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freedom is a state of mind
A free person honors authority he respects and resists authority she does not.
freedom to be the self you imagine your self to be

ANNOUNCEMENTS: Of Most Immediate Importance

bring digital recording devices


Led by Charles and Fern Nesson. This seminar will ask the ultimately unanswerable questions about the nature of freedom and how we handle it. We will read widely in philosophy, science, literature, and law. Fern and I would like to open up a discussion with prospective students in which we plan our detailed curriculum together. We propose to do this by seeding a wiki with our starting suggestions.


Feb. 4: Freedom: Who Are You? In What Ways Do You Choose Freedom?

Hunter S. Thompson -- "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas"
Hunter Stockton Thompson (July 18, 1937 – February 20, 2005) was an American journalist and author, famous for his novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. He is credited as the creator of Gonzo journalism, a style of reporting where reporters involve themselves in the action to such a degree that they become the central figures of their stories.
John Stuart Mill -- On Liberty
John Stuart Mill (20 May 1806 – 8 May 1873), was a British philosopher, political economist, civil servant and Member of Parliament, he was an influential liberal thinker of the 19th century. He was a teacher of utilitarianism, an ethical theory developed by his godfather, Jeremy Bentham, although his conception of it was somewhat different from Bentham's.
lao tzu, the way of life, #10, 18, 19, 20,
The Catholic Church on freedom --
a useful foil to the novel's ideal manifestation of human freedom. What lies [quite obviously?] behind the Church's "definitions" of what Freedom "is"? I'd love to hear what people think. --Rhaferd.jd10 10:54, 3 February 2008 (EST)

Feb. 18: Freedom in relation to Parent

We will have class on February 18, in second life as well as in real space. In preparation please read The Case for Education in Virtual Worlds, and essays by ken stalter, david gross, jon krop.
Choose your avatar.

suggested additional reading and viewing
Jean Piaget
Gibson, Neuromancer
William Gibson enters Cyberspace
Piaget, The Moral Development of the Child
James Carroll, An American Requiem (in particular, chs.1,3,8,9,10)
Tao Te Ching, verse 49 *
Sophocles, Antigone
Totem and Taboo, Freud
  • #49:
A sound man's heart is not shut within itself
But is open to other people's hearts
I find good people good,
I find bad people good
If I am good enough;
I trust men of their word,
And I trust liars
If I am true enough
I feel the heartbeats of others
Above my own
If I am enough of a father,
Enough of a son.

Feb. 25- Constraint of Social Convention

Back to Three!


Sunstein, Social Norms and Social Rules

A good introduction to definitions and issues. A good piece to begin considering the relationship between socially created norms and the law...

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (to buy).

The ultimate in restrictions imposed by social norms and/or interactions.
Ok, this is a pdf version of the Yellow Wallpaper [[1]]: easier to see and print, if you want. Let's hope this works.
Wikipedia has a short blurb on different analyses of the story. The "Interpretation" section gives a few ideas, but it specifically discusses freedom in the last paragraph of the section. What do all of you think about that take on the story? Don't read the Wikipedia blurb until after you're done with the story!

The Hippies A 1967 Time Magazine article on the Hippie counter-culture.

Perhaps the archetypal example of defying social convention as a type of freedom. The hippie movement rejected social convention and Establishment attitudes in favor of peace, love and a belief that it could change the world...

Souls Belated A short story by Edith Wharton (begins on page 83 of the linked anthology).

In "Souls Belated," a woman leaves her husband for another man only to have her hopes for a life unfettered by conventional mores destroyed when her lover proposes marriage and a return to their former social circle.

Life of Pi by Yann Martel - certain selections: first one [[2]], second one [[3]]

Rousseau on Social Conventions Some excerpts from Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

A condemnation of the artificiality and corruption of the social customs and institutions of his time. Rousseau wrote that the more he had seen of the world, the less he was able to conform to its manners. Rousseau has indeed seen much of the world and he did not like what he saw...

Optional reading/media worth thinking about.

Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth;

Tom Wolfe, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test;

Sylvia Plath, Ariel;

The Breakfast Club;

Napoleon Dynamite.

Assignment: As we mentioned, we wanted everyone to participate in an activity as part of our class on fear, freedom, and social norms. Before class, we want you to do the following:

1) Make a list of activities that make you fearful/uncomfortable because they violate a social or personal norm. For example, you may want to consider activities that you would do in Second Life, but never in real life. Activities can include going to locations that make you uncomfortable, doing unorthodox activities in crowds, or acting a certain way during a personal interaction.
2) Pick an activity off of the list and do it.
3) Come to class ready to discuss!

March 10 - Individual freedom

Team Apotheosis

The exploration of personal freedom compels an answer to why freedom matters. We will discuss freedom as understood on a personal level, trying to understand why it is important to us. Looking at Aristotle on happiness and the Christian take on freedom, we find different reasons to value freedom. This should then open the door for a discussion of why we value freedom, and, delving deeper, how we can justify the restrictions we impose on our own freedom.

Reading List

The Bible (Gal 3:19-29, Gal 4:1-6)

Scripture gives meaning to the Christian ideas of freedom. In its broadest and most important understanding, humans were created with a free will permitting them to choose to love God at their discretion. This freedom is unqualified in its permissiveness, but not in its consequences, and this informs the writings of Paul the Apostle when he characterizes submission to God's will as a means of attaining freedom, both in the present context of a life on Earth and for eternal implications. This tradeoff is peculiar, because it finds that freedoms can be traded, and that an absolute freedom might ultimately result in the restraints of the consequences of unfettered choice, while choosing initial limitation can grant an individual far greater agency over his or her decisions.

Nicomachean Ethics, Book I (Aristotle)

In this excerpt, Aristotle argues that the ultimate end or purpose in life is happiness. All our efforts are directed toward things that veer toward happiness because while we aspire to many ends, they are not final, but they are instead subservient to the larger purpose of happiness. When we imagine all the things we work toward, we can reasonably say that for every reasonable aspiration its hopeful conclusion will be greater happiness. But for happiness itself, we never say that we seek it in order to fulfil another desire or virtue.
But if happiness is the end in life, then freedom -- its pursuit and experience -- is secondary, and the essential purpose of life poses an inherent restriction on freedom; we are bound by a desire for happiness, and this provokes the question of what we will do to our freedom in order to achieve it.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

In this film, Tomas leads a life of flitting sexual and personal freedom. He is settled by his marriage to a young woman and the Soviet invasion of Prague in Spring of 1968. The political cast of freedom is clearly present, but a deeper and fascinating question lurks at the level of the individual characters. What purpose does our freedom serve? When our relationships impose on us, does our freedom fade or does it reshape?
You may also choose to read the original text by Milan Kundera.


March 31 - Free Will and Determinism

Much More Time

Exploring the physical, biological, pyscho-social constraints on free will, and free will as an underlying assumption of freedom.

How large is our own individual "freedom pie" to begin with? So much of what happens to us, or what we think we choose, is out of our control. This should affect our value of freedom (or should it?)...

If the nature of physics rules out genuine options (the ability to have done otherwise), then what is the status of free will? To what extent are we ruled by our genes, predispositions, and the instincts/behaviors that our species developed over the course of our evolution? How free are you to shuck your race/class status, for example? Can you really be whatever you want to be? Should others have a sanction on your freedom? Even if your own ability/imagination allows, can you still be whoever you want to be?... Please be sure to look over the topic overview/discussion guide.

please bring cameras - Prof. Nesson

Required Reading List:

Excerpts from a number of Nietzsche's works on the topic of free will and determinism.
  • Peter Van Inwagen, Three Arguments for Incompatiblism, (excerpt from An Essay on Free Will, chapter III (1986)).
A good introduction to determinism, though it's a little technical. It is likely we would only use an excerpt from the chapter
Well written, and short, critique of the concept of "genetic determinism"; a very quick read.
A short, and easy to read intro to this topic; available online.
This article discusses determinism from a psychoanalytic perspective (here is a link to the full article for anyone interested, access to JSTOR required).
Radical behaviorism and a fairly sophisticated critique of the concept of "freedom"
This is a comic book, and a very quick read. Satrapi's autobiography is a timely and timeless story of a young girl's life under the Islamic Revolution.
This overview is not a summary of the readings, rather it is meant to supplement the readings act as a guide for our discussion in class.

(A little) More Required Reading and Viewing (from Prof. Nesson):

Optional Background Reading & Viewing:

Film: Run Lola Run. We've made this "optional" because of the difficulty of organizing a group viewing, especially the Monday following spring break, but if you have the opportunity, watching it is strongly recommended. Excellent German film illustrating how very minor, random, events -- things like timing, chance encounters, luck, etc. -- can have a huge effect on how a person's life turns out. It raises the question of how we can consider ourselves "free" if we're so obviously chance's playthings.
  • Physics -
Causal Determinism, Determinism, Fatalism
John Earman, Defining Determinism, in A Primer on Determinism, chapter II (1986). We may or may not include excerpts from this chapter. It is a fairly broad overview of philosophical issues surrounding determinism.
  • Biology -
Biological determinism, Genetic determinism, Environmental determinism
  • Psychology & Culture -
Radical behaviorism, Cultural determinism, Social determinism
Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, (1932). On the topic of behavioral engineering on a societal level, consider in relation to the chapter from Skinner's book.

April 7

April 14

Hay Redux

Freedom and force. Does an anarchism represent a viable or desirable vision of freedom? When does it become acceptable to go from working to effect change within a system to working to topple the system altogether? Can freedom be imposed upon others by force?

Required Reading and Viewing

Fight Club (David Fincher, 1999)

We're assigning the film version of "Fight Club," though if you're interested, you may also consider the original book by Chuck Palahniuk. What does the film have to say about each of the questions raised above?

God's Gift (Orlando Patterson, 2006)

An op-ed piece from the New York Times by Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson, who suggests that the Bush administration's policy of exporting freedom the Middle East was fundamentally flawed because of its failure to acknowledge that the notion of "freedom" as a natural part of the human condition is a distinctly Western concept.

Civil Disobedience (Henry David Thoreau, 1849)

Thoreau's classic essay, in which he argues that individual citizens have a duty not to acquiesce or participate in the injustices perpetrated by their own governments. Thoreau himself believed that paying taxes represented complicity with the injustices of slavery and the Mexican-American War. Famous for coining the phrase, "That government is best which governs least."

You should also consult Wikipedia's entry on anarchism to get a background on the history and substance of the various anarchist movements of the last 200 years.

April 21


hay redux

Ken, Brian, Scott

fight club, book and film, to explore anarchism, when to work within, when to topple, the imposition of freedom on others
iraq war
revolution and ararchy

Team Apotheosis (formerly "more time")

adam, matt, steve g

Much More Time

steve, robert, mehran

Back to Three!

cara, kimberly

fear, confronting fear, in surprise activitIES?

new group

andrew, jan, michael

harmonic convergence

Fern and Charlie

random freedom quotes

Freedom isn't free
It costs folks like you and me
And if we don't all chip in
We'll never pay that bill
Freedom isn't free
No, there's a hefty in' fee.
And if you don't throw in your buck 'o five
Who will?

-Trey Parker

My conception of freedom. — The value of a thing sometimes does not lie in that which one attains by it, but in what one pays for it — what it costs us. I give an example. Liberal institutions straightway cease from being liberal the moment they are soundly established: once this is attained no more grievous and more thorough enemies of freedom exist than liberal institutions...

These same institutions produce quite different effects while they are still being fought for; then they really promote freedom in a powerful way... For what is freedom? That one has the will to assume responsibility for oneself. That one maintains the distance which separates us. That one becomes more indifferent to difficulties, hardships, privation, even to life itself...The free man is a warrior.

- Friedrich Nietzsche. Twilight of the Idols, Expeditions of an Untimely Man §38 (1888).

"Freedom is about authority. Freedom is about the willingness of every single human being to cede to lawful authority a great deal of discretion about what you do."

- Rudy Giuliani (quoted in the New York Times, March 20, 1994)

"Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose."

- Janis Joplin (actually, technically, its a line from a song written by Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster)

Grab Bag

jonathan zittrain -- perfect enforcement
tao te ching; finding oneself
accidental asian/ mad hatter's lunch
who are you in context?
who is the interpreter of "the word"
orwell's elephant: who is the slave?
  • haiti/jamaica/south africa/etc.
  • battle of algiers/ satyagraha: what are the repercussions of the way in which we claim our freedom?
  • constraint on identity of occupation: Mahfouz, Naipaul?
authority - Antigone, Mill, Thoreau, Civil Disobedience
how should a free person regard constraint?
surveillance, systems imposes on freedom, self-surveillance
lives of others
unbearable lightness of being
walden two, b.f. skinner

Here's an intro to some activities that could be used to wake people up to their (our) blind acceptance of "normal" and largely scripted everyday life.


Why don't we use this space to have an open conversation about ourselves? Seminars like these are fun because of who's in them. Let's enjoy it.

Matt: I'm happy to be in this class, and I didn't realize I liked Bud.

Brian: I posted some stuff on the "Discussion" page. I wasn't sure at the time whether to post on this page or on the discussion page, ended up going with the latter. I like Bud and pretty much any kind of beer for that matter.

Steve: I've got a tent.

Fern: I see that our class has already generated commentary in the blogosphere. I'm posting it here hoping you'll all be inspired to chat, to report, to praise and to criticize: "But the capstone of my law school education has to be the Freedom seminar with the legendary Charles Nesson (recently on the Colbert Report!). Our first class of the semester started with a round of introductions in which Nesson asked us to identify our names, our hometowns, and our passions. Then he unilaterally admitted all of the students from the waitlist who had come to the class, without realizing that he completely lacked the authority to do so (a misconception the Registrar corrected for him later that week). Then he canceled a third of the classes for the semester, extended the remaining classes by an hour, promised us dinner and refreshments for each, and broke us up into groups of 3 to develop lesson plans for each of those classes, since he had only planned out the first two weeks. Then he vanished for 20 minutes and returned with a case of beer of unknown origin (no one complained). Then we jammed for a while, with Nesson declaring without irony that fear was the single greatest impediment to freedom, and that his wife and co-professor for the course was the person he feared most in the world (she nodded sympathetically). Then he assigned us Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as actual law school reading, and we went home. Ah, life in the Ivy League."