The Philosophy of Freedom

Steiner (1861-1925) was an Austrian philosopher, playwright and artist, now regarded as a great social thinker of his time.  Best perhaps more widely known for his legacy of Steiner schools, often described as ‘schools where children do what they like’. Based on the principles of ‘Anthroposophy’, that is that a child’s creativity and spiritual, and moral development is equally as important as their intellectual growth.

In fact, Steiner believed that these elements were inseparable: That we as human beings can only reach our potential when we are at harmony as a whole, when we are able to develop our own paths of creativity, stimulated by the freedom of imagination and energised through all aspects of the senses, unhindered by pre-determined constraints and controls. As with so many of the early thinkers, it is not difficult to hear what we now term ‘systems thinking’ echoed in the words and thoughts of the past.

Rudolph Steiner spent much of his life considering what he termed “The Philosophy of Freedom’, where he explores ‘ethical individualism’, or more simply put: The conditions needed for humans to be really truly free, and what that really means. Is freedom, he asks, in the relationships between knowledge and perception? Is the evidence of freedom in our acts, in what we do as a result of our moral imagination?

Steiner wasn’t alone. The concept of freedom is one that has occupied the minds of the world’s greatest thinkers, since man could think. Steiner himself was greatly influenced by Goethe, Hegel, Kant and Spinoza. His arguments for freedom are complex, grounded in the suggestion that we are only free when we have an awareness of the motives of our actions.  In this way, as is so often the case, he has much in common with later thinkers.

The essential question boils down to this, a familiar question in Epistemology and one which the systems thinkers of our time, including Gregory Bateson, continue to seek to answer, as they explore the world in which we live, that is:

"How do we know what we know"?

John Atkinson and Myron Rogers in seeking to explore the nature of living systems and their work in organisational change, consider what they describe as  ‘The Big Five’ characteristics of living systems; complexity, emergence, cognition, networks and self referencing.  Cognition they explain is inseparable from emotion, cognition is thinking and feeling in action. In exploring the role and influence of cognition in living systems we must therefore ask exactly this; ‘how do we know what we know”? And thus we must also ask, just as Steiner did- “What is our freedom in our actions”?

The idea of knowledge being integral to human freedom is a deeply entangling and intriguing path. One I find myself entranced by, curiously and yet lazily swimming into from time to time. Because isn’t the question of freedom integral to our humanity, our individuality, me?

Freedom is a concept that is an emotion, a physical presence. It is embroiled with our self-consciousness, held in our perception, influenced by our intellectual presence and driven by the simplicity that is the activity of thinking.  An intellectual gift and a burden. And it is entirely inseparable from the nature of the uniqueness of each of our external, and arguably also our internal realities.

Freedom is a somewhat unique concept, a philosophical construct of man’s making. It’s an intangible thing we cannot see and touch, and yet our freedom to be in the world can be controlled physically, enhanced by the openness to go as we will, restricted by emotional control, ‘no entry’ signs and prison bars.

Freedom is undoubtedly an intellectual discussion of our minds, held by our own knowing and experiences and more than that, much more intrinsic, more essential, freedom is an emotion.

An emotion that is influenced by our physical boundaries and freedoms and our intellectual knowing, and it’s here that I consider freedom to be at its truest, purest and most strong.

Our emotional freedom is at the heart of our concept of self. It can be repressed into feelings of worthlessness, despair. It can fly freely in the lightness of inexpressible joy. It is held in the vaguest tingling of hope held in the darkest recesses of our minds we don’t even know are there. Freedom of our mind is what gives us our strengths, and is to me, where our soul is held.

The writer and philosopher Victor Frankl, writing in  his book Man’s Search for Meaning, reflects on his experiences of living and survival in the holocaust concentration camps. He considers how it is that even in the conditions of the camps, where all aspects of life are controlled in the most degrading and inhuman of ways, that is that some are able to hold on to the deepest freedom of all, that is the freedom of the mind, and thus survive the trauma which has become the normality of their lives. Freedom, suggests Frankl is the freedom of our mind. It is the ability to feel, to love, to think, to know its own consciousness. He gives us these words to take into our lives:

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

So I ask you: What is freedom anyway? What does it mean in our lives and in our world?

Is it that in considering the world as a living system of living systems, in ‘systems thinking’ in our organisations, in allowing the organisational worlds in which we exist to think, breathe, and consider themselves as a whole, we instigate the philosophy of freedom in its most basic and purest sense? Is it that as Steiner believed of children, that in doing this we allow them to grow and reach their best potential, unhindered by predetermined restraints and controls?

And so I end with the question: Is freedom truth?