The Ethics of Ambiguity Paperback – December 1, 2015
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About the Author
- Publisher : Philosophical Library/Open Road; Reissue edition (December 1, 2015)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 192 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1480442801
- ISBN-13 : 978-1480442801
- Item Weight : 8 ounces
- Dimensions : 5.24 x 0.45 x 7.99 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #869,162 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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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.
“The continuous work of our life,” says Montaigne, “is to build death.” “Man knows and thinks this tragic ambivalence which the animal and the plant merely undergo,” Beauvoir argues, as she introduces ambiguity of human condition. The ambiguity is similar to Camus’ absurd – a realization that there is no universal meaning to human existence or action. Beauvoir goes on to investigate the source for humans’ belief in the universal nature of their actions. “Man’s unhappiness, says Descartes, is due to his having first been a child,” she quotes and explains how we as humans feel happily irresponsible as children, feel protected against the risk of existence but how the same happy ignorance makes us a prisoners of error in our adulthood. In other words, she argues that sooner or later every man realizes that the childhood he grew up with was a world created for him by his parents or adults and that in reality he is not bound to any universality of rules or ethics. He is free, free to will his own world, chart his own rules, yet he can only do that on the basis of what he has been – a child. “The child does not contain the man he will become, yet it is always on the basis of what he has been that a man decides upon what he wants to be,” she says. This freedom although should be liberating, ends up becoming a disturbing realization, one that lifts the veil of finite ceiling over man’s head and leaves him abandoned in the infinite world. In this abandoned anxiety, despite realizing his freedom, man tends to gravitate towards enslaving himself in the childhood condition instead of living freely. Beauvoir classifies this man into a hierarchy in order to build an argument to explain the true nature of existentialist freedom.
The lowest man in the hierarchy is called a sub-man - a blind uncontrolled force that anyone can get control of. “The sub-man makes his way across a world deprived of meaning towards a death which merely confirms his long negation of himself,” she says. The attitude of sub-man passes over to the next class in hierarchy, what she calls the serious-man. While sub-man lives in a perpetual anxiety, the serious-man renounces his freedom to a cause. The serious man claim the absolute and ceaseless denies his freedom, “like the mythomaniac who while reading a love-letter pretends to forget that he has sent it to himself. He is no longer a man but a father, a boss, a member of a Christian Church or the Communist party. The serious man wills himself to be the God but he is not one and he knows it.” The attitude of serious-man transcends into the next category - the nihilist. The nihilist, unlike serious-man, under the burden of his freedom decides to be nothing, denies the world, himself and focuses on annihilation of the world. A nihilist who realizes the universal and absolute end which freedom is, further rises up in the hierarchy to become an adventurer. Adventures, she describes is an attitude closest to a genuinely moral attitude – an indifferent and disinterested encounter with the world that defines the true existentialist freedom. The adventures is perhaps Sisyphus – the man who is ceaseless rolling a stone to the top of the mountain, not in revolt but in lucid indifference.
The same adventures though, she says also carries the seed of destruction and favorable circumstances are enough to transform an adventures into a dictator. However, she argues that if an adventurer turns into a dictator, he fails to assert his freedom and becomes a slave of tyranny, thereby inadvertently denies his own freedom. “Passion is converted into genuine freedom only if one destines his existence to other existences through the being – whether thing or man – at which he aims, without hoping to entrap it in the destiny of the in-itself,” she says and goes on arguing with elaborate detail on why the only way existentialism can exist, the only way a freedom can be asserted is by asserting it not for one but for all mankind. “A freedom which is occupied in denying freedom is itself so outrageous that the outrageousness of the violence which one practices against it is almost canceled out.” From explaining the ambiguity of existence, to its reason and reaction, Beauvoir ends with the argument that all this makes existentialism a philosophy that is not individualistic but a philosophy for the collective good, in other words, the ethics of ambiguity – the argument also at the center of Sartre’s ‘Existentialism is a Humanism.’
All in all, the book touches on the core principles of existentialism, tackles the absurdity of existence from a new direction, and gives the reader a novel perspective on the same principles. For anyone interested in understanding this field of philosophy, Beauvoir’s short but authoritative text should be a must in the reading list.
Top reviews from other countries
An amazing work!