I’m always at a loss on how to start a post when the blog has been on hiatus for a while, which is something that seems to happen periodically with Deontologistics. The most recent hiatus has been a very long one, but it seems there are people still out there reading what comes out of this cognitive outflow vent. I’ve just returned from London, where I attended the third Matter of Contradiction conference: War Against the Sun, and the Speculative Aesthetics roundtable organised by James Trafford. These were both fantastic events, at which there was a palpable sense that certain divergent theoretical orientations are beginning to coalesce into a coherent trajectory of thought (indexed by the words ‘rationalism’, ‘accelerationism’, and ‘prometheanism’). I won’t say anything more about the content of these events, as the videos and transcripts of them will no doubt be appearing at some point, but I will mention that I had the opportunity to meet several very interesting people who knew me from the work I’ve posted here. This was very heartening, and convinced me that I should probably start putting some thoughts up here again.
I don’t have a lot of new material to put up here right now, as I’m currently working on the second half of my paper on Graham Harman (the first half of which is available here). However, after having some very interesting discussions with people on the topic of freedom (which I’ve written about in various ways: here, here and here), I realised that I had some old material languishing in a blog comment somewhere that some people might find interesting. As such, here’s some thoughts on the topic and its misappropriation by voluntarism.
1. Defining Freedom
I think it’s possible to define what freedom is in a reasonably helpful and comprehensive way, and that doing so cuts through a lot of unhelpful debates in which the notion is deployed in an one-sided fashion. The first step in this process is to split the discourse of freedom into its qualitative and quantitative questions.
Qualitative questions are precisely what thinkers like Kant, Heidegger and Sartre are dealing with when they talk about human freedom in its various guises. They’re talking about what it is for something to be a rational agent, which is meant to distinguish rational agents from other things (contra Spinoza). The problem is that this is often abstracted from causal questions regarding the genuine functional structure any causal system would have to have to count as such. Heidegger and Sartre (who is the most crude here) tend to collapse this into a brute ontological distinction between modes of Being (existence/occurrence, for-itself/in-itself, respectively), whereas Kant’s transcendental psychology tends not to be understood as the abstract functional architecture that it is (leading to Schopenhauer, Schelling, and other vulgar Kantians). The work of Wilfrid Sellars is crucial here insofar as gives us the resources to develop Kant’s functional account of rational agency in a totally naturalistically permissible fashion (see here).
It’s important to recognise that qualitative questions are not simply binary matters, such as: is this system an agent or not? They also deal with qualitative distinctions in the form that rational agency takes, including distinctions regarding better and worse forms that it can take. I tried to deal with some such distinctions in my comments on Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism (see here) under the heading of ‘the pragmatics of spirit’, showing that there’s important distinctions between the ways rational systems are structured to process their own motivations, thereby showing that what he calls ‘hedonic depression’ is characteristic of a fairly impoverished form of rational agency. This was pretty impenetrable I recognise, but it can and will be developed in a clearer way. This kind of qualitative differentiation becomes much more important and useful when we start thinking about collective agency, insofar as the differences between functional forms of social organisation are much more apparent (e.g., various forms of democracy, oligarchy, economic organisation, etc.), and much more stark in their normative consequences (e.g., with regard to the extent that a populace can be held responsible for the actions of its government).
Quantitative questions are precisely what thinkers like Spinoza, Foucault and (to some extent) Berlin are interested in. The reason they are quantitative rather than qualitative is that they are empirical rather than transcendental questions. This is to say that they’re interested in the specific causal mechanisms that instantiate the abstract functional structures that the qualitative questions deal with. There are two important distinctions to be had on the quantitative level: one between positive (Spinoza) and negative (Foucault) freedoms, and one between actional (mainly Spinoza) and rational capacities (mainly Foucault). The former distinguishes between bare capacities to effect results and the independence of these capacities from external influences (both in terms of affection and prediction), and the latter distinguishes between capacities to act upon the world and capacities to reason about one’s action upon the world. The former distinction is essentially dealing with two sides of the same coin, this coin being causal reasoning. The positive side corresponds to the default causal inference (A -> B) and the negative side to the potential defeasors that would undermine such an inference (C -> ~(A -> B)). The latter distinction deals with the capacities we have for producing effects at our disposal, which is to say, the choices we can make, and the capacities we have for deploying these capacities, which provide the conditions of the possibility of action.
These quantitative margins of freedom can all be increased, by increasing our abilities to do things, our ability to reason about which things we do and how we do them, and making these abilities counterfactually robust in the face of varying external conditions. The most interesting dimension of all this for me are the positive and negative rational capacities, which function as conditions of the possibility of action. As you may or may not know, I’m kind of obsessed by the idea of cognitive resources and the way these constrain both individual and collective decision making. For instance, I think it’s possible to define attention in functional terms as a quantitative positive rational capacity. It’s something one can have more of less of (in different kinds no doubt) and it is consumed as a resource in making decisions about how to deploy one’s other actional capacities. I’m equally interested in defining quantitative negative rational capacities, such as resistance to the hijacking of one’s attentional mechanisms (e.g., information filters) thereby conserving cognitive resources. These are the sorts of things that Foucault was interested in, insofar as Power is essentially defined as action upon decision making.
There’s a whole lot more that could be said here about how this ties into the Sellarsian/Brandomian account of free will based on RDRDs, but I’m going to leave it there. I think the qualitative/quantitative, positive/negative, rational/actional distinctions are pretty helpful in organising talk about freedom for now.
2. Diagnosing Voluntarism
Given these definitions, we can see that the real problem with voluntarism is that it occludes the causal (i.e., quantitative) dimensions of freedom. It essentially says: stop worrying about how free you are, because freedom is always a pure qualitative break in the causal order, an upsurge of noumenal causality that brings about change in the causal/social/historical order. The disastrous consequence of this is that it discourages us from actively working upon ourselves (both as individuals and as collectives) to make ourselves more free, by increasing both our positive and our negative freedoms.
Of course, some voluntarists partially mitigate this by adopting a loose sort of Spinozism, insofar as they’re willing to talk about what I’ve called actional capacities. This is motivated by a recognition that we actually have to engage in instrumental reasoning regarding the means at our disposal to achieve our ends. However, they fall short of dealing with rational capacities, which they close off in favour of some noumenal freedom of decision. This leads to them being unwilling to consider the ways in which our decision making abilities are both internally limited, and externally influenced. When applied to the level of collective freedom this is even worse, because it precludes thinking about organisational structure in any way whatsoever (i.e., the ‘will of the people’ will just spontaneously coalesce and then deploy the resources available to it).
On this basis, I think we can draw a loose distinction between theoretical and practical strands of voluntarism. The former is an academic perspective (e.g., Badiou, Zizek, Hallward, etc.) that claims freedom has nothing to do with our causal constitution, and thereby licenses ignorance about causal factors that effect and affect our freedom. The latter is less often explicitly defended than implicit in the rough patterns of discourse and action within a wide variety of left-activist groups (which I’ve elsewhere called pseudarchy). It holds that our freedom actually consists in (or is at least enhanced by) our ignorance of such causal factors: Don’t think too hard, because our freedom from Power is proportional to our ignorance of ourselves! This is a manifestly stupid insofar as it depends on viewing freedom in quantitative causal terms in order to license its demand for ignorance of this causal basis, but it’s depressingly common nevertheless.
3. Dislocating Subjects
There is a further dimension to the above discussion of qualitative freedom and rational agency that is worth considering here. This aims to determine which causal systems are capable of being counted as subjects, insofar as it determines which causal systems are capable as being counted as responsible for their thoughts and actions, insofar as they are capable of providing reasons for them. The additional dimension that complicates things consists in the fact that, although there are necessary functional constraints on what can count as a subject (e.g., we can’t decide to count the chair I’m sitting on as a subject, call him ‘Neil’, because he’s not capable of doing what he needs to do to be one), these do not provide sufficient criteria for subjective individuation (e.g., they don’t decide whether a human being is the same subject before and after an amnesiac episode). I think what fills the gap are socially instituted norms for determining who counts as who, i.e., for counting whether the same meat counts as the same person between two times. It’s as if causal systems capable of reasoning are counters moved about in the game of giving and asking for reasons. They have to have certain features to be a counter, but ultimately who they represent in the game is a function of the playing of the game itself.
An interesting way of thinking about this is that it turns the usual arguments about personal identity on their heads. Usually, the argument is a matter of what underlying feature makes a person a person, such that we can count an animated body at one time as responsible for the same thoughts and actions as an animated body at another. I’ve always hated these bloody debates. Now I know why, insofar as they get everything arse-backwards. The subject is nothing but the locus-of-responsibility, the being-counted-as-the-same-as in the relevant way. There can thus be different socially instituted criteria for determining how we divy up responsibility, and thus for how we individuate subjects. These are constrained by certain factors (e.g., ‘Neil’ can’t be subject on any reasonable criterion) but we can imagine all kinds of bizarre sci-fi scenarios that would challenge the current boundaries of our practices of individuation and force us to develop better ones (e.g., the uploading, copying, and merging of ego-patterns (check out the ideas found in Eclipse Phase)).
There’s two interesting upshots of this I think:-
i) I think Ray Brassier is right that we have to dissociate the rational subject from the phenomenal self (see here). Metzinger is right that there are no phenomenal selves as once understood, only self-models. The question is whether these self-models are limited to being models of the biological processes of the organism, or whether they can extend to be subject-models of the responsibilities that individuate that organism as a given subject. I think they can and do. Moreover, I think this is still perfectly consistent with Metzinger’s picture, insofar as we can imagine cases in which someone is mistaken about just who they are, not simply in the sense of asylums filled with people convinced they’re Napolean, but in the more disturbing sense of the same organism being systematically altered in such a way that it did not see the discontinuity involved in this alteration. For instance, if I was kidnapped and given elaborate neurosurgery (a la Neuropath), my self/subject-model could be hijacked in such a way that I could have all my beliefs, desires, and behavioural tendencies modified, and yet have my memories left in tact in such a way that the phenomenal continuity between the past self in those memories and the present self in my new experience is retained. I could be an empty vessel, a Manchurian candidate, no longer ‘Pete’ in any significant way, and yet be convinced I was.
Metzinger might be right in this case to say there really isn’t a question about whether I’m the same ‘self’, as all such selves are generated by precisely this kind of internal phenomenal continuity, for which there is no external standard by which to judge it. However, he would be wrong to extend this to subjectivity, insofar as we’d have social criteria (constrained by hard functional criteria) that could settle the question of whether causal system A and modified causal system B really count as the same person, regardless of what they think.
ii) It also reveals the somewhat counter-intuitive possibility of a subject-without-freedom. If subjects are just socially individuated loci of responsibility, then these loci needn’t be constantly in play, as it were. Temporary madness is a good example here. We downgrade the status of someone who is severely cognitively impaired, such that we no longer count them as fully responsible for their thoughts and actions. We give them truncated forms of responsibility, in much the way we do for children (what I’ve previously called sandbox responsibility). This doesn’t preclude us from giving them their status back once their cognitive machinery is functioning properly again. This is also a good example of how social criteria for individuating subjects and functional criteria for individuating rational systems can interact. However, this limbo status into which we place unembodied subjects can become more permanent.
The status of ‘being-Pete’ that would be taken away from me in the case of a severe psychotic episode would still be in some way attached to my body, given our reigning social criteria of subjective individuation, but upon the destruction of my body’s capacity to ‘house’ me, as it were, I’d be free floating. We currently have nothing in place to reinstitute such a status (e.g., cloning me a new body with sufficient similarity to do the job), but we do have ways of relating to such ‘defunct’ statuses. We do relate to the dead, and we do treat them as having certain rights, even though they may no longer have any active responsibilities. This is most clear in the case of past thinkers, such as Kant, who know stands for us as the exemplar of a certain set of theoretical ideas, which in his time he was responsible for defending. Any of us may stand in for Kant. We may take up his responsibility for him, in absentia. The very possibility of being able to do this, so that we can argue with the figures from our cultural past, who helped set the standards that we live by today, is essential if we are to be conscious of the content of these standards, the way they have developed, and the way they may yet develop. I think this is an interesting Hegelian insight that naturally follows from the above considerations.