Existential Freedom: Simon de Beauvoir

Beauvoir presents an existential account of freedom by continuing with Sartre’s thinking of man as free, but emphasizing the ambiguity man faces by simultaneously existing in freedom and facticity, as a free being in a concrete world (7).  Man escapes from his natural condition, she says, through the freedom of rationality and the pure internality. Men have “striven to reduce mind to matter, or to reabsorb matter into mind, or to merge them within a single substance.” (7) What arises is the inherent paradox of man.

Beauvoir does not want to escape the ambiguity, like so many philosophers and thinkers have done in the past, but to accept the ambiguity and live within it, that is, “accept the task of realizing it” (13). She calls the tendency to deny, or negate, or escape the ambiguity of existence cowardice, saying that this method doesn’t pay. (8)

The existential conversion, Beauvoir says, “does not suppress my instincts, desires, plans, and passions, it merely prevents any possibility of failure by refusing to set up absolutes the ends toward which my transcendence thrusts itself, and by considering them in their connection with the freedom which projects them.” (14) This passage addresses the incarnation of subjective ends through subjective freedom. In this way she says that the world is a place willed by man which “expresses his genuine reality” (17). She emphasizes 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” (18).  This raises the question of how unique and separate men can live in ethical harmony. Her answer is that “an ethics of ambiguity will be one which will reduce to deny a priori that separate existents can, at the same time,  be bound to each other, that their individual freedoms can forge laws valid for all” (18).

To be free, then, requires the conscious spontaneous choice of projects undertaken moment by moment. These projects must be positively assumed, says Beauvoir, and the weight of the concrete consequences of these choices of the will must be accepted as a result of our fundamental freedom (24, 32). Meaning “surges up only by the disclosure which a free subject effects in his project.” (20) Thus, the principles of ethical action will be discovered as inextricable from choices and freedom (23). In the same way, the will to be moral and the will to be free are one in the same. (24) But a tension arises nonetheless from the disclosure of being. While the justification of life requires the realization of particular concrete ends, it also requires itself universally (24).  As a result, the relationship of a being with others is integral the Beauvoir’s existential thought.

Beauvoir emphasizes the failure of man as a central component to freedom, citing philosophers who wrestle with this failure as absurdity or anguish, the otherwise overall lack of answers. Beauvoir states that “nothing is decided in advance, and it is because man has something to lose and because he can lose that he can also win.” (34) In this way life is marked by activity and ambiguity enmeshed in the situated affairs of other men, all of which objectify the others.

Beauvoir describes the complex situation that free man finds himself in by illustrating the condition as men born into the world like children. A child comes into the world that is determined for them. They act according to the rules and structures pre-established. So long as a man continues acting according to this world, and never for himself, he is kept in a state of servitude and servile. (37) There is no exercise of freedom and the world is seen as a serious place. (38) Eventually the infantile world gives way to adolescence as questions are asked and discovery of subjectivity arises. (39) Not so with slaves. Even women, Beauvoir says, at least have a choice as to whether to choose or consent to the world imposed on them (38). The child is unique in that, whereas man draws upon the character of his past to make choices, the child has no character to draw from and must set it up “little by little” (40).

Beauvoir sets up several categories describing how humans seek to escape their responsibility and freedom by delineating the nature of the “sub-man”, the “serious man”, as well as the “nihilist” and the “adventurer”. The sub-man is a manifestation of bad faith and apathy by constraining activity through the denial of their freedom (44).  The sub-man is barely man at all, living in constant boredom and sloth. This sub-man is often manipulated by the serious man as an object. The serious man is an attitude that seeks freedom of objective standards and values which in turn denies freedom (47). The serious man does not act authentically because the action is not willed from freedom, its goals are not established with freedom as a goal, but rather as instruments revered in various ways as useful or right or good for some end (48-9). As soon as these objective external ends are removed from the serious man, his life loses all meaning (51).

The nihilist is a failed serious man, essentially “conscious of being unable to be anything, man then decided to be nothing” (52). The assertion of nothingness is not a result of freedom, but a result of denial found as a disappointed seriousness which “turns back upon itself”.  The nihilist is right in thinking that the world possesses no justification, but forgets that it is up to him to justify the world and instantiate himself (57).

The last is the adventurer who rejects the attitudes of the serious man and the nihilist (60). He accepts his freedom and projects, but he forgets the role of the others and thus exists in pure egoism and selfishness (61). He is therefore apt to treat others are mere instruments and sacrifice others for the attainment of personal power. In this way the adventurer is the ultimate tyrant, seeking independence and submitting to no other master but his own ends, no other master than the supreme master he makes himself (62). In this way the adventurer maintains a subjective positivity that is not extended toward others. Thus he exists in a false independence that falsely believes one can act for oneself without acting for all. (63)

Works Cited

de Beauvoir, Simone. The Ethics of Ambiguity. New York: Citadel Press, 1948.

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