In this text, de Beauvoir distances herself from the ethics of absurdity and meaning. This sets up the difference between Camus who saw existence as absurd as well as Sartre saw existence as meaningless and herself in their responses to the interconnections between existentialism, phenomenology, ethics and politics. She makes the crucial move and shifts the existential problem from one of brute absurdity or meaningless meaning to nuanced ambiguity and then reflects upon what our response to ambiguity should be. We find that ambiguity is not just a concept or idea, but an experience that overtakes us. It is not just an abstraction, but a felt authenticity of the human condition.
Sartre said that we are condemned to be free. Merleau-Ponty said that we are condemned to meaning. Each of these is incomplete in that each condemns us to one side of duality, this is brutish simplicity. This is also incomplete as Simone de Beauvoir shows us. We are commanded to reside on both sides of many dualities, that is, to reside in ambiguity, an existence of nuance. Simone de Beauvoir shows us that human life is not lived by choosing between dueling dualities, the simplest of which is the freedom versus determinism duality or the meaning of life versus meaningless of life duality. Life is lived within and between and amidst these dualities. In terms of freedom versus determinism, we exist amid the duality, so how can we be only condemned to be free? We are condemned to ambiguity, not freedom, “…ambiguous reality which is called existence…”, p. 24. Too often, we are told that we are either free or not free and that existence is governed by either freedom or determinism. This is not a false duality, but it is a false choice. The fact that it is a choice at all is suggestive of freedom. The gap between perceiving and reflecting is the space in which our ethics is to be found and as de Beauvoir tells us, ethics is the triumph of freedom. However, we are both free and not free, responsible and not responsible simultaneously. Our life is meaningless and yet subject to meaning as we chose to create it. To choose one side of any given duality (mind/body, freedom/determinism, good/evil, subject/object, individual/group member, meaning/meaningless) is to over simplify the experience of the human condition and curtail both our freedom and responsibility by trying to hide from the ambiguity that just is human life. With the addition of the place amid the duality, the initial duality is transformed it into a triality.
For de Beauvoir, the ethics of ambiguity create the obligations we have to each other in an uncertain existence where we must create ourselves and own purpose and take responsibility for the project of self-creation. Rights transform into obligations in this ethic and virtue is excellence in human action with regard towards others. We need others in order to achieve any semblance of reasonable life for ourselves and there is no individual flourishing without the success of the community and flourishing of others. Our rights create our obligations to others and claim on others for the same. We need to reconnect rights with duties and obligations within our own sense of self-creation to achieve our own aspirations.
Philosophy must be rooted in concrete social reality for it to have any relevance for the human condition, but this also renders any philosophy so derived as local, parochial and dated. Though I think de Beauvoir’s insight into the fundamental ambiguity of the human conditions near timeless, we must recall the that existentialism was very much a product of its time and place as is the case with any concrete philosophical doctrines. That time and place of course being the very uncertain period of post WWII Europe. This was a time characterized by overwhelming uncertainty and feelings of helplessness, just the time when a philosophy emphasizing freedom and responsibility was most needed. This was a time when Western civilization, at the heights of its artistic, scientific and cultural achievements instantly collapsed into a condition characterized by the worst forms of barbaric brutalism, horrific hatred and rapacious racism ever witnessed. At the height of reason, high civilization descended into a nightmare of irrationality. Perhaps the collapse was not instant or even a collapse at all but something long seething within the culture. I pinpoint this seething anti-humanity to the enemy invader Napoleon who was seen as a product of the Enlightenment thus provoking a reactionary anti-Enlightenment culture where he invaded, e.g., Austria, Germany, Prussia, and Russia. This anti-Enlightenment culture consisted of a dark romanticism and mysticism. With this, I believe that any perceived excesses of French existential thought in terms of freedom, responsibility, ethics or politics can be better understood.
- Paperback: 183 pages
- Publisher: Open Road Media; Reissue edition (8 May 2018)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1504054229
- ISBN-13: 978-1504054225
- Product Dimensions: 13.2 x 1.3 x 20.1 cm
- Boxed-product Weight: 218 g
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