The Existential Phenomenology of Simone de Beauvoir (Contributions To Phenomenology)
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Neither does she envision a future without conflict. It is the tragedy of the human condition. As ethical, we are obliged to work for the conditions of material and political equality. In calling on others to take up our projects and give these projects a future, we are precluded from forcing others to become our allies.
We are enjoined to appeal to their freedom. Where persuasion fails, however, we are permitted the recourse to violence. The ambiguity of our being as subjects for ourselves and objects for others in the world is lived in this dilemma of violence and justice. Becoming lucid about the meaning of freedom, we learn to live our freedom by accepting its finitude and contingency, its risks and its failures.
What we do know is that coming face to face with forces of injustice beyond her control, the questions of evil and the Other took on new urgency. Beauvoir speaks of the war as creating an existential rupture in time. She speaks of herself as having undergone a conversion. She can no longer afford the luxury of focusing on her own happiness and pleasure. The question of evil becomes a pressing concern. One cannot refuse to take a stand. One is either a collaborator or not. In writing The Ethics of Ambiguity , Beauvoir takes her stand. She identifies herself as an existentialist and identifies existentialism as the philosophy of our her times because it is the only philosophy that takes the question of evil seriously.
That we are alone in the world and that we exist without guarantees, are not, however, the only truths of the human condition. There is also the truth of our freedom and this truth, as detailed in The Ethics of Ambiguity , entails a logic of reciprocity and responsibility that contests the terrors of a world ruled only by the authority of power.
Dropping the distinction between the inner and outer domains of freedom and deploying a unique understanding of consciousness as an intentional activity, Beauvoir now finds that I can be alienated from my freedom. Here Beauvoir takes up the phenomenologies of Husserl and Hegel to provide an analysis of intersubjectivity that accepts the singularity of the existing individual without allowing that singularity to justify an epistemological solipsism, an existential isolationism or an ethical egoism.
The Hegel drawn on here is the Hegel who resolves the inequalities of the master-slave relationship through the justice of mutual recognition. The Husserl appealed to is the Husserl who introduced Beauvoir to the thesis of intentionality. The Ethics of Ambiguity opens with an account of intentionality which designates the meaning-disclosing, meaning-making and meaning-desiring activities of consciousness as both insistent and ambiguous—insistent in that they are spontaneous and unstoppable; ambiguous in that they preclude any possibility of self-unification or closure.
Beauvoir describes the intentionality of consciousness as operating in two ways. First there is the activity of wanting to disclose the meaning of being. Second there is the activity of bringing meaning to the world. In the first mode of activity consciousness expresses its freedom to discover meaning. In the second, it uses its freedom to become the author of the meaning of the world.
Beauvoir identifies each of these intentionalities with a mood: the first with the mood of joy, the second with the dual moods of hope and domination. Whether the second moment of intentionality becomes the ground of projects of liberation or exploitation depends on whether the mood of hope or domination prevails. Describing consciousness as ambiguous, Beauvoir identifies our ambiguity with the idea of failure.
We can never fulfill our passion for meaning in either of its intentional expressions; that is, we will never succeed in fully revealing the meaning of the world, and never become God, the author of the meaning of the world. From this perspective her ethics of ambiguity might be characterized as an ethics of existential hope. Their apparent differences conceal a common core: both claim to have identified an absolute source for, and justifications of our beliefs and actions. They allow us to evade responsibility for creating the conditions of our existence and to flee the anxieties of ambiguity.
Whether it is called the age of the Messiah or the classless society, these appeals to a utopian destiny encourage us to think in terms of ends which justify means. They invite us to sacrifice the present for the future. They are the stuff of inquisitions, imperialisms, gulags and Auschwitz.
Privileging the future over the present they pervert our relationship to time, each other and ourselves. Dostoevsky was mistaken. Can separate existing individuals be bound to each other? Can they forge laws binding for all? The Ethics of Ambiguity insists that they can. It does this by arguing that evil resides in the denial of freedom mine and others , that we are responsible for ensuring the existence of the conditions of freedom the material conditions of a minimal standard of living and the political conditions of uncensored discourse and association , and that I can neither affirm nor live my freedom without also affirming the freedom of others.
We begin our lives as children who are dependent on others and embedded in a world already endowed with meaning. This is a world of ready made values and established authorities. This is a world where obedience is demanded. For children, this world is neither alienating nor stifling for they are too young to assume the responsibilities of freedom. As children who create imaginary worlds, we are in effect learning the lessons of freedom — that we are creators of the meaning and value of the world. Free to play, children develop their creative capacities and their meaning-making abilities without, however, being held accountable for the worlds they bring into being.
Children, she says, experience the joys but not the anxieties of freedom. Beauvoir also, however, describes children as mystified. By this she means that they believe that the foundations of the world are secure and that their place in the world is naturally given and unchangeable. Beauvoir marks adolescence as the end of this idyllic era. It is the time of moral decision. Emerging into the world of adults, we are now called upon to renounce the serious world, to reject the mystification of childhood and to take responsibility for our choices. All of us pass through the age of adolescence; not all of us take up its ethical demands.
The fact of our initial dependency has moral implications, for it predisposes us to the temptations of bad faith, strategies by which we deny our existential freedom and our moral responsibility. It sets our desire in the direction of a nostalgia for those lost Halcyon days. Looking to return to the security of that metaphysically privileged time, some of us evade the responsibilities of freedom by choosing to remain children, that is, to submit to the authority of others. Beauvoir does not object to the mystification of childhood.
To treat adults as children, however, is immoral and evil. To choose to remain a child is an act of bad faith. If we are exploited, enslaved or terrorized, however, our submission to authority of the other cannot be counted as an act of bad faith. Absent these conditions, Beauvoir holds us accountable for our response to the experience of freedom. We cannot use the anxieties of freedom either as an excuse for our active participation in, or our passive acceptance of the exploitation of others. Hiding behind the authority of others or establishing ourselves as authorities over others are culpable offenses.
Beauvoir portrays the complexity of the ways that we either avoid or accept the responsibilities of freedom in the imaginary and sometimes historical figures of the sub-man, the serious man, the nihilist, the adventurer, the passionate man, the critical thinker and the artist-writer. The point of delineating these human types is several fold. It is a way of distinguishing between two kinds of unethical positions. One, portrayed in the portraits of the sub-man and the serious man, refuses to recognize the experience of freedom.
The other, depicted in the pictures of the nihilist, the adventurer and the maniacally passionate man, misreads the meanings of freedom. The ethical person, as portrayed by Beauvoir, is driven by passion. In describing the different ways that freedom is evaded or misused, Beauvoir distinguishes ontological from ethical freedom. She shows us that acknowledging our freedom is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for ethical action. To meet the conditions of the ethical, freedom must be used properly.
It must, according to Beauvoir, embrace the ties that bind me to others, and take up the appeal — an act whereby I call on others, in their freedom, to join me in bringing certain values, projects, conditions into being. Artists and writers embody the ethical ideal in several respects. Their work expresses the subjective passion that grounds the ethical life. They describe the ways that the material and political complexities of our situations can either alienate us from our freedom or open us to it.
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By envisioning the future as open and contingent, artists and writers challenge the mystifications that validate sacrificing the present for the future. They establish the essential relationship between my freedom and the freedom of others. The Ethics of Ambiguity does not avoid the question of violence. Determining that violence is sometimes necessary, Beauvoir uses the example of the young Nazi soldier to argue that to liberate the oppressed we may have to destroy their oppressors. Thus, The Ethics of Ambiguity provides an analysis of our existential-ethical situation that joins a hard-headed realism violence is an unavoidable fact of our condition with demanding requirements.
It is unique, however, in aligning this realism and these requirements with the passion of generosity and a mood of joy. She does not repudiate the arguments of her text, but finds that it erred in trying to define morality independent of a social context. The Second Sex may be read as correcting this error — as reworking and materially situating the analyses of The Ethics of Ambiguity. Imaginary caricatures will be replaced by phenomenological descriptions of the situations of real women. Now, Beauvoir takes herself, her situation, her embodiment and the situations and embodiments of other women, as the subjects of her philosophical reflections.
We should, however, resist the temptation to take this notion of discontinuity too far. Rather than thinking in terms of breaks it is more fruitful to see The Second Sex in terms of a more radical commitment to the phenomenological insight that it is as embodied beings that we engage the world. Our access to, awareness of, and possibilities for world engagement cannot be considered absent a consideration of the body. Beauvoir changed that. Her argument for sexual equality takes two directions. First, it exposes the ways that masculine ideology exploits the sexual difference to create systems of inequality.
Second, it identifies the ways that arguments for equality erase the sexual difference in order to establish the masculine subject as the absolute human type. Here Plato is her target. Plato, beginning with the premise that sex is an accidental quality, concludes that women and men are equally qualified to become members of the guardian class. Thus the discriminatory sexual difference remains in play. Only men or those who emulate them may rule. She insists that women and men treat each other as equals and that such treatment requires that their sexual differences be validated.
Equality is not a synonym for sameness. She finds it un-phenomenological, however, to ignore it. For example, it is assumed that women are the weaker sex. What, she directs us to ask, is the ground of this assumption? What criteria of strength are used? Upper body power? Average body size? Is there a reason not to consider longevity a sign of strength? Using this criterion, would women still be considered the weaker sex? What is not a matter of dispute is that The Second Sex gave us the vocabulary for analyzing the social constructions of femininity and a method for critiquing these constructions.
By not accepting the common sense idea that to be born with female genitalia is to be born a woman this most famous line of The Second Sex pursues the first rule of phenomenology: identify your assumptions, treat them as prejudices and put them aside; do not bring them back into play until and unless they have been validated by experience.
Taken within the context of its contemporary philosophical scene, The Second Sex was a phenomenological analysis waiting to happen. Taken within the context of the feminist movement, this declaration of oppression was an event. What from an existential-phenomenological perspective, was a detailed analysis of the lived body, and an ethical and political indictment of the ways that patriarchy alienated women from their embodied capacities, was, from a feminist perspective, an appeal that called on women to take up the politics of liberation.
Several concepts are crucial to the argument of The Second Sex. The concept of the Other is introduced early in the text and drives the entire analysis. It has also become a critical concept in theories that analyze the oppressions of colonized, enslaved and other exploited people. The Subject is the absolute. The Other is the inessential. Unlike Hegel who universalized this dialectic, Beauvoir distinguishes the dialectic of exploitation between historically constituted Subjects and Others from the exploitation that ensues when the Subject is Man and the Other is Woman.
In the first case those marked as Other experience their oppression as a communal reality. They see themselves as part of an oppressed group. Here, oppressed Others may call on the resources of a common history and a shared abusive situation to assert their subjectivity and demand recognition and reciprocity. The situation of women is comparable to the condition of the Hegelian Other in that men, like the Hegelian Master, identify themselves as the Subject, the absolute human type, and, measuring women by this standard of the human, identify them as inferior.
Unlike the Hegelian Other, however, women are unable to identify the origin of their otherness. They cannot call on the bond of a shared history to reestablish their lost status as Subjects. Further, dispersed among the world of men, they identify themselves in terms of the differences of their oppressors e. Finally, their conflict with men is ambiguous.
Beauvoir uses the category of the Inessential Other to designate the unique situation of women as the ambiguous Other of men. Unlike the Other of the master-slave dialectic, women are not positioned to rebel. It is a recognition of the present state of affairs where the heterosexual norm prevails. If patriarchy is to be dismantled we will have to understand how heteronormative sexuality serves it.
We will have to denaturalize it. It reads,. Hence woman makes no claim for herself as subject because she lacks the concrete means, because she senses the necessary link connecting her to man without positing its reciprocity, and because she often derives satisfaction from her role as the Other.
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Happiness may be chosen or accepted in exchange for the deprivations of freedom. Recalling the argument of The Ethics of Ambiguity we know why. As Others, women are returned to the metaphysically privileged world of the child.
They experience the happiness brought about by bad faith—a happiness of not being responsible for themselves, of not having to make consequential choices. From this existential perspective women may be said to be complicitious in their subjugation. But this is not the whole story. If women are happy as the other, it may be because this is the only avenue of happiness open to them given the material and ideological realities of their situation. Though Beauvoir will not argue that these structures deprive women of their freedom, neither will she ignore the situations that make the exercise of that freedom extremely difficult.
Her assertion that woman feels a necessary bond with man regardless of a lack of reciprocity, however, escapes existential and Marxist categories. In making an appeal to others to join me in my pursuit of justice I validate myself and my values. Given that my appeal must be an appeal to the other in their freedom, I must allow for the fact that the other may reject it.
In the case of women, Beauvoir notes, this aspect of the appeal the affirmation of the bond between us dominates. She does not approve of the way that women allow it to eclipse the requirement that they be recognized as free subjects, but she does alert us to the fact that recognition in itself is not the full story of the ethical relationship. To demand recognition without regard for the bond of humanity is unethical. It is the position of the Subject as master.
As an existential situation, however, women are responsible for changing it. It is not a matter of appealing to men to give women their freedom, but a matter of women discovering their solidarity, rejecting the bad faith temptations of happiness and discovering the pleasures of freedom.
Further, though Beauvoir alerts us to the tensions and conflicts that this will create between men and women, she does not envision a permanent war of the sexes. Here her Hegelian-Marxist optimism prevails. Men will ultimately recognize women as free subjects. The liberated woman must free herself from two shackles: first, the idea that to be independent she must be like men, and second, the socialization through which she becomes feminized.
The first alienates her from her sexuality. Attentive to this current state of affairs, and to the phenomenology of the body, Beauvoir sets two prerequisites for liberation. First, women must be socialized to engage the world. Second, they must be allowed to discover the unique ways that their embodiment engages the world.
In short, the myth of woman must be dismantled. So long as it prevails, economic and political advances will fall short of the goal of liberation. Speaking in reference to sexual difference, Beauvoir notes that disabling the myth of woman is not a recipe for an androgynous future. Given the realities of embodiment, there will be sexual differences. Unlike today, however, these differences will not be used to justify the difference between a Subject and his inessential Other. The goal of liberation, according to Beauvoir, is our mutual recognition of each other as free and as other.
She finds one situation in which this mutual recognition sometimes exists today, the intimate heterosexual erotic encounter. Because lovers experience themselves and each other ambiguously, that is as both subjects and objects of erotic desire rather than as delineated according to institutionalized positions of man and woman. The concept of ambiguity, developed abstractly in The Ethics of Ambiguity , is erotically embodied in The Second Sex and is identified as a crucial piece of the prescription for transcending the oppressions of patriarchy.
In that early work, our freedom insulated us from the risks of intimacy. In The Second Sex , avoiding these risks remains possible, but now this avoidance is identified as a mark of our moral failure to live the ambiguity of our condition. Marking this change, this essay also marks a return to the question of the responsibility of the artist raised in The Ethics of Ambiguity.
Beauvoir credits Sade with uncovering the despotic secrets of the patriarchal political machine. She is sympathetic to his utopian appeal to freedom. She finds, however, that Sade perverted the meaning of freedom.
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Thus Beauvoir identifies Sade as a great moralist who endorsed an unsatisfactory ethics. She does not refute his claim that cruelty establishes a relationship between the self and the other. Sade is correct. Cruelty reveals us to each other in the particularities and ambiguities of our conscious and fleshed existence. The tyrant and victim, Beauvoir tells us, are a genuine couple.
They are united by the bonds of the flesh and freedom. Sade is the epitome of maniacal passion dedicated to the project of cruelty. Because he takes full responsibility for his choices, he must be credited with choosing freedom and accepted as being authentically ethical. This does not, however, make him either an ethical or moral figure; for his choices destroy the intersubjective bonds of humanity.
Though his account of the power of cruelty provides a convincing critique of our social, political and personal hypocrisies, it does not critique the ways that cruelty is a perversion of freedom and an exploitation of the vulnerability of the flesh. Thus his descriptions of the powers of cruelty and the meaning of torture are incomplete and inadequate. In the end, Beauvoir finds that Sade was misled which does not mean that he was innocent. He mistook power for freedom and misunderstood the meanings of the erotic. He never reaches the other.
Centering his life in the erotic, Sade missed the truth of the erotic. This truth, Beauvoir tells us, can only be found by those who abandon themselves to the risks of emotional intoxication. Living this intoxication we discover the ways that the body turned flesh dissolves all arguments against the immediacy of our bonds with each other and grounds an ethic of the appeal, risk and mutual vulnerability. Once she abandons the idea that our freedom, as absolutely internal, is immune from an assault by the other, and accepts the radical vulnerability of our lived embodiment, questions of violence and desire cannot be severed from the question of our shared humanity or questions of ethics and justice.
In condemning Sade for his perversion of the erotic, Beauvoir also faults him as an artist. Though she accuses him of being a technically poor writer, the heart of her criticism is ethical not aesthetic. Sade, according to Beauvoir, violated his obligations as an author. Instead of revealing the world to us in its promise and possibilities, and instead of appealing to us to work for justice, he took refuge in the imaginary and developed metaphysical justifications for suffering and cruelty.
In the end, Beauvoir accuses Sade of being the serious man described in her Ethics of Ambiguity. Instead of fleeing from the horrors of the real into the safety of the imaginary, Beauvoir takes up her responsibility as an author to expose and confront realities that the state would rather hide. Her purpose in writing is concrete and political. The book is both a protest and an appeal. Countering Sade, Beauvoir and Halimi show that the truth of torture lies in the unjustifiable politics of abusive power.
This question is raised early in her novel, All Men Are Mortal , the story of Fosca, a man who chooses to cheat death. His desire for immortality, however, is driven by his desire to realize the abstract ideal of humanism. Fosca does not embrace immortality to escape the ambiguities of the flesh and embodiment. His decision is motivated by his desire to save the world.
He believes that time is his enemy so long as his time is limited. He believes that with sufficient time he can take the humanist a project, bring it to closure and secure it from failure. Fosca learns, however, that contrary to his initial belief, time becomes his enemy when it stretches endlessly before him. It is not time that he needs to secure his vision, but the commitment of others. No amount of time can secure that. As immortal, Fosca confronts the inevitability of failure that haunts humanity. Unlike mortals, however, who, confronted with the constraints of time, take up their failures with passion, Fosca becomes immobilized.
Indifference to life replaces the passion for life. In the end, he discovers the crucial truth of ethical action from his many-generations-removed grandson, Armand.
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Understanding that the future belongs to others who may or may not take up his projects, Armand commits himself to the concrete possibilities of the present. His passion is embodied in the appeal to others, not in an abstract goal that, however just it might seem, would deny future generations the right to determine their own destiny.
In All Men Are Mortal the givenness of finitude and death concerns our relationship to time. The bodies of her mother and Sartre are given to us in all their disturbing breakdowns and deteriorations. Some have found these works cold, insensitive and even cruel. She is showing us who we are.
It is but one phase of the life of the body. As we age, the body begins losing them. It is quite another to refuse to attend to the full range of embodied life and to assess the value of that life in terms of its I can possibilities. It trains a phenomenological lens on biological, psychological and sociological factors in order to understand the phenomenon of marginalized otherness. In reflecting on The Second Sex , Beauvoir says that were she to write it again she would pay less attention to the abstract issue of consciousness and more attention to the material conditions of scarcity.
Though it is impossible to say what a revised version of The Second Sex would look like, The Coming of Age gives us some idea of how it might read. Considered the father of phenomenology, Edmund Husserl — , a German mathematician-turned-philosopher, was an extremely complicated and technical thinker whose views changed considerably over the years. Its most-notable adherent was Martin Heidegger — , whose masterpiece, Being and Time , appeared in the Jahrbuch in Existentialism, true to its roots in Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, was oriented toward two major themes: the analysis of human existence, or Being, and the centrality of human choice.
Thus, its chief theoretical energies were devoted to ontology and decision. Existentialism as a philosophy of human existence was best expressed in the work of the German philosopher Karl Jaspers — , who came to philosophy from medicine and psychology. For Jaspers as for Dewey, the aim of philosophy is practical.
It is through a confrontation with these extremes that the individual realizes his existential humanity. The chief representative of existentialism as a philosophy of human decision was the French philosopher and man of letters Jean-Paul Sartre — Sartre too was concerned with Being and with the dread experienced before the threat of Nothingness. But he found the essence of this Being in liberty—in freedom of choice and the duty of self-determination. Sartre did not overlook the legitimate obstacles to freedom presented by the facts of place, past, environment , society, and death.
However, he demanded that one surmount these limitations through acts of conscious decision, for only in acts of freedom does human existence achieve authenticity.
After World War II, Sartre came to believe that his philosophy of freedom had wrongly ignored problems of social justice , and in his later work, especially the Critique of Dialectical Reason , he sought to reconcile existentialism with Marxism.