Philosophical dimensions of freedom

Philosophical dimensions of freedom

For there are also those who are capable of mixing

dirt of their actions into the miracle of freedom.

M. Grechuta


If right was Schelling, when he said that the beginning and end of all philosophy is the problem of freedom, perhaps this issue is also an excellent path to philosophical analyzes of contemporary culture. Philosophers was often putting freedom and liberation as a motto on their coats of arms. However, liberation by philosophy is a rare occurrence. This is due to the quality of the truths it is looking for. It aims at comprehending the whole (everything) and settling final issues. Everyone wants to reach such a truth – wrote Lev Shestov – that will be, even if only a tiny little bit, true for everyone (Shestov 1993, p. 460). And in this desire of „truth for everyone” freedom can get lost. It ceases to be a value that opens and liberates, and imperceptibly joins those values that constrain and limit. Therefore, among other illusions of philosophy, one should also place the fact that it always brings freedom. Often the opposite: it is associated with an attraction to tyranny, which is easy to see in its history. Philosophy is also a insistent persuasion, and the philosopher himself sometimes finds it difficult to admit that he „dig up much earth and find a little gold” (Heraclitus).

However, the very interest of philosophy in the problem of freedom is something else. This is one of the basic philosophical problems around which all philosophical disciplines focus, and which is also an area of encounter with theology, physics, etc. It should be emphasized that this problem was most often revealed in philosophy in two dimensions. The first was related to the problem of determinism and indeterminism and was rooted in metaphysics. The second was about responsibility and was rooted in ethics. In the former, philosophy brought analyzes of freedom beyond the human world, towards the whole of being, and they could not appear without taking into account the metaphysical sensitivity of man. In the second, it is permanently associated with the world of values and human affairs, seeing the expected situation in it – here it emerged from our axiological sensitivity.

In contemporary culture, we often think of freedom in its traditional sense as independence and the removal of obstacles to the possibility of exercising one’s will. Understood in this way, it separates us (me) from the whole world, builds a distance towards something, someone, others, sets boundaries and places in opposition. Hannah Arendt wrote about it: Nothing indeed can be more frightening than the notion of solipsistic freedom – the ‘feeling’ that my standing apart, isolated from everyone else, is due to free will, that nothing and nobody can be held responsible for it but me myself (Arendt 1996, p. 269). Undoubtedly, the philosophy of the past contributes to the creation of such an image of freedom that left a person (an individual) to themself and taught to take care of themself and their world. Thanks to it, we observed a constant expansion of the freedom of choice and liberation from coercion, while at the same time losing another person, who often became a rival and an obstacle – a limitation of my freedom. Absolutizing such freedom, recognizing it as the main, constituting the individual, value which led to lawlessness, is the result of these actions. In such individualization, it became an element of isolation as independence from anything: the more lawlessness and loneliness, the more freedom.

Contemporary philosophy is clearly trying to change this situation. Freedom is not only an act of my self-will and lawlessness in initiating action. The present day adds one more aspect to it. It is „communing with the Other” (Levinas), freedom „with somebody”. In this new context, it appears not as a problem of the subject's autonomy, the absence of coercion, free choice etc., but as a result of an encounter with „other freedom”. The traditional divisions into „my freedom”, „freedom from something” and „freedom for something” take on a different meaning when the Other will show up in the area of freedom. Another One/the Other suddenly appeared in contemporary philosophy: first, by noticing that man is dependent on him. Later, as a recognition that the basis of our experience of the world is not only cognition, but also encounter with another person. Demanding respect for them, agreeing to their otherness, philosophy has discovered that it is also impossible not to perceive their presence in thinking. Even when are they a threat to the I (Sartre), the desire of the I (Lacan), or the hope of the I (philosophy of dialogue), the other person appears within our thinking. Everywhere there, without them thought is threatened with some falsehood. It is easy to see that the appearance of the Other in philosophy and culture requires a different construction of the subject. It is no longer a substantial being closed in „selfness”, isolated from others and the world. „I” now always means „being-with”: man is not alone.

It can therefore be said that for contemporary philosophy and culture the idea of freedom appears more and more often along with the category of the Otherness. The discovery of the Other also sets a new horizon of philosophical problems with freedom. Rarely is it now about the freedom of the subject, about me and my will. Everywhere freedom was just involved in the process of finding „self”. The problem belonged to me and my world, etc. Now the point is that the Other imposes the existence of a world in which there is already freedom, and the subject, „I”, enters the finished world of freedom. And this means something completely different than the freedom „for me”, „mine”, which is my concern only. The other becomes the active part of my freedom, not just one of the elements of choice and the border. Contemporary thought therefore moves in this new paradigm. In trying to understand the Other, a new awareness of freedom is also revealed. The current „liberation” and expanding the scope of its possession no longer determines its problem.It can be said that the problem of freedom appears for the first time in a new relationship in which two (and more) freedoms face each other: I (free) and the Other (also free). Freedom becomes a way of manifesting the being of the Other.

This fundamental shift in contemporary philosophy is also decisively influencing a change in the cultural presence of the problem of freedom. It is true that the problems brought about by the past (freedom as freeing oneself) do not disappear, but they are not the most important during the „discovery of the Other” period. You could say that we live in a period of new testing of freedom. In the past, such a test was „freedom of conscience” in the religious sense. Today it is „the freedom of the Other” in the cultural and social sense. There is no big problem with it if the Other recognize similar values and lives in the same axiological horizon; when the Other is the same. Problems arise only when he is „Other”: by appearance, different culture, different values, etc. In concrete terms, this test translates into many of the questions of contemporary culture that concern freedom: why should we allow people we know to be (sometimes) wrong to express their views? It’s but so easy to limit their freedom „for their own good.” Why should they not be deprived of their right to express their point of view? We can but point them „in the right direction” so easily. Why not limit their rights? They should but be „the same”. Why is the Other entitled to the claim? After all, I know what is good for them. Those new problems of freedom will not be understood by those who want the Other to be „just the same”, to be the „alter ego”. Only those who perceive in the Other someone radically Other, who is not me and to whom I cannot give my meaning, will understand them. This leads to different views on the coercion that has limited freedom in the past. In a philosophy that did not perceive the Other, it was very easy to turn such coercion into making happy. For example, quite often coercion was allowed for the sake of the other (I know what is good for them, but they doesn’t know it, so for their own good they should listen). In this sense, leading others to goals that we only know are good for them was not a restriction on their freedom. All of this changes in the „culture of the Other”. Freedom can no longer only support the authority and position of Me. It can no longer be blind to the Other. Freedom is now a world of relations.

Is often a matter of debate how to spot these not so easy new problems with freedom. It is a difficult, maybe even the most difficult dimension of freedom: freedom together with the Other and their world. Until now, the meaning of freedom has been associated with the individual: thanks to freedom, the individual could realize their full potential, could truly become „themself”. The goal of concern for freedom has always been „Me”. It was but easy freedom. Discovering the Other changes everything. It is not only I who have the opportunity to act according to my desires. The Other now has the same option. Two freedoms stand in front of each other, which need not have anything in common. The freedom of the Other makes me have to – perhaps – start all over again, my current way of being, my world will have to undergo some modification.


prof. dr hab. Marek Szulakiewicz

Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń



Arendt H., Wola, R. Piłat [transl.], Warszawa 1996.

Shestov L., Ateny i Jerozolima, C. Wodziński [transl.], Kraków 1993.


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Autor: Mateusz Ruta
Date: 13 July 2021
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