The role of human freedom in identity’s expression: Part I

Even if all you need do is jump there are a myriad ways one might do so.

Even if all you need do is jump there are a myriad ways one might do so and a myriad factors that influence our doing so.

“Ah you would say that.”

She’s just like her father.”

He’s a man of his times.”

These age old expressions indicate the scepticism with which we meet the suggestion of unfettered self expression and the idea that humans are free to present themselves as they wish. What is the truth of the matter? How determined is the human expression of identity by milieu, age, gender, genetic inheritance psychological suggestiveness or  race? Indeed, to what extent is identity freely expressed when the possibilities are circumscribed by the conceptual foundation of one’s first language, by the philosophy underpinning one’s education and cultural or moral proscription?

I have been arguing that the primordial determining structure of human identity is a defining desire for significance and capacity for purpose. I have contended furthermore that there is an inherent and generally uncomfortable tension between these equiprimordial elements. One can see diversely, in the phenomenological analysis of the human condition in both Sartre and Merleau-Ponty, an indebtedness to unknowing purposive experiences in the world which habitually guide one’s lived engagement with it. One can also identify an indebtedness to a guiding interpretive framework which sifts these experiences for life’s significance. Both posit the interplay of primordial structures of human ‘being-in-the-world,’ and an interpretation of our ‘lived’ relationship to the natural world, to other persons, history and culture, which is somehow ‘primordial to any subsequent reflection’ or the ‘explanatory accounts of the natural sciences’.[1] Each perceive a delicate balance between the recovery of such hidden and unknowing experiences and knowing comprehension of them.[2]

Human identity somehow comprehends and harmonises the features of its situatedness via some kind of negotiation between purpose and significance.

Human identity somehow comprehends and harmonises the features of its situatedness via some kind of negotiation between purpose and significance.

Whether or not one completely endorses what Sartre and Merleau-Ponty tell us, certainly they show in their analysis and in their analysing, that human identity comprehends and harmonises the features of its situatedness via some kind of negotiation between purpose and significance. Human identity, is singularly apparent in the way that this harmonising task is resolved. In this post I begin to subject their existential analyses to this reading.

For Merleau-Ponty, being-with describes embeddedness in the world. His work is developed around the insight that human being-in-the-world forms a unifying structure within which individual self-consciousness arises and within which the perceptive and active encounter with others, with natural things, and with historical-cultural practice, must be seen to take place. A dialectical interconnectedness between the elements of the ‘synergic system’ self-others-world is the fundamental reality posited.[3]

Human reality is indebted to the basic structure self-others-world.

Human reality is indebted to the basic structure self-others-world.


Interconnectedness is not apparent in Sartre however, for whom being-in-the-world constitutes a place of fragmentation. Whereas for Merleau-Ponty apparent human freedom must accommodate reciprocity with the environment, in Sartre negativity, and alienation epitomised by the nondialectical opposition between human consciousness as for-it-self and being-in-it-self, is the fundamental reality. [1] Being-in-the-world is conceived distinctly, even contradictorily, in Sartre and Merleau-Ponty’s ‘interpretive frameworks’.[2]

If my identity develops as a consequence of the accretion of meaning that attaches to my life within the world, and if this results from an appropriation of the world that is truly mine, then in some sense I must be free. I must be free, to choose this over that, to transcend my situatedness, to resist my urges and veto my instincts. What can these two phenomenologists disclose about the role of human freedom in the experience and expression of human identity? Interestingly, Sartre offers a test-case by which to understand his existential observations, a test-case which receives a phenomenological response from Merleau-Ponty.

Reality is about choice

Reality is about choice

For Sartre a situation gains significance in the light of freedom’s purposive unfettered choice whereas for Merleau-Ponty the choice gains significance from the purposive recursivity one has with one’s situation; for the former the situation is revealed in the choosing, as by implication is one’s identity, for the latter the choosing is revealed in situatedness and therefore identity is revealed in one’s situated choosing.

Thus for Sartre, when the situation is measured for its fit against one’s freely projected existential goals, the situation is found to be wanting or promising. Its motivational character for an agent is derived from this measure of suitability. The motivations that engender actions therefore are firstly an agent’s free intentions and then the specific features of the situation understood as significant to them. Sartre acknowledges a reciprocity at work between one’s free intentionality and one’s situation; ‘Human-reality everywhere encounters resistance and obstacles which it has not created, but these resistances and obstacles have meaning only in and through the free choice which human-reality is’.[3]

reality is about situated choice

reality is about situated choice

For Merleau-Ponty this is unconvincing. Existential goals alone do not grant significance to the specific features of life’s situations for prior to this conscious meaning-making one is already always engaged with the world. Our freedom does not disregard but rather ‘gears’ itself to the specifics of any situation. This adaptation is consequently derivative of the situation and the means by which our motivated actions arise. Human freedom is contingent then upon one’s life situations and its expressive parameters are circumscribed by them. In a purposive sense motives are prompted by the situation even if they are not to be construed as the efficient causes of our actions;[4] these motivations are intentionally significant internal prompts.

Situated choice is indicative of embeddedness.

Situated choice is indicative of embeddedness.


[1] Compton ibid

[2] ibid

[3] Sartre, J. P. Being and Nothingness, 489, in Compton

[4] Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 50, in Compton

[1] Compton, J. J.  Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, and Human Freedom, in The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 79, No. 10, Seventy-Ninth Annual Meeting of the American Philosophical Association Eastern Division (Oct., 1982), 577

[2] Compton, J. J.  ibid

[3] Compton, 578


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