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I spend a lot of time critiquing the concept of intellectual freedom, but I rarely if ever try to articulate what alternative conception I think would be better suited to librarianship. One of the ways I think intellectual freedom is undertheorized is that, while many commentators and scholars debate the place or role of intellectual freedom in the profession and in society at large, very little attention is ever given to what kind of freedom is being discussed.

Bearing in mind that a definition of freedom cannot point to any kind of substantive object in the world, but can only indicate a collection of usages and practices which we - in our particular culture and time - have been trained in, I want to untangle a particularly influential definition of liberty and then offer an alternative perspective.

The hegemonic perspective on political concepts is that provided by liberalism, particularly the liberalism of the neoliberal era (roughly post-1968/70). The social, political, and economic dynamics of the post-war period that eventually led to neoliberalism produced particular theoretical formulations of liberalism as an ideology to make sense of and allow (most of) us to live with the contradictions of racial capitalism as it mutated from its industrial form to its “post-industrial”, post-Fordist form. For the purposes of this blog post I’m thinking especially of Isaiah Berlin’s influential restatement of the liberal view of liberty.

In “Two Concepts of Liberty” (1969), Berlin distinguished between “positive” and “negative” forms of liberty. Berlin was anxious to avoid any concept of liberty which might, in his view, lead to the “totalitarianism” of the state over the individual. For Berlin, states with a “positive” conception of liberty - i.e. a view of the social good which they then endeavour to achieve, support, and maintain - leads to the paradoxical situation of people being “forced to be free”. He sees this as the fundamental paradox of e.g. Soviet society. Berlin thinks that a “negative” conception of liberty, one in which freedom means having no obstacles to achieving one’s own conception of the good is better and more conducive to real individual liberty. Note here that an individual is responsible for making their own decision as to the kind of good they want to pursue. The idea of a multiplicity of (incommensurable and irreconcilable) goods rationally chosen by individuals lies behind Rawls’ “thin theory of the good”, Dworkin’s two conceptions of equality (procedural and substantive), and is a way of understanding the liberal positions on pluralism and tolerance.

Under a regime of negative liberty, the state does not possess an overarching sense of the good of society, nor is it the state’s job to try to pursue any particular good. Rather, it gets out of the way, its job is to remove obstacles to individuals pursuing their own ends. This begs the question, however, of how individuals come by those ends (i.e. it presumes an individual’s sense of the good is an autonomous, free decision made without coercion or constraint). Generally speaking, intellectual freedom is presented in its negative form: any instance of the state pursuing a particular conception of the good results in censorship.

However, Berlin’s dichotomy is a false one. Any “negative” conception of liberty assumes a positive one, if only that liberty itself is a social good. But intellectual freedom is often framed in a positive way as well: as the mechanism by which democratic participation is enabled and the survival of the republic assured.

However, leaving Berlin’s false dichotomy aside, it is by no means obvious that a negative conception of liberty is in fact all it is cracked up to be. Both Charles Taylor (in “What’s Wrong with Negative Liberty?”, 1985) and Raymond Geuss (in “Freedom as an Ideal” [published in Outside Ethics, 2005]) challenge Berlin’s view. Geuss argues that what Berlin was looking for was a “police-concept”, that is “a concept to regulate the enforcement of morality”. In other words, Berlin’s dichotomy helps us if we want to determine the limit of state or legal power of coercion (implicated as that is in all sorts of oppressive carceral-industrial dynamics), but not if we want a conception of freedom that will help us to live our lives. Geuss spends the rest of the essay unpicking the various ways individuals can decide on how they want to live their lives (“structure their aspirations”, determine between two alternative goods, etc), all of which is already richer and more productive than Berlin’s binary (and by extension more interesting than the oversimplified police-concept of intellectual freedom).

However, Geuss still focuses on individuals. But individuals, as we know from Marx, Wittgenstein, Bhaskar, Archer, and many others, do not spring autonomously from some primordial non-social earth. Individuals - their practices, opinions, values, languages, etc - are produced long before they are born. They are born into an already-existing social matrix which does not merely constitute a horizon for their wants, needs, desires, etc, but actively structures and produces them. It also produces how they understand them, and so on, in a long chain of necessary constraints and affordances.

For liberalism, the individual and society are seen as two independent ontological phenomena, often in conflict with each other (we can see this in J.S. Mill’s On Liberty, perhaps the foundational text for Intellectual Freedom). For Marxists, however, society and the individual are dialectically related. In The German Ideology, Marx and Engels articulated the way in which, for bourgeois society (i.e. liberalism), the individual and society are divided, but how real freedom can only exist within the necessary contours of social relationships:

Only within the community has each individual the means of cultivating his gifts in all directions; hence personal freedom becomes possible only within the community. In the previous substitutes for the community, in the state, etc., personal freedom has existed only for the individuals who developed under the conditions of the ruling class, and only insofar as they were individuals of this class. The illusory community in which individuals have up till now combined always took on an independent existence in relation to them, and since it was the combination of one class over against another, it was at the same time for the oppressed class not only a completely illusory community, but a new fetter as well. In the real community the individuals obtain their freedom in and through their association.

What is most important to bear in mind here is that, since there are no individuals outside of a society or community, society/community is not contingent, but necessary. This is not to say that the particular form of a society is necessary - that would contradict the basic principles of Marxism and a host of other philosophies - but that society itself is a necessary aspect of individuality.

Antonio Negri looked back behind Marx to Spinoza, for whom individuals and society were real products of a single, unitary, and univocal nature. The self-direction of individuals is society and vice-versa. Now, one thing that frightens liberals these kinds of alternative views of freedom is not just that they might lead to a totalitarian state of unbridled coercion, but that they seem to exclude individual agency as such, to become deterministic social theories in which there is no freedom at all. But I would argue that criticism is still bound by a conception of freedom as individual, unconstrained, autonomous agency rather than produced by the necessity of social relations.

I was trying to think of a good metaphor for this productive conception of freedom which takes necessity as part of - and not separate from - freedom. At first, I thought of Charlie Parker’s statement (it exists in many forms, I don’t know if there’s a canonical source) that goes: “First you learn the instrument, then you learn the music, then you forget all that shit and just play.”

This is sometimes phrased as “you learn the rules in order to forget them”. This gets at what I’m saying, but I’m reluctant to place too much emphasis on “rules”. On the one hand, it smacks of liberal proceduralism, on the other hand, rules seem to be too formal to describe the practices in which we are brought up. But I think Parker does get at what I’m aiming for. Unpacking it a little, we could say that when you learn an instrument you learn its material characteristics: how high or low it can go, the timbre it produces, the mechanics of articulating notes. These characteristics don’t appear as constraints or affordances, simply as what is. Even if you play an instrument in a non-standard fashion - I’m thinking here, for example, of percussive fingerstyle guitar players - what a musician can do is still produced by, say, the fact that a guitar is made of wood rather than plastic or stone. A musician’s freedom is not separate from the material necessity of the instrument; a musician can only play freely in and through that material necessity.

Just as we find an instrument already existing in the world, with a history and genealogy and lore and tradition of its own, so we find our own society was we grow up in it. Our “freedom” is produced by the social relations and practices of which our society is made. We can play in our society in a non-standard way, we can play from sheet music or we can improvise, but any conception of freedom has to take the social context seriously. We can even build our own instruments, rejecting the instruments we are given in favour of ones better suited to the music we want to play. But we need instruments, and we need to recognize that we play music with others; music only exists in concert with others. (Cf. Wittgenstein on the impossibility of private languages).

A conception of intellectual freedom grounded on this kind of freedom would be very different from the “negative liberty police concept” of Berlin. It could, perhaps, help us to address the very serious problems within the profession, by enabling us to get away from a very strict and simplistic conception of freedom as individual agency, towards something produced in common with all other members of our society.

NOTE: Considerations of space prevent me from getting into it here, but Geuss’ characterization of Berlin’s view of negative freedom as “a straightforward, sober, morally neutral concept” goes a long way to connecting librarianship’s spurious neutrality with intellectual freedom, via Berlin.


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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