Gender, Class, and Freedom in Modern Political Theory

Gender, Class, and Freedom in Modern Political Theory

by Nancy J. Hirschmann
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Princeton University Press


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Gender, Class, and Freedom in Modern Political Theory

In Gender, Class, and Freedom in Modern Political Theory, Nancy Hirschmann demonstrates not merely that modern theories of freedom are susceptible to gender and class analysis but that they must be analyzed in terms of gender and class in order to be understood at all. Through rigorous close readings of major and minor works of Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, and Mill, Hirschmann establishes and examines the gender and class foundations of the modern understanding of freedom. Building on a social constructivist model of freedom that she developed in her award-winning book The Subject of Liberty: Toward a Feminist Theory of Freedom, she makes in her new book another original and important contribution to political and feminist theory.

Despite the prominence of "state of nature" ideas in modern political theory, Hirschmann argues, theories of freedom actually advance a social constructivist understanding of humanity. By rereading "human nature" in light of this insight, Hirschmann uncovers theories of freedom that are both more historically accurate and more relevant to contemporary politics. Pigeonholing canonical theorists as proponents of either "positive" or "negative" liberty is historically inaccurate, she demonstrates, because theorists deploy both conceptions of freedom simultaneously throughout their work.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691129891
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 11/12/2007
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.00(d)

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Gender, Class, and Freedom in Modern Political Theory

By Nancy J. Hirschmann Princeton University Press
Copyright © 2007
Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-12989-1

Introduction Gender, Class, and Freedom in Modern Political Theory

THE PURPOSE OF THIS BOOK is to examine the concept of freedom in five key canonical figures: Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, and Mill. The importance of the concept of freedom is, I assume, self-evident to readers of this book: it is clearly a, if not the, key concept of the modern canon. Defining "the canon" of modern political theory in terms of these five figures, rather than Hume, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, or any number of other figures, is justified because of their centrality to at least the West's understanding of freedom, and particularly to Western political theory arguments about freedom; they are all key figures in modern liberalism, which is arguably the ideology that has been responsible for translating the political theory ideal of freedom into the common collective consciousness of the modern West. For Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, the "natural freedom" of the state of nature posited by each theorist has had profound effects on how we understand, think about, and talk about freedom in the West today. Mill made vital contributions to this understanding in his famous defense of individual liberty of conscience and speech, and his articulation of the notion of a zone of privacy into which the state may not intrude. Kant, perhapsbetter known as a moral philosopher who posited the "categorical imperative," also defended liberal freedoms such as freedom of speech in his political writings and is associated by many scholars with social contract theory and the liberal tradition. As the ensuing chapters will demonstrate, I do not always agree with these dominant readings, but these readings make the selection of these five theorists obvious and central for anyone writing on freedom.

In one sense, then, this book is a very traditional work of political theory: it selects some major canonical figures, examines their texts, analyzes their arguments, and develops an account of freedom out of that. But it is not traditional in the three related themes that I use to guide my reading of the texts: Isaiah Berlin's typology of negative and positive liberty in its historical, rather than analytic, dimensions; the idea of social construction; and the place of gender and class in the concept of freedom. At first glance, the first and third might not seem that untraditional: but instead of justifying those themes here in summary fashion, I will break down my introduction to this book along the lines of those three themes, to present the reader with a picture of how I see the argument unfolding, and why I believe that this argument poses a challenge to the mainstream to take up a set of issues and questions that it has tended to resist.


By taking up the "historical, rather than analytic dimensions" of Berlin's typology, I mean to argue that Berlin's typology is historically inaccurate as an account of the canonical theorists, though it is conceptually important to understanding what those theorists argue. That distinction may be too subtle, even confusing, for some, but it is important. In his famous essay "Two Concepts of Liberty," Berlin argued that negative liberty embodied the Western liberal notion of doing what I want without interference from others. It defined the free individual as a desire-generating and -expressing being who was able to act on those desires without being prevented by other individuals, groups, or institutions. Not only was desire individual, but it was not a matter for discussion: I want what I want. The issue for freedom evaluators is to determine whether anybody or anything is trying to prevent me from pursuing that desire. Freedom is thus defined as an absence of external barriers to doing what I want. "By being free in this sense I mean not being interfered with by others. The wider the area of non-interference, the wider my freedom." For negative liberty, "frustrating my wishes" is the delimiting factor of freedom. The classic statement of negative liberty is often associated with Hobbes: "By liberty, is understood, according to the proper signification of the word, the absence of external impediments: which impediments, may oft take away part of man's power to do what he would." And indeed, Berlin cites Hobbes and other "classical English political philosophers" such as Mill, Bentham, and Locke as the key proponents of this view.

By contrast, positive liberty referred to the idea that freedom is not consistent with pursuing bad or wrong desires, but only true desires; and it allowed for various ways in which others, and particularly states, could "second-guess" individuals' desires and decide which desires were consistent with their true ends. It thus allowed for "internal barriers," which might prevent me from pursuing those true desires, or perhaps from even understanding what they were. This sets positive and negative liberty apart from the very start. A key element of negative liberty was to presuppose ability; that is, if I am unable to do something, such as "jump ten feet into the air," then I cannot be said to be unfree to do it; nobody or nothing is preventing me. The limitation is internal to me; I am unable, not unfree. By contrast, positive liberty allowed for the provision of enabling conditions to help me realize my true desires, such as wheelchair ramps that will allow me to attend classes and obtain a university degree. In this, ironically, the internal/external divide is turned on its head, because negative liberty holds that all abilities must be contained within me, whereas positive liberty allows that abilities can come from external sources. But this adheres to the competing notions of the individual that the two models operate from: the radical individualism of negative liberty holds that abilities and desires-the source of free will-are internal to the self, and come only from the self; external factors are what pose potential barriers to the free self. The social or communitarian self of positive liberty holds that abilities and desires are themselves social, that external factors can help maximize freedom, and that the inner forces of desire and will are grounds of struggle, potentially threatening to liberty. Berlin identifies Kant, Rousseau, Hegel, Marx, and T. H. Green as key figures of positive liberty.

These models may seem to present an extreme dichotomy, which should give us pause. For Berlin himself, in several places in his essay, suggests this is not his intention. For instance, he talks of the positive and negative "senses" of liberty, rather than "models." He explicitly states that he is not posing them as a dichotomy, and even criticizes those who have made the typology appear dichotomous. He recognizes that each of the two concepts is problematic, and "liable to perversion into the very vice which it was created to resist." In fact, he goes so far as to say that his only point is to show that they are "not the same thing."

But at the same time, he notes that the ends of the two "may clash irreconcilably." The political context in which Berlin articulated these concepts, namely the Cold War, motivated him to champion negative liberty and show positive liberty in the worst light possible; practically speaking, positive liberty was the current danger. "Hence the greater need, it seems to me, to expose the aberrations of positive liberty than those of its negative brother," and particularly "its historic role (in both capitalist and anti-capitalist societies) as a cloak for despotism in the name of a wider freedom" was a matter of practical contingency. But the result was to dichotomize the two "senses" of freedom into, as the famous essay is titled, "two concepts of liberty."

Berlin's initial characterization of the two concepts demonstrates this superficial gloss of the two as related while masking an underlying dualism. He claims that the two concepts of liberty are structured by two questions, answers to which "overlap"; namely, "What is the area within which the subject-a person or a group of persons-is or should be left to do or be what he is able to do or be, without interference from other persons?" versus "What, or who, is the source of control or interference that can determine someone to do, or be, this rather than that?" But of course the second question is already skewed toward a narrow construal of positive liberty as authoritarianism and obscures many other important features that the ideal of positive liberty includes, such as enabling conditions or conflicts among my desires. If he had posed a different question as emblematic of positive liberty-such as "How do I know that what I want is really what I want, how can I figure that out, and can others help me?" or perhaps "How can my abilities be enhanced to enable me to do or be other kinds of things?" or "What is the role of relationship and community in understanding and creating my 'self' that has the desires it has?"-the ensuing discourse in political philosophy might have unfolded differently. These questions not only are less biased toward a predetermined judgment about the value of positive liberty, but also much more accurately capture the arguments of the theorists, such as Rousseau, Kant, Comte, and Green, whom Berlin classifies as positive liberty's champions.

In other words, Berlin's account of positive liberty is inadequate, if not inaccurate and unfair. He posits positive liberty as a caricature, in which all my wants have to be reconciled into some sort of master plan: "a correctly planned life for all," which will produce "full freedom-the freedom of rational self-direction-for all." This then requires that one's plan follow "the one unique pattern which alone fits the claims of reason"; and he condemns what he considers this "slaughter of individuals on the altars of the great historical ideals," which is done in "the belief ... that there is a final solution." But while that may be a fair account of what was happening in the Soviet bloc when he wrote the essay, that is not what positive liberty theory actually requires, if one attends to the arguments offered by Rousseau, Kant, Marx, and the other theorists Berlin cites as proponents of positive liberty. Thus, while chastizing critics who accuse him of setting up a dichotomy, Berlin himself uses dichotomous language throughout the essay to characterize what he considered "opposite poles." Berlin clearly uses political theory to shadow contemporary issues, aligning negative liberty with liberal democracies and positive liberty with the totalitarian states of the communist Soviet regime.

But the typology that he developed had a profound transhistorical influence on political philosophies of freedom that emerged in the second half of the twentieth century, and even those who have rejected it find themselves unable to shake loose of its influence. I maintain that this is because they have grabbed the wrong end of the stick in identifying the weaknesses of Berlin's argument, ignoring its contributions to philosophical and everyday understandings of the concept. To be specific, the primary attacks on Berlin's typology by contemporary theorists have generally been made in terms of the analytic content and logic of the typology. Gerald MacCallum's is the best known, arguing that every incident of freedom contains a tripartite relationship between an agent, a desire (including desired actions and conditions), and conditions that restrain: "[F]reedom is thus always of something (an agent or agents), from something, to do, not do, become, or not become something." According to MacCallum, negative and positive liberty theorists are really each only talking about "one part of what is always present in any case of freedom." The crux of the debate between the two is not actually freedom per se according to him, but rather other kinds of values that they believe are important to political society and social relations. Freedom can be defined along the lines of these various values, but that does not alter the meaning of freedom as a triadic relation between agents, desires, and constraints.

As John Gray suggests, however, MacCallum's formula is from the start biased in favor of negative liberty; for instance, he includes "preventing conditions" in his triad, but not "enabling" ones. Furthermore, the role that "rationality" plays in his argument similarly presupposes a negative liberty framework. But I think that the real trouble with MacCallum is that his dismissive claim that "every freedom from is also a freedom to" demonstrates a superficial grasp of Berlin's argument and misses the true strength of the typology. Berlin's categorization of freedom into these two camps reveals a tension between two aspects of freedom, but not the aspects that MacCallum suggests.

Specifically, it is a tension between the outer dimensions of freedom and the inner dimensions. By outer dimension I mean forces, institutions, and people who prevent me from doing what I want, as negative liberty maintains, as well as those who help me achieve the ability to do what I want, as positive liberty includes. By internal dimensions, I mean desire (including aversions as well as appetites), will, subjectivity, and identity, which can be a source of freedom or frustrating to it. These internal aspects of freedom are generally ignored, or at least taken for granted, by negative liberty: I want what I want when I want it, it does not really matter why I want it. Desire is the limiting condition of freedom, but it is not appropriately a matter for freedom evaluation; as Hobbes put it, "one can, in truth, be free to act; one cannot, however, be free to desire." Positive liberty, by contrast, is quite concerned with these aspects, for why I want something is an important part of determining whether a desire is "true" or "false." Hence Charles Taylor argues that we must "discriminate among motivations" and that obstacles to doing what we want "can be internal as well as external." But positive liberty sometimes errs on the other side, as Berlin suggested, assuming that we can definitively declare what a true desire is, and whether the agent is expressing it. The individual can be "second-guessed," as Taylor put it. This second-guessing leads critics like Berlin to worry that positive liberty has "totalitarian" implications; the state can require citizens to act against their apparent interests in favor of their "true" interests, but such "true" interests often reflect the selfish interests of state leaders. The pinnacle of such duplicity is seen to lie in Rousseau's comment that citizens can be "forced to be free."

The concepts of negative and positive liberty that Berlin originally developed display some variety from theorist to theorist, but I maintain that this division between external and internal factors is a key difference between them. Even the commonly repeated, if superficial and reductive, claim that negative freedom is "freedom from" whereas positive liberty is "freedom to" captures this notion: the former implies an absence or removal of external obstacles, whereas the latter implies enabling conditions to enhance achievement. But in the process of articulating these various internal and external aspects of freedom, the typology is also conceptually and politically useful in the differing models it suggests of what it means to be a human being, even if Berlin himself did not acknowledge this. Or more accurately, although Berlin sees that the conception of the self, and hence of desire, is important to the typology, the models of the self he posits are straw men. Focusing on positive liberty's notion of "higher" and "lower" desires, with the former's ability to control the latter as key to freedom, Berlin maintains that "the divided self" is the starting point for positive liberty, the state being necessary to "unify" these selves by saving themselves from false desires. By contrast, negative liberty operates from a notion of the self as unified from the start, and accepts the conscious self as the final determiner of choice. Freedom may be measured by how many options are available to me, but nobody can force me to choose an option and still claim that I am free.


Excerpted from Gender, Class, and Freedom in Modern Political Theory by Nancy J. Hirschmann
Copyright © 2007 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

INTRODUCTION: Gender, Class, and Freedom in Modern Political Theory 1

Negative and Positive Liberty in the Western Canon 2

The Social Construction of Freedom 13

The Gender Politics of Freedom 21

CHAPTER ONE: Thomas Hobbes: Desire and Rationality 29

The Will to Freedom 30

Freedom and Obligation: From Choice to Contract 35

Warrior Women, Invisible Wives 44

Natural Freedom, Civil Contract 49

The Social Construction of Freedom 63

The Containment of Difference 70

Conclusion 77

CHAPTER TWO: John Locke: Freedom, Reason, and the Education of Citizen-Subjects 79

The Role of Reason 80

Nature versus Nurture: The Role of Education 87

The Gendered Property of Freedom 91

Consent, Choice, and a Two-Tiered Conception of Freedom 99

The Construction of Individuality, the Discipline of Freedom 106

Conclusion 115

CHAPTER THREE: Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Force, Freedom, and Family 118

Rousseau's Three Kinds of Freedom 119

Politics and the Will 125

Education, Will, and the Social Construction of Citizens 133

Gender, Education, and Virtue 138

Julie, or The Woman as Model Citizen 152

Gender, Passion, and Politics 161

Conclusion 166

CHAPTER FOUR: Immanuel Kant: The Inner World of Freedom 168

Transcendence and Phenomena 169

Ethics and Politics 178

Class, Education, and Social Construction 188

Sexual Constructions 195

Conclusion 207

CHAPTER FIVE: John Stuart Mill: Utility, Democracy, Equality 213

The "Two Mills" 216

Internal and External Realms 223

The Will to Utility 229

Democracy, Class, and Gender 238

The Class of Education 249

Politics, Participation, and Power 260

Conclusion 266

CONCLUSION: Rethinking Freedom in the Canon 274

Freedom in Its Two Forms 274

Gender, Class, and Berlin's Typology 281

The Social Construction of Freedom 287

Notes 291

References 317

Index 331

What People are Saying About This

Marion Smiley

This book is bound to have a wide audience among both political theorists and feminists. One of its strengths is its analysis of the way in which the theories of freedom of Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, and Mill are gendered. Hirschmann argues pointedly with other feminist interpretations of these theories and she provides an unusually sophisticated feminist analysis of the canon.
Marion Smiley, Brandeis University

Brooke Ackerly

This is a great book. Hirschmann's thorough discussion of freedom—though based on a close reading of only five theorists—will, in my opinion, change how we think about freedom. Hirschmann also demonstrates why all good political theory needs to be feminist—not ideologically, but methodologically feminist. Historians of political thought and theorists of freedom and feminism will find much to challenge and provoke their thinking.
Brooke Ackerly, Vanderbilt University

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