Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Simone De Beauvoir's Existentialist Ontology

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Simone De Beauvoir's Existentialist Ontology

Article excerpt

The ancient Athenians believed that their forebears sprang directly from the earth rather than being created by gods or born of human parents. In some version of the myth, the ancestor was depicted as having a man's form above the waist and a snake's form below: "Having emerged from the earth, he still in part resembled the creature that slips to and fro between the upper and lower worlds."'1 At the beginning of her 1947 work, The Ethics of Ambiguity, Simone de Beauvoir asserts that there is a fundamental ambiguity to human life. According to her, every human, like the chthonic ancestor of the Athenians, exists at the same time in two realms: "he is still part of the world of which he is conscious."2 Rooted as they are in the earth, humans can transcend their material origin in thought but they can never escape it.

She cites many ways that this ambiguity is manifested in human life. Humans live and they die. They can retreat to an internal realm of consciousness free from external restraints, but they always exist as bodies, as things "crushed by the dark weight of other things."3 They can discover seemingly eternal truths, including the truth of their own ambiguity, but they are always tied to the fleeting moment of the present. Each is a unique individual immersed in the collective whole of humanity.

Most philosophers, she says, try to escape the tension that accepting this basic ambiguity entails by constructing systems that privilege one of a pair of opposed terms. In the modern Western tradition the prevalent distinction is between mind and matter, or the corollary distinction between mind and body. Materialist philosophers attempt to reduce one side of this pair, mind, to the other, matter. Idealists of different stripes attempt the opposite. Dualists, on the other hand, settle for a permanent stand-off, with both co-existing in the individual human being, in Francis Jeanson's words, "like eternal strangers."4 Spirit and Nature are the names that Hegel gives to the two opposing poles. More ingeniously, he attempts "to reject none of the aspects of man's condition and to reconcile all of them." But Beauvoir repudiates Hegel's "marvelous optimism".5 Siding instead with Kierkegaard, she characterizes the ambiguity of the human condition as tragic. Like the conflicts at the heart of Greek tragedy, it cannot be overcome but must be played through to the end.

But why can it not be overcome? Beauvoir gives no argument here. Rather she implies that there is a relation of dependence existing between the poles. She says of the human being: "he is nothing more that an individual in the collectivity on which he depends."6 The individual is dependent on the human community for its birth and sustenance. There is an "original helplessness from which man springs up."7 Likewise, the existence of consciousness is dependent on the human body and its continuing functioning. For this reason, death, as Beauvoir stresses, is inevitable and indeed possible at any moment. And because consciousness is interwoven with the body a human can become an object for another human.8 Finally, without consciousness there can be no revelation of enduring truths. But consciousness depends on the body, which exists in time, not in an atemporal realm.9

The ambiguity of the human condition cannot be overcome because of the dependence of consciousness on the body and the self on others. Materialist philosophers, given that they accept the distinct existence of consciousness at all, would readily endorse this conclusion that consciousness is dependent on something material. Beauvoir does not attempt a refutation of materialism in this essay, noting only that if mind could be completely reduced to matter morality would not be possible: "moral consciousness can exist only to the extent that there is disagreement between nature and morality."10 Many philosophers before her have argued that materialism denies free will, which makes ethics impossible. …

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