Why should one read another book on freedom? First, because this is not a book on freedom (in the singular), but rather on a plurality of words, notions and concepts, around which revolve the various discourses of freedom during the last twenty-five centuries. Second, because these materials are presented and analysed in their original form, and their translation into English is problematized as an ongoing task.

Nor does the peculiarity of the book lie just in its extensive use of sources. As most relevant Western thinkers engage with one or another notion of freedom, the book is also a brief historical sketch of Western thought, and a highly unorthodox one, because it does not focus on interpretations but on the production of the theoretical lexicon.

Moreover, the book has the ambition to follow the course of Western thinking also before and after freedom, so to speak, as its narration considers Western texts before the invention of the notions of freedom, maps the long rise of freedom’s theoretical constellations, and explores the possibility of their overcoming. This possibility emerges from the very process of construction of the lexicon of freedom, whose words are often ‘fabricated in a piecemeal fashion from alien forms.’1 More generally, by surveying the construction of new vocabularies, the book shows how intellectuals do things with words.2

Nowadays, we all experience, at least, the negative aspects of this construction: the widespread adoption of the neoliberal vocabulary and its definition of freedom have a tangible (and disastrous) impact on our daily lives. In particular, the neoliberal understanding of freedom as absence of interference, albeit ridiculously simplistic, is all the more effective insofar as its construction is presented, in good modern fashion, as a statement of fact. In other words, neoliberal theorists, such as Hayek, not only vulgarize Hobbes’ notion of individual freedom, but they also repeat the Hobbesian double gesture of producing a perspectival construction of reality and pretending it to be a mere description.

Moreover, our neoliberal dwarves are firmly perched not only on modern giants’ shoulders,3 but also on more towering figures: the rudimentary notion of negative freedom can be traced back to the no less rudimentary dichotomy between acting and being acted upon, which is first systematized by Aristotle. However, this is just one possible lineage in the genealogy of the discourses of liberty: as Montesquieu reminds us, ‘no word was given more meanings and so variously affected humans than freedom.’4 Yet, despite all this variety, the neoliberal reductionist view relies on the widely shared assumption that freedom (just like any other notion) can be defined, or, at least, can be traced to some kind of core idea.

Of course, the quest for definitions is probably as old as the processes of production of abstract terms. In particular, the systematic questioning of the Platonic character Socrates seems to be the first Western apparatus of production of theoretical abstractions. In Plato’s dialogues, Socrates questions his interlocutors about the definition of several nominalised epithets: he is never tired of asking ‘what is the good?,’ ‘what is the pious?,’ ‘what is the beautiful?,’ and so on.5

This language device6 is at once a morphological, syntactical and semantic innovation: it not only produces a series of abstract entities in the Platonic text, but it opens the way for the systematic construction of entities, notions, and later, concepts as the main tools of Western thought. It is then not surprising that even long after the disappearance of Plato’s objects of concern, the enquiry into definitions still gives shape to most Western non-fiction writings.

On the contrary, this book follows a completely different path. It observes that the words of the ever-changing vocabulary of freedom are linked by a ‘complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail.’7 The book explores how these words and their similarities are composed and re-composed, and how their uses, time after time, converge towards some shared meaning.

Hence, the book does not ask the fateful question ‘what is freedom?,’ which surreptitiously affirms the existence of the entity ‘freedom,’ regardless of the plurality of its constructions. Following the Platonic scheme, the question ‘what is freedom?’ puts the cart before the horse, because it assumes the possible result of a shared practice of communication, namely, the shared meaning8 of the word ‘freedom,’ as the precondition of the communication itself.

Actually, the notion of freedom is not even a Platonic invention, as the Greek word ἐλευθερία9 [eleutheria] is previously attested in Pindar: Plato improves and systematizes an already active process of production of abstractions. Havelock associates this process with the construction of the first Greek written alphabetical language, which the Socratic-Platonic semantic enquiries culminate.10

The book argues that before this process there is no literal freedom, but just free things, and then, free humans. When the word ἐλεύθερον11 [eleutheron], free, appears in the Homeric text,12 it does not grammatically refer to human subjects, but it metaphorically hints to their state: for example, we now translate the Homeric expression ἐλεύθερον ἧμαρ13 [eleutheron hēmar], literally free day, as the day of liberty, that is, the condition of freedom.

Only in the fifth century BCE, does the appearance of the word eleutheria in two Pindaric odes herald a series of neologisms, such as, for example, Thucydides’ αὐτονομία14 [autonomia], which we now render in English as ‘autonomy.’ These terms become part of a wide constellation of locutions that construct a plurality of freedoms: a similar constellation also revolves around the Latin words liber, free, and libertas, liberty.

Later on, Christian authors such as Augustine identify a proper freedom and relocate it in the afterlife, whilst associating its mundane limited exercise with will. As compared with the Graeco-Roman and Germanic variously grounded notions of liberty and freedom, the Christian emphasis on individual salvation takes further the Stoic and Neoplatonist retreat towards interiority, and it produces a radical decontextualization of personal choice.

After the turn of the first Christian millennium, medieval theological debates focus on freedom both as a divine faculty and as a secular practice. The latter aspect is also developed by lay legal scholars and political thinkers, following the recovery of Roman law codes and Greek philosophical texts. Paradoxically, Luther and Calvin’s stress on predestination allows then the redirection towards worldly tasks of individual agency, and its unlimited expansion.

As early modern constructions of freedom emerge from a clash of religious fundamentalisms, despite their claim of absolute novelty they often recast medieval theological notions. However, seventeenth-century English parliamentary debates also revive the Roman phraseology of slavery, in order to articulate the concept of freedom as absence of dependence. This concept is formulated by Hobbes on the model of the new physics.

In the eighteenth century, Rousseau follows Hobbes in reshaping medieval mystical bodies in the form of the general will. Moreover, he redefines freedom as the obedience to a self-prescribed rule. Similarly, Kant claims absolute autonomy through a voluntary subsumption of the individual under the universal.

German idealist thinkers’ inflation of the concept of freedom reveals it as a mere hyperbole, which can be realised either as absolute compulsion or in the absence of others. Hegel endeavours instead to capture freedom within a framework of evolving historical necessity. The reaction to the Hegelian dynamic totalization opens the way to a variety of theoretical challenges to the very notions of subject and will, which are the foundations of the medieval and modern constructions of freedom.

From Stirner on, a veritable fault-line opens up in Western thought between the pursuit of a conceptual definition of liberty and the attempt to rethink freedom as the human production of novelty. Whilst Marx anchors this production to material processes, Nietzsche takes further Stirner’s questioning of ideas by challenging the unity of the Western subject.

Nietzsche’s effort to reconstruct conceptual entities as processes allows us to revise the discourses of freedom in terms of human practices. In particular, a radical shift of the very locus of freedom and autonomy results from a double change of theoretical focus: Simondon rethinks individuals as processes of individuation, and Foucault constructs subjects as processes of subjectivation.15

These processual approaches undermine the raison d’être of the notions of freedom and autonomy: regulative properties such as freedom and autonomy only apply to an enclosed and self-consistent entity – the individual, or the collective – as distinct from others, and they cannot fit subjectivation processes that are based on the constitutive participation with others. Hence, a new theoretical lexicon is needed to strike a dia-nomous16 middle path between autonomous and heteronomous alternatives: such a relational third way requires likewise relational notions.

Of course, it may seem impossible to transcend the horizon of freedom: the very plurality of the discourses of liberty may rather appear to justify the hope in some understanding of freedom that transcends its pervasive neoliberal version. Nevertheless, also more articulate discourses of liberty can hardly face our current challenges, both in the public and the private sphere. For example, these discourses also still claim the freedom to exercise an absolute power over oneself – a mastery that in fact is their paradoxical cornerstone.17

If the discourses of freedom appear exhausted and even counterproductive, couldn’t we treasure instead the neoliberal unwitting demonstration of the performative power of words, and thus realise that other words may help catalyse other (and participative) practices? In this case, we could take advantage of our knowledge of the past to construct a different vocabulary, which may empower us to claim the life that we all deserve.18

1 ‘[C]onstruite pièce à pièce à partir de figures qui lui étaient étrangères.’ In Michel Foucault, ‘Nietzsche, la généalogie, l’histoire,’ in Hommage à Jean Hyppolite (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1971), 145–172, 148. Eng. trans. ‘Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,’ in id., Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, Donald F. Bouchard ed. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1977), 139–164, 142.

2 See John Langshaw Austin, How to Do Things with Words (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1962).

3 Dicebat Bernardus Carnotensis nos esse quasi nanos gigantum umeris insidentes,’ Bernard of Chartres used to say that we are similar to dwarves standing on the shoulders of giants. In John of Salisbury, Ioannis Saresberiensis Metalogicon, J. B. Hall and K. S. B. Keats-Rohan eds. (Turnholt: Brepols, 1991), 116.

4 Il n’y a point de mot qui aît reçû plus de différentes significations, & qui aît frappé les esprits de tant de manières, que celui de Liberté.’ In Charles de Secondat Montesquieu, De l’Esprit des Loix, Tome 1 (Genève: Barrillot & Fils, 1748), 240 (11.2). Eng. trans. id., The Spirit of the Laws, Thomas Nugent trans., vol. 1 (London: J. Nourse and P. Vaillant, 1758), 212, modified translation.

5 For example, in Alcibiades 1 130d (the same); Eutyphro 5d (the pious); Hippias Major 288a (the beautiful); Phaedo 65d (the just, the beautiful, and the good), 78d (the beautiful and the equal).

6 Before Plato, the production of abstract terms also relies on what we would now call a process of nominalization of adjectives, such as (if we can trust Theophrastus and Simplicius) Anaximander’s ἄπειρον [apeiron], the boundless or non-determined (fr. 12 B1 Diels-Kranz), as well as participles, such as Parmenides’ ἐόν [eon], that which is, or, more commonly, being (fr. 28 B6 Diels-Kranz). Plato’s (or Socrates’) innovative intervention produces what Bergson would call a dispositif, that is, something like a device or an apparatus. Plato’s manipulation of language is particularly evident in his use of the adjective αὐτὸς [autos]. In Classical Greek, the word autos assumes the role of the Latin intensive adjective ipse when it is associated with a noun: for example, the phrase αὐτὸς ὁ βασιλεύς [autos ho basileus] may be translated as ‘the king himself,’ ‘the very king,’ or ‘even the king.’ Plato combines the word autos (neuter auto) with an adjective, which thus syntactically and semantically performs as a noun. See, for example, the phrase αὐτὸ τὸ καλὸν [auto to kalon], the beautiful itself, in Plato, Phaedo 78d. This new language mechanism can turn any predicate in the words of the Platonic Socrates, αὐτὸ ἕκαστον ὃ ἔστιν [auto hecaston ho estin], the very each thing which is, ibid. into an immutable subject.

7 ‘[E]in kompliziertes Netz von Ähnlichkeiten, die einander übergreifen und kreuzen. Ähnlichkeiten im Großen und Kleinen.’ In Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophische Untersuchungen/Philosophical Investigations, G. E. M. Anscombe trans. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999), 32/32e.

8 Following Wittgenstein, it would be more precise (albeit probably less clear) to say ‘a shared use of the word freedom.’

9 Pindar, Isthmian 8 15; Pythian I 61.

10 See Eric A. Havelock, Preface to Plato (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963).

11 In Attic Greek, eleutheros, eleuthera, and eleutheron are the masculine, feminine and neuter nominative forms of the term.

12 Iliad 6.455; 6.528; 16.831; 20.193.

13 Ibid., 6.455; 16.831; 20.193.

14 Thucydides 3.46.5; 4.87.5; 8.21.1.

15 The word ‘subjectivation,’ does not express the sense of ‘making subjective’ of the English word ‘subjectification.’

16 The book introduces several neologisms: dianomy, dianomous, dianomize, diapoiesis, throughdom, perdividual and perdividuation; it also suggests the recovery of Greek words such as kinēsis and enthesis.

17 Here is a clear example of such a paradoxical double standard: ‘La puissance c’est le pouvoir qu’on veut prendre sur autrui, la liberté, c’est le pouvoir qu’on veut prendre sur soi-même.’ Potency is the power that one wants to take over others, freedom is the power that one wants to take over oneself. In Denis de Rougemont, ‘Denis de Rougemont: Tel qu’en lui-même,’ Cadmos 33 (Printemps 1986), 7–23, 23.

18 This is an explicitly political task, which is what differentiates a genealogical endeavour from a merely historical reconstruction. Just like good historians do, genealogists recognise historical narrations as (inevitable) projections onto the past. Whilst this recognition surely improves the epistemic horizon of modern historiography, it still does not transcend it: genealogists only cross the cognitive threshold of merely historical narrations when they acknowledge their own investment in the present through their reconstructions of the past, without hiding themselves behind the finger of historiographic refinement.

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