Proudhon on freedom and free will

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I’m working away at the translation of Proudhon’s chapter (in Justice in the Revolution and in the Church) on “The Nature and Function of Liberty.” It’s a key piece in his overall work, and includes an explanation of the nature and function of “free will,” along with some suggestions about how that explanation would scale up to the realm of social or political liberty. Remember that Proudhon was, from the earliest of his works, concerned with the “collective force” which arises from associated production and exceeds the productive power of the individuals involved outside of association. His early assaults on property rested largely on the fact that much of the “fruits of labor,” over and above subsistence, were in fact the product of this collective force of a collective being, rather than the product of individuals, so that private property should be understood as private domain over essentially “public” productions. As was frequently the case, Proudhon’s early intuition remained part of his mature system, but he came to understand its consequences differently. Starting from a substantially retooled version of Leibniz’ monadology, Proudhon came to think of all beings (very broadly defined) as being individual only by virtue of being first a group, organized or associated according to a law of being (or perhaps of becoming). Within the group, each element would tend to act according to a particular necessity, but these necessities would not necessarily act in concert. Indeed, the contrary seemed to Proudhon to be something of a law of nature: his antinomies were the constant manifestation of counter-principles and counter-necessities, manifestations even of a species of that “immanent justice” which became one of Proudhon’s guiding principles (along with individual sovereignty and federalism.) The conflict of forces and necessities was the source of the collective force of the group-as-individual, and the quantity of that force translated into a quantity of liberty. Liberty and necessity coexist, and feed one another in various ways. The play of necessities, when forceful and complex, opens spaces of freedom at one level, which manifest themselves as strong forces, driven by a necessity or absolutism of a higher order, which may in turn contribute to a higher-order liberty, and so on. . .

The connection of collective force and its products to liberty obviously change, and even raise the stakes with regard to issues like property. Proudhon came to defend property for human beings–free absolutes, capable of self-reflection, and thus of self-improvement and progress, by approximation, towards greater and greater justice–because it seemed to provide the space necessary for them to exercise their powers as ethical beings. There are lots of pieces to this puzzle, spread across Proudhon’s writings, but here are a few summary paragraphs to help us get our feet wet in this stuff. Pardon the roughness of the translation, which is decidedly in-progress.

Let us summarize this theory:

1. The principle of necessity is not sufficient to explain the universe: it implies contradiction.

2. The concept of the Absolute absolute, which serves as the ground for the spinozist theory, is inadmissible: it reaches conclusions beyond those that the phenomena admit, and can be considered all the more as a metaphysical given awaiting the confirmation of experience, but which must be abandoned for fear that experience is contrary to it, which is precisely the case.

3. The pantheistic conception of the universe, or of a best possible world serving as the expression (natura naturata) of the Absolute absolute (natura naturans), is equally illegitimate: it comes to conclusions contrary to the observed relations, which, as a whole and especially in their details, show us the systems of things under an entirely different aspect.

These three fundamental negations call for a complementary principle, and open the field to a new theory, of which it is now only a question of discovering the terms.

4. Liberty, or free will, is a conception of the mind, formed in opposition to necessity, to the Absolute absolute, and to the notion of a preestablished harmony or best world, with the aim of making sense of facts not explained by the principle of necessity, assisted by the two others, and to render possible the science of nature and of humanity.

5. Now, like all the conceptions of the mind, like necessity itself, this new principle is countered [frappé: struck, afflicted] by antinomy, which means that alone it is no longer sufficient for the explanation of man and nature: it is necessary, according the law of the mind, which is the very law of creation, that this principle be balanced against its opposite, necessity, with which it forms the first antinomy, the polarity of the universe.

Thus necessity and liberty, antithetically united, are given a priori, by metaphysics and experience, as the essential condition of all existence, all movement, of every end, starting from every body of knowledge and every morality.

6. What then is liberty or free will? The power of collectivity of the individual. By it, man, who is at once matter, life and mind, frees himself from all fatality, whether physical, emotional or intellectual, subordinates things to himself, raises himself, by the sublime and the beautiful, outside the limits of reality and of thought, makes an instrument of the laws of reason as well as those of nature, sets as the aim of his activity the transformation of the world according to his ideal, and devotes himself to his own glory as an end.

7. According to that definition of liberty, one can say, reasoning by analogy, that in every organized or simply collective being, the resultant force is the liberty of the being; in such a way the more that being–crystal, plant or animal–approaches the human type, the greater the liberty in it will be, the greater the scope of its free will. Among men themselves free will shows itself more energetic as the elements which give rise to it are themselves more developed in power: philosophy, science, industry, economy, law. This is why history, reducible to a system by its fatal side, shows itself progressive, idealistic, and superior to theory, on the side of free will, the philosophy of art and of history having in common that the reason of things which serves as their criterion is nevertheless powerless to explain all of their content.


About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.