Freedom as Self-Donation
In this dissertation, I critically evaluate the contributions of Dietrich von Hildebrand (1889-1977) to the relatively neglected topic of the phenomenology of freedom. We can have, I argue, an experience of a “bias” of freedom in favor of the morally good: willing what is morally good renders one freer, and willing against what is morally good renders one less free. Attempts to reconcile freedom and morality have often identified freedom with autonomy, most famously in Immanuel Kant, or even rendered freedom determined by the morally good, as in Socratic intellectualism and in Scheler. These attempts neglect what Hildebrand finds to be the central feature of the will and freedom: the free self-donation (Hingabe) of the person, the will’s fiat (let it be); which is the key to the reconciliation of freedom and morality. The height of freedom, I argue, is embodied particularly in our freedom to sanction and disavow value-responses (Wertantworten) of the heart (esp. affective love), which Hildebrand calls “cooperative freedom” (mitwirkende Freiheit). In order to give ourselves to what has value, what has value must first be given to us. In Chapter One, I show that doing justice to this givenness requires, for Hildebrand, holding the radically realist epistemological claim that consciousness is directly receptive to being. Receptivity is prior to any activity on the part of the person; it comes before freedom. Chapter Two explores how things are given as having “importance” (Bedeutsamkeit) and “value” (Wert). Values issue a call (Fordern, “demand”) to give a proper response (Antwort). Chapter Two also outlines Hildebrand’s conception of phenomenology as involving “reverence” (Ehrfurcht). Reverence is openness to value’s word (Wort) and call to give that response. Reverence is defined as freely allowing oneself to be formed by the “laws” of values, and it is essential to freedom. Chapter Three argues that freedom’s most fundamental aspect is defined as “self-donation” (Hingabe), encapsulated in the fiat of the will. Building on William James and Edmund Husserl, Hildebrand expands the phenomenological account of willing as giving the person’s fiat to being moved by potential motives according to their objective importance, in what amounts to an act of giving oneself (Hingabe) in one’s free response. It is this notion of self-donation that enables Hildebrand to secure the independence of the will from affectivity (in contrast to Scheler) and from the mind (in contrast to James and Husserl). Yet this independence rests upon a dependence on values being given for the will to will. Reversing Kant and aligning more with Emmanuel Levinas, Hildebrand finds reverent “heteronomy,” not just autonomy, to be the foundation of the independence of the will and “invests” it with meaning and purpose. Chapter Four explores Hildebrand’s notion of cooperative freedom to sanction or disavow experiences according to their value. For Hildebrand, the sanction can only be actualized in accord with a “general will to be morally good,” or else it is an arbitrary pseudo-sanction. Unlike our freedom to do actions, cooperative freedom is a freedom that can only be fully actualized as a moral freedom. Hildebrand claims cooperative freedom does not pertain to the will, but to a separate “free personal center” (freies Personzentrum), because he associates the will with action. I will argue, nonetheless, that every fiat of the will includes what I term the “cooperative moment” of freedom, so that only a morally good fiat is fully actualized as a fiat. Chapter Five defines this general will to be morally good. It is a will composed of fundamental moral attitudes, particularly reverence for the hierarchy of values, that are the core of the virtues. In this concept of the general will, Hildebrand unites a Kantian concern for willing what is good-in-itself with Scheler’s concern for willing higher values over lower values. In so doing he comes to a unique synthesis of Kantian ethics, virtue ethics, and value-ethics in his conception of good will, which all rest on the concept of self-donation. Chapter Six argues that any ethics that is based on what is good-in-itself necessarily, if it recognizes the unique preciousness of the person, becomes a love ethics, for love is the fullest and most proper response to the value of the person. Without recognizing this connection of ethics to love, one almost inevitably misses the connection between morality and happiness. In that case a morality based on the good-in-itself ends up appearing somewhat depersonalizing and burdensome. Just as it is legitimate to pursue one’s own happiness in love by making the beloved the condition of one’s happiness, so too with morality it is legitimate to pursue the happiness that only being moral can bring. So it is in the person who has a quality of loving goodness (Güte) for all where we experience the height of personal freedom as moral freedom. From a phenomenological analysis of this person, I derive four ways moral value enhances freedom: 1) it recollects the person to his or her deepest subjectivity (Eigenleben, “own life”), 2) it “supports” the will and prevents it from being arbitrary, 3) the happiness being moral can bring “nourishes” freedom by giving it energy and strength, and, finally, 4) the happiness being moral brings “intensifies” good activities, i.e., it makes the person readier to do them in the future. Chapter Seven argues that while one is free to reject value in favor of what Hildebrand calls the merely subjectively satisfying, doing so subverts freedom itself into prideful self-enclosure. It also annuls freedom in that it enslaves one to one’s desires. In contrast to Kant, this identification of freedom with moral freedom is not because freedom is the autonomy of following a law given in pure practical reason, but rather it is the reverent acceptance (fiat) of the “heteronomy” the word and law of values impose on us.