Contested Freedoms: Michaël Fœssel on the Legacy of Rousseau, Kant, and Hegel

26 January 2018

Samuel Walker is an American engaged in graduate studies of philosophy and international relations at the Freie Universität in Berlin, where he also works as an editor and translator.

Review of Michaël Foessel, L’avenir de la liberté. De Rousseau à Hegel (Presses universitaires de France, 2017).


We tend to take for granted that the quest for freedom(s) stands, perhaps alongside a handful of other central principles, at the core of our political strivings and our political discourse. Hegel, who was acutely conscious of the role this quest has played in human history, was also farsighted enough to recognize that cognizance of this fact alone does not bring us particularly far, for “freedom” is an “infinitely ambiguous word.” Despite the ever-expanding richness of philosophical contributions to the question of what freedom is and how it should be realized in concrete terms, this situation does not seem to have changed much over the past two centuries. In fact, it may be the case that the growing sense of systematic crisis that has taken hold of the globe over the past decade is, among other things, a crisis of our (fragmented) collective understanding of freedom.


“Freedom” in its broadest modern acceptation has always been potentially negative and positive, individualist and communitarian, democratic and totalitarian. But we are living in times—they are not the first, nor will they be the last—in which these tensions have become impossible to ignore. In 2016, the United States came very close to seeing a self-proclaimed socialist running as the Democratic presidential candidate, representing a serious challenge not only to decades of bipartisan neoliberal politics, but also to the widespread perception that a robustly positive sense of political freedom could not possibly take root on American soil. Sanders did not win, but neither did the expected household brand of neoliberalism, which was ousted by a raucous display of populist nationalism. In Europe, similar tensions have become evident. Several age-old party systems have fallen apart, with new movements arising across the political spectrum claiming to redeem popular sovereignty in the face of a growing sense of social and political alienation, or to reign in these tendencies with a revamped version of the status quo.


At a time like this, rather than pulling a new theory of freedom down from the clouds, it might be useful for us to reconsider the philosophical history of modern political freedom. And this is precisely what Michaël Fœssel does in his L’avenir de la liberté: De Rousseau à Hegel (The Future of Freedom: From Rousseau to Hegel). The somewhat paradoxical title ­is a clever nod to the fact that, for all of the thinkers addressed—the only one standing between Rousseau and Hegel is Kant, who despite his absence in the title receives the lion’s share of attention—theorizing freedom has a significant forward-looking component. We are thus invited to consider our present (and future) as the future of our philosophical past. This does not entail a teleological conception of history, as though our world were simply a realization of the ambitions of that past. While Fœssel certainly does believe that the epoch he describes has exerted a major influence on our reality, he also thinks that there is a disconnect between contemporary sociopolitical configurations and the manner in which we once thought and talked about freedom.


The book, at present available only in French, is part of a series of “personal histories” published by the PUF (Presses universitaires de France), in which specialists from various disciplines are invited to present historical topics without filtering out their personal affinities. In the case of Fœssel, this means that, in lieu of a comprehensive overview of the concepts of freedom at the foundation of modern political discourse—which might inevitably amount to a focus on Locke and the liberal tradition—the case is made for a distinct epoch of thought centered around the idea of collective autonomy and standing in a central relation to the pivotal historical event of the French Revolution. Another distinctive feature of the series is that it is eminently accessible, free of footnotes and references to secondary literature and scholarly debates. Fœssel, an excellent writer, makes good use of these guidelines, producing a stylistically pleasant read that nonetheless remains on the level of sophistication appropriate to its object.


While the book will thus serve—with some reservations—as a very good introduction to the three thinkers concerned, it will also be of interest to more seasoned readers of political philosophy insofar as it presents a novel and interesting “big picture” take on these thinkers as an ensemble. Much as historians of philosophy tend to place Descartes and his radical centralization of the “I” at the origin of modern philosophy tout court, Fœssel locates Rousseau at the origin of a radical reorientation within modern philosophy in which human freedom becomes the axis around which everything else (including God) turns; at the same time, anticipating Marx, philosophy begins to assume an active role in shaping rather than merely interpreting the world.


It is, however, not only the role of human freedom that unites the three thinkers concerned, but also their particular conceptions of what constitutes it. As mentioned above, the central shared notion is that of “autonomy”, the idea that freedom consists in following a law (nomos) that has its source in the self (autos). This is to be distinguished both from following a law imposed by an external authority (heteronomy) and from the “freedom” of the individual to do whatever she or he wants (a law is a guiding norm with some kind of general validity). From the sophisticated perspectives of the thinkers concerned, something we might casually call “autonomy”—say, the freedom of a corporation from environmental or labor regulations—might in fact be a form of arbitrary behavior imposed on others; conversely, something that might at first sight appear to be “heteronomous”—say, the fact that children go to school because they are required to—might turn out to be an expression of autonomy.


Fortunately, Fœssel does not go so far as to say that Rousseau, Kant, and Hegel all have the same conceptions of autonomy. And he does a good job of characterizing their distinct conceptions, defending them from common criticisms along the way without falling prey to a naïve enthusiasm. In its broadest strokes, Fœssel’s argument is convincing, and some of his more detailed accounts, as well as his occasional musings on our contemporary world, are highly valuable. However, there are a few serious problems. One of them is that, while dedicating many pages to explicating the central theses of all three of Kant’s Critiques, Fœssel never directly discusses Kant as a political philosopher in the strict sense of the term (i.e., as the author of a “Doctrine of Right”), apparently making the assumption that Kant’s moral philosophy aligns perfectly with his political philosophy. That is far from the case, and Kant turns out to be much more of a liberal than Fœssel would be inclined to admit. It is, of course, legitimate to offer a political interpretation of Kant’s moral philosophy, but this rather significant deviation from Kant’s own thought should be made explicit.


While this particular oversight results in making Kant look a bit more like Rousseau and Hegel than he may in fact be, the most significant problem from my perspective is a distortion working in the opposite direction. Fœssel’s text is admirably diplomatic, but it is nonetheless infused with the spirit of Kant, at times resulting in an inadequate presentation of the uniqueness of the other thinkers concerned. Fœssel’s account of Hegelian dialectics, for instance, is profoundly dissatisfying; it deprives the latter of its immanent dynamics, making it into a battle between a static conception of freedom and an unfree reality it confronts from outside. More problematic still in this regard is Fœssel’s occasional “Kantianization” of the central concept of autonomy. While certain passages are more nuanced, Fœssel asserts at several points that “autonomy” means obedience to a “law dictated by reason.” As we have already seen, “autonomy” literally means obedience to a law prescribed by the self, so this is only the case if reason is taken to constitute the true self. For the dualistic Kant of the Second Critique, this is true without reservation; for Rousseau and Hegel, it is also true to a certain extent, but “reason” is understood to be something that affirms and integrates nature and sentiment into itself. For neither Rousseau nor Hegel can there be rational autonomy without the input of (human) nature.


Apart from the political philosopher Kant’s considerable contribution to the dominant discourse of liberalism—a point which stands, as previously mentioned, outside the scope of Fœssel’s book—the Kantian legacy may also be said to have won out, at least among progressives of many stripes, in terms of its radically rationalistic conception of freedom. As much as we might have dispensed with Kant’s universalistic notion of reason, many of us tend to understand freedom as the unconditional self-determination of the subject. The very notion of a human nature deeply informing or bounding our liberty has become, even in its most nuanced forms, an index of backwardness, supposedly carrying with it a uniquely perilous oppressive potential. Ironically, this perspective is bound up with the neoliberal worship of post-human technologization as much as it is championed by a millennial Left that, in many cases, invests a great deal of its energy into promoting a culture purged of all conceivable forms of hindrance, aggression, and inequality, in which each individual is enabled to create their identity ex nihilo.


At the conclusion of his book, Fœssel suggests that one of the chief merits of reconsidering the tradition he has traced may be its potential to remind us of a connection between reason and liberty in an age where the dominant form of rationality, which he calls “technical automatism,” has become antagonistic to “human initiative.” This is an excellent point, but it may be the case that reason always tends towards this antagonism where it conceives of itself as something above and beyond the human organism. It is indeed high time for us to reconsider conceptions of freedom that transcend the limits of liberalism, placing reason at the source of a social world of positive, collective liberties. But we should also set aside the adolescent dream of total rational control over what kind of beings we are. With that proviso in mind, the epoch admirably expounded by Fœssel is a good place to start.


Photo credit: Franz Kugler, Hegel, via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.


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