Consciousness and Freedom: Jung, Sartre, Steiner.

Consciousness and Freedom: Jung, Sartre, Steiner.

Freedom, that is the idea of freedom, the possibility of freedom, is a topic which strikes me as worth considering. It is, after all, arguably, the most important question philosophy can ask; and a defining parameter in our understanding of what it means to be a human being.

The question simply put is this:

Can an individual make choices which are not wholly determined by a prior casual chain?

Is it possible, like Kant’s hypothetical God, to initiate a first act, an act of creation, undetermined by what came prior to it? Or, as a free person, to complete yourself- as Steiner suggests? This subject, and the debate for or against such a possibility, is far too vast to be comprehensively dealt with here. Even if I were sufficiently well informed on the history of this idea, which I am not, any survey pretending to completeness would fill several volumes.

What is freedom?

My intention here is merely to offer a few thoughts on one very particular aspect of the question. The aspect I have often grappled with, as I think most philosophers must of necessity, is what exactly we mean when we speak of freedom in the metaphysical sense (i.e. as opposed to the social or political sense). And then I narrow down my thoughts to an even narrower aspect of this question, namely what would (radical) freedom of choice be for the subject himself?

How would you experience radical freedom?

The very idea of freedom is on the face of it somewhat absurd.

This absurdity has been very clearly articulated by contemporary philosophers of mind and neuroscientists, who dabble in a little metaphysics when not admiring their collection of brains-in-a vat. Those who find themselves in the broad determinist camp, both hard determinists, i.e. there is no such thing as free choice, and compatibilist, or soft-determinists, who claim that a free choice is one made in line with the unimpeded function of the deterministic apparatus of the individual, ask a telling question of anyone arguing for the libertarian position, i.e. radical free choice.

The question the compatibilist asks is: what do you mean by freedom, if not precisely the freedom to act in accordance with who you are; that your actions to follow your choices, which are determined by your beliefs and desires. And this I think is a tough question to answer if one wants to challenge the compatibilist idea and assert radical freedom.

So in attempting to answer this question: is radical freedom possible, we face a real challenge. A challenge not only to provide a plausible account of how ‘free choice’, whatever free choice is, which is far from clear, is possible in a causal universe, but to explain what the very concept of freedom is, if it is not compatibilism.

Any attempt to define radical freedom is faced with the challenge of defining the concepts of both free choice or a free act and the conceptual nature of the agent, the I, or the subject, that is both capable and responsible for such a free act, when you make the statement: I am capable of making a free choice or initiating a free act[1].

One possible approach is to suggest that radical freedom is an irreducible idea. It cannot be reduced into component parts in an attempt to better understand its essence. There are a few ideas like this in philosophy: the ‘I’ and consciousness being two such examples. The attempt to define what consciousness is, inasmuch as it something radically more than a material (I.e. neurological) process, encounters a similar challenge. One of the ways of meeting this challenge has been a suggestion that possibly, like space and time, consciousness is simply an irreducible property of the universe.[2] An argument along similar lines may be made for radical freedom.

Radical freedom, or more commonly libertarianism, is simply that; it cannot be defined or reduced any further.

Whilst personally I don’t hold such a position, or let me rather say I find such an answer rationally offensive, it must be conceded that the possibility of such an answer needs to be accommodated. And as noted above one may face a similar dialectical response when seeking an answer to what exactly is meant by the I, or at least the one who is free.

The reason, I believe, such an answer, whilst admittedly having prima facia plausibility, is rationally offensive is because it is an admission of ignorance. Effectively what such an answer implies is the words freedom and I, at least in this context, are merely placeholders, or symbols in the Jungian sense, for unknown facts of the universe. We mean something when we use them, but what exactly we mean is unknown.

Such an approach, i.e. treating these concepts as placeholders of a more fundamental reality, may find a sympathetic reading with Kantian philosophers. Kant makes just such a distinction: phenomenal (empirical) truth is mediated through our limited intellectual and cognitive capacities and represents a more fundamental reality that is mind-independent, for Kant noumenal reality, or in Jungian terms archetypal reality.

Despite this possible answer to the question of what radical freedom is, which I concede has prima facia plausibility; I will attempt to provide an answer which is rationally more satisfying, if necessarily limited. In other words, I do not propose to solve the mystery of how radical freedom is possible and what it may mean, but only to offer some exploratory thoughts as to where we may look for such answers.

Towards a theory of Radical Freedom

Jung suggests that freedom is an emergent property of consciousness. Our capacity for freedom is proportionate to our degree of consciousness. By consciousness here we should understand principally, although not exclusively, self-awareness, i.e. the degree to which I am conscious of my own internal psychic life- motivations, drives, internal impulses and imperatives. An awareness of our psychic life seen from the perspective of an internal objective observer, a point of view able to temporarily disentangle itself from the usual stream of thoughts, ideas, impulses and achieve a meta-perspective.

‘To what erotic’s of knowledge does the ecstasy of reading such a cosmos belong? Having taken a voluptuous pleasure in it, I wonder what is the source of this pleasure of “seeing the whole”, of looking down on, totalizing this most immoderate of human texts […] It allows one to read it, to be a solar Eye, looking down like a god. The exultation of a sceptic and Gnostic drive: the fiction of knowledge is related to this lust to have a viewpoint and nothing more’
Michael de Certeau, Walking in the City, 1974, in relation to the perspective on New York as seen from the top floor of the Twin Towers.

Staying with the metaphor of NYC, consciousness, in this sense, is understanding the ebb and flow, the patterns and purposes of the life that animates the city; and how such life moves through the concretized geography of the city. The question this leads us to consider though is who is it that obtains this elevated perspective? Do we not end up in an infinite regress by imaging a homunculus type of consciousness able to assume a transcendent or elevated perspective in relation to the rest of the psyche?

Rudolf Steiner in his book The Philosophy of Freedom provides a possible way of grounding the ‘free being’, and thereby avoiding the issue of infinite regress. Steiner suggests that the act of thinking itself is the ground of freedom. It is also the ground naturally of conscious being, at least in as much as the conscious being concludes that he is a conscious being, i.e. through the act of thinking.

All conceptual construction and deconstruction, all philosophy, in short all rational activity is an activity of thought.

Cogito ergo sum

I think therefore I am.

One must make the point here though that the fact that reason resides in the act of thinking does not, at least as far as I can see, in itself bestow freedom on that activity. However as Steiner points out the denial or affirmation of freedom is an act of thinking, giving the thinking act then a natural priority over the contents of those thoughts, be they the denial or affirmation of freedom.

The philosopher Sartre makes an argument along similar lines in Being or Nothingness. The act of thinking and the one who thinks can never be synonymous with the contents of those thoughts. The act of thinking Sartre’s suggests is always an act of non-identification with the thoughts itself. Following this line of thinking Sartre concludes that freedom is the inescapable nature of man.

Existence precedes essence.

Whether this way of looking at thinking in fact confers freedom is, I believe, still open to debate. Certainly neither Steiner nor Sartre’s ideas have been received with anything approaching acceptance by the broad intelligencia, or the narrower filed of philosophers who are actively engaged in this ongoing debate. If anything it is the determinists whose philosophy is convergent with the natural science that are most clearly heard and accepted today. We live after all in the age where metaphysics is to a large extent is a sub-domain of the paradigmatic philosophy of natural science.

However this notwithstanding the issue of freedom like that of consciousness has, as yet, not been conclusively explained by science. Metaphorically speaking it has not yet succumbed to the Copernican revolution, and a fickler of light representing the dignity of the human person continues to burn within it’s, albeit fragile, housing.

The actual practice of Radical Freedom (what does it look like?)

Consider the way in which you make a choice. Let’s assume you are at the Haagen-Dazs ice cream counter on your way to go and see a movie. As we all know a really good Haagen-Dazs ice cream improves the overall enjoyment, the net quotient of joy, to be obtained from the anticipated cinematic experience.

Let us consider a few different scenarios:

  • Scenario 1; your partner chooses your ice cream for you, whilst you are busy purchasing the movie tickets. Chances are it is not all that great, maybe say coconut macaroon, but you eat it anyway, if merely as a symbolic expression of everything else you need to ‘eat’ in your relationship, and anyway there really isn’t time to go and exchange it before the movie starts.
  • Scenario 2; you get to go and choose your ice cream, whilst, for once, your partner actually puts her hand in her pocket to purchase the movie tickets. Now you have a favourite flavour, let’s assume, for the sake of the example, it is Rum & Raisin. So the process of making a choice is very simple:

Question, do they have Rum & Raisin?

Answer, yes.

Choice/action, buy Rum & Raisin, proceed to the movie; (ideally with coconut macaroon for your partner :-)).

  • Scenario 3; as you are about to order the rum & raisin your eye falls on the limited edition vanilla bean espresso. You are, understandably, conflicted.

Question,  do I buy the rum & raisin that I know I like (well love really!) or do I expand my horizons, increase my capacity for a wider variety of gourmet ice cream, and take a chance on the vanilla bean espresso?

Deliberation, God/ Gaea/ Aunty Agatha/ my higher being/ angel/ ancestral sprits, my deep inner self/ stomach/ taste bud imprinted memories/ insert your favoured source of inspiration here…which one should I choose?

Answer, (for example) vanilla bean espresso, heard as a disembodied voice in a high vibrato.

Choice/action, buy the vanilla bean espresso, proceed to the movie, (ideally with rum & raisin for your partner, just in case you heard wrong, you can always steal a scoop or two from her :-)).

  • Scenario 4; same as scenario 3 except when you consult the inspirational source all you get back is a deep silence, and let’s assume your partner is taking too long with those movie tickets to tell you which one you should buy.

So now, on the one hand, you have rum & raisin and, on the other, vanilla bean espresso, both have your attention and desire in perfectly equal proportions, and the spirit voice and source of inspiration is leaving this one up to you.

Answer, unknown.

Choice/action, unknown.

As I see it, it is only in scenario 4 that the possibility of freedom, radical freedom, exists. At least if by radical freedom we mean radical conscious freedom. As long as my desires, necessity, my partner or my unconscious (from which all inspiration is derived) provide me with the answer to my dilemma, I am at best free in the compatibilist sense. The choice I will make is dictated by my beliefs and desires (reasons). And these reasons are sufficient on their own to resolve the issue of which flavour should be selected.

It is only when a negative space is created, when no answer is present, no inspiration available to close the void opened up by my question that the possibility of radical conscious freedom exists.

Make no mistake about it this is a tough and uncomfortable space to be in. Now the child cannot rely on the parent to provide the answer. A choice must be made and the full responsibility for that choice accepted. The choice is still in line with the subject’s reasons, but those reasons are insufficient, in and of themselves, to tell the subject what to do. The subject acts within the negative space opened up to make a genuinely free choice, a choice not wholly dictated by the prior causal chain.

Seen in this light Jung’s equating freedom with consciousness becomes clear. As I increasingly move through life as a conscious subject making conscious choices, I am proportionately free. To the extent thatI I consult an external authority, including my unconscious self, I am unfree. I am free in that I choose to be unfree, but all other choices, inasmuch as they are acts of ‘inspiration’, are unfree.

Steiner in posting thinking as the 0 point from which all conceptual/ideational/cognitive/rational/and evalutive process emerge provides a, possible, way of avoiding the issue of regress, or of avoiding the futile attempt, in other words, to locate the homunculous.

That is the experience of radical freedom. Once you let go of all the strings that hold you up and make you dance, once a space is opened up where a spontaneous movement is possible and essential, then, and only then, is a radically free act possible.


Until we talk again,



[1] A free choice and free act are not synonymous, although there is an overlap between the two. A free choice implies an option between variable but set options. A free act can be understood as a spontaneous undetermined act outside of predefined set variables.

[2] I stand corrected but I believe this suggestion comes from David Chalmers.

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Comments (2)

  • Wanda Reply

    Aaaaggggghhhh….. Now I have this uncontrolable desire for “Hagen dass ” ice cream but don’t feel it is out of “free will” to go and get some, lol! The perplexities….

    June 18, 2012 at 14:33
  • Willem Els Reply

    Is freedom of choice desirable when known outcomes relate to known choices ? Is freedom of choice not a condition pertaining to the unknown ? The desire to make preset or emperical choices is strong. The compromised status quo desires a choice based on the unknown. Having made such a choice the revelation of new unknowns reaveals a modified path for deliberation based on known quantities, the new unknowns producing an adventure of free responses in an unknown determinate world.

    August 15, 2012 at 03:42

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