Alienation and Freedom in Marx and McDowell

One way of taking Kant’s legacy in practical philosophy, and one which I favour, is as motivating the thought that responsiveness to reasons is a good gloss on the greater part of what freedom consists in. Part of what I find atractive about McDowell’s position is that it manages to bring this idea together with a story about experience as the locus of many such reasons, yet without falling into a dead-end version of empiricism. As it stands though, it can seem like a rather thin characterisation of freedom which is divorced from our embodied existence. After all, we are not just reasoners who passively observe the world, deciding what would be best to believe or do: we act in the world. So too, the material conditions we find ourselves in can prove to be a check on our freedom. One of the advantages of McDowell’s conception of experience is that its trajectory points in the direction of these issues. It does not simply relegate them to disparate senses of ‘freedom’ confined to the theory of action, morality or political philosophy. Rather, it provides a promising basis for a schematic integration of freedom across these domains and which explains their relation to the freedom allowed by our relation to experience.

We can see how the freedom secured by a rational responsiveness to experience opens out into a more robust sense of freedom by considering McDowell’s discussion of Marx:

Marx sums up his vision of what a properly human life would be in a striking image: without alienation, ‘the whole of nature’ is ‘the inorganic body of man.’ (MW p.117)

McDowell takes this to express the idea that when she is permitted to perform her human functions—something wage slavery prevents—then a person can be said to be at home in the world. This is a possibility that is closed off for animals, who remain alienated from their environments in virtue of their inability to resist the biological imperatives to which they are subject and to achieve what Gadamer calls a ‘free, distanced orientation’ towards their surroundings. Human experience is characterised by its ability to exert rational constraint, whereas animal perceptual responsiveness remains at the level of a causal response that, while purposive, does not allow the animal to respond to reasons that could be taken as such or become reflectively available to it. So, experience can be a condition of freedom since “experience enables the layout of reality itself to exert a rational influence on what a subject thinks.” In the same way, we can indict politico-economic conditions that force people to give up a free, distanced relation to the environment and respond to it as animals do in virtue of biological necessity. As Marx describes such a condition:

Man (the worker) only feels himself freely active in his animal functions of eating, drinking, and procreating, at most also in his dwelling and dress, and feels himself an animal in his human functions.

Thus, it appears that a unified account of freedom can be given that connects the sort of freedom derivable from experience enabling a rational response to reality with the sort of freedom that consists in the material ability to engage in rationally directed activities rather than ones which biological necessity forces us into in light of social conditions.