Freedom of Thought

by Kevin Fink


Prof. Neumann

October 3, 1990

It has been put forth that "it is easier to have freedom of thought in a concentration camp than in America today." (Neumann, attributed to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn) I believe that this statement imposes a double standard on freedom of thought, and lowers the idea of freedom of thought to a mere reaction to opposition. I will try to show that freedom is inherent in the very process of thought, and isn't granted or taken away by society's perception of the thought.

Solzhenitsyn's argument would say that since freedom of speech, and thus freedom of thought, is legislated, thinking cannot be free, no matter what the thought. When freedom of thought is judged as a "good thing" and protected by legislation, it becomes a mandatory proposition. Therefore the person who is thinking doesn't know why he is thinking. Is it because he wants to, or because it is expected of him? Due to this uncertainty, his thinking isn't really free, since he could simply be reacting to what his society tells him is right.

This statement also implies the converse, i.e. that any thinking done in opposition to authority is, by definition, free. In a concentration camp, the jailers actively discourage any free thinking, and try to force any mental activity into simple parroting of the ideas judged to be acceptable by the authorities. If this were to be completely successful, there would be no free thought, since all mental activity would be determined by the government (or whatever entity held the power over the (non)-thinker).

However, if a prisoner were to succeed in thinking anything at all, that thought would automatically be called a "free" thought. Since this thought is contrary to the ideas of the powers-that-be, it can't be a simple echo of their desires. It therefore must be a genuine, brand-spanking-new, gee-whiz-bang thought.

I would argue that there is nothing implicitly free about thinking what others don't want you to. What is the difference between that and thinking what others do want you to? While it may be more difficult to oppose others simply due to every human being's desire for approval by others, it is not an intrinsicly different operation. This double standard is what I object to in Solzhenitsyn's statement.

To illustrate this, take the case of the concentration camp. Our "free thinker" decides that concentration camps rob the soul of their essential character, and have lousy food besides. Is he thinking because he wants to, or is he simply bucking authority, like a rebellious child? Are his thoughts genuine, original thoughts, or are they reversed images of what his jailers believe and try to make him believe?

I would say that it matters little why he has these thoughts. The important thing is that he does have these thoughts. That is, I believe that thought is inherently free, and no matter whether the outside world thinks good or ill of that thought, it is still a free thought.

This definition of true thought, however, must exclude those "thoughts", for lack of a better word, that are simply conditioned responses to society. Thus propaganda drilled into a prisoner's head is not true thought. Neither is faith in God, or science, or Santa Claus. Thought must be the serious consideration of a question of importance to the thinker.

In his commencement address to Harvard College in 1978, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said, "Without any censorship in the West, fashionable trends of thought and ideas are fastidiously separated from those that are not fashionable, and the latter, without ever being forbidden, have little chance of finding their way into periodicals or books or being heard in colleges. Your scholars are free in the legal sense, but they are hemmed in by the idols of the prevailing fad." (Berman, 11)

While not dealing with the definitions of freedom of thought, Solzhenitsyn is nevertheless addressing our question. He seems to be putting forth the proposition that it is difficult to advance an unpopular thought in America. Implicit in this is the comparison to Russia, and specifically, a concentration camp. While in such a camp in the Soviet Union, Solzhenitsyn succeeded in publishing several books in the West, thus implying that free thought is alive and well in a concentration camp, however oxymoronic that may sound.

In the quote, he is saying that while it may be physically easier to publish unpopular thoughts in the U.S., the very freedom that guards this ability also allows the press more freedom to make it harder to actually accomplish. He is implying an insidious plot of mind control, using the seductive but treacherous embrace of legislated freedom to smother and destroy true freedom of thought.

While it may be true that the press is trying to manipulate our thoughts, I still believe that thought itself is still free. Certain areas of thinking may be more popular than others, but it is still possible for "unpopular" thoughts to become published or known in some form and change society. In this ability, the thought shows its inherent freedom. If the thought were not free, it could not dispute the original established ideas of society, much less foment a change in that society.

A prisoner in a Soviet Union gulag once told a camp official: "You can tell old you-know-who-up-there that you only have a power over people as long as you don't take everything away from them. But when you have robbed a man of everything, he is no longer in your power, he is free again." (Berman, 101) This passage emphasizes the thought that freedom is a function of society's control, rather than some innate part of a man. This bias permeates philosophical thought.

Solzhenitsyn's statement that freedom of thought is more easily found in a concentration camp than in America today shows this leaning. He thinks that freedom is a function of rebellion against the societal mores, rather than an implicit part of the thought itself. I believe that it is just the opposite, that freedom is inherent in the thought, and society's acceptance or denial of that thought is immaterial.


1. Berman, editor. Solzhenitsyn at Harvard. Ethics and Public Policy Center. 1980.

2. Neumann. Lectures for Philosophy 90, "Introduction to Philosophy", Scripps College, Fall 1990.

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