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This Ambiguous Life: Act 1

May 10, 2009

Act 1: The Dissertation

As someone who is dissertating (or who is blogging while she should be dissertating), I often get asked what my dissertation is “about.”  I do realize that in some cases the underlying question is probably, “What about this dissertation-thing is so darn complicated that it takes you years to write it?”  But I generally answer with the following response, a response that I have whittled down and crafted over the past two years:

I’m writing on Simone de Beauvoir’s The Ethics of Ambiguity and its relevance to contemporary feminist philosophy.

Sleek and concise, right?

Of course, if someone wants to know what Beauvoir argues in The Ethics of Ambiguity, I am often unable to offer such a sleek and concise response.  That is, unless I have the following excerpt from my dissertation handy in my pocket:

Beauvoir claims that the human situation is fundamentally ambiguous.  This ambiguity results from various irresolvable tensions that humans encounter in their subjective experience: we experience ourselves both as subjective agents and as “objects” in the worlds of others.  We are subjectively conscious of the world, yet we also make up parts of the worlds of which others are conscious.  In this same vein, we can experience both a solitary isolation from and an inextricable bond to the rest of the world.  We can feel a sense of unfettered freedom yet also feel weighed down by the limitations that the world imposes upon us.  We can experience ourselves as individuals and as members of a collectivity.  Among those with whom we have a relationship, we can experience our sovereign importance as individuals; but among those for whom we are anonymous, we can experience relative insignificance (EA 8-9).  And with each step we take to “build” our lives, we move closer to our deaths (EA 7).


Beauvoir adds that the ethical life involves “assuming” this ambiguity and integrating it into the ways in which we approach the world: that is, acknowledging the ambiguities of our experience and ensuring that we do not obscure these ambiguities when theorizing about or acting in the world.

Loftiness and abstruseness aside, one could claim that Beauvoir is “simply” pointing out the philosophical messiness of life and stating that we should all make sure that our ethics can accommodate this messiness.

It’s a fine idea, I do believe.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. renbeth permalink
    May 10, 2009 4:01 pm

    What’s funny to me, as a non-philosopher, is that all the other people writing about ethics wouldn’t have this acknowledgment of the messiness and ambiguity of life be a given. I have not read much Beauvoir, but from what you have told me and what little I’ve read, I do think she seems both insightful and realistic, qualities which seem quite necessary to creating a theory of ethics. Maybe too many other philosophers leave out the realistic part? 😉

  2. BirthingBeautifulIdeas permalink*
    May 10, 2009 9:47 pm

    Whoever said that philosophers had a good grasp on reality? 😉

  3. renbeth permalink
    May 11, 2009 2:10 pm

    Haha. Not me ;).

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