Academic journal article South African Journal of Philosophy

From Hostility to Hope: Beauvoir's Joyful Turn to Hegel in the Ethics of Ambiguity

Academic journal article South African Journal of Philosophy

From Hostility to Hope: Beauvoir's Joyful Turn to Hegel in the Ethics of Ambiguity

Article excerpt


Kojève's lectures on Phenomenology of Spirit generated two ideas - otherness is something threatening that must be overcome and one's relationships with others are inexorably violent - that fundamentally shaped the way many exponents of early French phenomenology regarded intersubjectivity. This essay shows how Beauvoir's appropriation of Hegel in The Ethics of Ambiguity offers a perspective on intersubjectivity that defies the other-conquering Cartesian hero implied by Kojève and celebrated in Sartre's Being and Nothingness. Beauvoir appreciates the degree to which Hegel makes subjectivity indebted to otherness. Like Hegel, she defines oppression as the failure to recognise the otherness of the other. Beauvoir shares Hegel's optimism that individuals can sublate their naïve solipsism. She associates reciprocal recognition between subjects with ethical freedom, which she distinguishes from Sartre's concept of freedom. From the analysis of ethical freedom it is concluded that both conflict and friendship are side-effects of the essential bond between subjects and their mutual need for one another. The Hegel-inspired hopefulness at the core of The Ethics of Ambiguity is further demonstrated by Beauvoir's rejection of the absurd in favour of ambiguity, her positive rendering of failure, her appeal to outrageousness, and focus on the joy of existence.

Introduction: Two readings of Phenomenology of Spirit

Who could deny that the neo-Marxist and para-Heideggerian reading of the Phenomenology of Spirit by Kojève is interesting? It played a formative and not negligible role, from many standpoints, for a certain generation of French intellectuals, just before or just after the war. (Derrida 1994:72)

But friendship and generosity ... are not facile virtues; they are assuredly man's highest achievement, and through that achievement he is to be found in his true nature. But this true nature is that of a struggle unceasingly begun, unceasingly abolished; it requires man to outdo himself at every moment. (Beauvoir 1997: 172)

Early French phenomenology can be understood as a reaction of a generation of scholars to a philosophical tradition, dominated by Cartesian rationalism and Kantian transcendentalism, which they felt could not meaningfully respond to the world beyond the inner life of the individual. The individualism in which their academic formative years were steeped, explains Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1964: 88-89), typically envisioned man as a cogito that was isolated from history and treated the social "like a thing", in other words, man as some kind of abstract category outside and prior to society. The onset of World War II precipitated the search for a kind of philosophy that could engage in the "concrete". The emergence of a philosophy of lived experience was shaped by two academic events: the introduction of German phenomenology and a revival of interest in G.W.F. Hegel, propelled by Alexandre Kojève's legendary lectures on Phenomenology of Spirit (1977).

Now, Phenomenology of Spirit can be read on three levels. It is a phenomenology insofar as it describes the journey of Spirit as it traverses the various developments of consciousness. It is an epistemology insofar as it charts "the detailed history of the education of consciousness itself to the standpoint of Science" (Hegel 1977: 50); in other words, a treatise on philosophical development that follows the progress of the philosopher, having taken into account the history of philosophical thought and then coming to a new, comprehensive understanding of knowledge. It is also an anthropology, a discourse on self-identity, or a "kind of auto-biography" (Solomon 1983: 197), in which the individual comes to understand himself, particularly with regards to his relationship with others. Kojève's lectures, anthologised in Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures on Phenomenology of Spirit (1969),1 offered his students an "anthropologistic" interpretation of Hegel's text, steeped in a mixture of Marxism and Heidegger's phenomenological existentialism - a rendering that seemingly answered the call for an alternative to bourgeois individualism. …

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