Sunday, November 15, 2009

Sartre or Merleau-Ponty: Who has the better conception of freedom?

For Merleau-Ponty, freedom is a mode in which personal actions and commitments can be chosen within a situation or field of possibility. According to MP, freedom is always within a given field of possibility. Whereas, for Sartre, freedom seems rooted in our power of negation--imagining alternatives and trying to pursue them. To me, it seems like the existential picture Merleau-Ponty provides is deeply at odds with the Sartrean picture, or any other existentialist vision of subjectivity that prioritizes a rational, autonomous individual, who is capable of imposing their choice upon a situation that is entirely external to them (side note: I wonder if Kierkegaard fits this bill too?).

I think MP would argue against Sartre that while it sometimes is an expedient shorthand to distinguish between transcendence and facticity (or Being-for-itself and Being-in-itself), it is a mistake to take them to be distinct metaphysical categories as Sartre does, because these two ideas fundamentally overlap in a way that undermines any absolute difference between the two. If that's right, then consequently Sartre’s vision of absolute freedom in regards to a situation is untenable, because we have to recognize the ways in which the self and world are intertwined--though not intertwined in a way that means that the world can be reduced to us, or us reduced to the world. Thus, MP and Sartre have very different views about our situatedness, for lack of a better term, and how that relates to our freedom. For Sartre, we seem like outsiders to our specific contingent situation, which comes to have meaning out of some original free choice we make: probably something like deciding to make my life a por-soi instead of an en-soi. Whereas, for Merleau-Ponty, I suppose the best characterization is that we freedoms are constantly in a kind of back and forth dialogue with the situations we are thrown, fallen, and cast into, and out of that dialogue certain potential possibilities come to be expressed. Thus, freedom, for MP, is more about sanctioning, rather than negating. I apologize if that is really confusing, I'm not sure I completely get the ins and outs of both of their positions, but I'm going to try and re-state what I just said and hope it comes out somewhat clearer. I think the difference between Sartre and MP ultimately boils down to this: Sartre seems to think freedom creates meaning (and thus is more fundamental), whereas MP seems to think that meaning is more fundamental, since a person has to already be woven into world (or field) of meaning before a personal act of freedom can occur.

Which view of freedom do you all think is more accurate? At this point, I'm leaning toward MP, since it seems like free choice requires situations that allow for different possible aims or activities, though I'm curious to hear other opinions.

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