two phenomena. For Sartre, one comes at the expense and the exclusion of the other. However, situated in a world, it comes to be that freedom does not exclude its other; rather, it necessitates it, presupposes it and relies upon it. Freedom and situation exist in a reciprocal relationship wherein one constantly contaminates and crosses over into the other. Indeed, Sartre himself writes that “there is freedom only in a situation, and there is a situation only through freedom.”[/tab]
Now, I think it’s rather intuitive to hold a position that mediates freedom with constraint, determinism with the physical world’s ultimate lack of totalizing causal control. Freedom, for most of us, exists on a spectrum. But for the existentialists, this cannot be so. They have different starting points, so the standard philosophy of freedom does not seem so straightforwardly to map onto their theories. This post was intended to dismantle absolute freedom from within, as a form of immanent critique.

Nothing is possible until something is impossible, thus absolute freedom is impossible.

Alright, well done, and there’s definitely plenty of room for argument, without too much room if you know what I mean. Perhaps I’ll have to go through your essay piece by piece, but I’ll first see if I can make progress without.

First let’s deal with the word ‘determinism’. I think the blame lies on Sartre for poorly explaining the term and it’s irrelevance to his discussion on freedom.

The term “determinism” shouldn’t be separated more than it need be from its root word “determine”. Doubtlessly, the term “determinism” came about because of scientists discussing how much predictability the world could have. There naive conclusion was, “perhaps infinite!” They were so naive as to think that scientists’ ability to determine anything would come about not soon, but eventually… “If the world of humans would continue until it reaches the limit of an infinite number of years, so too will our ability to predict”. We can’t blame them for such philosophical ineptness, philosophy was not their profession.

Part of the problem is with god. And Sartre knew that which is why he mentioned him often. The scientists were so used to the idea of the absolute which is what god has always been known as that they were so easily able to conceptualize the universe as one enclosed entity. Everyone at the time and even today, had plenty of ‘training’ trying to take god’s perspective, where he supposedly is looking down on the universe from no particular location. God could always decide not to interfere with the universe for one hundred years and therefore predict exactly what will happen. Scientists left it at that and thus the term “determinism” perpetuated. God would of course not wait 100 years to interact when already knowing the outcome, he would have to immerse himself in the world and temporality limit his omniscience in order not to go crazy from boredom. So to paraphrase Sartre, even he would have to wait for the sugar to melt.

Each individual scientist, if he had thought about it, would realize that in an ‘infinite’ number of years, whatever scientists doing the ‘determining’ with his advanced knowledge and equipment, will still not know his own mind, the damnable thing that must always contaminate any experiment that is not enclosed.

What is determinable is only what one posits he can determine. Some, non scientific minds, may feel awash in the universe, some brilliant scientists may feel like the world is one giant algorithm, that is nearly understood, but all must go with their posited knowledge and wait for the sugar to melt. So we can leave the term “determinism”, for now anyway.


Perhaps I misunderstood you, but it seems you were talking about freedom having a reciprocal relation with objects; conceptions of being; being that has been subject to the carving knife of nihilation (which unlike an actual carving knife which annihilates between the cuts, can never actually separate being permanently). The wind and the wind mill have a reciprocal relation because they are both objects. Being and nothingness; undifferentiated being and nothingness; undifferentiated being and consciousness, are not objects and do not have a reciprocal relation. Nothingness/consciousness/the-for-itself simply and regularly arises as that which is being and isn’t. Sartre admits that he cannot explain this event which he says falls under the subject of metaphysics (for him “the history of ontology”). And then undifferentiated being has no need, no dependency on nothingness whatsoever.

When nothingness, which is essentially consciousness in its most fundamental form, nihilates, the very act itself is freedom. While we didn’t choose to be free and we cannot choose to not to choose, we did in fact choose all else. Sartre, in his argument, actually says that in a way we chose to be born. That remark alone has probably done his reputation terrible damage due to its propensity to turn people off; it almost turned me off before I had hardly even begun my study.

But, it’s true, because every instance (I use the term “instance” loosely, admittedly I only have an intuitive understanding on his philosophy of time, meaning I find it difficult, though not impossible to explain) or perhaps every lapse in and out of consciousness we must nihilate anew; we make conclusions which stem from thousands of roots, I would assume that almost always one of those roots would be that we were once born into this world – I awake from sleep and see my room, I don’t actually see the history of my room or go through many smaller concepts one after until I build the meaning of my room, no I actually see a construct that takes all of those concepts at once; call it that-which-is-slept-in-by-myself-myself-being-so-and-so-who-was-once-born-onto-this-earth.

If I haven’t sufficiently tackled “determinism” and the reciprocal relation you speak of then let me know. And like I said I’ll go through your essay piece by piece if necessary. Now I’d like to make a side topic.


The question comes up how we could possibly choose if our life happens to be misery. Imagine the most miserable existence possible of a person who is capable of studying Sartre. I have no doubt that she would find Sartre abhorrent, and in her case I’d be hesitant to try to convince her of its use. She may only make it through each day because she curses god for her state. Or she may profess love for god, but still use him to take the responsibility from herself, and how can we blame her – I did posit her as being among the most miserable of the intelligent.

And then everyday mono-theists may very well use god as they wish and even the everyday ones I may leave alone to bask in a blame free existence.

But, I find that atheists are committing and an act of cowardice when they try to distance themselves from their responsibility. Or if coward is too strong a word, then at best they are hypocrites for claiming to be other than the mono-theists whose ignorance they often scorn.

Perhaps our analytical argument on freedom will get nowhere and we will just have to conclude to disagree on whether differentiated existences have some responsibility for ourselves; whether or not they take something away from our freedom. So what will be the pragmatic difference between our beliefs? Firstly, we will both continue to blame anyone and everyone in our weaker moments and regularly accuse others of blame to get the better of them; such as if they legally wronged us and we sue them.

But, for me as long as any tragedy that may befall me does not completely weaken my will, there will be at least times, when I fully take responsibility for everything about myself, including my new tragic state. But, “what’s the difference”, one may ask, “if you make a declaration of responsibility to yourself or not”? The thing is, I already established that law suits, guilt trips and so forth may be applied as I see necessary; I certainly wouldn’t be explaining Sartre to those I would vocally blame for personal gain. But to myself, there’s nothing that can be gained by blame.

I may have to compartmentalize it, due to internal weakness; meaning I may accept full Sartrean responsibility on one hand and on the other harbor and deal with nagging anger at those who’re seemingly, even legally responsible. But, the admission, even if compartmentalized, will be what will keep me from waiting idly “for the sugar to melt”. The sugar will melt because I say it will melt. I’ll have a chance at toppling determinism on its head and putting aside most of the everyday criteria we must use to make quality (practically speaking) decisions. I’ll have chance at saying that determinism does exist – because I determine what melts and what doesn’t. Then I can get to the root conceptualization of the problem I have, that with was caused from the tragedy.

Let’s not waste words, let’s call it “the problem”, the problem exists, I could do away with it and live problem free, as I am, in what others call a tragic state, or continually cry about the problem to myself and others, essentially saying only, “why, why?”, or I could, having posited “the problem”, determine “the solution”.

First: determinism has nothing to do with predictability. Indeed, my next action may be impossible to predict (given our cognitive constraints) and yet wholly determined. Determination has to do with the relation of cause to effect. If it’s a 1:1 relation, then the effect was determined by its cause.

Second: I’m quite familiar with Sartre’s theory of consciousness. I don’t see how you’ve replied to my charge that absolute freedom necessitates its own opposite, thereby contaminating the strict dichotomy against which it is supposed to stand. See the second paragraph of my tabbed post. The reciprocity toward which I push what is originally a binary distinction is not strictly objectile: rather, it has to do with the way conscious choice sets itself against (while emerging out of) the world (and the situations) it is supposed to nihilate. Again, see my tabbed post. I’ve written this all out there.

Third: there are often secondary implications of any ontological stance. Given, the determinist is still going to jump from in front of the bus. But that doesn’t mean that the debate is without pragmatic import. On the contrary, holding a position that privileges conscious choice over other natural mechanisms may affect one’s philosophy of animals, or one’s view of the environment, as it did for the Cartesians, who famously harassed people’s pets in public, laughing at how idiotic these pet-owners are to think that their pets are anything more than complicated machines and therefore worthy of ethical consideration. And this all because of Decartes’ philosophy of mind. Which is just to say that our ontological commitments are important for an array of reasons.

Your more complete response is appreciated. I’ll reply when I have the time. For now, the citations you asked for. I don’t have the text with me today, so I’ll just provide you the page numbers.

Being and Nothingness, 621. (The 1956 edition.)

Being and Nothingness, 627.

I’ll await the text, being that I’m without it. Don’t rush on my account.

why isn’t it; ‘everything is possible, until something becomes impossible’?

Even the impossible becomes a freedom if it is the death [or imperviousness] of your soul.

It’s impossible not to be absolutely free in the Sartrean sense, so that satisfies that objection.

Something is always impossible, but if it weren’t then I don’t think we’d even have the words ‘possible’ and ‘impossible’. In fact we’d be either a dim in-itself or an infinite multiplicity; which hardly differs.

What?