Understanding the Definition of Freedom


Freedom is a complex concept that means different things to different people. It’s important to clarify your definition of freedom because it helps you think about what is really important to you. It also ensures that you’re being respectful when talking with others about the issue.

There are several ways to define freedom: the power or right to do, speak, believe, gather or act as one wants without hindrance or restraint; the absence of necessity, coercion or constraint in choice or action; liberation from slavery or from the power of another; a state of being independent and sovereign; and more. Each of these concepts of freedom has its own set of strengths and weaknesses. When describing your own personal definition of freedom, it’s helpful to start with the idea that we all have the ability to choose our own beliefs, words and attitudes. Each of these choices creates our future, and each one has the potential to shape who we are and where we will go in life.

While there is much debate about what freedom looks like in the political world, many people have an idea of what freedom means for their own lives. This is especially true at this unique moment in history when the coronavirus pandemic and systemic racism have challenged ideas of freedom and responsibility.

As you and your students discuss what freedom looks like in your lives, it’s helpful to have an understanding of the various definitions of freedom and how they relate to each other. This will allow you to have a productive discussion about the topic and to challenge each other’s perceptions of what it means to be free.

You can help students understand the many definitions of freedom by dividing the class into small groups. Have each group select one of the following freedoms to represent:

Once each group has a tableau that illustrates a society without its assigned freedom, have them present their work to the class. Have the groups that have been presenting quickly discuss what they saw in each other’s displays and what freedoms seemed to be lacking in each presentation. Then, have the other half of the class walk through each tableau at their own pace, looking for what freedoms they felt were being represented or omitted in each display.

In the 1770s and 1800s, as revolutionaries rebelled against the Old Regime in Europe and America, many pamphlets, treatises and newspaper articles were published with titles such as Some Observations on Liberty, Civil Liberty Asserted or On the Liberty of the Citizen. In his Critique of Pure Reason and in the Critique of Practical Reason, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), a German philosopher, also wrote about freedom. He argued that to be truly free, your actions must not be part of the chain of physical causes and must instead be an intentional act based on principles. Kant’s concept of freedom has had a significant impact on philosophical and political thinking.