To be able to express some thing is to be unable to express others. To be able to do some thing is to be unable to do others. True omnipotence is an incoherent concept.

Moreover, the things I am able or unable to accomplish are themselves a function of my ability to discern and express—my ability to notice difference and represent difference. This enabling is to be expected. Language—as our representation system, our communication system, with its evocative figurative relations, accumulated reputational baggages, and system of lumpings versus splittings—underlies an enormous swathe of our reasoning and by extension our acting, particularly our acting-together-in-the-world. An implicit theory lurks behind each carving and resonance.

Concepts, scaffolded by language, are our meta-heuristics, the parts and piers which our tactics our built from, linking and bridging, assembled into structure from relation. They are the lines by which our rules are applied or disregarded; they are the specifications which help guide and focus our intuitive observations, predictions, and interpretations. Our treaties and contracts, at every level of agreement, are written in them. Our modern world is enabled by their presence. Just as it is equally true that so many other forms of treaty and contract—so many other “modern worlds”—are precluded. 

There is no reason to be extreme with our structuralism, no need to take a side in the subjectivism vs. objectivism wars, no need to assign man the simple role of “judgmental dope.” We can acknowledge that, even as we inherit our ontologies, we also bend and exert pressure on their constituent parts. Not just in the micro and in the moment, when speaking, but in which linguistic-ontological orders we choose to communicate and ingratiate ourselves with. Every choice of affiliation and allegiance is also an ontological choice, a linguistic choice.

It also appears to be the case that people possess a “gut” intuition which, when it is well-trained, can be more subtle and sophisticated, with more precise abilities to differentiate, than the individual in question’s verbal capacities ostensibly allow for. There is no reason to deny the very active possibility that our non-verbal cognition may resemble a neural network’s gradient descent , tethered to language only insofar as it must continually justify itself to, and work within the justifications produced by, our verbal consciousness.

But these are only objections if you have misread me as an objectivist, or radical social constructivist, rather than as simply stressing and re-articulating the importance of linguistic affordances to our thinking, reasoning, and acting, especially our acting together. It seems either fruitless or exhausting to attempt to specify “how” important, and I will abstain from trying. Words are to the non-math realms of our world what numbers are to the math.


It is unfortunate, then, that words are (perhaps hopelessly) political. That their histories are gerrymandered, not only on the bloody fields of capital-P Politics, but in the trenches of the everyday: the lowercase politics of conflicting and misaligned desires, of different contexts and purposes and needs. How could words not be the center of a chasmic conflict, our Helen at the heart of Troy? The frameworks from which words emerge—be they vocabularies, ideologies, philosophies—are hopelessly “biased” as are their users, as are their tools (those constituent concepts & their patterns of use and co-use). There is no “unbiased” framework or philosophy or worldview. The concept of bias is presently incoherent, evidenced not least of all by the fact that macro- and micro-debiasing cannot (it is mathematically shown) both be optimized for, i.e. any system of assessment which is “unbiased” at the populational is necessarily biased at the individual level. Nor has present discourse decided whether “bias” refers to intuitions being statistically erroneous, or politically problematic. Such incoherences and ambiguities are to be expected, “bias” being a concept which has suffered more implicit gerrymanders than most.

Being good global citizens, hoping to mitigate the “bias” of any single perspective, we might strive towards flexibility, opting to toggle, aspirationally fluidly, between our inherited frameworks. But despite much tinkering and propagandizing by the literary avant-garde, it appears that a person may only hold a single framework in his head at a time. The only path to transcending this barrier is the same as it’s always been: synthesis and reconciliation. Figuratively, diplomacy, or bridge-building, predicated as it is on literal and spiritual translation. (“Spirit” as opposed to “letter.”) This synthesis likely begins as pidgin, transitions to creole, and if given time, will form a proper language.

More often, however, we wage wars to impose frameworks (ontologies, languages) on others. Not just human others, but machines and animals—all agents which we interact and coordinate with, shaping ontologies implicitly (by shaping habitat) or explicitly (through programming and peer pressure). These ongoing wars play out over values and carvings and structural relations, over connotations and reputations and proper attitudes (styles, orientations, ways of being toward).

The Crusader spirit often takes the form of religion, or claims the mandate of “progress” and the mantle of liberating democrat. The old way is found primitive, barbaric, and anti-human—in addition to those shortcomings which go without saying. (Inaccuracy. Blasphemy. Superstition. Heartlessness.) Each missionary conceives of himself, in that public relations-tinged consciousness of speech and mind, as gift-giver. Each, as “goes without saying,” is equally a plunderer. And the first cost of every exchange is disruption: occasionally for better, occasionally for worse, but we could not say, could we; the whole value system and ontology has been swapped; the new order succeeds in the terms of the new order, just as the old order succeeded in its own terms. Such circularity “goes without saying.”

What ought to, but perhaps does not, go without saying, is that contention which opens this piece, which I might summarize as follows. Frameworks (be they languages, ontologies, systems of law) increase their subjects’ positive liberty even as they decrease those subjects’ negative liberty. To view a boundary line as purely limiting—as much of contemporary anti-establishment discourse implicitly does—is a sorely impoverished vision of boundaries, which are just as much enabling as they are limiting. Any capacity we might possess is unlocked only by virtue of some binding or constraint.

Constraint and empowerment are simultaneous, coterminous phenomena—in the most simple, least important sense because all power is by definition limited. (In other words, because trade-offs are inevitable, and because efficacy is a quality of relation between a problem domain and its solution—not something which exists “globally,” outside of context.) More crucially, certain actions and stances, behaviors and position-takings—optimizations, roughly—are mutually contradictory or incoherent, or just plain mutually expensive. There is interlock between systems of heuristics, both within and between systems of acting and thinking and talking and being. Choice of framework is also a choice between equilibria—between ecological structures, between distributions of game states and strategies and functional outputs, between the costs and the benefits and the plausibilities of play. In a word, again—optimization. Nested order, forever recurring. We must think of constraint and empowerment not as opposing phenomena, but as the same phenomenon described from different positions.


“Freedom,” then, must be a confused concept, if any force which empowers us also constrains. This confusion should not be surprising, given the evolutionary pressures which shaped the concept, and gave rise to its use are (like bias) so deeply Political (and political). To announce an act as an act of freedom, in a society and political system premised on the very concept, is very nearly to proclaim it as “good” or “just.” Acts and desires conceptualized as manifestations of “freedom” or “free choice” are quite difficult to challenge—although religious and communalist discourses have, over the centuries, evolved methods for doing so. Part of the socialist response, of course, has been merely to invert the typical criteria of “free.” Thus a “freedom” to speak has been matched by a “freedom” from verbal abuse and figurative violence. The freedom to bear arms has been matched by the freedom of children to safely attend schools, and a freedom for parents not to worry. The freedom to abstain from mask-wearing or vaccination, amidst a pandemic, is countered by a freedom to enter public space without risk of infection. The appeal to liberty, and the positive connotations of liberty, remain. Only the way that liberty has been conceptualized is altered.

The philosophical basis for this reconceptualization is, of course, Isaiah Berlin’s work. It may or may not be important that many who implicitly advance positive visions of freedom are ignorant of Berlin’s name and the distinction he draws.[1]

Berlin acknowledges the porousness of that term, freedom, as well as its historical near-synonymy with goodness. Berlin’s intervention is to divide freedom (or “liberty”; I will use them interchangeably, for simplicity’s sake, as Berlin does) into two kinds or “concepts”—a positive liberty, and a negative liberty. The negative liberty Berlin associated with Enlightenment and classical liberalism: freedom from coercion and impingement. “What is the area within which the subject—a person or group of persons—is or should be left to do or be what he is able to do or be, without interference by other persons?” The positive concept, in contrast, asks “What, or who, is the source of control or interference that can determine someone to do, or be, this rather than that?” Simplified—and there is great danger in this simplification, but it is the most common way the concepts are taken in contemporary discourse—negative freedom is freedom from, while positive freedom is freedom to. I have not read Erich Fromm’s Escape From Freedom, but I understand it makes more or less this division.

What this enables rhetorically, for the communitarian, is three-fold. First, the ability to re-litigate constraint as liberty. To be able to self-bind—to enter a marriage or business contract, to participate in a law-bound society—is perhaps a forfeiture of liberty in the negative sense, but can be cast as an act of liberty in the positive concept. Second, the ability to reclassify forms of taxation and wealth transfer as aligned with greater freedom, in part by classifying the impoverished and underprivileged as unfree on the basis that their lack of financial assets precludes them from a host of freedoms “to.” Finally, the notion of positive freedom allows a justification for policies such as the involuntary commitment of individual mental asylums, the illegality of suicide, and the deprivation of an addict’s choice on the basis that he is enslaved by a “disease” that is addiction. It accomplishes this by circumscribing an individual’s desires as being a “false” self—as being “not him.” (This circumscription being itself quite troubling and confused.) In order to protect the “real him,” outside forces (individuals, the state) must step in and interfere—not as a regrettable but necessary violation of freedom, but in freedom’s name. 

Such policies are, in the technical, non-pejorative sense, tyrannical and patronizing: they intercede on behalf of, and consider themselves legitimate authority over. This is the same justification by which a parent might deprive a child for the child’s “own sake,” or a King might consider himself a legitimate ruler of those incapable of ruling themselves, or a missionary might enlist all sorts of coercion and trickery to unlock that divine spirit within his indian. This is relevant insofar as it opens the door for (state, class, religious) paternalism.

Weighing in on the object-level politics of these debates is something I have little interest in. Rather, I more modestly hope to ameliorate the terms of the conversation, so that they are no longer burdened with such contradictory and vague meanings, whereby any act can be plausibly cast as both curtailing and advancing freedom. “Freedom” has become a word we can no longer trust to reason with, insofar as it has come to obscure, instead of enlighten, those base ecological and economic facts of cost, consequence, generalized empowerment, and mutual interdependence. I will try to re-emphasize those facts, and remove the shroud of “freedom” which conflates and confuses them.[2]

At the core of the matter is the confusion that positive and negative liberty are different sorts of things, rather than different ways of wording and framing and strategically conceptualizing the same thing. Berlin nods at this possibility, but rather than deconfusing the situation, he treats the distinction as a substantial one, leading to its naturalization by those readers who might otherwise have taken it more provisionally.

This confusion becomes evident as soon as we attempt to be rigorous with our application of the twin concepts: I am free to smoke in public insofar as I am free from the interference of others for doing so. I am free from the interference of others insofar as they are “not” free to interfere—insofar as a police officer, apprehending the scene, is free to arrest them if they do so (and may in fact “not” be free to do otherwise). To be free to arrest an individual is to be free from professional or legal consequences for doing so. The difference is one of perspective and framing—the act, and its asocial status (or natural “fact”), remains the same.


Let us set aside all this baggage, and say instead what can more reliably and clearly be said. (More, but not fully: there is no eliminating the slipperiness of language.) 

Any delta in the world requires certain causal contributors which may or may not be in the power of a given person. A boulder cannot be moved without force; a mind cannot be changed without persuasion. Second, every such delta has a cost, insofar as, in changing the world, necessarily there is a loss in addition to a gain, and also necessarily some sort of energy or capital which fuels the transition. A man may exhaust himself moving boulders or performing oratory; he may be defamed by the press for his utterances, or have an arm pinned under falling rocks. 

More clearly than saying we are “free” in a general sense, is to say we are free to do something or not. More clear is to say also “free of what”—of what consequences, of what pre-hoc and post-hoc costs. There are always consequences, and there are also, often—at least in our lives—social consequences, “extrinsic” rather than “intrinsic” consequences, which result from the actions of others. Penalties applied for purposes of vengeance or discouragement, with varying degrees of conscious intent. (“Intentionality” is a question of conceptualization, which is to say the application of framework: to intend to defend oneself may equally be the intent to injure another.) 

When we think of freedom as exemption from legal retribution, we are thinking of something quite reasonable and narrow—a limitation on the circumstances in which an entity or set of entities can exert power. But when we attempt to generalize “freedom” into something existential, something “liberated” of its context, we enter a linguistic quagmire. It is this quagmire—a quagmire classic to analytic philosophy—which Berlin wades into. Since Berlin, positive liberty has come into favor among the left-leaning progressive class. Morally, their mission may be sound. Conceptually, it is yet another gerrymander, and must be recognized as such, lest we will be tempted to take the natural attitude, and reify a political disagreement as an existential violation, which is to say a battle between good and evil.

It is incoherent to ask: “Is a man free if he cannot afford to travel? To quit his job? To enjoy periods of leisure?” What we should ask instead is: “What consequences would come to him if he traveled, resigned, or rested?” The answers to such a question are clear—such a question hardly needs asking. Which is to say that there was never a question to begin with. The problem, however urgently felt, was illusory. The situation was not originally confused, and therefore requiring clarification through the notion of freedom. The situation was clear, and the notion of freedom confused it.


Perhaps at the root of our “liberty” problem is a constant, low-key confusion surrounding a concept like “can.” One cannot, it is true, toss a tank or leap the Mississippi. But one can kill one’s own family. One can make tomorrow night’s dinner party. One can speak freely, or one’s mind. Rather, there are consequences, and the “cannot” treats (and, if one believes the language-mind connection, takes) an action as unaccomplishable [3], rather than undesirable. 

This narrow sense of possibility, even though it is the strict and, in some strange sense implicit meaning of “can,” is not how “can” is used. Most use it as expression of preference: I shall not, will not, would not like to. 

The banana peels that trip us up in switching between realms of desire and possibility are both metaphysical (determinism) and moral (to live with oneself, to force oneself). The floor is always covered in banana peels. Consuming them with the bananas, unpeeled, would be unpleasant and bad for digestion. Instead we say “I can’t come out tonight” and “I couldn’t resist.” In either case, the exchange is less agency for less culpability. Do the social pressures, in altering the language used, indirectly alter our cognition? Is this “mere” convention, bearing no insight or consequence on the ways we move through the world?

These are Reddit-tier pedantries to be sure, but the pedantry lies not in the general grievance against the system, but the insertions and corrections of its crusaders. To use “can” in the sense of desire may be perfectly shrewd and yet still come out of, and mimetically reinforce, a dysfunctional linguistic order. “Dysfunctional” is a loaded word: A linguistic order which causes confusions in a given population in their undertakings of certain practices. Certain conflations and abstractions which for one context are perfectly useful and well-formed, in every pragmatic sense of the word, may prove counterproductive in another.  


We can close by noting a few last connections between these concepts of liberty, paternalism, and cost, on the one hand, and the place of “language in thought and action” on the other.

Our entire modern world is enabled by their presence. Just as it is equally true that so many other form of treaty and contract, so many other “modern worlds” are precluded. Because of this enabling, we do not (should not) wish to tile society or “civilization” with a single framework, a single language, a single ontology. It is true that, in order to cooperate, our frameworks must at the very least hold things in common.

Karl Friston’s work on synchronized birdsong is one guide, but synchrony is not the goal—complementarity is. Contra the mistaken moralism of the categorical imperative, a great deal of empirical and theoretical work on social heuristics, ecology, and complex adaptive systems have all resoundingly shown what should already have been obvious to the man of observation. The constituent parts (or persons) of a system, society, or ecosystem do not, and could not, all run identical scripts. Such a system, under any pressure, and of any real complexity, would collapse. Rather, it is a frequency-dependence of many interlocking strategies and heuristics which is most robust, and which is optimal at producing whatever byproducts of cooperation we would desire. At the most basic level, we can note the concept of specialization in advanced economies—indeed, in any economy, from industrial to hunter-gatherer, from human to arboreal. If there were no specialization, no comparative advantage, there would be no need for an economy to begin with. 

Purely from an evolutionary standpoint, the dramatic reduction of framework diversity is cause for concern. Moreover, in practice the move towards monoculture appears as the result of (again in the name of progress or liberty) a cultural colonialism. The nuances of local demands and contexts are obliterated, and judgment is passed from on high and afar: from insulated academic work, from Western coastal cities, from a media industrial complex catering to the self-righteousness of its readers.

Preferable, then, to the wholesale destruction and overturning of a given framework, is the introduction of alternative frameworks. Perhaps even a marketplace of frames—freely adopted, freely advocated for, freely exchanged. Such is the pragmatic benefit, after all, of those “natural” liberties which our government protects: of religion, opinion, and speech.


[1] Invocations of his essay, in discussions of contemporary political debates around mask-wearing, vaccines, and lockdowns (as well as anti-racism, wealth redistribution, and the Second Amendment) have proven near-ubiquitous across para-academic and upper-middlebrow-aspiring publications, from university blogs to the New Yorker.

[2]  Enlightenment-era appeals to “natural law,” “dignity,” “God-given rights,” and the preservation of “man’s essence” have, unfortunately, been partially enshrined in American history via its founding discourse. Such claims and arguments represent some of the deepest confusions around the concept of liberty—a concept which can and should be defended on far more pragmatic, and far less metaphysical, grounds. (For instance, complexity science and game theory—in addition to the writings of the 19th century Mill—provide more relevant and useful frameworks for litigating the boundaries of freedom.) 

[3]  These too are problematic generalizations in their own sense, but less problematic ones. There are physical prohibitions which prevent some from killing their family, or making dinner tomorrow, or speaking one’s mind. Some are mute, comatose, injured. One “cannot” outrun a great cat of the Sahara, unless one is really lucky—showing us that, even when we reduce “can” to pure possibility, and “cannot” to pure impossibility, erasing all desire, we still are converting a probability distribution, or continuous space, into a binary.

One response to “CAN”

  1. Reblogged this on Systems Community of Inquiry.


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