Newsletter: October 2022

[Note: I post my monthly newsletters to the blog with a one month delay. If you’d like to get them when they’re first shared, join my mailing list.]

Hello everyone,
It’s October now, which means autumn is in full swing and another round of online classes is about to begin. This autumn’s course is on the theme of freedom in its various guises—and for more on those guises, see the mini-essay below. The Thursday evening class (evening in North America, that is) is close to full so I encourage you to register soon if you want a spot in that class. There’s still a good amount of room in the earlier classes on Wednesday or Thursday—late morning or early afternoon in North America or evening on the other side of the Atlantic. There’s more room in the Thursday class than the Wednesday class.
We’re holding introductory meetings this coming week and then get started in on the course material the following week. We begin with the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, who urged his followers to find freedom by distinguishing what they could control from what they couldn’t and to stop fussing over the latter stuff.
I offer a no-questions-asked full refund to anyone who decides the course isn’t right for them up to the start of the second week of class, so you can learn about Epictetus at no risk. Whether that costs you money is one of the things within your control. I also offer a pay-what-you-can option for people who can’t afford the full course fee. Just reply to this email if you’d like to exercise that option.
In the past month, I’ve also been developing two new initiatives. The first is that my website has a new section dedicated to talks and workshops. I started teaching online classes at a time when in-person gatherings were out of the question. As pandemic restrictions loosen, I’d like to talk philosophy with more people face-to-face. If you belong to an organization that might benefit from a bit of philosophical dialogue, let me know! I’m happy to tailor presentations to the needs of your group.
The second initiative is that I’m gearing up to offer one of my past courses, An Introduction to Philosophy in Ten Dangerous Ideas, for self-directed study. If you missed the course last winter, or if you want to study philosophy at your own pace without the scheduling constraints of a weekly discussion group, this might be for you. I’ll make an announcement later this month when the course is up and ready to go.
The other piece of philosophy news from the last month is that I’ve added a post to the starting points section of my blog—an explainer on the difference between animal welfare and animal rights in a philosophy context.
I enjoyed a number of local adventures in the past month, but none quite as special as a four-day kayaking trip in the Broken Group islands on the west coast of Vancouver Island. The rugged shorelines and ancient forests on that coast inspire awe and wonder—good fodder for philosophical reflection. These are the traditional lands of the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations, whose philosophy featured in this summer’s course on wisdom from the modern world.

My sister told me recently about an app she uses called Freedom. The app selectively blocks certain websites—or the entire Internet if you choose—in order to keep you from distractions while working. If you succumb to temptation and try to load a page you’ve blocked, a green screen pops up with a butterfly icon and the text, “You are free from this site.”
The app is designed to prevent you from doing something. This might sound like the opposite of freedom. Aren’t you free when you can do whatever you want?
As you can imagine, freedom has been on my mind a lot in the past month as I gear up for my autumn course. When you tune your ear to the word, you notice it all over the place. People’s ideas of freedom seem to range all over the shop. Consider the bizarre, rambunctious politics of the United States, where the word freedom—or its fancier Latinate cousin, liberty—takes on a near sacred quality. The far right-wing “Freedom Caucus” in the House of Representatives share virtually no common ground with supporters of “reproductive freedom” who call for universal access to safe, legal abortion. We’re all in favour of freedom, but what “freedom” means is hotly contested.
What’s going on here? How can everyone be in favour of freedom while also disagreeing on almost every point of policy? How can an app that stops you from doing things promote itself as liberatory? If the word freedom can mean so many different things, how can it mean anything at all?
The word freedom can seem so multivalent because it’s used as a term of contrast. Whenever you speak about freedom, there’s an implied contrast to some form of unfreedom. Although the positive term freedom would seem the dominant one, it takes its meaning from the implied contrast. The philosopher J. L. Austin calls words like this “trouser-words,” in the dated sense that, in the freedom/unfreedom pair, it’s actually unfreedom that “wears the trousers.”
When someone talks about freedom it’s productive to ask, “in contrast to what?” The contrasting unfreedom is generally some kind of obstacle or hindrance: political oppression, my suffocating job or marriage, my addictions or compulsions, or (the refrain of every teenager) my controlling parents. That shining, beautiful life I want to lead is just out of my reach because of the obstacles that keep me from being free. The rallying cry of freedom is so powerful because it evokes a shedding of obstacles and the prospect of stepping into a bright new dawn where, at long last, nothing stands in my way.
But the external hindrances we like to rail against can be convenient scapegoats. You might be familiar with a loose endish feeling that sometimes follows a great disburdening. I finished that project that was eating up all my time, I got out of that stifling relationship, I dropped everything and went on that big holiday—now what?
The one time I’ve been on a cruise ship (well, an ocean liner, but the difference doesn’t matter), I was struck by the expressions of aggressive boredom I saw on so many faces. These people had gone to considerable trouble and expense to live out a fantasy of freedom—away from it all, out on the open ocean, in pampered luxury—and they still weren’t happy. The usual excuses of unfreedom were no longer available and they were confronted with a deeper set of obstacles—the ones that lie within.
Curiously, having no constraints at all doesn’t seem to make us happy. Parents know that children need structure and “freeing” them from all strictures is a recipe for a meltdown. I’m not sure we ever really outgrow that phase. Immanuel Kant argues that genuine autonomy isn’t freedom from all restrictions but the freedom to choose the restrictions you impose. We’ll look at a modern elaboration on this idea by the Harvard philosopher Christine Korsgaard in my autumn course as well as a bitter riposte from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s fictional Underground Man.
The makers of the Freedom app seem to acknowledge Kant’s point. Maybe true freedom lies not in being free from all obstacles but in imposing the right obstacles—that is, the ones that channel you in the direction you want or need to go. When yearning for freedom, it’s important to consider not just want you want to be free from but also what you want to be free for.

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