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Simone de Beauvoir and Ambiguity

Updated: Mar 28, 2022

A recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center highlighted that Christians and the religiously non-affiliated differ significantly on the belief that most things in society can be divided neatly into the mutually opposed categories of good and evil, with Christians being far more likely to express affirmation in this dichotomy. Let's explore the concept of these dichotomies alongside the writings of French existentialist thinker Simone de Beauvoir, who linked her underlying experience as a woman in the mid-twentieth century to her philosophy of ambiguity.

Simone de Beauvoir at home

As humans, we seem to have a deep love for dichotomy - a division of ideas into two clear categories that are mutually exclusive or directly opposed. Consider our penchant for good and evil, light and dark, left and right, man and woman, subject and object, heaven and hell - and that ultimate philosophical conundrum why is there something rather than nothing? Humans seem to have a deep longing for the certainty and cleanliness represented by the dichotomy of ideas.

Simone de Beauvoir, born in Paris in 1908 to bourgeoise parents, became a notable French existentialist thinker and writer of both philosophical fiction and non-fiction during the mid-twentieth century. In her most well-known work, the 1949 book The Second Sex, Beauvoir asks the pivotal question - What is woman? - with her foundational answer being that "one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman." In saying this Beauvoir did not mean to create a positive mantra of womanhood but rather claims that woman is formed inextricably by cultural constructs and historical subjugation, rather than the unopposed development of intellect or biology. Indeed, Beauvoir argues that history has viewed woman as the fundamental other, set up as an unyielding dichotomy of man versus woman, with man being synonymous with human.

"If I want to define myself, I first have to say, I am a woman; all other assertions will arise from this basic truth. A man never begins by positing himself as an individual of a certain sex: that he is a man is obvious."

Beauvoir criticizes the (mostly male) philosophers of the past for attempting to mask the ambiguity of the human condition in favor of dichotomy. To Beauvoir, the ambiguity is obvious precisely because she is a woman and is all too aware of being treated as an object, yet internally feeling the primacy of her own subjectivity. Man does not need to question his subjectivity, just as he does not need to propose his sex - he is first and foremost a human being, a member of the whole, but a woman is secondary by nature of her sex, the quintessential other.

Beauvoir publishes her treatise The Ethics of Ambiguity in 1947 as a culmination of her ideas on the subject, further rejecting the dichotomies that we cling to as humans and positing that they are merely "reasonable metaphysics" and "doctrines which choose to leave in the shadow certain troubling aspects of a too complex situation." She argues that there exists no absolute dichotomies, that these are a comforting fiction to help us reconcile the freedom and uncertainty represented by being an individual among a sea of others within the human race.

"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. In turn an object for others, he is nothing more than an individual in the collectivity on which he depends."

Modern society and technological developments have allowed us to glimpse more readily than ever before the lives of those who are very different from us, whether via culture, race, religion, gender, education, or otherwise. In the twenty-first century it is difficult to find an excuse for ignoring the staggering ambiguity and diversity of perspective that surrounds us on all sides. Moreover, science continues to illuminate that at the most fundamental level of physical reality, ambiguity forms the cornerstone of nature itself, with discoveries in physics underpinning the foundational complexity of the world. Furthermore, as we look behind us at human history we see how culture and perspective have changed gradually over millennia, never representing a static conception of God, humanity, right and wrong, theology, heaven and hell, or what it means to live a fulfilling life. So, we must ask ourselves: Why do we find dichotomy so appealing? And - are these dichotomies a reasonable and useful representation of reality?

Today we part with the exhortation of Simone de Beauvoir:

"Let us try to assume our fundamental ambiguity. It is in the knowledge of the genuine conditions of our life that we must draw our strength to live and our reason for acting."

Questions to ponder:

Do we lose something if we fail to consider the ambiguity of the world whether in our values, faith, or culture?

Are ambiguity and faith in specific religious doctrines inconsistent?

Why is there such a large difference in how self-identifying Christians view good and evil as compared to those who identify as non-religious?

Has ambiguity increased throughout history? Has the recognition of ambiguity increased throughout history? Why?

Can we have 100% certainty about anything?

Do we fit into neat categories as individuals? Which ones?


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