Sartre on radical freedom

Chris asked:

True or False? — Sartre is a believer in radical free will. His ontology of free will is similar to the ontology of free will offered by the substance dualists.

Answer by Gershon Velvel

True and false.

Sartre has a view of freedom which fully merits the description ‘radical’. However, if Sartre’s ontology of free will was really ‘similar’ to the ontology of free will offered by the substance dualists then he would be a substance dualist. And he most certainly is not.

Sartre is not a dualist or a monist. A monist believes in one basic substance: matter, or the subject matter of physics. In Sartre’s metaphysics (as developed in Being and Nothingness) there is absolutely nothing to say about what ‘is’, as such. Rather, there are two fundamentally different ways of approaching ‘what is’: under the category of the ‘For-itself’, and under the category of the ‘In-itself’.

Who is doing this ‘approaching’? The For-itself. The In-itself is inert. It doesn’t ‘do’ anything or ‘approach’ anything. We, that is to say human beings — each of us individually an exemplification of the ‘For-itself’ — make sense of reality by applying one or the other fundamental category.

But this is where things get tricky. Because each of us, although an exemplification of the ‘For-itself’ is also an exemplification of the ‘In-itself’. We possess physical bodies, and the molecules and cells that make up our physical bodies obey the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology without room for exception.

Descartes, by contrast, held that there is a loophole in the laws of physics which allows an immaterial soul to interact with the body’s ‘animal spirits’, the physical conduit for all perception and action. For obscure reasons, this interaction was supposed to take place in the pineal gland. — I don’t think that this is such a bad theory, if you explore all the options, but it is not a theory that Sartre would ever have considered. He didn’t need to.

And yet, despite this, Sartre states, unequivocally, that if human beings are free then determinism is false. (I don’t have the reference to hand, but he says this in more than one place in Being and Nothingness.)

I think he is wrong about this. In order to make the point about freedom that he is making, it isn’t necessary to say anything about the thesis of determinism. It’s completely irrelevant. I suspect that Sartre identifies determinism with the much more dubious claim that, in principle, any physical system is predictable. And that would wreck his account of freedom. It is perfectly possible to hold that determinism is true, but that some physical systems (e.g. those that have a brain) are unpredictable in principle.

Given unpredictability in principle, this is all Sartre needs to defend ‘radical’ freedom. His fundamental point about decision and action is that every situation is necessarily unique. There is not, and could not be, any kind of ‘template’ that one could apply (e.g. ‘This is an X-type situation, and I am a Y-type person, therefore I must do Z’). Anyone can choose to do anything within his or her physical capacity, in any situation, regardless of any choices made in the past. That’s all just water under the bridge.

There are two reasons why our actions generally do not cause any surprise to those observing us. The first is the anodyne point that most of the time there is no reason for us to deviate from what we have done on previous occasions. As Aristotle noted, habit is the basic building block of character. F.H. Bradley in Ethical Studies considers the example of someone who chooses to do the ethically right thing despite strong disincentives, while a friend remarks, ‘I’m surprised that you did that.’ The angry response is, ‘You should have known me better!’

The second, connected reason is that the vast majority of the choices that confront us every day are not life changing. But when they are life changing, that is when Sartre would say, we have to be vigilantly on guard against the bad faith of believing that there is such a thing as ‘what a person like me would do’, or ‘what a person in my position would do’. You are on your own, without a rule book. It is up to you to come up with an original and creative solution to the problem that now confronts you.

One thought on “Sartre on radical freedom

  1. Hi Gershon
    Please forgive me if you’ve already received a reply from me. I’m new at this
    Surely the main issue is whether the complex brain is relatively unknown in detailed function. We cannot assume because of complexity of the neuronal system, nor the subjective experience we have whilst deciding, that we are actually free, in terms of the effects of determined events
    In everyday life we make decisions we feel are free. But research shows we are constrained by preexisting events or for example drugs. This does not support the concept of free will

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