Freedom's Embrace

By (author) J. Melvin Woody

Paperback - £28.95

Publication date:

15 April 1998

Length of book:

336 pages


Penn State University Press

ISBN-13: 9780271030319

To be free is to escape all limitations and obstacles—or so we think at first. But if we probe further, we discover that freedom embraces its own necessities, a set of conditions without which it could not exist. Freedom's Embrace explores these necessities of freedom.

J. Melvin Woody surveys competing conceptions of freedom and traces debates about the nature and reality of freedom to confusions about knowledge, humanity, and nature that are rooted in some of the most fundamental assumptions of modern Western thought. The preemption of freedom as an exclusively human privilege with all nature relegated to mechanical necessity is a fatal error that renders both humanity and nature equally unintelligible. What distinguishes human beings from other animals is not freedom but the use of symbols, which vastly extends the range of available options and enables us to envision freedom as an ideal by which customary institutions and norms may be judged and transformed.

By carefully surveying its necessary conditions and limitations, Woody reconciles the salient competing conceptions of freedom and weaves them together into a richer and broader theory that resolves old controversies and opens the way toward an ethics of freedom that can meet the challenges of relativism and nihilism that arise from recognizing the historicity and malleability of culture.

“The plotline of this book is to ask why we have so badly understood freedom and why there are such disagreements about it. Two themes introduced early are shaped and reshaped throughout. The first is the opposition between freedom of choice and determinism. Woody develops very subtly a critical discussion of causation in nature, in organic conceptions of human and environmental life, and in embodiment or acting through the body. The second is the innocent notion that freedom is ‘doing what I please.’ Woody affirms the tradition that freedom is to be understood only when we have a theory of the self, and most of the book can be read as a treatise on what the self must be in order to be free, and how its pretensions and limitations, both practical and theoretical, are boundaries.”

—Robert Neville, Boston University