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How to Be Free: Objectification and the Noumenal World An Impression of Neil Levy’s First Leverhulme Lecture

Y Lim

When I was a medical student and doctor, there were a few legendary teachers at the Alfred Hospital. The greatest of these was a general physician called Y Lim. He was the Sherlock Holmes of bedside clinicians. He would take groups of medical students to see a patient and diagnose the patient “from the end of the bed”, just by observing carefully the paraphenalia around the patient’s bed, the medication and the movement of the side of their chest.

He was highly sought after as tutorials with Y Lim spelt success in the clinical examinations. I never had him but my friends in the year before did. At the end of their last tutorial, just before the final examinations, they asked him, “Y Lim, how do we do well in the short and long cases? How can we become a doctor?”

Y Lim replied, “Look like a doctor. Talk like a doctor.”

Three Ordinary Agents

Consider the following 3 people (philosophers call them “agents” because they do stuff, like secret agents do stuff secretly). They are all based on real life characters.


Bill is not finding the right girlfriends. He dates a lot but just isn’t meeting the kind of women he is hoping for. He discusses the problem with a female friend who knows him well. She understands that he would like to settle down. He wants to marry, eventually, a woman who enjoys the same outdoors and sporting life as he does himself.

“I am just not finding the right women,” he says.

“Well, ask yourself what you really want and where those women hang out. It seems to me you want a sporty, outdoorsy female. Where is the greatest concentration of sporty females? You might meet one in a bar, but you will meet a lot at cycling sportives or rock climbing events. You could even try dance classes”

So she started attending sporting activities and took up rock and roll dance classes. He met an attractive dancer who could beat him in a marathon.


Sebastian is in his late forties. He has always been in good shape and has taken pride in his physical appearance. But over the last few years, he has had a lot of business lunches, travel and not much time to exercise. His girth has swelled, trousers no longer fit and he is embarrassed by his appearance. He wants to lose weight but has been difficult with his lifestyle that demands entertainment. He tries various diets which work for while but eventually he relapses into his old ways.

He asks, what should I do, given the demands of my life? He does research and discovers the 5/2, five days of usual diet and two days a week of 600 calories. He commits to doing this and has his secretary diary 2 days every week according to his commitments. He even considers giving his wife permission to debit his account £100 every week he fails to achieve his goal, but this proves unnecessary.


Jennifer wants to get good marks in her final high school examinations and get into university to study engineering science so she can be an astronaut. She is taking 4 subjects: Maths, Physics, Chemistry and German. She finds German quite easy as she spent 2 years living there. Physics is much harder than the rest. She has 12 weeks to go until her final examinations. She decides to write a timetable. she divides every waking hour for the next 12 weeks into hourly blocks. She first assigns appropriate time for sleeping, eating, exercise and social activities/relaxation. She then calculates the remaining hours and decides what proportion of this time will be necessary for each subject. She allocates the time Physics 35% Maths 25% Chemistry 25% German 15%.

She ensures every day has a mixture of subjects until the final run up and that the timing of the final study days matches her exam timetable.

She sticks to his timetable religiously. Not only does she top her school, she tops the region. She gets into Engineering at Cambridge.


We can get what what we value or want. We are free. But to be free, we have to do something unique to humans. We have to extract ourselves from the moment and decide: what does this situation require? What should I do?

Importantly, taking this perspective requires removing yourself from what you are moved to do at the moment – sloth around with your mates watching the football at the pub, have that extra piece of cheese or watching tv. It requires working out what you have to do and setting a plan that will achieve that, regardless of what you want to do, now or later.

Neil Levy calls this taking the objective stance towards oneself- thinking of oneself as a third person. This is apparently very controversial concept amongst philosophers. But it is what each of these 3 agents do when they succeed. Think: what does this situation require, what will achieve my long term goals and plan does that require, knowing my own commitments, limitations as a human animal, the pressures I am under and opportunities I will have.

Forget how you feel, what you desire now, think about this as an abstract objective problem that needs solving. That is what I understand by taking “an objective perspective.” Then commit yourself to the course of action necessary to achieve that end – lock yourself in sometimes. Neil gave the extreme case of setting a timer on the drinks cabinet if you drink too much.

Taking the objective stance is treating yourself as means to your own end. It is treating yourself as a thing, as an object in the world to be manipulated.


Kant famously said that we should always treat humanity as an end and never as a merely as a means. This presumably applies to ourselves. Is such objectification a violation of the Kantian “formula of humanity” to treat everyone as an end?

Kant also described a mysterious “noumenal world” in which we are truly free. I never really understood what this could be and Kant is often mocked for inventing such a strange concept. In this noumenal world, we are not constrained by desires but only by reasons.

Neil seems to be describing the noumenal world of Kant. To be a successful agent, to be free, we must enter the noumenal world.

Some people’s lives are dominated by their desires at the time, their emotions (anger, jealously, pride), external circumstances, other people’s desires or just internal chaos. They are not free; they are animals. To be free is to treat oneself as the object of reasons. It is to do what you ought to do.

Buddhists say you should give up desire. What I have found is that when you enter the noumenal world, reasons eventually shape your desires. If you try, you can desire what you ought to desire. And most importantly, you can be happy in the noumenal world.

Jennifer applied her same philosophy at Cambridge, also managed to have a lot of fun along the way and became an astronaut.

A podcast of Neil’s First Leverhulme Lecture on Self Control is now available

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