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Freedom in Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground

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Freedom in Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground

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 ìthe wall,î (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 r...

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...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 strengthî (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.

Works Cited

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Notes from Underground: A New Translation, Backgrounds and Sources, Responses, Criticism. Norton Critical Edition. New York: Norton, 1989.

Works Consulted

Fanger, Donald. Introduction. Notes From Underground. By Fyodor Dostoevsky. Trans. Mirra Ginsburg. NY: Bantam, 1992.

Frank, Joseph. "Nihilism and Notes from Underground." In Modern Critical Views: Fyodor Dostoevsky. Ed. Harold Bloom. NY: Chelsea House, 1988: 35-58

Jones, Malcolm V. Dostoyevsky: The Novel of Discord. NY: Barnes & Noble, 1976.
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