On Positive and Negative Liberties

While reading through Foucault’s The Archaeology of Knowledge I began to ponder on the role that systems of rules play within our discourses on liberty. Foucault’s text sets out to define Archaeology, and comes to the conclusion that “Archaeology defines the rules of formation of a group of statements” (167). For Foucault, there are certain rules that make any discourse possible – and it is archaeology will attempts to show what these rules are. A common example that he uses within the text is the discourse of medicine. Medicine comes about because of a series of rules that allow medical discourse to take place.These rules prescribe what subjects are discussed within the discourse, what methods are utilized, etc. Within any discourse there are rules of this sort that limit what can be talked about. What struck me while reading is that these rules can have implications for both positive and negative liberty. They perform the action of making a discourse possible as well as confining it to a certain number of topics.

Initially, this made me think about grammar. To the annoyed 5th grader, grammar is a nuisance which infringes upon one’s liberty to perform whatever writing function they wish. Rather than simply using words, grammar forces them to learn a set of rules that disciplines their writing and speaking styles. While this 5th grader might see grammar as an imposition on their liberty, they might eventually begin to see the positive aspects of grammar. It is grammar, of course, that makes any communication possible. Without grammar the structure of our sentences would disappear, making any sort of conversation impossible. In this way the confines of grammar constitute a positive liberty. Rather than promoting freedom from something, they advance the freedom to do something. In the case of grammar the rules allow us the freedom to speak and communicate with one another.

Contemporary western political discourse is inundated with negative conceptions of liberty. Negative liberty is the freedom from something. A basic example of negative liberty is that I have the freedom from infringement on my personal speech (i.e. I have freedom of speech). When we speak of freedom in this way we are speaking of freedom from some constraint (taxes, immigrants, courts, etc). Negative liberty is an important component of our culture. It is a key concern of many of the freedoms that we hold dear — freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom to vote for whomever you wish, freedom of speech, etc. — but with all of the focus on negative conceptions of liberty, positive conceptions are often left to the wayside.

Plato on the Fall of Ancient and Modern Greece - The Imaginative ...


in the tenth book of The Republic Plato argues against democracy for the reason that it promotes negative liberty to the detriment of society. In 558 b-c Plato writes, “We said that no one who had not exceptional gifts could grow into a good man [sic] unless he were brought up from childhood in a good environment and trained in good habits. Democracy with a grandiose gesture sweeps all this away and doesn’t mind what habits and background of its politicians are; provided they profess themselves the people’s friends, they are duly honoured” (p. 294). Throughout much of The Republic Plato makes the case for an educational program that would produce the ideal leader — a philosopher king. The ideal leader can only come about through a series of harsh educational regiments. These educational regiments take place as constraints on the individual who is attempting to become a philosopher king. From one perspective these restraints can be seen as attacks on an individuals liberty (and education can for sure be used as a means of discipline and control, c.f. Foucault’s Discipline and Punish), but within the context of becoming a leader, they allow for the individual to attain certain practices that would be impossible without constraint.

Part of what Plato is attempting to show in The Republic is that too much negative liberty is detrimental to an individual. Too much negative freedom leads to chaos. If we return, for a moment, to the discussion on grammar we might try to imagine a text that exists without the constraints of grammar. When imaging such a document one might be reminded of a random texts from Borges’ The Library of Babel where the texts, void of any semblance of grammar, appears to us as pure gibberish. The grammatical rules that are in place allow us to communicate with one another. These rules can provide us with the ability (at least to some degree) to flourish or perhaps — in Aristotelean terms — to reach our telos.

From a religious perspective this shouldn’t appear to be anything new. Within the religious sphere — even more so than in the political sphere — we are quite obsessive about positive liberties. In You Must Change Your Life Peter Sloterdijk writes about the ways that religion uses liturgy and ritual to shape the habits of believers. Religion creates social hierarchies that can only be climbed if one performs the rituals (or Anthropotechnics) which shape ones desires and habits to the degree that one’s body is affected in such a way that these habits become second nature. For many religious peoples the goal is to not simply refrain from our sinful desires, but to shape our bodies in such ways that those desires no longer even occur to us. In this way, religion uses educational constraints that allow for flourishing. Through the restraints imposed by religious practice one is granted the freedom to flourish within the religious sphere.

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Depiction of “Jacob’s Ladder”

These systems of rules that exist within the political and religious spheres hold implications for liberty in both the positive and negative senses. In these religious practices, for instance, we can see clear examples of times where these rules move from positive liberty to infringing on negative liberty. One can look to the barbaric practice of conversion therapy as an example of this. It seems to be the case that when we stop understanding these systems of rules as helpful tools that allow us to flourish and transform them into universalizing truths that must be followed, they stop providing us with positive liberty, and begin to infringe upon our negative liberties. We must remember that the rules which give the ability for positive liberty are not universal rules. They are confines which exist in order to allow us to do things, to fulfill things. When these rules lose any flexibility and become written into law, they fail to participate in any notion of liberty, and instead fall into the realm of discipline and control.

in this way, we can see that the distinction between a positive liberty and an infringement on negative liberty is not so clear cut. To make things more difficult, one might see a positive liberty as a clear infringement on a negative liberty (and vice versa). Where we draw the line is likely up to our political or religious ideology. So far as it is possible, however, we must attempt to examine how we are using the rules that we have established. So long as our rules are allowing us to flourish and grow into the people that we want to be, we can see these rules as positive influences. It is when our rules start to become inflexible and oppressive that we ought to take the time to re-examine, change, and, perhaps, abolish them.


Works Cited:

Foucault, M. (1982). The Archaeology of Knowledge: And the Discourse on Language. New York: Vintage.
Plato. (2007). The Republic. (D. Lee, Trans.) (New edition). London: Penguin Classics.

Short Reflection on the Behemoth

“People have so manipulated the concept of freedom that it finally boils down to the right of the stronger and richer to take from the weaker and poorer whatever they have. Attempts to change this are seen as shameful intrusions into the realm of the very individuality that by the logic of that freedom has dissolved into an administered void.” -Adorno

Freedom under finance capitalism means freedom for corporations. Corporate interests are given legal precedence over water, land, animals, and people. In the pursuit of liberty, liberty transformed into a behemoth.

A repetitive monster that reproduces itself asexually. Like a cellular organism it thrives via exponential growth. Each generation doubling the size of its predecessor. Feeding upon everything. Shaped through its desire to feast upon the bodies of plants, animals, people. Devouring all of Being until the Being and Behemoth become tautological. Nowhere left to turn it doubles back, cannibalizing itself.

This is the freedom that we have been given. A beast that forces us to participate in order to survive. To participate in our own destruction; to participate in the destruction of Others.

And we all know this. I don’t think of myself as overly creative. What I’ve written is nothing but a repetition. It isn’t subtle. Nothing is new. Sameness repeats ad infinitum. Aren’t we all aware of the snarl that accompanies us? Not that we have any choice. There is never a choice. A choice between a fascist and a fascist isn’t a choice.

Quote from: Adorno, T. (1994). Messages in a Bottle. In S. Zizek (Ed.), E. Jephcott (Trans.), Mapping Ideology. London : New York: Verso. p. 36