Passivity and Freedom

Passivity and Freedom February 17, 2017

Ingolf Dalferth thinks we are Creatures of Possibility. By that, he means that “we are creatures in the making whose actual becoming depends on possibilities beyond our control that occur in our lives as opportunities and chances that we can neglect and miss or take up and use” (ix). We are free to choose and act, and we can determine “the mode of our choosing and the way of our acting in moral terms.” Yet this freedom “depends on conditions that are beyond our control: we can choose and act and determine ourselves only against the backdrop of a basic passivity that characterizes our life and cannot be replaced or undone by anything we can do” (x).

This is a fundamental reality of human life: “Most of what we are we do not owe to ourselves.” Our existence (Dasein), our particular way of existence (Sosein), and our truthful existence (Wahrsein) are all “molded by passivity”: “There is so much that happens to us and so little that we make happen. Before I can act as a self, I must become a self, and while I cannot be a self without acting, I cannot become a self by acting.” Before we can even us the nominative “I,” we first experience the dative and the accusative—we are objects and recipients. In short, “A primal passivity precedes all our activity. Before we can give, we must be a given, and before we can act, we must be an actuality” (xi-xii).

Action isn’t a movement from passivity or activity; every action is in the middle voice. What he calls “contrastive” or horizontal passivity “has a passive side and an active side, a capacity to be affected by others (receptivity) and a capacity to affect others (activity), and the two are polar opposites that allow for different degrees of mixture.” But this middle-voiced action is the product of “deep” or “vertical” passivity, in which we are entirely passive (xii). Dalferth emphasizes “the prior activity of the creator and the deep passivity of the creature that precedes everything creatures do and can do as creatures. There is no created freedom of creatures that is not embedded in and dependent on a prior and one-sided creative freedom of the creator that corresponds to a deep passivity in the creature” (xiii, fn 5).

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