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Immanuel Kant on Freedom and Thought

Do We Really Think Freely or Independently?


Immanuel Kant

Immanuel Kant

People typically believe in the importance of freedom of thought, the freedom to think and believe without coercion from outside forces. To what extent do people actually make use of this freedom, however? How many people really think and believe independently of peer pressures and social coercion?

    Certainly one may say, ‘Freedom to speak or write can be taken from us by a superior power, but never the freedom to think!’ But how much, and how correctly, would we think if we did not think, as it were, in common with others, with whom we mutually communicate!
    - Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason

I think that Kant here is offering an interesting commentary on just how far the “freedom to think” really goes — and perhaps a commentary that will be a bit disturbing to some readers, in part because Kant’s ideas here also touch upon questions like the extent of free will.

In theory we all like to imagine that we have an absolute “freedom to think,” which is to say we can think anything we want and hold any opinion we want. We might be prohibited by law from criticizing politicians, but we can certainly have low opinions of politicians and think all sorts of nasty things about them. We might be prevented by social pressure from criticizing religion, but we can still think negative things about religious leaders and in our own minds be critical of religious dogmas.

At least, that’s the theory — but how true is it in practice? Certainly it is true that no one can exert force on you not to think such things, at the very least because no one will know about them unless and until you express them somehow — but external force is not the only thing that serves to limit what we think.

This, I believe, is where Kant’s comments come to play. He seems to me to be saying that our social interactions with others, and in particular our communications with others, create boundaries for the sorts of opinions we hold and the sorts of things we think about. When you stop to consider this, it should seem obviously — almost trivially — true.

There are two ways, I think, that social forces can act to limit the sorts of things we think and, hence, create hidden boundaries on our “freedom” of thought. First, it is difficult to hold dissenting views if one is never exposed to dissent. Second, society creates categories of thought which we all naturally adopt; if those categories exclude certain concepts, it can be difficult for a person to “freely” think in new and different ways.

For example, while a person may be free to hold negative opinions about religion, to what extent is one likely to do so if they are never exposed to criticism of religion — or even of authority figures in general? How likely is a person going to be to disagree with the government if they never sit and discuss political issues critically with others? In addition, if the political language of a society doesn’t even have the means for expressing ideas like anarchy, then how easy will it be for someone to formulate an anarchist critique of government institutions?

Of course, there is always someone who comes up with an idea or concept for the first time... however, if there external forces which prevent them from expressing them, then it becomes difficult to communicate with others. To a certain degree, everyone who comes up with dissenting views is the “first” as far as they know. Thus, limits on freedom of speech do create limits on what people can think because they aren’t exposed to the new ideas that will give them new thoughts.

What we need to understand, then, is that our thoughts are not the product of purely solitary activity on our parts. True, thinking is something we do in our own minds, but our thoughts are products of our socialization and the information we receive from others. Thus, the breadth and depth of our thoughts is closely connected to the breadth and depth of ideas, opinions, and concepts we are exposed to socially. The more free public expression of ideas is, the more freedom we will have in our own thinking; the more regulated public expression is, the more narrow our thinking will end up.

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