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A Social Theory of Freedom by Mariam Thalos

We dive into the crosscurrents of society and identity, as Matt Teichman is captured by an idea of freedom.

I have a lot of friends who are professional moral philosophers. Perversely, all they ever seem to do is complain about how boring moral philosophy is – specifically, the moral philosophy articles published in top-ranked academic journals. These tracts of intellectual legalese aren’t written to be read, the story goes; they’re written for the purpose of making a case rather than for the purpose of being interesting. They must contain every theoretically imaginable response to every theoretically imaginable objection. Of course, the fact that their article was accepted for publication is a fine addition to an author’s curriculum vitae. These purposes may conduce nicely to the academic rat race, but they aren’t so great when it comes to supplying their readers with material that they would actually enjoy curling up with. Or so my friends tell me.

I’ve never been able to relate to this complaint. Although I’ve never published in moral philosophy myself, I’ve never had any trouble populating my reading queue with works in contemporary ethics that do everything a great work of philosophy should. It really isn’t that hard; you just have to do a little digging. As Exhibit A, I submit Mariam Thalos’s A Social Theory of Freedom (2016), which I would recommend to anyone interested in what it means to live as a human among other humans. (This recommendation is officially dedicated to all my friends and colleagues whose confidence in their own subfield needs a boost.)

A Social Theory of Freedom really is off the charts in ambition, scope, and novelty. It deals with agency, perception, subjectivity, the emergence of the self/other dichotomy, self-conceptions, theoretical vs practical reasoning, the nature of logical consequence, free will, political freedom, love, social coordination, the role of social identities, solidarity, and group agency. It brings together centuries of work in different philosophical traditions and decades of work in more recently-minted academic disciplines. The mere number of connections it draws between historically separate lines of argument is enough to keep you thinking for weeks on end.

The Theory

One of Thalos’s core claims in the book is that what we might call metaphysical freedom and political freedom are actually the same thing. Metaphysical freedom, popularily known as ‘free will’, is your ability to choose what you’re going to do at any moment. Sure, a malicious person can try to coerce you into doing something, but at the end of the day you’re the ultimate arbiter of whether that thing gets done, because you’re the only person who has control over the movements of your body and the only person who can feel whatever it is you’re feeling. Political freedom is hard to characterize exactly, but intuitively it’s the ability that a non-dysfunctional government allows to all of its citizens to pursue their own life projects in the way they choose.

Thalos’s objection to putting too much stock in metaphysical freedom is that some people are freer than others. A woman growing up in a fundamentalist household in Afghanistan, and a woman growing up in a typical household in the US, simply don’t experience the same set of possibilities unfurling before them. The woman in Afghanistan may technically be metaphysically free to interpret and react to her environment as she pleases; but if a wide range of possibilities is never available to her, or even if she never becomes aware of the freedoms that are available to her, what does that matter? (Thalos thinks that you have to be actively aware of the freedom you have in order for it to be worthy of philosophical reflection.)

The author’s objection to the standard view of political freedom, is that it’s negative rather than positive – both political philosophy and the popular discourse on political freedom largely assume that being politically free means being unconstrained. But what does that really mean? Being free of a particular constraint is something you might fight for in the short term; but once you’re free of it, what next? Deciding you don’t want anyone to be your boss isn’t really deciding anything about what you actually, positively want.

Nelson Mandela
Someone who famously ‘critically redefined themselves in the face of social expectations’
Image © Good News South Africa 2008

This is where Thalos brings in her notion of a person’s ‘self-concept’. You can think of a self-concept as the set of all the social categories a person would like to fall under. For instance, perhaps you want to think of yourself as civic-minded, or as a devoted parent, or as a great entrepreneur. Each of these self-identifications comes along with its own way of conceiving of your available courses of action, and also a way of evaluating their outcomes. Thalos’s idea of freedom is precisely that freedom is what happens when, after social expectations are projected onto you by other people, you internalize or redefine them as you see fit, eventually arriving at a self-concept you’ve made your own, even if it’s derived from what other people might assume about you. She sometimes expresses this idea in terms of a spatial metaphor: “Freedom is measured by the (logical) distance between one’s aspirations and the expectations inflicted on one by Others” (p151). This is why the book’s called A Social Theory of Freedom : for Thalos, freedom isn’t a property a person has as an isolated individual, it’s something that emerges out of the encounter between the individual and their peers.

The number of directions the book goes in vis-à-vis this line of thought is just extraordinary. For example, several chapters are devoted to exploring its ramifications for logic. It has been argued that deductive rules of inference such as modus ponens – the rule that if you’ve established that if X then Y and you’ve also established X, then you must conclude Y – set up standards of correctness for arguments that aren’t exactly truth-apt. ‘Not truth-apt’ means it doesn’t makes sense to say something is true vs false, or correct vs. incorrect. Thalos’s thought is that logical syllogisms involving how I should act in light of my self-concept are non-truth-apt.

The book also spends some time tackling the traditional problem of free will. Going back at least to the ancient Stoics, determinists will tell you that a scientist could in principle predict the future state of the world based on complete knowledge of its current state plus all the laws of physics. If all our actions are at least in principle predictable, then it isn’t clear that any of us are really choosing to do anything. Thalos observes that if we think of freedom not in the sense of ‘having a choice over how to control your bodily movements’, but in her ‘collaboratively reinventing your self-concept’ sense, then it follows that there’s no conflict between freedom and determinism. This is an interesting approach to the free will debate that I haven’t come across before: to theoretically redefine freedom in such a way that it doesn’t say anything one way or the other concerning whether the past determines the future.

That’s not all that Thalos covers. The book then moves on to a fascinating discussion of love. People don’t always have the resources to critically react to the social expectations projected onto them. For various reasons, they might end up going with the flow, even when it’s a bit of a shame that they let that happen. In those situations, someone who loves them can awaken the possibility of reacting to those social expectations with a critical attitude, so that the person is creatively reshaping rather than passively internalizing those social expectations. Indeed, on Thalos’ view, this is one of love’s defining features. I get the sense that Thalos has romantic love in mind, but the view articulated here seems like an equally good fit for parental love.

In its final chapters the book applies its notion of freedom to the phenomenon of solidarity. Intuitively, solidarity is when a group of people feel a kinship with each other. But Thalos’s spin on the idea is that solidarity is a state of readiness for collective action. The individuals who make up a group each have a self-concept – a set of social categories in which they would like to place themselves. For example, suppose everyone in a given social group self-identifies as a feminist. For Thalos, solidarity here means that to the extent that their individual understandings of the term ‘feminist’ are aligned, they have the ability to act in concert for the purpose of promoting gender equality – say, by dismantling the patriarchy.

Two Questions

The book has been incredibly clarifying for me. I am sympathetic to its main line of argument, and agree with many of the specific points adduced in favor of it. However, I did come away asking two questions.

One, related to the discussion of solidarity, is whether all social groups are capable of collective action.

In interesting recent work, Katherine Ritchie draws a distinction in social groups between ‘organized social groups’ and ‘feature social groups’ (see ‘Social Structures and the Ontology of Social Groups’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 100, 2020). ‘Organized social groups’ are self-designated groups, like committees or basketball teams, and ‘feature social groups’ are more like what philosophers call ‘kinds’ – such as the group of women, the group of white people, or the group of working class people. I found myself trying to come up with examples of collective action, but all the examples I could think of seemed to involve organized social groups rather than feature social groups. For instance, a basketball team engages in the organized group activity of trying to win a basketball game. By contrast, I found it challenging to think of a single action that all women or all working class people were engaged in at a particular moment. And yet, solidarity rhetoric seems in a way more likely to arise in connection with these ‘feature’ types of social groups. I would love to learn what the author thinks of Ritchie’s distinction, and how it bears on her account of solidarity.

The other thing I found myself wondering about is, what, if anything, Thalos’s account teaches us about oppression. One of the book’s central positions, after all, is that not everyone on earth is equally free. If Thalos is correct, then freedom isn’t just being unconstrained, it’s a person’s ability to react to the expectations projected on them by forming their own self-concept. What does unfreedom end up looking like, in that case? Is it for example when so many expectations are projected onto a person that they can’t see their way clear to critically responding to them? Or does it have to do not with the quantity of expectations, so much as whether the person is given wiggle room to react actively rather than passively? Whenever I tried to spell out what a lack of freedom would amount to under this theory, I tended to fall back on language that I suspect the author would find a little bit too close to popular assumptions about freedom being the absence of restrictions. If we’re lucky, maybe this just means we can look forward to a follow-up book giving a new account of oppression.

I think the main argument of this book is important, in part because of its focus on freedom requiring a positive definition. If you look at a lot of the mainstream political programs on offer, at least in the Anglophone world, they tend to be negative, that is, merely reacting against current circumstances rather than formulating a positive vision of how society ought to be set up. This problem becomes especially vivid when it comes to proposals focusing on distributive justice and the alleviation of suffering.

At some level of description, we all want to minimize suffering. But minimizing suffering isn’t anything in particular; it’s just not-something. The questions here are: Why do we want to help as many people as we can? and What do we want to empower them to do? If, as Thalos argues, a major part of what we want to do is empower our fellow citizens to engage in creative self-definition, there are limitations on how specifically we can describe this situation in advance. Nonetheless, it is well within our power to point to exemplary people who have redefined themselves in unanticipated ways, and talk about them in detail. How creative minds perform remarkable feats when they’re in the throes of inspiration is also well-established. In these sorts of ways I think Thalos’s notion of freedom allows us to do more than just rail against the Man holding us down. It gives us room to articulate what it is that we actually want, and it recognizes that what each person wants is going to vary from case to case.

The final point that I’d like to make about A Social Theory of Freedom is that the book is itself a beautiful illustration of what it tells us freedom is. Mariam Thalos is a philosopher of physics, and she does a great job of flying in the face of all the disciplinary stereotypes about what philosophers of physics do and don’t do: that they don’t read Sartre or de Beauvoir; they don’t study social psychology; they don’t weigh in on foundational issues in logic; and they certainly don’t have anything to say about love or political solidarity. They stay in their lane, making incomprehensible points about quantum mechanics that you probably need a PhD in physics to follow. Thalos understands these overly limiting expectations well enough not to give a damn about them, and the result is one of the freshest recent philosophy books you’re going to find.

© Dr Matt Teichman 2021

Matt Teichman is Programming Specialist at the University of Chicago Digital Library Development Center, and Lecturer in the University’s Masters Program in Computer Science. He holds a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Chicago, and produces the Elucidations podcast: elucidations.now.sh.

A Social Theory of Freedom, by Mariam Thalos, Routledge 2016, $54 pb, 288 pages. ISBN: 1138931586

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