The Emergence of the Freedom of the Subject in a World of Objects

Roger Scruton, in his Gifford Lectures entitled The Face of God, argues that human beings cannot be understood properly if they are not conceived as subjects in a world of objects. What I want to do here is to argue along those same lines, but flesh out what exactly is entailed in subjecthood. Subjecthood, I maintain, consists primarily in rational freedom. This defintion brings together the classical definition of person as an individual substance of a rational nature together with the more modern definition of a person wherein the fundamental human property consists in the freedom of self-determination.

Conceiving of human beings as subjects in a world of objects fundamentally consists in the kantian idea that, in some way, human beings are both a part of and yet stand outside of the causal order of nature. Kant may have had an overly rigid view of the causal order, but at a minimum it is certainly the case that the human being is in some way within the order of nature, or, perhaps put a bit more palatably, within the order of events. Scruton notes that this means that there are two ways the human being can be seen:

Any being who can say ‘I’ and meant it is situated in a world of universally binding causal laws. I am governed by a law of freedom, which compels my actions, and a law of nature, which binds me in the web of organic life. I am a free subject and a determined object: but I am not two things, a determined body with a free soul rattling inside. I am one thing, which can be seen in two ways – as subject and as object. (The Face of God, pp. 40-41)

Where does freedom figure in this picture? We can see that human beings are free – but whence comes freedom? Classically, freedom is construed in terms of a lack of external coercian – I am free if and only if I perform an action without a cause imposed on me from the outside. But haven’t we just seen that as an object in the natural order, I am never free from such external causes? Yes – and it is precisely this conundrum that leads Scruton to a key kantian insight:

Freedom does not reside in some even that ‘erupts’ into consciousness unheralded by changes in the nervous system. It resides in practical reasoning, which is in turn founded on the relationality of the human person – the fact that people depend on each other for advice, are accountable for what they do, and are the objects of praise and blame. (p. 42)

The key insight, that freedom is inherently social, has an interesting consequence: this construal of freedom removes freedom from the causal order entirely:

…freedom is not a kind of causality, still less an interruption of the causal order. Freedom emerges from the web of inter-personal relations, and comes into being as a corollary of ‘I’, ‘you’ and ‘why?’. It is not a blip among objects but a revelation of the subject. (p. 43)

There is within this insight another important kantian theme: that of accountability, because accountability assumes a kind of normative status. Our practical reasoning is normative or rather subject to norms, because we act for reasons. It is just this normative aspect of practical reason which moves human beings from being mere objects within the natural order to being full subjects. In practical reason, we are applying concepts, which, for the kantian tradition, is another way of saying following rules:

…Kant understands the contents of our normatively significant states to be rules that determine what we have made ourselves responsible for, what we have committed ourselves to, what we have authorized. And his name for those content-articulating rules is ‘concepts’. So he understands what one is doing in judgings as applying a concept: a concept that determines how one is taking things to be, how one is committing oneself to things being, how they must be if the commitment one has authorized and made oneself responsible for is to count as correct. (Animating Ideas: Reason in Philosophy, Robert Brandom, pp. 141-142)

It is this sensitivity to norms, Brandom argues, that shows that humans fundamentally act for reasons. These are reasons that are ‘internally endorsed’ (p. 143), and it is just these internally endorsed reasons that are the condition for true human freedom. To act for reasons is to bind oneself to norms, and if to act for reasons just is to be free, then freedom isn’t a lack of externally imposed causality, but rather freedom is the freedom to bind oneself to norms. And it is just this concept of freedom that allows humans to both be a part of and also transcend the natural realm: that allows human beings to be both rational and free. In fact, the juxtaposition between rationality and freedom itself has been transcended: to be free just is to be rational, and to be rational just is to be free.

Hegel brings a more social understanding to these kantian doctrines (which are already social, but Hegel makes the implicit sociality explicit). Brandom notes that Hegel understands the normative statuses that Kant was concerned with – the notions of responsibility, commitment, etc – are fundamentally social in nature. This is implicit in Scruton above: people are accountable to each other. Thus these normative statuses depend on social interaction for their existence:

There were no such normative statuses until people adopted practical normative attitudes towards each other – that is, until they started holding each other responsible, treating each other as committed, acknowledging  each other’s authority. Adopting those attitudes is what he [Hegel] calls ‘recognition’. On his view, adopting normative statuses – being a free kantian agent, able to judge and act intentionally – is in principle only possible in the context of a community. Those communities for the social substance in which normative creatures live and move and have their being – what Hegel calls ‘Geist’, Spirit. Sapience is not a wholly individual achievement: it takes a village. (p. 144-145)

Freedom, then, is not a brute given: it is not the mere absence of externally imposed causes on action. Indeed, on this picture of things, it’s not so much as even possible to be free of externally imposed causes:

Understood in this way, freedom is the capacity constitutive of sapience: the capacity to undertake conceptually articulated responsibilities, to make commitments, the capacity to respond not just to natural properties but to normative properties. Real freedom comes not from the absence of an externally imposed cause but from the presence of an internally endorsed reason. Becoming the subject of normative statuses such as responsibility, commitment, and authority is, for Kant, moving from being a denizen of the realm of nature to being a citizen of the realm of freedom. (p. 143)


5 thoughts on “The Emergence of the Freedom of the Subject in a World of Objects

  1. Rod Lampard January 21, 2017 / 11:36 pm

    Deep. This says a lot against nihilism: “to be free just is to be rational, and to be rational just is to be free.” Limits are applied rationally – judging distances between us an other cars when driving safely, rather than doing whatever we want, is one quick example. I’d have to think more about it, but on the surface it even seems to challenge Kant’s strict categorical imperative. Don’t quote me on that, though :). I particularly like the final block quote. Putting my Barth hat on, true freedom, not just the promise of it, only exists if it is freedom in limitation. Taking up our cross. Following Christ. Grateful obedience.


    • Joshua January 22, 2017 / 9:08 am

      ‘Freedom for obedience’, was, I believe, Donald Bloechs’s great phrase and it seems appropriate to your line of thought

      Liked by 1 person

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