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Heidegger, Kant and Arendt on Human Freedom

Johannes Hoerning (2011501528)

Preliminary Considerations

Heideggers Lectures on the Essence of Human Freedom


The Problem of Freedom as the Problem of Causality


Kants Third Antinomy


Kants Second Way to Freedom

Time and Freedom as Existential Categories


Disclosive Freedom and Liberal Democracy


Hannah Arendt and the Politics of Freedom


Narcissistic Freedom


Freedom, Plurality, Virtuosity

Experiential Freedom and Materialization of Freedom


Feeling Free and Being Free


Existential Versus Liberal Freedom Freedom as We Know It

Concluding Remarks

Preliminary Considerations
If we say that we care about freedom then we should be able to give an account of
what we take the essence of the idea of freedom to be. As it turns out, specifying
what freedom is in itself poses a great challenge. If freedom is described as autonomy
in the Kantian sense, then we must presuppose, as Kant did, the a priori status of
freedom and everything that falls under its rubric: autonomy, rationality, morality. If
we do not want to commit ourselves to transcendental idealism, we need to look
elsewhere to secure the basis for freedom. But trouble lies ahead once we discuss
freedom in terms of its phenomenology: What is it like to be free? or How does it feel
to be free? By trying to answer this question we need to refer to an experience that we
take to be an expression of freedom. But how do we know, that the experience we
regard as free, is in fact free and not the result of conditioning? In other words, to be
able to classify an experience as free, we need to be able to look into our true selves
and find out if our feelings correspond to the essence of our identity. Postmodern
discourse on the formation of the subject has made the picture all the more
complicated and deconstructed what once seemed secure. But how do we get out of
the dilemma of providing an account of freedom? We certainly do not and cannot
want to rest content with concluding that freedom is an empty notion.
During the summer semester at the University of Freiburg in 1930, Heidegger
spoke on The Essence of Human Freedom. In my aim to find at least some answers to
the questions that are attached to the problem of freedom, I discovered that it is yet
possible to treat freedom in another way than appears intuitively plausible. Heidegger
did not seek to secure a basis for freedom internally or externally to it, but, as I
understand him, tried to show that freedom need not be secured but only unveiled, for
it is always already there. For Heidegger, the process of unveiling freedom means
redirecting the inquiry into freedom. And providing an account of freedom is only
possible if we ask those questions that people like Kant were unable to ask.
As one of Heideggers students, Hannah Arendt has been concerned with
freedom in political terms but retained an existential flavour in her writing on this
topic. After all, her inquiry into the human condition reveals, as Heidegger would
say, a going-to-the-roots. The laying bear of what makes up the human condition
beyond historical contingencies thus lends itself to investigate human freedom as
well. Both, Heideggers and Arendts methodology has a backward direction: step by
step, it sieves the notion of freedom in order to find out whats left after this process

of essentializing. I think that their way of approaching the problem of freedom is

promising in their own rights and in contrast to the liberal discourse of freedom.
Because of this, the following pages mainly focus on Heidegger and Arendt, their
analysis and critique of Kant and their own concepts of human freedom. Some of the
ideas that I develop on their basis are sketchy and shall be regarded as work in
progress. I have divided my thoughts into twelve chapters in order to give some
structure to the overall project.

I. Heideggers Lectures on the Essence of Human Freedom

Heidegger begins his inquiry into human freedom by reference to the positive and
negative concept of freedom. Starting from this intuitive notion of freedom has much
in common with the way Isaiah Berlin was going to develop negative and positive
freedom in his Two Concepts of Liberty (1969). An understanding of freedom as
negative is intuitively prior because it is linked to an experience of becoming-free
from a bond. 1 The process of liberation from coercion, obstacles or restraints,
Heidegger suggests, can be treated as a fundamental human experience. In this sense,
behaviour rather than action is regarded as the apparently natural and primitive form
of a human way of life.
Heidegger proposes that if we treat freedom not as a process of liberation
from something manifested in human behaviour, two other states of freedom could
possibly obtain: positive freedom, as action through which one determines oneself in
the Kantian sense, or freedom that is neither positive nor negative. What Heidegger
has in mind about the latter option remains unclear at this point. In due course of his
lecture series, it turns out that this third understanding of freedom is an early
reference to his own concept of human freedom as being existential freedom. He
articulates this idea only after working through Kant and Aristotle.
For Heidegger, Kant takes a particularly important position in the
philosophical problematization of freedom. Kants philosophy is the first to discuss
freedom as a strict metaphysical property. And as such, freedom becomes a property
without distinct phenomenology. Kantian freedom is freedom of the will, and, Kant

Heidegger, Martin. The Essence of Human Freedom. An Introduction to Philosophy, trans. Ted
Sadler (New York: Continuum, 2002), 3, p. 15. (Italics original)

asks, [what] else, then, can freedom of the will be but autonomy, i.e. the property of
the will to be a law to itself?2
Heidegger proceeds with an analysis of Kants classic idea of positive
freedom as autonomy. Autonomy means self-determination without antecedent cause.
In the Critique of Pure Reason, freedom, as property of the will, comes in two forms:
on the one hand, as cosmological freedom, i.e. as freedom in a transcendental sense
and as the spontaneous self-originating of a state, and on the other hand, as practical
freedom, i.e. the wills independence of coercion through sensuous impulses.3 As
Heidegger notes, the notion of practical freedom is inherently negative, for it
describes a state of independence from the senses. Although this negative element is
inherent to Kants theory of freedom, Heidegger suggests considering it in relation to
the overall positive notion of freedom as self-determination. This means looking at
Kants treatment of freedom in his Critique of Practical Reason as well as his
Groundwork. Heidegger writes that this will then help clarify the complexity and
consequence of Kants concept of positive freedom as autonomy.
The lectures on The Essence of Human Freedom divide Kants problem of
freedom into two parts. The first discusses causality and freedom as cosmological
problems, the second is concerned with the idea of practical freedom. In what follows
(sections II V), I will look at both parts and articulate how I understand Heideggers
own account of freedom in light of his critique of Kantian freedom.

II. The Problem of Freedom as the Problem of Causality

Heideggers general project is to open up or broaden the problem of freedom in order
to reposition it altogether. He does so on the basis of three interconnected arguments:
Kant discusses freedom in connection with causality by rendering it a special kind of
causality. Causality thus provides the condition and possibility for freedom.
Heidegger argues that if we want to know what freedom is, and if causality is the
basis for freedom, we must first know what causality is.
Change is characteristic of causality. And change means motion or movement.
One thing follows from another because it is set into motion or caused to move.
Heidegger notes that if freedom is discussed in terms of causality and if the essence

Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. and ed.. Mary Gregor (Cambridge:
University Press, 1997), 446. (Abbreviated Groundwork hereafter)
Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. and ed., Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood
(Cambridge: University Press, 1999), A 534, B 562. (Abbreviated CPR hereafter)

of causality is movement, then we need to ask what role movement plays in our
overall problematization of freedom. His second step is then to argue that what being
moved as such means can only be investigated on the basis of looking at beings as
such, for that which is moved from one state to another must be in order to undergo
any movement or change in the first place. These three claims lead Heidegger to
conclude that we are asking the very same question which from ancient times has
counted as the primary and ultimate question of philosophy the leading question of
philosophy: what are beings?4
His third step is to answer this question on the basis of an extensive discussion
of Aristotles Metaphysics. What becomes clear even before Heidegger begins his
discussion of ancient Greek philosophy is the importance he assigns to the
rearticulating of the overall question as such: the question of freedom now becomes
the question of being. Once we settle the latter, the former is settled with it or, at
least, can provide an explanation for it. This is why Heidegger tells his students that
an inquiry into human freedom as an inquiry into human being can serve as an
Introduction to Philosophy.
After a rough sketch of the problem of freedom in Kant, which Heidegger
took as a justification of his change of direction, he makes some preliminary remarks
before entering the discussion of being in Aristotle: since it is us who are involved in
questioning about freedom and thus questioning about being, some things should be
said about our mode of being as Dasein. Heidegger characterizes Dasein as
possessing a pre-conceptual understanding of being. In other words, Dasein makes
sense of its being without knowing that it does so explicitly. We, as Dasein, have an
implicit understanding of what it is to be without knowledge of the fact that we
understand it. While we may not be able to give an account of our being
conceptually, we can and must take a stand on our being through acting upon it. Even
before explicitly making use of language, Dasein, as he puts it, understands its being
in a silent comportment to beings.5 This is Heideggers overall explanation of the
human condition throughout his philosophy.
The subsequent discussion of Aristotle starts from the Greek word for being
(to on, translated as the beings as existing or in German das Seiend-seinde), which
refers to all present beings irrespective of anyones knowledge of them. It is an all

Heidegger, Essence of Human Freedom, 4, p. 23.

Ibid., 7a, p. 29.

encompassing notion such as the bad understood as all the bad things there are.
Under the word to on falls every being insofar as it can be determined by beingness
(Greek ousia, German Seiendheit).
Why these etymological considerations are important becomes clear once
Heidegger explains that ousia was used in everyday Greek language as the word for
presence, as things that were available to one or that were constantly at hand. Since,
as Heidegger reminds us, we are asking about the most fundamental word, we must
look at its ordinary usage. Everything that belongs to ones overall possessions and
that is therefore available in the sense of constantly present, would fall under this
category of being. Given that this interpretation is the correct one, Heidegger
concludes that being must be understood in terms of time. This reference to Greek
metaphysics serves to point out that the problem of being has unfolded and has
naturally been situated in relation to time.
Within Greek philosophy, up to the writings of the Stoics, another important
treatment of the problem of being is noteworthy. Being present was understood as
being true and vice versa. That is to say, for the period of Aristotles Metaphysics,
with which Heidegger is concerned, logic and metaphysics do not fall under different
categories of inquiry but are treated inseparably. Whatever is is true, so that truth
becomes not a question of conceptual thought but being-true pertains simply to the
beings themselves.6 These remarks allow Heidegger to emphasize his own treatment
of being as always already deconcealed, i.e. unveiled or revealed. Again, our ordinary
use of the copula is always refers to an understanding of what this word means.7
The Greek conception of truth or being-true as being constantly present,
Heidegger argues to have shown, answers the leading metaphysical question, which
he saw inevitably arising from the question of freedom. Now that the essence of
being has been laid bare, we are one step closer to coming to an understanding of the
essence of freedom. Heidegger claims that in order to ask about freedom we must ask
about how being is understood. As it turns out then, being is understood in terms of
time, as that which is constantly present.

Heidegger, Essence of Human Freedom, 9 , p. 62. I thank Mark Wildish for confirming that
Heidegger was right about the fact that before the Stoics, Greek philosophy did not differentiate
between logic and metaphysics.
Heidegger translates the Greek work aleteia as unhiddenness, which departs from its standard
translation as simply truth.

III. Kants Third Antinomy

Heidegger returns to Kants understanding of freedom as autonomy on the
background of the above repositioning of the problem of freedom. Instead of making
causality the principle on which and out of which freedom is possible, Heidegger
argues that freedom (is) the ground of the possibility of existence,(14, 95) and
thus of causality itself. Heidegger proceeds to assess Kants commitment to causality
as the ground for freedom.
In general, causality is conceived of as a principle of temporal succession: one
thing or being following from another according to certain laws of nature in the world
of appearances. Now, if the concept of causality is brought into connection with
freedom, then freedom, although being characterized as a particular type of causality,
is treated subordinately. Freedom is explained and justified as a second category or
quality of causality but nevertheless stems from natural causality. This is Heideggers
main attack of Kants understanding of freedom as autonomy and as a particular kind
of causality.
Kant ultimately arrives at the idea of transcendental freedom through the
principles of reason. It is within reason that an intellectual antagonism arises, which
Kant tackles in his Antinomies. That reason is tempted to go beyond experience lies,
according to Kant, in its nature. Reason gets itself into trouble and faces unavoidable
but unresolvable arguments. The result is a perpetual dialectic of which the problem
of freedom and causality are one fundamental expression.
In Kants third antinomy, both thesis (there exists such a thing as causality of
freedom) and antithesis (there is no freedom) are supported by a priori arguments,
which are formed on grounds that go beyond rationality or reason. This antinomy is a
proof for the fact that there must exist another kind of causality than natural causality,
for the latter runs into contradicting itself. This other kind of causality is absolute
spontaneity or transcendental freedom. As Heidegger points out, it is noteworthy that
whatever this absolute spontaneity gives rise to does not exist outside the temporal
realm of nature. Events that occur on the basis of this other causality join in, as it
were, and become comprehensible in experience once materialized in human action.
Behind the need for another kind of causality lurks the justification for an
ethical subject and his capacity to act on moral grounds. Heidegger writes that it is
Kants aim to present the possibility of a unification of the two causalities, so that

the metaphysical possibility of man as world-entity can be accounted for.8 That is

to say, once Kants idea of transcendental freedom is established and endorsed, man
as ethical subject is reconciled with nature. Heidegger notes that the way in which
Kant sets up the problem steers toward a quite specific being.9 Such being that,
while subordinated to nature, has the capacity to act freely and morally, so as to
determine itself from itself. For this to be possible, freedom must be saved in relation
to nature, so that it remains in harmony with the universal law of natural
Kants understanding of freedom, Heidegger observes, is predicated upon a
specific type of being. For Kant, human beings are the entities in which both types of
causality come together in unity. Although human capacity to be rational is distinct
from their bond to nature, it is nevertheless explained in terms of nature. This leads
Heidegger to claim that the notion of causality takes up such importance that the
problem of freedom, however central for Kant, is unable to occupy the crucial
position within the problematic of metaphysics.11 Freedom does not altogether stand
in opposition or contrast to nature but is conceptualized as a modification of it. A free
action is different from a natural event only in the sense that the former is expressed
in terms of ought while the latter explicitly materializes in appearances.

IV. Kants Second Way to Freedom

Under the heading of what Heidegger calls Kants Second Way to Freedom, he
discusses practical freedom and self-responsibility as he sees these ideas articulated
in the Critique of Practical Reason and in the Groundwork. As in the discussion of
the first Critique and the antinomies, Heidegger alludes to the importance of
investigating how Kant approaches the problem of freedom. He explains that is not
just a matter of, first, theoretical and then practical philosophy but of establishing the
possibility of freedom before turning to actually existing freedom for the ethical
subject. So the way Kant approaches the overall problem of freedom is, first, to ask
how freedom is possible in general, and then, how it is actualized for human beings.
While possibility takes priority over actuality for Kant, Aristotle, as
Heidegger noted prior to this paragraph on Kant, argues for the reverse. Actuality

Heidegger, Essence of Human Freedom, 25, p. 167.

Ibid., p. 166. (Italics original)
Kant, CPR, A 538.
Heidegger, Essence of Human Freedom, 25, p. 168.

(energeia) is treated prior to possibility (dynamis) and thus against what we ourselves
take to be true: for something to be actual it must first be possible. Heidegger admits
that this conception of actuality over possibility only makes sense on the basis of how
the Greeks naturally understood being as that which is constantly present.12
As it turns out, where the ideas of practical (i.e. actual) and transcendental
freedom (i.e. possible) come together is in the will of the rational being. The idea of
practical freedom materializes in the realm of ethics but is itself grounded in
immaterial transcendental freedom. Spontaneity, as the self-origination of a state
without antecedent cause, is the basis for autonomy. Thus, Heidegger concludes that
for Kant, an absence of spontaneity would signify an impossibility of practical
freedom, for [autonomy] is a kind of absolute spontaneity, i.e. the latter delimits the
universal essence of the former. Only on the basis of this essence as absolute
spontaneity is autonomy possible.13
Since human experience is subject to natural causality due to the fact that the
senses are governed by natural laws, a different form of causality must govern the
will. With Kant, we can speak of the will as free and of a person as autonomous, only
insofar as his action is without antecedent cause but subject to the universal
principle of morality, which in idea is the ground for all action of rational beings.14
Human experience has natural laws as its basis and therefore cannot be the locus of
freedom. The will of rational human beings has freedom as its cause. Autonomy, in
turn, provides the basis for freedom.

V. Time and Freedom as Existential Categories

If Heidegger argues that the question of freedom turns into the question of being and
if being is understood in terms of time, then we should ask what the relation between
freedom and time is. Heidegger does not give a straightforward answer but rather
complicates the picture in his conclusion antecedent to his discussion of being, truth
and presence in Greek philosophy.
From the problem of the essence of human freedom we come to the essence of
human being and from there, to the essence of time. For Heidegger, the essence of


Heidegger makes a brief reference to Hegels Phenomenology and argues, Hegel [] also
understands being as constant presence, and thus retains a conscious inner connection to the
Greeks. Cf. Essence of Human Freedom, 10, p. 74 ff.
Ibid., 3, p. 18.
Kant, Groundwork, 449.

time is individualization of the human being to himself.15 The individual plays a

role for Heidegger because the issue of freedom (and with it the issue of being and
the issue of time) concerns every individual. It reveals the grand existential scope of
the question. That is to say, by rendering being and time as immediately connected to
freedom, Heidegger demoralizes the concept of freedom as understood by Kant.
Freedom does not become the foundation for morality but the ground for existence.
For every Dasein, freedom is none other than the ground for Daseins unity of being
and time. Throughout his philosophy, Heidegger argues for an always already of our
situadeness in the world. Freedom as an existential notion is in the same way always
already obtained. Human beings do not need to work for or cognize their freedom
explicitly, for everything they do and everything they are in virtue of their being
human is an expression of their primordial freedom. This, then, leads to a
repositioning of freedom: human freedom now no longer means freedom as a
property of man, but man as a possibility of freedom.16 Freedom is not something
that can be possessed, for possessions require preceding acts of acquisition. Freedom
is existential and, as such, tantamount to the mode of being of humans.

VI. Disclosive Freedom and Liberal Democracy

Heidegger opens up the category of freedom by repudiating a limited understanding
of freedom as negative or positive. That is not to say that Heidegger would deny that
there is something like liberating oneself from a bond or something like acting toward
in the sense of creating something. Rather, he wants to treat these phenomena not as
materializations of a particular kind of freedom, but as contingent, succeeding events
that are just one of many possible ways for a Dasein to take a stand on its being. Only
if the being of Beings as such is made an issue, in whatever precise practice or action,
is freedom attained. But as it turns out, for this to be the case, no particular effort is
required, for humans beings are always already engaged in this way, whether they
explicitly know it or not.
In his paper Heidegger on Freedom, Leslie Paul Thiele characterizes
Heideggers understanding of freedom as disclosive.17 Disclosive freedom, he argues,
can be understood as an interpretative struggle over what the being of Dasein


Heidegger, Essence of Human Freedom, 13, p. 90.

Ibid., 14, p. 93.
Leslie Paul Thiele, Heidegger on Freedom: Political Not Metaphysical, in The American Political
Science Review, Vol. 88, No. 2, (Jun. 1994), pp. 278 291.


amounts to. Thieles conclusion is an expression of reading Heidegger in a particular

politically relevant or politically adaptable way. Echoing Habermasian discourse
principles, she argues for disclosive freedom as the communicative and interpretative
grounds for democratic politics.
After providing an overview of the problem of freedom in terms of negative,
positive and postmodern freedom (which Thiele calls freedom in), he turns to
Heidegger by claiming that he too had adopted a positive notion of freedom during
his politically active years and as the rector of Freiburg University, where he gave his
notorious speech about the Self-Assertion of the German University in 1933/34. It is
true that his speech reveals affiliations to a positive, Kantian concept of freedom but
what Thiele completely overlooks are Heideggers lectures at the same University
from three years before with which I am concerned here. It is odd enough that the
only work, which Heidegger devotes to freedom entirely, is neither mentioned nor
referred to in an essay titled Heidegger on Freedom.18 While fragments of what
Heidegger had to say in these lectures can be traced to earlier works such as The
Basic Problems of Phenomenology from 1919/20 or Being and Time from 1927, there
is no other work in which his existential notion of freedom on the basis of rejecting
Kant and returning to Aristotle is more salient than in his Essence of Human
Be that as it may, Thieles idea of Heideggers notion of freedom as disclosive
does justice to the fact that for Heidegger, human beings are the only beings that are
ontologically disposed to their lives and thus have no choice but make an issue out of
their existence. The activity of disclosing fundamentally leads to understand oneself
in ones own factual freedom.19 In other words, freedom is inherent to the natural
disposition of human beings to make their existence an issue, so as to understand
oneself from out of ones own capacity-to-be.20 But instead of developing an idea of
disclosive freedom on the basis of the works cited in his paper, Thiele translates the
ontological dimension of Heideggers notion of freedom into political practice and
even relates it to feminist psychology.


This might have to do with the fact that it was not before 2002 that these lectures were translated
from their German original.
Martin Heidegger, The Basic Problems of Phenomenology, trans. Albert Hofstadter (Bloomington:
Indiana University Press, 1982), p. 276, as cited in Thiele, Heidegger on Freedom, p. 283.
Martin Heidegger, The Metaphysical Foundations of Logic, trans. Michael Heim (Bloomington:
Indiana University Press, 1984), p. 214, as cited in Thiele, Heidegger on Freedom, p. 283.


I have doubts whether testing the validity or value of Heideggers notion of

freedom against the background of democratic politics is not an appropriation of his
philosophical project in favour of justifying democratic principles as the freest of all.
This move is likely to fall prey to regarding the prevailing value of freedom in the
liberal democratic context as that which does most justice to what might be the
essence of human freedom.21
After all, the liberal democratic understanding of freedom owes much to the
idea of reason. Among others, Arendt, to whom I shall turn in the next paragraph,
pointed out why arguing for reason as the host of freedom is likely to violate its
essence. The realm of reason as justification for tyranny always lurks behind the
Enlightenments promise of reason as deliberative moral elevation.
Similarly, Berlin argued that, given historical realities, the notion of positive
liberty, unlike that of negative liberty, is likely to turn freedom into its opposite. That
is to say, the guard of freedoms promise is always in danger of turning into a dogma.
Kants emphasis on the guidance of reason toward freedom, Berlin points out, opens
up the possibility of despotism. And despotism even in ones apparent best interest
remains true to its patronizing and oppressive nature.22
Although liberal democratic principles best incorporate the logic of a liberal
notion of freedom as non-domination, self-determination and responsibility, it is
questionable whether Heideggers existentialism explicitly endorses such attributes.
And even if it did, it is arguable whether an existential articulation of something like
self-determination invites for concrete political reconciliation altogether. Daseins
self-determination, Heidegger might counter-argue, lies in the very fact that Dasein
cannot help but act on the basis of his pre-conceptual understanding of being. Ideas of
responsibility are likely to fall outside the worries of existential philosophy, for they
bring freedom back into the realm of morality and the ought, ultimately appealing to
something surpassing worldly experience.
Heideggers student Marcuse radically pointed out that existentialism
collapses the moment its political theory has been realized the struggle against
reason drives it blindly into the arms of the powers that be. Following Marcuses


Thiele acknowledges that his political implications drawn from Heideggers philosophical writing
on freedom conflict with the more famous aspects of his life. However, he misses the point of
Heideggers fundamental ontology by nevertheless trying to derive political principles from it and thus
fails to account for what Marcuse and Jonas have pointed out. See the end of my section VI for a
reference to Marcuse and Jonas on this point.
Isaiah Berlin, Four Essays on Liberty (Oxford: University Press, 1969), p. 153 f.


worry, we can assume that an existential notion of freedom faces the same vicious
problem if pressed to operate as the content for a political framework. Another
student of Heideggers, Hans Jonas, appealed to this problem directly by referring to
the onset of Nazism in 1933: the contentless nature of Heideggers existential
philosophy, he writes, [did] everything at a certain remove [from the world] one
could accuse him of something much more serious: the absolute formalism of his
decisionism, where decision as such becomes the highest virtue.23
I do not want to digress into a discussion of the political applicability and
consequences of Heideggers thinking in general or his lectures on freedom in
particular. However, as Marcuse and Jonas remind us, the very nature of an
existential philosophy such as Heideggers makes it prone to political appropriation.
Although Thieles discussion of the problem of freedom in Heidegger does
not take into account the lecture series On the Essence of Human Freedom, with
which I am concerned here, Heidegger himself repeatedly points out that The
problem of being and time is so general that it does not as such pertain to the
individual. (89) Liberal democratic politics rest their treatment of freedom on a
concept of the individual that is foreign to Heideggers philosophy. His idea of
individualization, as we saw, rests upon time. In this sense, Heidegger advocates the
most radical idea of equality: everyone possesses time without quantitative or
qualitative difference. And yet, it has the power to individualize every single one of
us. But again, such thinking is worlds apart from concerns of equality through justice
in the liberal democratic context.

VII. Hanna Arendt and the Politics of Freedom

Hannah Arendt, on the other hand, provides an account of freedom in more concrete
political terms. Her extensive discussion of the birthplace of political freedom in
Athenian democracy and its remnants and modifications in the Roman Empire, take
place in several of her books and serve again as argumentative reference for her essay
What is Freedom? Arendts philosophy in general and her notion of freedom in
particular are predicated upon political concerns. Her discussion of the significant


Herbert Marcuse, The Struggle Against Liberalism in the Totalitarian Theory of the State, in
Negations, trans. Jeremy J. Shapiro (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969), and Hans Jonas, Heideggers
Entschlossenheit und Entschluss, in Neske and Kettering, eds. Antwort: Martin Heidegger im
Gesprch (Pfullingen: Neske Verlag, 1988), pp. 226-227, as cited in Karl Lwith, Martin Heidegger
and European Nihilism, ed. Richard Wolin (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), p. 9.


changes of the public sphere as the realm of political action from Greek, to Roman
and into modern times, inform her concept of freedom as action. Men are free as
distinguished from their possessing the gift of freedom as long as they act, neither
before nor after.24
Saying that human beings possess the gift for freedom means regarding them
as having the capacity to actualise this freedom as capacity. But for this to happen,
human beings must act. Arendts freedom materialises in action. That is to say,
freedom is not a property of human beings but a property of their action, which then,
in return, characterizes their mode of being or their state of being as free. Note that
Arendt too distinguishes between freedom as possibility and freedom as actuality.
And although her priority is set toward the actuality and thereby returning to
Aristotle, the separation reveals a reference to Kant.
An action is free only insofar as it fulfils certain criteria that render it free.
Only if, as Arendt explains, an action is neither under the guidance of the intellect
nor under the dictate of the will, can it be classified as free. This, of course, is in
direct opposition to Kant. Whereas Kants transcendental freedom as a special kind of
causality operated within the individuals realm of reason, Arendts performative
freedom is inspired from without. She retains the somewhat Kantian notion of
principle but relocates it, as it were, outside the will and outside the intellect. A
principle in her sense does not by nature govern human action but more benignly
inspires it. Not sovereignty but inspiration is characteristic of the sort of action that
ultimately aims at actions in plurality and at the plurality of actions.
Arendts explicit critique of Kants concept of freedom is its detachment from
action. That which obtains the highest value for Kant precedes any concrete action.
While the will may initiate an action according to the self-giving laws by which it
abides, it remains detached from the very action as its mere prior cause. As Heidegger
pointed out, the practical side of the Kantian will is inferior to its transcendental
underpinning, for it rests upon it. Dissatisfied with this order, Arendt, in a sense,
reverses it so that the inspiring principle becomes fully manifest in the performing
act itself. 25 Withholding action would therefore mean to prevent freedom from
taking place because freedom happens for as long as actions are carried out.


Hannah Arendt, What is Freedom?, in Between Past and Future: Six Exercises in Political Thought
(New York: The Viking Press, 1961), p. 153.
Ibid., p. 152.


As a performative principle, freedom enters human life in the sphere of intersubjective dependence. Since action and freedom are the same for Arendt, to
conceive of political action only as the instrument for private action would mean to
deprive both action and freedom of their intrinsic value. My action is meaningful only
if it has a recipient, if it can be seen, heard or consumed in the broader sense. Such
demands naturally remain dissatisfied in the private sphere.
Arendt compares the exercise of freedom as action with artistic performances
that require for their meaningful existence the presence of an audience. Bringing
together freedom and artistic practice is reminiscent of a postmodern discourse of
subjectivity and the self. The disillusioning of the idea of a predetermined existence
of the self steered the agenda also of Foucaults thought. Action and re-creation (of a
self) becomes the governing principle according to which one is free. Signified by the
rejection of any sovereignty in the Kantian spirit, this postmodern idea nevertheless
operates on the understanding of freedom as positive freedom.
Although differing in reason and focus, Arendt and Foucault both devote
much of their thought to life in and around the Greek polis. Arendt appeals to the idea
of a public space as the locus for dialogical freedom as opposed to the preference
under modern circumstances to exercise freedom in private. She is of course aware
that the scope of freedom in the Greek polis came with the cost of limiting it to the
privileged few, while the reverse is true of the modern world.26 Foucault on the other
hand focuses on the ancient self-formation and the idea of the care of the self. While
freedom proper remained exclusive for those Athenian men that neither ruled nor
were ruled by their equals, the care of the self, Foucault writes, took place in any
setting, whether privileged or not.27
For Arendt, freedom begins where men enter into action with others and thus,
the only law according to which freedom can be attained is that according to the
human condition of plurality. By giving up the need for sovereignty and the virtue of
conformity to reason, Arendt tries to rescue human beings from developing the
incapacity to achieve freedom in plurality and to foster their mode of being-with-andfor-others. Her concept of the human faculty of action as one qualified by


For a discussion of the scope and reach of Roman versus liberal democratic freedom, see Ellen
Meiksins Wood, Democracy Against Capitalism (Cambridge: University Press, 1995), esp. p. 212.
See Foucaults The Hermeneutics of the Subject. Lectures at the Collge de France 1981-1982, ed.
Frdric Gros, trans. Graham Burchell (New York: Picador, 2004), p. 107-121.


irreversibility and unpredictability defines sovereignty as inimical to the human

condition. I will return to these two notions in Arendts thought in section X.

VIII. Narcissistic Freedom

In addition to Arendts critique of the supremacy of reason and its sovereignty over
the self, I want to refer to Adornos lectures on History and Freedom, in which he
develops the idea of a dialectic inherent to the concept of freedom. For him, our
interest in freedom, derived from German idealism, is utterly narcissistic. The
tendency to be repelled by ones own determinate nature, he argues, leads to the
radical marking off of animality from reason. Kants blueprint for becoming a better
person through reason and through renunciation of desires and inclinations are
expressive of the very dialectic of freedom that runs from German idealism to
contemporary bourgeois society. As a result, our interest in freedom and our denial of
freedom qua conformity run together. The failure of a person to assert his own
freedom through autonomy would culminate in an expulsion from society. On the
other hand, the very same society simultaneously demands his adaptation. Adorno
writes that the subject is hence torn between demands to foster his individuality but
only insofar as it does not trouble the overall status quo of society.
As soon as the ego succeeds in controlling its bonds to nature and finds
everything that stems from it chaotic and disturbing, the conflict that is inherent to the
concept of freedom itself arises. Thus, Adorno argues that the concept of freedom
could not be formulated in the absence of recourse to something prior to the ego.28
Whenever we refer to something like human impulse we entertain the possibility of
something over which the ego has no control. Adorno sees this idea of
involuntariness expressed in Kants notion of spontaneity, on which, as mentioned
earlier, the entire concept of Kantian autonomous freedom is based. Being without
antecedent cause, spontaneity is understood as the self-origination of a state and as
such, the basis of autonomy. But as Adorno points out, the idea of an abrupt and
sudden action leads to a peculiar duality of ego and impulse which extends into
the sublimest reaches of Kants theory of knowledge.29


Theodor W. Adorno, History and Freedom: Lectures 1964 1965, ed. Rolf Tiedemann, trans.
Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2006), p. 213.
Adorno, History and Freedom, p. 215. The very same idea is articulated in his Negative Dialectics,
where he provides an extensive critique of the notion of idealistic freedom. Adorno writes: Without
an anamnesis of the untamed impulse that precedes the ego an impulse later banished to the zone of


We saw that Heidegger too points toward the same problem: one can convict
Kants claim of the sovereignty of the intelligible over the sensible of failing to keep
its promise, for Kant never leaves the realm of natural causality. He only fabricates
another type of the same that is ultimately predicated upon it and hence indebted to it.
Adorno makes a similar point in reference to psychological phenomena such as
psychoses and our dealing with them. The ego-centred struggle over its own freedom
turns human subjects into narcissistic beings.

IX. Freedom, Plurality, Virtuosity

By drawing on the Athenian organization of the public sphere and its devotion to
reciprocal action, Arendt advocates a notion of freedom that defies solipsism. She
emphasizes that the ancients political notion of freedom differs greatly from what
she calls philosophical freedom, the latter being understood as the exercise of the will.
To do and to will are fundamentally different notions especially in their relation to the
self. The will, Arendt argues, can never rid itself of the self; it always remains bound
to it and, indeed, under its bondage. 30 Sovereignty of the will over the self
undermines the sort of freedom that is tantamount to action. Arendt takes freedom to
the streets, so to say, and makes both being performer and audience the conditio sine
qua non of what it means for an agent to be free.
I believe that Arendts notion of freedom as action reveals the possibility of
qualitative differentiation: freedom as action can be reflective or pre-reflective.
Whenever I engage in an action of which it can be said that I do it for internal
reasons, there are three ways to characterize my relation to or attitude toward this
action: first, I either realize afterwards upon reflection that my action was free or
second, I consciously endorse the principle of freedom as action before or while
acting (something like a resolution). A third possibility would be that I neither reveal
to myself through reflection that my action has been free, nor do I go about with a
conscious spirit of my action being free. Rather, and I take this to be referring to
Heideggers understanding of Daseins taking a stand on its being: I understand my

unfree bondage to nature it would be impossible to derive the idea of freedom, although that idea in
turn ends up reinforcing the ego. In spontaneity, the philosophical concept that does most to exalt
freedom as mode of conduct above empirical existence, there resounds the echo of that by whose
control and ultimate destruction the I of idealistic philosophy means to prove its freedom. Through an
apologia for its perverted form, society encourages the individuals to hypostatize their individuality
and thus their freedom. in Negative Dialectics (London and New York: Routledge, 2004), p. 221.
Arendt, What is Freedom?, p. 162.


action but I do not know that it is free. In other words, without planning or intending
for my action to be free, it is free in virtue of being a human action occurring among
The fact that the human condition is by nature such that it is defined not only
by co-existence but by reciprocity also forms the basis of Heideggers idea of beingwith (Mitsein). He writes in Being and Time that [by] reason of this with-like beingin-the-world, the world is always the one that I share with others. The world of
Dasein is a with-world. Being-in is being-with others.31 To the previous remarks
about reframing the question of freedom into the question of being, we can now add
that insofar as being is defined essentially by being-with-others, freedom must be
understood in the same respect. Heidegger even points out that no de facto encounter
with others has to be made in order for this existential characteristic of Dasein to
manifest itself.
If we leave aside the third Heideggerian characteristic of subject-action
relation, the reflective or intentional way of coming to realize and attaining freedom,
allow for certain activities to change their characteristic. That is to say, an activity
that I have undertaken in order to achieve something can itself become free once I
have stripped off the incentive of a particular outcome and engage in it for internal
reasons. Of course, not every activity is fit for this kind of qualitative shift while I
may free the activity of studying a certain book in order to pass an exam so that the
activity of reading becomes the value proper, the activity of buying stocks or shares
of a company makes a similar uncoupling of means and ends less possible. The
activity as such becomes meaningless without profitable ends.32
When people engage in political protests on the other hand, it is likely that
they reach a point where their action as such is more important than any explicit end.
It is in these moments that, as Arendt argues, we can detect a certain open-endedness
that leads to a virtuosity where the accomplishment lies in the performance itself
and not in the end product which outlasts the activity that brought it into existence
and becomes independent of it.33


Heidegger, Being and Time (New York: Harper & Row,1962), 26, p. 154-155. (Italics original)
I take this idea of acting for internal reasons to be linked to Marxs understanding of life activity.
Arendt, What is Freedom?, p. 153.


X. Experimental Freedom and Materialization of Freedom

Arendts notion of freedom has experiential flavour. The outcome of free human
action remains uncertain for it is detached from particular ends. There is a certain
openness and flexibility in the very act. Arendts sense of freedom as action can be
understood as letting-happen. In another work, Arendt speaks about unpredictability
as a fundamental characteristic of human action.34 Such talk is in stark opposition to
the Kantian virtue of self-legislation. For Arendt, no a priori laws or principles limit
the outcome or the unfolding of events. Freedom is not secured prior to its
materialization, nor is it traceable where human action is absent. Neither Arendts nor
Heideggers notion of freedom must be secured. While it must be acted-out (in the
sense of spoken-out or made public) for Arendt, it is present in anything that humans
do for Heidegger. An interesting question that arises here is how and whether
freedom materializes in the different conceptions of freedom in Kant, Heidegger and
To start with Kant, it is clear that, given the priority reason and the will take
as the initiator and host of freedom, the primal concern is not the experience of
freedom but the enacting of it through principles in conceptual thought. As Heidegger
has already pointed out, Kant grounds practical freedom in transcendental freedom.
Freedom is thus necessarily subordinate to the idea of autonomy, making the
experience of freedom neither possible nor relevant. Every action is free as long as it
originates from a will, which is guided by moral laws via autonomy. Whether an
action is going to be free can be decided prior to it, on the basis of its possibility for
Arendt takes the opposite approach. Freedom requires actuality: only where
there is action can freedom be attained. Freedom is on holiday whenever human
beings abstain from action. What Arendt has in common with Kant in respect of
materialized freedom are two things: first, freedom remains an attribute of something.
It can be attributed to action insofar as the action is of a particular kind. Second,
freedom also requires a certain effort. This effort as an element of freedom, however,
remains hidden in Kantian reason and is exposed in Arendts performative notion of
freedom. Freedom can only appear it cannot merely be cognized.


See Arendts The Human Condition (Chicago and London: Chicago University Press, 1998), esp. p.
143 147. Arendt mentions the idea of unpredictability together with the miracle of natality as a
capacity that can bestow upon human affairs faith and hope.


For Heidegger, freedom is none other than materialization in the human way
of being. One may exaggerate his position by claiming that even if we wanted to rid
ourselves of our freedom, we could not. For any want is in its existential sense an
expression of our comportment as Beings. The very fact that human beings act upon
their particular mode of being as being-in-the-world reveals their existence as
grounded in freedom. Heidegger thus escapes the problem of whether freedom is
experienced or not by suggesting that freedom as existential freedom is the very basis
for being and thus for any experience whatsoever. Any experience a Dasein
undergoes stands in relation to its way of being human and its mode of being-in-theworld.
Given Heideggers argument for freedom as being existentially prior to being,
the notion of Daseins being-in-the-world, I suggest, essentially means being-free-inthe-world or being free in respect to the world. For Heidegger it is the situatedness of
Dasein in the world, for Arendt the reciprocity of action that grounds the possibility
of being-free-in-the-world.

XI. Feeling Free and Being Free

In an interview with Joachim Fest, Arendt addresses a point about the
phenomenology of good and evil that help to understand the ambiguity of a
phenomenology of freedom.35 Arendt said that we usually assume that only evil
things present themselves as a temptation, as something that we ought to avoid. But
one cannot differentiate good from evil on the basis of whether one takes joy in an
action or not. I want to suggest that the category of freedom may reveal the same
problem: we cannot differentiate between freedom and un-freedom merely on the
basis of whether an action feels free or not. Jon Elster has already articulated this
worry in his notion of adaptive preference formation.36
Heidegger can escape this dilemma only by making freedom the prephenomenological condition for being. But if freedom is not located at the level of
ethics but at the level of being, what is left of our understanding of freedom in
political terms? Before discussing the existential versus the liberal notion of freedom,
we can make the following conclusion about freedom in respect to experience:


Hannah Arendt im Gesprch mit Joachim Fest, in Journal of Political Thinking, Vol. 3, No 1,
Power and Freedom, Mai 2007, via hannaharendt.net.
Jon Elster, Sour Grapes: Studies in the Subversion of Rationality (Cambridge: University Press,


As it turns out, only Arendt assigns experience as part and parcel of what it
means to be free. For Heidegger, any experience is free, for it is humans who
experience in virtue of their being human. Evaluating the degrees of freedom on the
basis of experience becomes meaningless for Heidegger but does play a role for
Arendt. For Kant, any experience of freedom is irrelevant and impossible, for the
decisive move toward freedom is made prior to its materialization.

XII. Existential Versus Liberal Freedom Freedom as We Know It

The challenge Heideggers notion of freedom poses to our understanding of freedom
today is it that it existentializes freedom to the extent that it becomes unspecifiable. If
everything we do is an expression of existential freedom, then why bother addressing
freedom as philosophical problem? If it has an existential status prior even to notions
of being and time, then it seems to have very little in common with a liberal
democratic understanding of freedom as we know it. Heidegger is miles away from
the liberal democratic concern of taking care of justice in order to expand freedom.
The very idea of expanding freedom becomes meaningless, for freedom is always
already obtained through the fact that human beings are ontologically disposed to
their own existence. Freedom is not a property that comes in degrees but an
existential ground for the human way of doing and being, for comportment to beings
in each an every mode of manifestness, is only possible where freedom exists.37
This brings us back to Marcuses worry that the political realization of
existential philosophy has bad consequences. It remains extremely difficult to see
what we can make of an existential understanding of freedom today if we try to
approach it from an external point of view beyond its own terms. On the basis of
Heideggers writing on freedom, we can assume that he would most likely dismiss
the liberal democratic conception of freedom as a property that does not deserve its
name. Although much more can be said about possible ways of incorporating an
existential notion of freedom, I want to leave these thoughts for now and end the line
of inquiry that I have pursued above with some concluding remarks.


Heidegger, Essence of Human Freedom, 30, p. 205.


Concluding Remarks
What is the essence of human freedom? This was the question with which Heidegger
sees himself confronted in his lecture series. Any question of what something is in its
essence must go through a process of stripping off those properties that have attached
themselves to the concept or object of inquiry in such a way that this concept or
object appears distorted or altered from its original essential state. For Heidegger, we
can now conclude, any previous philosophical problematization of freedom has done
violence to freedoms essence because it has failed to grasp freedom as essence and
as possibility for being human. If freedom is conceptualized as essence and condition
for being, Heidegger concludes against Kant, the problem of causality too, as one of
many ontological determinations of beings, must have its grounds in freedom, not
vice versa.
The reason why Heideggers notion of freedom as an existential condition
poses a challenge to our modern understanding and practice of freedom is that we
have gotten used and have taken for granted an understanding of freedom in the
liberal sense. Liberal politics are taken to be the epitome of a strive for the expansion
of freedom. The very idea that freedom is a property that comes in degrees and that
can be expanded if certain conditions are fulfilled is itself an expression of the way
freedom as a value has developed over time. But as with many seemingly
fundamental values that determine and give shape to every aspect of our lives, once
we deconstruct and try to trace back their essence (leaving open the possibility that
there is no such thing), we find ourselves confronted with a great problem: we fail to
recognize freedom once all characteristics on the basis of which we are used to
identify freedom have been cut off. As in Heideggers conception of essential
freedom, there does not seem to be much left for us to talk about or experience
explicitly. His transvaluation makes freedom almost unrecognizable for the modern
Arendt offers a more moderate principle of freedom that is geared to the
practice of freedom in ancient Athens. She suggests that we can secure freedom
through action. Arendts account has explicit political relevance but nonetheless takes
issue with popular contemporary understandings of freedom, where a free person is


free if and only if he is fit to be held responsible under circumstances of nondomination.38

The fact that freedom is conceived of as a problem, for which it is imperative
to argue, strongly suggests three important things: first and with reference to
Heidegger, we cannot do otherwise but engage in a problematization of freedom, for
the intellectual struggle around freedom is expressive of what it means to make an
issue of our existence as human beings. Second, we cannot want to stop caring about
freedom beyond an understanding informed by current liberal politics. If we rested
content with the idea that justice, responsibility and non-domination can be the sole
guardians of freedom, we would ignore the possibility that those notions may only
cater to a specific kind of freedom that is only fit for and applicable to specific kinds
of individuals. Freedom may thus become a property of the privileged disciples of a
certain political school. The third observation that we can make on the basis of the
above discussion is that insofar as freedom really is by nature dialectical, as Adorno
argued, identifying freedom with a pleasant mental state would mean to fail to realize
that the dialectical is by nature painful, at least intellectually.


See for example Philip Pettit, A Theory of Freedom: From the Psychology to the Politics of Agency
(Cambridge: Polity Press, 2001), esp. p. 24 and p. 138ff.


Theodor W. Adorno
History and Freedom: Lectures 1964 1965, ed. Rolf Tiedemann, trans. Rodney
Livingstone (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2006)
Negative Dialectics (London and New York: Routledge, 2004)
Hannah Arendt
The Human Condition (Chicago and London: Chicago University Press, 1998)
Between Past and Future: Six Exercises in Political Thought (New York: Viking
Press, 1961)
Hannah Arendt im Gesprch mit Joachim Fest, in Journal of Political Thinking,
Vol. 3, No 1, Power and Freedom, Mai 2007, via hannaharendt.net.
Isaiah Berlin, Four Essays on Liberty (Oxford: University Press, 1969)
Jon Elster, Sour Grapes: Studies in the Subversion of Rationality (Cambridge:
University Press, 1977)
Michel Foucault, The Hermeneutics of the Subject. Lectures at the Collge de
France 1981-1982, ed. Frdric Gros, trans. Graham Burchell (New York: Picador,
Martin Heidegger
The Essence of Human Freedom. An Introduction to Philosophy, trans. Ted Sadler
(New York: Continuum, 2002)
The Basic Problems of Phenomenology, trans. Albert Hofstadter (Bloomington:
Indiana University Press, 1982)
The Metaphysical Foundations of Logic, trans. Michael Heim (Bloomington: Indiana
University Press, 1984)
Being and Time (New York: Harper & Row, 1962)
Immanuel Kant
Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. and ed., Mary Gregor (Cambridge:
University Press, 1997)
Critique of Pure Reason, trans. and ed., Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood (Cambridge:
University Press, 1999)
Karl Lwith, Martin Heidegger and European Nihilism, ed. Richard Wolin (New
York: Columbia University Press, 1995)
Philip Pettit, A Theory of Freedom: From the Psychology to the Politics of Agency
(Cambridge: Polity Press, 2001)
Leslie Paul Thiele, Heidegger on Freedom: Political Not Metaphysical, in The
American Political Science Review, Vol. 88, No. 2, (Jun. 1994)
Ellen Meiksins Wood, Democracy Against Capitalism (Cambridge: University
Press, 1995)