Love and Ambiguity
May 30, 2010

French philosopher and novelist Simone de Beauvoir
Image via Wikipedia

It’s been a few days, but I promised Jess I would get to this, and I’m a man of my word. Let’s talk about the phenomenology of love as outlined in Beauvoir’s The Ethics of Ambiguity.

Beauvoir, like most existentialists, rejects the notion of inherent, objective value, arguing that something only has value to us in the moment that it is snatched away from us. When a thing is in one’s own hands, it is merely a tool to be used and taken for granted; but before we possess it, we can covet it, and when it is taken away we can miss it. For Beauvoir, the same thing applies to love.

In loving another person, we project towards the goal of being one with that person, of being “completed” by each other. Of course, that will never happen, and the object of your love will always remain a separate consciousness, a country with unexplored territory. This is something to be grateful for.

Why? Because, as Beauvoir says, to completely merge with a loved one would make that love impossible. It would be the end of the project toward which love projects. To be in love is to feel the exquisite ache of desiring something that is always just out of reach, but also the joy of continually inching closer to that goal.

Paradoxically, to love someone is also to wish for that person’s freedom. That’s because it is only the freedom of the object of your love that gives the project of love meaning. Only a free consciousness can freely reciprocate that love, and only a free consciousness can forever elude the possession towards which love projects but never reaches.

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“Bracketing” and The Second Sex
May 29, 2010

Le Deuxieme Sexe
Image by ainudil via Flickr

Fortuitously, the day on which I was planning about writing about Simone de Beauvoir’s philosophy of love as articulated briefly in The Ethics of Ambiguity also happens to be the day that the New York Times decides to run a review of the newest translation of her landmark feminist work, The Second Sex. I haven’t read The Second Sex, but it’s the work that Beauvoir is most well-known for, so I was curious to learn a little about the content.

Here’s what I learned: If the passages excerpted in the review are any indication, then The Ethics of Ambiguity is the better of the two, by far. Here’s a taste from the review:

 Females of all living species are “first violated … then alienated” by the process of fertilization. Derogatory phrases like “the servitude of maternity,” “woman’s absurd fertility,” the “exhausting servitude” of breast-feeding, abound. (How could they not, since the author sees heterosexual love in general as “a mortal danger?”) According to Beauvoir, a girl’s first menstruation, which many of us welcomed with excitement and pride, is met instead with “disgust and fear. ” It “ inspires horror” and “signifies illness, suffering and death.”

Yeeeeah. Wow. But the misstep I find most intriguing is when Beauvoir insists that, “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” That sounds a lot like Sartre’s argument—which I criticized yesterday—that biology plays no causal role when it comes to sexual desire. Nor, Beauvoir argues, does it play any causal role when it comes to gender identity. Even if you think gender is fluid and malleable (which I do), that seems kind of absurd.

And it’s absurd for the same reason. Beauvoir and Sartre both, I think, ignore the lessons of the existentialist’s best friend: the phenomenologist.

Phenomenology is a philosophical tradition very closely tied to existentialism; so much so that many major works of phenomenology contain pretty major traces of existentialist thought (such as in Heidegger’s Being and Time), and vice versa (such as in Sartre’s own Being and Nothingness). This cousin to existentialism concerns itself with the study of being-in-the-world, or the organizational features of our experience of the world. Most works of phenomenology do this without making any judgments about the character of the world itself.

Husserl, one of the fathers of phenomenology, called this “bracketing,” by which he meant setting aside questions about the world around us. For example, a phenomenologist might describe the experience and sensation I have of typing out this blog post on a keyboard and staring at a screen, but he is describing it only as it exists in my head, without making any judgments about the nature of the actual keyboard or screen … or, for that matter, about whether they even exist at all.

Existentialism works best, I think, when it, too, brackets these questions. That’s because, while existentialist notions of the nothingness and infinite freedom of consciousness don’t seem to bear out from empirical study—human beings are fairly predictable and causally determined, by and large—it is an incredibly potent description of the phenomenological experience of being a person.

So Beauvoir and Sartre are correct to a certain extent. Sartre is correct that one doesn’t experience sexual desire as a purely biological sensation (what would it even mean to have a sensation like that?), and Beauvoir is correct that one experiences the behavior and social conventions we attach to gender identity as completely conscious, voluntary things that we could shed at a moment’s notice. But just because we experience the sensation of freedom, doesn’t mean we are free in anything beyond the phenomenological sense.

Update: Okay. Maybe I’m just digging myself deeper, but I feel like I need to clarify some things. So for the record, here’s what I was not doing in the above post:

1.) Offering a critique, in any way, shape, or form, of feminism.

2.) Offering any meaningful critique of the whole of The Second Sex. (It’s no sleight to say that it’s not as good as The Ethics of Ambiguity on a conceptual level, because The Ethics of Ambiguity is damn near perfect.)

3.) Dismissing Beauvoir (who, I should stress again, is one of my favorite philosophers).

4.) Suggesting that gendered behavior is solely the result of rigid biological determinism.

This post was meant mostly as a critique of existentialism. For that critique, I took as a premise that while much of gender is fluid and culturally constructed, biological/physiological factors are not completely irrelevant. That doesn’t just apply to gendered behavior but to a whole host of different character traits; I just chose to focus on gender specifically because it seemed timely with the review coming out today.

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Only God Can Save Us, But Who Wants to Be Saved?
May 18, 2010

Simone de Beauvoir
Image via Wikipedia

In the comments for my Heidegger post, Dylan writes:

I’m operating on a semester-old reading of B&T here, but even authentic Dasein are indebted to Das Man inasmuch as their authenticity is a result of untethering oneself from Das Man. Viewed collectively, this is pretty unsatisfying. Wouldn’t one be thrown into possibilities even if all those already in the world are authentic? They’d just be different possibilities. This seems like a case where, at a more radical level, only a God can save us. This is me and not Heidegger talking, of course, but I do think there are serious religious possibilities in his account of being-toward-death.

Which is to say this is another edition of “Kierkegaard and Tillich got it right”.

I’m not so sure about that, although that could in part be because I’m misreading Dylan’s objection. But it seems to me that he’s saying he objects to the lack of a natural endpoint in Heidegger’s philosophy. Kierkegaard thinks that we are in despair until we achieve a relation between the opposing forces within ourself; Heidegger, like most of the later existentialists, seems to think that we will always have some sort of struggle, and nothing can save us from it. We will always have anxiety, and we will always feel despair.

Personally, I don’t find that as unsatisfying as Dylan seems to. In fact, if “saved” means what I think it means in this case, I’m not so sure I want to be saved. Noted frumpy philosopher Simone de Beauvoir does, I think, the best job of explaining why.

Beauvoir thinks humans are fundamentally free, that freedom consisting of the ability to assign meaning to things within the world. We exercise this freedom through the goals we project ourselves towards. That means that if one does reach a natural endpoint and accomplishes all of his goals, he needs to find some others or else he is no longer willing his own freedom into existence. If you don’t have a goal to project towards, then you are not assigning anything meaning; and if you are not bringing meaning into the world, then your life itself has no real meaning.

You can bet I’ll be expanding on this idea, and its implications, in the future. Especially because I’m currently reading The Ethics of Ambiguity, Beauvoir’s great work of existentialist ethics, which so far is the most personally resonant and convincing metaethical work I’ve read. Since Freddie is the clubhouse’s resident Beauvoir expert, maybe we can persuade him to offer some insights.

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