Sigmund Freud

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How do Mill and Freud differ in their views on the meaning of freedom?

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Mill's definition of freedom is that of a classical liberal. For him, freedom meant a lack of external coercion. In short, freedom for Mill is the ability to do what one wanted to do, to live one's life without external coercion. Where things get complicated for Mill is when one...

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Mill's definition of freedom is that of a classical liberal. For him, freedom meant a lack of external coercion. In short, freedom for Mill is the ability to do what one wanted to do, to live one's life without external coercion. Where things get complicated for Mill is when one considers that "external" coercion didn't just refer to government, but to society. This was what prompted his great work On Liberty: he worried that, in a democratic society, the "tyranny of the majority," as another thinker put it, might be as inimical to freedom as the state.

Unlike Mill, Freud was not a political philosopher. He was concerned with the inner workings of human consciousness. Freud conceptualized the human mind as divided between the id (animal instincts), superego (one's sense of right and wrong), and ego (one's understanding of reality). For Freud, freedom was the healthy resolution of conflicts between the different parts of human consciousness at various stages of development. Mental illness, as Freud understood it, was the failure to resolve these conflicts--the opposite of freedom.

In short, the fundamental difference between Mill and Freud was that Mill imagined freedom in terms of people's relationships with external factors, where Freud thought freedom was the successful resolution of conflicts within the human psyche.

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I think that both thinkers differ in their conception of freedom in what they view as the motivations for freedom.  For Mill, there is a belief that if individuals can remain free of coercion from social or political entities, the full realization of freedom will be evident.  In On Liberty, Mill argues that freedom from this compulsion is where freedom's meaning lies.  Mill believes that the individual exacting of their own notion of the good to ensure that their exercise of freedom does not come into conflict with that of another is where freedom's promise is most realized.  For Mill, there is a rationality and reason-ability that is evident in what it means to be human.  This is undercut by Freud, who believes the psychological motivation is what drives all human beings.  In Freud's thinking, the idea of what it means to be human is a distinction that underlies the very nature of consciousness.  Human beings are seen by Freud as acting on freedom, but being motivated by psychological forces.  This means, that we, as human beings, are driven by subterranean impulses that compel us to do one thing over another.  In some respects, the coercion of which Mill speaks is not external in Freud's understanding, but rather internal.  In this sense, Freud and Mill differ in that both understand human beings motivations as fundamentally different, and in doing so, their view of freedom becomes different.

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