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Note on Freedom and Reasonableness

Ulrich Pothast 


The key concepts of Western enlightenment were "freedom" and "reason". These concepts influenced Western thinking about human beings and their place in this world until far into our century. By now, however, it has become very obvious, that neither "freedom" nor "reason" can be conceived as a priori properties which, as adult persons, we can be sure to possess. The philosophical situation at present is such that there is a bewildering manifold of concepts of freedom as well as reason (today rather: rationality) to the effect hat some authors already talk of "freedoms" and "rationalities". This situation may be considered typical for a period of transition with no clear direction yet, a period which, in our case, may be addressed as "post-modernism".

I argue that neither freedom nor rationality should be thought of as permanent human properties but that we, rather, are more or less free, more or less reasonable in the course of a life. So that personal freedom as well as reasonableness are themselves higher-order goals of personal development. Many of our efforts oncerning ourselves (often without being recognized as such) are about becoming more free, becoming more reasonable - or, e.g., not being made less free (openly or by hidden influence), not being reduced to become less reasonable. 

I have, already, substituted "rationality" by "reasonableness" in formulating these goals, and "freedom" by "personal freedom". This demands an explanation of the way I use these words.

Personal freedom: By this I mean the ability of a person to be, in her actions, the person she wants to be when considering herself and her possible ways of acting in a longer time perspective and unobtruded by actual need, fear, attraction or whatever. Personal freedom, then, ist the ability of a person to conform in her actual doing to the self-desired higher-order image of herself. It is obvious that, in this sense, we are not constantly and in an always identical way free or unfree, but that we are more or less permanently changing with respect to the degree of our personal freedom as well as, possibly, its direction . The question how we come to know what kind of person we want to be links the idea of personal freedom to the idea of reasonableness. 

Reasonableness: By this I mean the ability of a person to pick and weigh the higher-order aims of her life, accounting for what is adequate towards others and what is adequate towards herself. This is a difficult concept, firstly because "adequate towards others" needs clarifying (and might only be done so in some form of non-individualistic ethics) and secondly because "adequate towards herself" needs clarifying maybe even more. As the problems of ethics have been explored fairly often elsewhere, I concentrate here only on the latter aspect. 

It seems desirable, however, to note first the difference between classical rationality, as we know it from rational choice theory in several modern fields of research, and reasonableness, as advocated here: Rationality as aimed at in rational choice theory, denotes norms (logical in a wider sense) and procedures of a process by which we arrive at the optimal choice of means for preconceived ends. Rationality in a person or institution presupposes a clear awareness of ends or, at least, preferences, but does not serve to find or form those ends - exept for questions of arranging them along the more or less logical lines of consistency, transitivity etc. Reasonableness is the term I use for our ability to pick adequate ends - adequate in the light of living with other beings as well as living our own lives. 

What now, are the necessary conditions of reasonableness in persons who are supposed to find their ends, and possibly: socially as well as individually adequate ends that can guide them at turning points in their lives? Leaving ethics aside for the moment, I suggest: One of the most important necessary conditions of reasonableness is a well-developed access of the person to her own inner life. This may seem trivial or possibly even ridiculous. The fact that it seems so is itself part of an established way of thinking about ourselves that has since long dominated philosophical concepts of the person and has made it difficult to see the point here. Apart from areas of the soul that are in a Freudian sense unconscious (which is: kept vom consciousness by quasi-institutions like censorship), philosophers - if they did talk about inner life at all - assumed normally, that anything existing there is ipso facto conscious (or ipso facto given to awareness) and can easily be observed by introspection. This is not so.

Neither is all inner life ipso facto conscious, nor is there any "introspection" in the literal sense of this word. There is no inward directed glance and no inward directed sense organ. Our access to ourselves is radically different from our access to the external world through sense organs (like the eyes). How this radically different access to ourselves is to be construed in philosophical terms, is a hitherto open question. In any case: Persons differ widely as to the degree, depth and reliability of their access to their own inner lives, and an individual person 

may also experience large differences of that sort during her lifetime. In philosophy at least, this fact tends to be neglected grossly.

One thing seems uncontroversial despite large difficulties inherent in this approach: If there is anything like reasonableness as the ability to form socially and individually adequate ends for action, and if reasonableness varies in one and the same person, depending, among other things, on range and reliability of her access to herself, then making this access as rich and as reliable as possible belongs to the life-theme of reasonableness itself. To become more secure of our highest-order ends and of their weight relative to others of similar kind depends, among other things, on becoming better acquainted with one's own inner life, from which comes the impulse to say "yes, I value this most highly" or "no, I definitely don't". 

The relevance concerning post-modernism here seems to me this: It may well be the case that any supposedly objective world view will meet equally eligible competitors, that any system of supposedly universal norms of action will encounter the same problem, and so on. This hardly will do away with two elementary observations on what is needed for agreement and commitment among persons. 

First: Any kind of non-dogmatic position that claims validity for persons depends on these very persons for approval - which in the last analysis has to include a positive inner impulse, an inner "yes" (so to speak) coming from the very area on which reasonableness is based.

Second: Once a person has taken her stance from a point within herself, experiencing firmly her own "yes" or "no" in the characteristic clarity that inner life can have (but by no means always has), then there is little sense in disputing this experience. One may dispute the person's verbal correctness in reporting, her correctness in giving additional reasons, her knowledge of her unconscious mind and so forth. But this would be beside the point. 

The wish to be or become the person one wants to be or become, and the related wish to make sure one's dominant aims for leading one's life are reliably formed (that is, among other things: supported by a credible impulse from one's own inner life) might be candidates for high-order personal needs after post-modernism. 

"Freedom" and "reason" are unlikely to come back as a priori and ever stable properties of persons. 

[After Post-Modernism Conference. Copyright 1997.]