What is freedom ?

Statutory Warning: Content that follows may be unsuitable for science, math, engineering majors, and similar juveniles.

Was reading (yet!) another book, this one is named Political Ideas in the Romantic Age by Isaiah Berlin. Halfway through, and there is definitely no way I will review this book, being far too philosophical in content. So, thought I’ll just write a few words about the central theme of the book, or rather set of lectures compiled into a book.

Berlin was a professional philosopher and became interested in politics (like most people in his time, living through two world wars). The idea that Berlin explores is that any work of a (wo)man is only understood fully with reference to the context of the time that (s)he lived in. Hence, he explores the history of the political ideas of the most turbulent times in recent European history in terms of conflicting views, opinions and philosophies, the 18th and 19th centuries. He does not delve into deep analysis of each and every philosopher (Hobbes, Hume, Locke, Helvetius, Bentham, Adam Smith, Rousseau ……), rather, he tries to capture the spirit of the age, or as is popularly known, the zeitgeist.

For Berlin, the central question of political philosophy is “Why should one man obey another ?” and from here flows the logical successors : “What is more important, obedience to the State or personal liberty ?”; “Can a person be subservient and still claim to be free?” . Taking this as the starting point, the solutions proposed by various stalwarts of the Enlightenment and beyond are explored, will not go into the details, as promised.

The central talking point of the presently read 100-odd pages are two words : does and should. The question is not why does a man obey, but rather, why should a man obey. The first question can be answered by empirical data, the second question is far more difficult to answer. If someone can write 250+ pages showing how people confused does and should, or even took does and should to be identical, it no doubt will not be easy reading :D

On a more earthly level, the questions posed are quite interesting even to the non-professional (and hence more creative) philosophers, which consists of most of the humans on this planet. What does it mean to be free ? Why should we bow down before a King or a Prime Minister ? Can duty toward a State be consistent with the idea of personal freedom ? Does being free necessarily imply that you are happy ? Take the case of Singapore. Quite a wealthy state, but absolutely no freedom. Take the case of some Sub-Saharan nomadic tribe : not wealthy by any stretch of the imagination, but as much freedom as the breadth of the Sahara (barring visa restrictions ;). What relation exists between money and freedom ? Does one increase proportionally with the other ? Or upto a certain limit ? Can we say Anil Ambani is more free than a naked wandering Jain monk ? If yes, why ? If no, why ? Can there be singular answers to such questions ?

Yup, the spectrum over which we can analyse is huge and very interesting. Most of these will at the end turn out to be subjective issues. But are there objective metrics which we can use, if not to answer all questions, atleast to serve as indicators ? Can social policy be formulated with regard to such parameters ? How easy or difficult will it be to empirically measure these parameters to ascertain the progress of an implemented policy ? What can be considered as a viable endpoint in development programmes which involve such parameters ? Most of the questions in this paragraph were raised in class today by Ashok Rao, and most of this semester will go into trying to answer such things, if possible.

The approach to development lies in these questions, one intuitively feels. One can approach development from the pseudo(or quasi?)-scientific outlook of the social sciences like economics or sociology, or from the (more pseudo?) philosophical/empirical basis delineated above, in a highly nebulous form. This course is turning out to be fun :D

3 thoughts on “What is freedom ?”

  1. Woah.. another book!!

    aptly stated as (yet) another book.. :P

    n i thought i was d only one who dies to read books.. its soo good to c sum1 interested in books jus like me.. however, d only problem is d choice of books.. our choices r like chalk and cheese.. :D

    but i really hope i read atleast ONE book which u you read.. or recommended.. ;-)

  2. :D you might be surprised by the range of things i read … from archies upward. I obviously cannot comment about the philosophy of archies (well, on second thought …)

    ya, not many ppl read many books, seems like i know quite a lot of those who do :D

  3. lol.. lucky u den..

    coz i hardly know ne1 who reads 5-6 books a month like me!! :D

    i hope as i bcum older (vich i think i will b soon!) i wud know more ppl like me.. ;-)

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