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Paul Weiss: Common Sense & Beyond

Paul Weiss: Common Sense & Beyond

I found an old book of papers presented before the New York Institute of Philosophy on the issue of human freedom (or non-freedom, if you prefer). Edited by Sidney Hook, the papers reflect a broad diversity of opinion. In reading them, I could only conclude that philosophers today are no less divided on the issue than they were then, in the mid-1950s. One piece did stand out for its reductio ad absurdum of many philospher claims on the issue. By Paul Weiss and titled "Common Sense and Beyond," some excerpts from it are provided below.

" A good deal of contemporary discussion of the problem of determinism and freedom rests on a number of unexamined but rather dubious assumptions. Not until these are brought to the fore, and either modified or replaced, can there, I think, be much hope of progress toward the solution of this perplexing basic issue. . . .

. . . . Any view that wholly abandons common sense is at least a fiction or a fantasy. Any view that refuses to examine it is at best uncritical and dogmatic. Reflection and reason require one to stand somewhere between these two extremes. . . .

. . . Most discussions of freedom do not distinguish among (1) freedom from, (2) freedom to, (3) freedom for, and (4) freedom with.

1. Whenever men are subject to unusual or unconventional restraints we think of them as being compelled; when those constraints are removed we think of them as freed, and speak of them as free. Thus we say that the released slave is a free man.
2. Freedom to is the power to act either inwardly as a being of intent or outwardly as one who can publicly express his wishes or carry out his obligations. Thus we say the he who wishes to take drugs, and can, is free to take them; and that he who out to pay his debts and has the money to so is free to pay them.
3. Freedom for is the power to commit oneself to an end and to work to bring it about. This end may be set by society or the state; one’s commitment to it might be a function of heredity and training. But the capacity to put oneself in a position to focus on this end and engage in activity to bring it about is to have a freedom for. Thus we say that men are at their best when they have been made free for a civilized life of leisure.
4. Finally, we are men in a society and men in a cosmos, and whatever freedom we may express is largely futile or frustrated if it does not intermesh with that exercised by others. Thus we say that we are genuinely free only when we are in harmony with equally free fellow men.

. . . . We cannot settle the problem of determinism and freedom until we have decided just what type of freedom, and thus what antithetical sense of determinism, we wish to consider.

. . . . Yet a scientific account that requires the acknowledgement of determinacies or indeterminacies in the world tells us nothing about the nature of things, but only about that phase of existence isolated and pursued in common ways by a community of thinkers. In the end we have no right to say that anything beyond all knowledge is real. [Inveterate Bystander emphasis] . . . .

. . . The wise scientist makes no claim that he is able to deal with or to know anything about the universe outside the scope of his language, instruments, or criteria. [Inveterate Bystander emphasis] . . . . " (From Determinism and Freedom in The Age of Modern Science, Sidney Hook, ed., Collier, 1979)

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