‘Freedom’ is Not a Well-Formed Formula

Freedom! is a common rallying cry that some pledge to fight to the death to defend. And do. So it might be a tad unseemly to point out that ‘freedom’ is not a well-formed formula. By which is meant ‘freedom’ requires an indexical, as in freedom-to and freedom-from. And then to-what and from-what or from-whom, respectively.

Once the tos, froms, whats, and whoms are fleshed in, we’ve ample work ahead to consider the justifications and means, the whys and the hows, for each. One ought to be free to do [something] because [insert theory here] and so we’ll [insert plan here] to ensure people are free to [do that thing]. Or not-free to [do that thing] because it impinges on someone else’s freedom to [do some other thing]. Oh dear, now we’re adding stipulations. And these stipulations will continue ad infinitum. Some people are free to [do something] in [some context] at [some time] but not [in some other context] at [some other time]. Unless something changes, or until such a time, in which case … and so on.

It’s apparent that if William Wallace were to cry Freedom is not a well-formed formula! instead of They can take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom! an epic movie starring Mel Gibson would never have been made. But Wallace might have joined David Hume as one of Scotland’s finest intellects. And he might have made a fine politician, assigning that intellect toward winning independence for Scotland. Wallace might even have died at a great age, in a warm bed with his body parts intact. Although he might have preferred being hanged, beheaded, drawn, and quartered. As he was.

Defending one’s cause might require one not think about what words that rally the troops, like Freedom!, actually mean, because one might need to override, cf Wallace, the desire for self-preservation. And so, like Freedom!, the cries Justice! Liberty! and Equality! serve to breathe life into (Brave)heart-stirring rhetoric. Yet at the hands of the philosopher, each word dies the death of a thousand qualifications.

So, it seems, by being required to think about what words mean, any real threat to freedom, whatever that is, stems from philosophy. Fortunately, the philosopher seldom rallies more than a handful of nerdy grad students.

See also, Thoughtlets. xviii.


Categories: Philosophy

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