“As long as there have been men and they have lived, they have all felt this tragic ambiguity of their condition, but as long as there have been philosophers and they have thought, most of them have tried to mask it.”
Simone de Beauvoir
French philosopher and social theorist, Simone de Beauvoir, classmate of Simone Weil and Maurice Merleau-Ponty and life-long lover of Jean Paul Sartre, developed as a writer, intellectual, and activist before she passed away in 1986. Her life-long relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre and her influential text, The Second Sex, put her on the map. Her work celebrates a constructivist view of identity, the notion that one’s identity is influenced and constructed in a community.
This posture of identity is situated counter to an essentialist view, the idea that one has an essential self or a core identity. The spirit of construction is evident in her most well-known phrase, “One is not born a woman, but rather becomes, a woman.” A charge to become woman requires a kind of existential courage, especially when confronting the ambiguity inherent in the process of becoming. This is the spirit of The Ethics of Ambiguity (1947).
Simone de Beauvoir is one of the first thinkers to differentiate between sex and gender – a distinction that is commonplace in our contemporary moment. This is the idea that sex is used to reference the anatomical parts of a person, while gender is a socially constructed designation.
As the American Philosopher and Gender theorist Judith Butler points out, this distinction between sex and gender leads one to conclude that “being ‘female’ and being ‘woman’ are two very different sorts of being.” For Simone de Beauvoir, there is no such thing as a “natural woman,” for she is always socially constructed.
“When she does not find love, she may find poetry. Because she does not act, she observes, she feels, she records; a color, a smile awakens profound echoes within her; her destiny is outside her, scattered in cities already built, on the faces of men already marked by life, she makes contact, she relishes with passion and yet in a manner more detached, more free, than that of a young man. Being poorly integrated in the universe of humanity and hardly able to adapt herself therein, she, like the child, is able to see it objectively; instead of being interested solely in her grasp on things, she looks for their significance; she catches their special outlines, their unexpected metamorphoses. She rarely feels a bold creativeness, and usually she lacks the technique of self-expression; but in her conversation, her letters, her literary essays, her sketches, she manifests an original sensitivity. The young girl throws herself into things with ardor, because she is not yet deprived of her transcendence; and the fact that she accomplishes nothing, that she is nothing, will make her impulses only the more passionate. Empty and unlimited, she seeks from within her nothingness to attain All.”
Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex
In her 1947 work, The Ethics of Ambiguity, Simone de Beauvoir picks up where Jean Paul Sartre left off by articulating an ethics for his influential work, Being and Nothingness, and simultaneously lays the foundation for her influential work, The Second Sex, published in 1949. The Ethics of Ambiguity has three parts and a short conclusion.
PART I: AMBIGUITY AND FREEDOM
Following Jean Paul Sartre’s lead, Simone de Beauvoir articulates man’s freedom that stems from one’s ontological status of nothingness. Everything one is – is a matter of choice. The ambiguity arises out of the notion that man is both subject and object – fundamentally free and confined to the world – the term she uses for the latter is facticity.
“As long as there have been men and they have lived, they have all felt this tragic ambiguity of their condition, but as long as there have been philosophers and they have thought, most of them have tried to mask it. They have striven to reduce mind to matter, or to reabsorb matter into mind, or to merge them within a single substance.”
“Man, Sartre tells us is "a being who makes himself a lack of being in order that there might be being." That means, first of all, that his passion is not inflicted upon him from without. He chooses it."
The choice she emphasizes in this context is the foundation of her argument in The Second Sex: “One is not born a woman, but rather becomes, a woman.”
With this social construction comes an inherent ambiguity that accompanies the process of becoming. This ambiguity stems from the multiple ways that identity is constructed, specifically through volition and culture.
An important question we need to ask when considering the ways in which our identities are constructed is to what extent we have agency. In other words, who is the “I” who thinks, feels, knows, and acts? What do we do with the cogito? How might the cogito differ from the body, especially the female body.
Simone de Beauvoir is writing during a time in which thinkers are reconfiguring the cogito as conceived of by Rene Descartes in the 17th Century. In 1949 the British philosopher, Gilbert Ryle, publishes the book, Philosophy of Mind, which refers to Descarte’s mind/body split as the “ghost in the machine” and the Cartesian Myth. The ghost in this context echoes the etymology of the Greek term psyche – “the ghost that thinks.”
PART II: PERSONAL FREEDOM AND OTHERS
Part of man’s plight, according to Simone de Beauvoir, stems from one’s relationship to others. It starts with man orienting himself to others as a child and recognizing that he did not help construct the world to which he belongs. Additionally, “he believes in the being of his parents and teachers” and because the order of things seems definite and substantial, “he thinks that he too as being.”
"Man's unhappiness, says Descartes, is due to his having first been a child. And indeed the unfortunate choices which most men make can only be explained by the fact that they have taken place on the basis of childhood. The child's situation is characterized by his finding himself cast into a universe which he has not helped to establish, which has been fashioned without him, and which appears to him as an absolute to which he can only submit. In his eyes, human inventions, words, customs, and values are given facts, as inevitable as the sky and the trees."
What follows is the existential dread or anxiety as the child’s world begins to unravel. The individual finds flaws in the perfectly ordered system. If man’s freedom is concealed from him, de Beauvoir argues, he’ll forever remain nostalgic for the past when his world and his relationship to others seemed more stable.
When those in society revolt against the social order, de Beauvoir points out the positive aspects to their negation. She turns to surrealism to show how the radical thought left some to commit suicide while others chose to give into marriage, politics, or religion.
"Even the surrealists who have wanted to remain faithful to themselves have been unable to avoid returning to the positive, to the serious. The negation of aesthetic, spiritual, and moral values has become an ethics; unruliness has become a rule."
PART III: THE POSITIVE ASPECTS OF AMBIGUITY
The freedom that accompanies Simone de Beauvoir’s ethics manifests in various ways.
A man gives himself to a Cause only by making it his Cause; as he fulfills himself within it, it is also through him that it expressed, and the will to power is not distinguished in such a case from generosity; when an individual or a party chooses to triumph, whatever the cost may be, it is their own triumph which they take for an end."