Freedom of the Mind

In The Public and Its Problems, philosopher John Dewey describes:

The notion that men may be free in their thought even when they are not in expression and dissemination has been sedulously propagated. It had its origin in the idea of a mind complete in itself, apart from action and from objects. Such a consciousness presents in fact the spectacle of a mind deprived of its normal functioning, because it is baffled by the actualities in connection with which alone it is truly mind, and is driven back into secluded and impotent revery.

This is, perhaps, more simply put by Langston Hughes: freedom ain’t freedom when a man ain’t free.

That may sound like mere tautology, but the point is more subtle. In Dewey’s thinking, there is no difference between perception and reality. There is no shadow – as T.S. Elliot would say –  between the idea and the reality, between the motion and the act.

To envision a “mind complete in itself, apart from action and from objects” is to distort reality. It is a hypothetical so far from reality as to be hardly worth entertaining.

This is not how I am used to thinking.

Can men be free in their thought even when they are not in expression?

I think of John Steinbeck’s The Moon is Down – an allegory for the Nazi occupation of Norway. Steinbeck describes how the townspeople – discovering themselves conquered – fight back strongly but subtly. It’s as if a call went through the town: resist. Resist today. Resist tomorrow. Resist. Resist. Resist.

There is power in that final freedom of thought. They are surrounded and outgunned, but their thoughts keep them free. And they resist.

Of course, this may make Dewey’s point for him – the townspeople don’t only resist in thought. They are beaten back that far – their actions and their words are taken from them. But once they decide to resist, once they realize the freedoms they’ve surrendered, they use their remaining freedom – freedom of thought – as a rallying point to fight back, to act.

The power of a mind free in thought even when not in expression speaks to me. The power of a people who will not be broken, who have lost everything but will give up nothing, who will proudly look their captors in the eye and dare them to strike, people who break the rules by following the rules.

But then, again, The Moon is Down is fiction.

John Gaventa considers a dangerous and common “third dimension” of power. “A sense of powerlessness may manifest itself as extensive fatalism, self-depreciation, or undue apathy about one’s situation,” he writes. “The sense of powerlessness may also lead to a greater susceptibility to the internalization of the values, beliefs, or rules of the game of the powerful as a further adaptive response.”

Such a consciousness presents in fact the spectacle of a mind deprived of its normal functioning.

Freedom ain’t freedom when a man ain’t free.

Perhaps Dewey is right. Perhaps we tell ourselves romanticized stories of resistance, of freedom of the mind, so that we can rest easy at night. Assured that we are free, that we still hold power.

Perhaps we are wrong to consider a mind apart from action and from objects. We are our minds, and our minds are us. Our actions shape our thoughts and our thoughts shape our actions. There  is no differentiation. No shadow between the conception and the creation, between the emotion and the response.

Perhaps we’ve been fooling ourselves all along, the spectacle of a mind deprived.


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