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Over the past couple of weeks, a considerable amount of people have found their way to this site while doing searches on the esteemed French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir. I have already written to some extent about the impact of her philosophy on my own epistemology, yet an epicure such as Madame de Beauvoir most certainly deserves her own separate inquiry. Now there are two distinct methods of approaching her philosophic analects: one is from the feminist perspective and the other is from the existential paradigm. As I have already written in a previous essay (The Ethics of Uncertainty), it is Ms de Beauvoir’s existential philosophy which has had the most marked influence on how I view the ontic versus the existent and their relation to ethical inquiry, so I wish to focus a little closer on that aspect of her thought along with the publications which are involved. But before I begin, I feel that I should first pay some homage to her megalithic contributions to feminist philosophy.
Not that I am ever asked too often, but when I am placed in a philosophic spotlight I always whole heartedly contend that Ms de Beauvoir is most responsible for not only initiating modern feminism but also for defining what we have come to understand by using the term feminism as a distinct philosophic concept. Her feminist ideations are found in her seminal polemic Le Deuxieme Sexe (The Second Sex), first published in 1949. In engaging this particular dialectic, she proffered forth a concept which is also cardinal to my own androcentric philosophy but I use it in discussing male homosexuality; this conception lies between differentiating the notions of sex and gender—sex being determined by one’s chromosomal make-up and gender being derived from cultural conditioning. She achieved this by criticism and use of the Hegelian concept of the Other. In seeing that women have classically been defined within patriarchal societies as others when compared to men, she correctly identified that women have an axiomatic right and duty to contemplate their own existential quandaries without reference to the masculine, something not even Mary Wollstonecraft was able to admit to.
This breakthrough in thought is what allowed feminism to find an efficacious utility in daily life. Women would no longer have to see themselves as inferior manifestations of men, but instead would realize that they are in fact independent humans with a distinct if not antithetical philosophic view towards existence which is equal in standing to a man’s. It is this independence of considered interest which has always caused ire within the patriarchal gaze. It also has always appeared plain to me at least that this male indignation towards female equality has its locus in monotheism which as a “philosophy” and not just as a form of religion, is by definition misogynistic as much as it is patriarchal in its world view; yes, the pleonasm in bloom here is quite intentional.
As fundamental as her views on patriarchy are, she still had some flawed notions on the interrelations of men and women which are best evinced in her essay Must we burn Sade? written in 1951. She was initially asked to write this essay as an introduction to a new printing of the Marquis de Sade’s novel Justine. As literary criticism, it is a brilliant essay which quite solidly and successfully argues the view that Sade should be considered a great luminary of French Literature. Madame De Beauvoir would still receive criticism though from the like’s of let’s say Andrea Dworkin (puritanical demagogue such as she was, thankfully off this mortal coil) for not seeing pornography as fundamentally denigrating to women. The more tenable reproach I see though is one that I have with Feminism in general, that being the female notion of being able to adjudicate male sexuality; this is a right and ability which no woman can ever hope to possess, just as any man can never endeavor to put forth critical judgement on female sexuality with out looking like a patriarchal fool. Madame De Beauvoir does indulge in this proclivity, though only slightly and never too egregiously.
Besides being a pornographer, Sade was also a philosopher of the Enlightenment who was very much engaged in the flux of socio-political ideas which were quite heady within his milieu. Concerning this aspect of his thought, I find concomitance with his atheism but take great umbrage towards his debased nihilism which he viewed as the (pre-Darwinian) apotheosis of human existence. Yet in consideration of this philosophy, it can be seen that the main idea behind the sexual relations depicted in his fiction is concerned solely with how the powerful abuse and excoriate the weak—regardless of one’s sex. This aspect to his writing she does not thoroughly register enough, instead being focused on finding and identifying qualities in Sade’s philosophy that mirror her own views on self-actualization. Nonetheless, Madame de Beauvoir clearly understood that it is in the patriarchal fear and hatred of the feminine that all female denigration can be found, yet one can not solely blame this male propensity on Sade. One must never fail to realize and acknowledge this reality of male psychology if one wishes to find any kind of solutions to manifestations of male-female animus, inherent or otherwise.
Now with that feminist throat clearing being accomplished, we can now turn to Ms de Beauvoir’s existential philosophy. What makes her so important in this particular philosophic moiety is in her ethical methodology. As an existentialist, in this regard she far surpassed her partner Jean-Paul Sartre. She first started exploring the ethics of existentialism in her book Pyrrhus et Cineas (1944). The overriding ethical theme of the book is found in the idea of freedom being intrinsic with not only human existence but also with the human moral sense. This was merely the foundation of her ethical thought though. It was not until 1947 that she would put forth her polemical juggernaut concerning existential ethics, Pour Une Morale de L’ambiguite (The Ethics of Ambiguity).
The thoughts contained in this book have probably had the most influence on how I bridge the ethics of Spinoza with modern Utilitarianism. Starting from the view and understanding that being human, a conscious animal in a contingent and meaningless universe, places man in a unique position as compared with any other creature on this planet regardless of the level of sentience. As she states in her introduction, “Man knows and thinks this tragic ambivalence which the animal and the plant merely undergo. A new paradox is thereby introduced into his destiny. ‘Rational animal,’ ‘thinking reed,’ he escapes from his natural condition without, freeing himself from it. He is still a part of this world of which he is a consciousness.(…)This privilege, which he alone possesses, of being a sovereign and unique subject amidst a universe of objects, is what he shares with all his fellow-men.” (Ethics of Ambiguity pg 7, 1948 edition)
Along with Sartre, de Beauvoir based her existentialism on the intersubjective make-up of human existence. As a social animal, man has evolved a moral sense out of the imperative needs arising from human interaction. Yes, we all are individual and have a subjective consciousness which we can never escape, but because we are a social species all of our separate subjectivities intrinsically come together intersubjectively. Therefore, there is no objective plane of human existence: “It is rather well known that the fact of being a subject is a universal fact and that the Cartesian cogito expresses both the most individual experience and the most objective truth. By affirming that the source of all values resides in the freedom of man, existentialism merely carries on the tradition of Kant, Fichte, and Hegel, who, in the words of Hegel himself, ‘have taken for their point of departure the principle according to which the essence of right and duty and the essence of the thinking and willing subject are absolutely identical.'(…)Whereas for existentialism, it is not impersonal universal man who is the source of values, but the plurality of concrete, particular men projecting themselves toward their ends on the basis of situations whose particularity is as radical and as irreducible as subjectivity itself.(…)There is an ethics only if there is a problem to solve.(…)An ethics of ambiguity will be one which will refuse to deny a priori that separate existants can, at the same time, be bound to each other, that their individual freedoms can forge laws valid for all.” (Ibid pg17-18)
All aspects of existence and essence come from within the individual and not from an outside source—so too does all ethical determinations and imperatives which are human inventions of necessity. Just as we all are still evolving primates, our ethics are also still evolving and will continue to as long as we exist. Each human (unless socio or psychopathic) must come up with their own moral compass which must serve not only themselves but all of us as we all are bound to each other in this contingent universe, struggling under duress from the same existential predicament. In this way we can never abnegate our responsibility to one another less we be judged and branded immoral, and treated socially as such. Madame de Beauvoir also exquisitely demolished the illogical nature of heteronomous ethics and the religious assertion that morals can only come from on high. As she states, “And the truth is that outside of existence there is nobody. Man exists. For him it is not a question of wondering whether his presence in the world is useful, whether life is worth the trouble of being lived. These questions make no sense. It is a matter of knowing whether he wants to live and under what conditions.(…)Dostoievsky asserted, ‘If god does not exist, everything is permitted.’ Today’s believers use this formula for their own advantage. To re-establish man at the heart of his destiny is, they claim, to repudiate all ethics. However, far from god’s absence authorizing all license, the contrary is the case, because man is abandoned on the earth, because his acts are definitive, absolute engagements. He bears the responsibility for a world which is not the work of a strange power, but of himself, where his defeats are inscribed, and his victories as well. A god can pardon, efface, and compensate. But if god does not exist, man’s faults are inexpiable.” (Ibid pg 15-16) Prendre Cette, Fous Religieux!
If you are new to this woman’s thought, I should think you would now have the spurred curiosity to seek out more knowledge with the intent of expanding your understanding of existence, especially if you have made it this far in reading this essay. As humans we are not only a valuing animal but we are also intrinsically an ethical animal as well. For me, Madame de Beauvoir definitely proved the inherent morally grey landscape of human existence and that we go at our own peril if we do not come to terms with our intersubjective existence and responsibility to one another. The sooner we realize that we as a species are in fact alone in this contingent universe—all of us facing the same predicament of existence—and that we have no outside form of consolation or appeal, the sooner I hope we will find ourselves able to fully advance and expand the borders of both our evolution and our consciousness.
There is a very old saying which goes: “Do what you must, come what may.” That amounts to saying in a different way that the result is not external to the good will which fulfills itself in aiming at it. If it came to be that each man did what he must, existence would be saved in each one without there being any need of dreaming of a paradise where all would be reconciled in death. (Ibid pg 159)