Freedom as (self-)expression: Natality and the temporality of action in Merleau-Ponty and Arendt: Freedom as (self-)expression

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History and Philosophy

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Southern Journal of Philosophy


This paper draws on the philosophies of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Hannah Arendt in order to explore the nature of free action. Part one outlines three familiar ways in which we often understand the nature of freedom. Part two argues that these common understandings of freedom are rooted in impoverished conceptions of time and subjectivity. Part three engages with Arendt’s conception of natality alongside Merleau-Ponty’s conception of expression in order to argue that the freely acting self draws in improvisational manners on the resources of a shared past in order to open unprecedented spaces of meaning for the future, and in so doing at once discovers and institutes herself as the self that she is. Part four draws on an example of anti-oppressive political action in order to argue that free action not only has the power to inaugurate new spaces of shared meaning for the future, but also to change the sens of the shared past. By the same token, free action is vulnerable in its ontological status and ethical meanings to the events and judgments of the future. Part five argues with both Merleau-Ponty and Arendt that ethical-political actors can do no better than to cultivate a political virtù while facing up to the inherently transgressive dimensions of free action in a shared historical world.

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