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In Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, the Underground Man proposes a radically different conception of free action from that of Kant. While Kant thinks that an agent is not acting freely unless he acts for some reason, the Underground Man seems to take the opposite stance: the only way to be truly autonomous is to reject this notion of freedom, and to affirm one’s right to act for no reason. I will argue that the Underground Man’s notion of freedom builds on Kant’s, in that it requires self-consciousness in decision-making. But he breaks from Kant when he makes the claim that acting for a reason is not enough, and only provides an illusion of freedom. When faced with the two options of deceiving himself about his freedom (like most men) or submitting to ?the wall,? (a form of determinism), the Underground Man chooses an unlikely third option – a ‘retort’. I will conclude this paper by questioning whether this ‘retort’ succeeds at escaping the system of nature he desperately seeks to avoid.
I will begin by explaining how the Underground Man’s argument builds on Kant’s notion of freedom. Throughout the work, the Underground Man speaks of consciousness. He claims that consciousness is an illness, and that most men are (thankfully) not fully conscious (10). This constant reference to consciousness is reminiscent of Kant’s notion of autonomous action. Kant believes that humans decide which actions to perform as a result of self-conscious reflection. That is, when they have a desire, they must first step back from that desire, examine possible courses of action, and then endorse the desire as worthy of satisfaction before they can act on it. If people acted without this type of reflection, then their actions would not really be free – freedom depends on conscious endorsement by the individual, a temporary removal from one’s immediate desires.
So far, the Underground Man and Kant are in agreement. However, Kant believes that the endorsement of desires consists of having a reason to act on that desire, a reason based on what we perceive as some good. The type of good is unspecified – it could anything from the satisfaction of egoistic aims to the betterment of the human race. What is important is that we establish for ourselves what type of good on which to base our reasons. Free action is impossible unless we formulate our reasons independently; more specifically, we must decide for ourselves what is a good reason for acting. Although the Underground Man agrees that we must formulate our own reasons, he rejects the notion that reasons based on any concept of a perceived good can ever really be our own.
This rejection of reasons as a basis for autonomy stems from his belief that freedom is virtually impossible in a largely deterministic and evolutionary universe, where everything is determined by the ‘laws of nature’ to which he constantly refers. The Underground Man believes that the feeling of freedom engendered by acting for a reason as opposed to acting blindly is an illusion. He says of men with limited consciousness that they take immediate and secondary causes for primary ones, and in this way they are more quickly and easily convinced than others that they have discovered an indisputable basis for their activity? (19). In other words, these ‘men of action’ convince themselves that their choices are based on a higher faculty, on reasons they formulate independently (primary causes). However, their action is really based on causes determined externally, by their instincts, biology, etc. (immediate or secondary causes). If we had the intellectual capacity, all of human reason and desire could be predicted beforehand, ‘calculated on paper according to various laws of nature that man will never discover’ (28).
He describes these men of action as those ‘arisen from the bosom of nature’ (13). The Underground Man believes that anything we perceive as ‘good’ was intended by nature for the preservation of the species, survival of the individual, or other natural aim. Thus, although we may feel that our reasons are a result of a higher faculty, this feeling is an illusion. Nature provides us with this illusion because, as individuals with higher consciousness, we do not want to realize that all our actions are determined by reasons beyond our specific existence. As the Underground Man describes it, ‘Man has been continually proving to himself that he’s a man and not an organ-stop’ (31). That is, man wants to believe that freedom is possible, that he is not just an instrument to preserve the species or to act as nature intended. However, most men have ‘limited consciousness,’ and easily succumb to the illusion of freedom – they do not examine their reasons sufficiently rigorously, and are quickly convinced that their reasons are their own. He often compares man to an animal: This sort of gentleman heads straight for his target, like a maddened bull with his horns lowered (13). Men of limited consciousness are able to convince themselves that reasons aim at some good beyond that intended by nature. This is how nature intended, because if men were to realize the futility of their action, they would be paralyzed. They would no longer act in a way that would preserve the species, and the species of man would die out – hence a higher level of consciousness is an ‘illness’.
Such is the malady which consumes the Underground Man, who ‘has not arisen from the bosom of nature but from a retort’ (13). Having a higher level of consciousness, he sees that the ultimate causes of all reasons are external. As a result, he has two choices – he can deceive himself about his freedom like others do, or he can submit to the laws of nature and acknowledge that freedom is illusion. The first option is clearly impossible, as his heightened consciousness ‘succeeds in piling up around him so much additional disgust in the way of questions and doubts that he has willy-nilly gathered around himself some kind of fatal bog’ (14). However, he also refuses to submit to the laws of nature, to act unconsciously and respond immediately and unthinkingly to all desires or whims. Therefore, he makes a desperate attempt to exert his freedom in the only way he sees possible: by acting deliberately contrary to any reason which can be perceived as ‘good’. In doing so, he hopes to achieve the highest good, man’s ‘most advantageous advantage’: his individuality and autonomy (23).
But what exactly does this activity consist of? How does the Underground Man frame this ‘retort’? He does not give many specific examples of truly free action, but defines it mainly as a negative concept. He views the retort as acting against anything he thinks nature intended – he takes any impulse which people most often avoid and attempts to gain pleasure from it (such as in the midst of a toothache, or by being humiliated). Thus, not only does he act contrary to nature, but he derives pleasure wherever it seems most improbable.
But one must wonder whether this type of action is truly autonomous. In his very specific attempts to defy nature, his actions seem to have sole basis in the natural causes which he so despises. He reminds one of a jealous ex-lover who, in his attempts to prove his lack of interest in his old flame, deliberately flirts with other women in his ex-lover’s presence, gives her dirty looks, and refuses to return her calls. Similarly, the Underground Man tries to prove he is not subject to the laws of nature by acting deliberately and consciously against them. In neither case are we fooled: both examples reveal that the actor is still subject to what he seeks to avoid, insofar as all of his actions are determined by and dependant on the original factor.
Thus, it is difficult to see how the Underground Man’s retort could be an example of autonomous action. He rejects the Kantian notion of autonomy because he does not believe that people really determine their own reasons. However, it seems that he is falling into the trap that he wants so desperately avoid: his reasons are still determined by something external to himself, i.e., the laws of nature. Although they might be a direct negation of these laws, the more directly negated they are, the more closely they are guided by them, because they are completely determined by them.
The Underground Man may reply that, although he may not be acting completely autonomously, at least he is not passively succumbing to the laws of nature. He succeeds in that he is able to escape the system, and do something that is unprecedented, does not promote the survival himself, the human race, or anything nature intended. In this way he avoids the fate of others. In addition, although the bulk of his actions may not be free when framed as a ‘retort,’ at least some part of his action may be autonomous: the very decision and initial execution of his plan to defy nature, to refuse to accept reasons as the basis for action. This one act of defiance may succeed in allowing him to assert himself as more than a ‘piano stop.’
However, it seems that the Underground Man does not succeed in his ultimate goal. If his decision to refuse to act in accord with nature really does represent his one instance of free action (which, of course, it may not – for example, it could be determined by nature that he is not fit to survive, so this decision would allow him to perish more quickly, which may even be better for him ultimately), it seems that he should commit suicide immediately after. Indeed, there is evidence throughout the text that he is keenly aware of the futility of his situation, and goes back and forth between supporting and mocking his own statements. His position is nicely summed up in the following statement, Of course, I won’t knock this wall down with my head if in the end I haven’t got the strength to do so, but I won’t submit to it simply because I’m up against a stone wall and haven’t got sufficient strength (15). And in the end, it seems that he really is just a man up against an enormous stone wall, but will spend his life banging his head against it until he collapses.
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