Simone de Beauvoir: A Philosophy of Liberation

I was pleased recently to find the full text of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Ethics of Ambiguity freely available online. De Beauvoir was one of a cadre of post-World War II French existentialists that also included Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and others. Her work provides a fascinating window into a unique point of view on what it is to be human and how that pertains to the struggle for political and spiritual liberty.

The starting point to understanding de Beauvoir is human freedom. Philosophers have had quite a debate about whether human beings have free will.(1) The French existentialists not only assume we do but make it the center point of their view of human nature.

They do this because of what is revealed by their methodology. The existentialists describe the human condition from a radically first-person point of view, the point of view of a free agent; and in doing so they try to avoid all preconceptions and presuppositions. De Beauvoir says “… let man put his will ‘in parentheses’ and he will thereby be brought to the consciousness of his true condition.”(2) By “in parentheses” she means that we set aside all theories from psychology, history, sociology, biology and similar sciences and we also set aside, as much as we can, all our taken-for-granted assumptions about who we are. Instead we describe our life purely as we experience it. Immersed in the first-person point of view and trying to avoid terminology from other disciplines, the existentialists employ cryptically evocative terms intended to lead us to new realizations about ourselves and our lives.

From this point of view there are three categories of stuff we find in our world.(3) The first is “I myself,” the self or person as each of us experiences himself or herself; the second is the world of non-human things; and the third is other people.

Each of us – each self, each person – has two fundamental characteristics. One is that we can be conscious of ourselves; we have self-awareness and can mentally step back from our engagement in life and examine, not just what we are engaged with but ourselves as engaged beings as well. The human is “… a being who … questions himself in his being, a being who is at a distance from himself ….” This ability is the root of the famous nothingness that both de Beauvoir and Sartre claim to be foundational: “… the nothingness which is at the heart of man is also the consciousness that he has of himself.” When you are observing yourself, the you that is doing the observing is not the you that is being observed. In all the elements of experience that you are observing, you the observer are not present. That’s the nothingness.

And this nothingness is free to choose, free to act, undetermined by any of what it is conscious of. The existentialists do not engage in the standard arguments about hard determinism, incompatibilism, and so forth that have populated the historical debate about free will. They just recognize that our activity – as observed in this impartial, presuppositionless way – just happens, springing forth from the same nothingness that underlies our experience. Just as you the observer cannot be observed, neither can you the agent be observed. You could say that human freedom is a premise of her whole argument, not a result of any logical deduction, but certainly not unexamined either. She does not use the term, but she is asserting agent causality; the human being, she says, is “a cause of itself.” She uses the term “existence” for this kind of being, the kind of being that can transcend itself to become more than what it already has been.

The second category is everything that is not human, that does not have self-awareness and freedom. She calls this “facticity” or “brute fact.” This includes all physical objects, such as tables and chairs, rocks and trees, as well as animals and plants that may be conscious of their world but are not conscious of themselves. The factical is just there; it does not act and cannot transcend itself.

But the factical depends on the human for its being. The nothingness that we each fundamentally are “discloses being.” This does not make any sense from an objective, scientific point of view, but from the existential point of view it does, because by “being” she means what is just there as an element in our experience. Consider a beautiful sunset. Without our experience of the beauty, would there be beauty? Without our experience of the colors would there even be color? From a scientific point of view we can say that there would be light waves of a certain frequency and intensity. But there is only color and beauty if someone is there to experience them. If we understand this distinction between existence – what we are – and being – what only exists (for us) as disclosed to us in our experience –, then we can begin to make some sense of enigmatic passages such as these:

My freedom must not seek to trap being but to disclose it. The disclosure is the transition from being to existence. The goal which my freedom aims at is conquering existence across the always inadequate density of being.
The trick of tyrants is to enclose a man in the immanence of his facticity and to try to forget that man is always, as Heidegger puts it, ‘infinitely more than what he would be if he were reduced to being what he is’ ….

The third category is other people, disclosed through what Heidegger called Mitsein, or being-with. We recognize that others are like us, that each of them is an existence, a freedom, that can transcend itself just as we can. But they are also objects, factical things, that can get in our way or that can be useful to us. And, as they regard us, we become factical and thing-like for them.

The ambiguity that de Beauvoir refers to in the title of her work is just this: that each of us is both an existence, a freedom, “a pure internality against which no external power can take hold” and simultaneously a facticity, “a thing crushed by the dark weight of other things.” (Existentialists, unlike, say, analytic philosophers, can be quite dramatic.) And the ethical question is how to comport ourselves while being true to both aspects of our existence.

She rejects any notion of an absolute goodness or moral imperative that exists on its own. There are no goals or ends to which we are obliged to devote ourselves outside of what we ourselves choose as our projects. “It is desire which creates the desirable, and the project which sets up the end. It is human existence which makes values spring up in the world on the basis of which it will be able to judge the enterprise in which it will be engaged.” Once you have a project – to accomplish something at work, or to raise healthy children, or to create a work of art, or to pursue a hobby – then values spring up in relation to it. There are activities that will promote or hinder your accomplishment of it. But what justifies the project itself?

It is a common complaint about existentialism that it provides no basis for ethics. “[I]f man is free to define for himself the conditions of a life which is valid in his own eyes, can he not choose whatever he likes and act however he likes?” But, de Beauvoir responds, there is one goal that comes with being human: the exercise of freedom itself. “[H]uman freedom is the ultimate, the unique end to which man should destine himself,” she says. Freedom is the “universal, absolute end.”

In this she is quite Aristotelian, although she does not acknowledge it. The goal or end of being human, says Aristotle, is to do well what humans uniquely do. When you are exercising your function – which, for de Beauvoir, is to exercise freedom – then you are fulfilled and experience happiness. Happiness as such is not a goal for the existentialists, but the exercise of the uniquely human function is: “If man wishes to save his existence, as only he himself can do, his original spontaneity must be raised to the height of moral freedom by taking itself as an end through the disclosure of a particular content.” By “disclosure of a particular content” she means the projects that we freely choose. You can’t just choose freedom in the abstract; it is always freedom to pursue a particular goal. The point is to choose our projects knowingly rather than blindly or habitually, and to choose projects that will enable us to expand our powers and to exercise our creativity in ever more satisfying ways so that we may “feel the joy of existing.”

And in order to do this, we must allow others their freedom as well. And not only allow it, but actively promote it. Exercising our own freedom requires that others be free. The goal is to “become conscious of the real requirements of [our] own freedom, which can will itself only by destining itself to an open future, by seeking to extend itself by means of the freedom of others. … [T]he freedom of other men must be respected and they must be helped to free themselves. Such a law imposes limits upon action and at the same time immediately gives it a content.”

She does not demonstrate that this concern for the freedom of others is required, in the sense of deriving it logically. We could say that she merely asserts it, but that would be missing the point of the existentialist program. She examines her own experience of being in the world and finds it disclosed to her, part of her existence itself: “I concern others and they concern me,” she says. “There we have an irreducible truth. The me-others relationship is as indissoluble as the subject-object relationship.” “[T]he existence of others as a freedom defines my situation and is even the condition of my own freedom.”

Philosophically, we can get at the injunction to have concern for others in many ways. With Kant we could derive it from principles of pure reason. With the Utilitarians we could derive it from the mandate to maximize happiness or pleasure. Perhaps closer to de Beauvoir’s view, we could say that rational self-interest requires it. But de Beauvoir finds it in an essential part of human existence: the impulse to be generous. “There is vitality only by means of free generosity,” she says. “Contrary to the formal strictness of Kantianism for whom the more abstract the act is the more virtuous it is, generosity seems to us to be better grounded and therefore more valid the less distinction there is between the other and ourself and the more we fulfill ourself in taking the other as an end. That is what happens if I am engaged in relation to others.”

So if you are radically free to choose at any moment, how do you figure out what to do? What projects would be suitable for a free existent such as yourself? Art, scientific inquiry, technological innovation and philosophy are all good candidates in so far as they are open-ended, aiming at “an indefinite disclosure of being.” Science is at its best when it keeps opening the possibilities for new discoveries; technological innovation, when it frees us from drudgery and enables more creativity. And certainly art is high on the list. Not only does the best art flow from the creativity of the artist, but it inspires the audience – the viewer, listener, reader or participant – to find new potentialities, new avenues for self-expression, as well. “Art reveals the transitory as an absolute; and as the transitory existence is perpetuated through the centuries, art too, through the centuries, must perpetuate this never-to-be-finished revelation.”

But the paradigmatic case of an authentic project is the struggle for liberation, politically, socially and economically, a topic that recurs throughout her work. She published The Ethics of Ambiguity in 1947, and the struggle to liberate France from the Nazis was undoubtedly fresh in her mind. And she was on the editorial board of the left-leaning literary journal Les Temps modernes. A good portion of the third chapter of her book concerns the intricacies and nuances of political action.

The connection between existentialism and politics is obvious. We are all inherently free; hence the slave is always free to rebel against the master. The negro, the woman, the colonized native, the worker in a capitalist enterprise: all are free to rise up against their oppressors. “[T]he oppressed,” says de Beauvoir, “can fulfill his freedom as a man only in revolt, since the essential characteristic of the situation against which he is rebelling is precisely its prohibiting him from any positive development; it is only in social and political struggle that his transcendence passes beyond to the infinite.” She would, I am confident, quite approve of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

We would be ill advised to swallow the existentialist program whole hog. The radical first-person point of view is, after all, just one person’s opinion. It is up to each of us to examine our own experience of life to see how much of de Beauvoir’s description resonates with us as true. (The ability to do that is another expression of our freedom, she would say.)

If you did so you would notice that you are, in addition to your radical freedom and nothingness, an animal body, an organism. You would find yourself, not floating in empty space, but situated, embedded in the world. You would understand that at the very least you need to choose strategies for being in your world that enhance your ability to survive and stay free. You would find your world shot through and through with other people, some of whom indeed seem to limit and constrain you, but others of whom thrill to your existence as you thrill to theirs, and with whom you find mutual comfort and joy, or at least pleasant conversation. You would see that, far from being something alien, some heavy density that limits your soaring freedom, your environment in fact supports and sustains you, and it makes sense to support and sustain it in turn. And you would find, with de Beauvoir, that a strategy of being generous, of being cooperative, of being – she does not use the word, but I will – compassionate, is a strategy that enhances your life.

Right now you are breathing a new breath. Right now is a new moment. What will you do with it?


(1) My own view is that we certainly do have free will. See my “Do Humans Have Free Will?” at and “Beyond the Causal Veil” at

(2) De Beauvoir, Simone, The Ethics of Ambiguity. All quotations are from this work, which is on line and has no page numbers, so I won’t footnote each one. By “man” she means human beings generally, male or female. She wrote before the feminist movement – which took inspiration, in part, from her own The Second Sex – brought to our attention the inherent unfairness and bias of such language.

(3) I’m describing an ontology, but I can’t say three categories of “being” or of “existence,” as both these terms have special meanings for de Beauvoir. And I can’t say categories of “things” because some of them are not things.

De Beauvoir, Simone. The Ethics of Ambiguity. On-line publication, URL = as of 6 October 2011. Another version, not as well proof-read, is here: as of 6 October 2011.

The Information Philosopher. “Agent-Causality.” On-line publication, URL = as of 27 October 2011.

Wikipedia. “Free will.” On-line publication, URL = as of 27 October 2011.

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