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At the Crossroads of Freedom and Facticity: Ambiguity in Simone de Beauvoir

Geoffrey Manzi, M.A.

A longtime collaborator and romantic partner of Simone de Beauvoir, fellow existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre famously said that man is “condemned to be free,” to which he adds, “we are a freedom which chooses, but we do not choose to be free” (Being and Nothingness). Such claims encapsulate the Existentialist understanding of the human condition as inherently bipolar: on the one hand, every individual is born into a particular pre-established set of circumstances to which she did not consent and, as such, limits her future possibilities; however, equally primordial is the fact that everyone is born with the freedom to accept or reject many aspects of one’s inherent circumstances—especially the seemingly preordained roles that one’s circumstances appear to impress upon an individual—for the sake of creating new circumstances for oneself in light of pursuing a goal that one freely chooses. Furthermore, the decision to pursue certain endeavors tends to follow from the values that one freely creates for oneself, thereby encouraging one to take on roles of her own accord and, as such, engage in the ultimate project of forging a personal identity whose constitutive character is oriented (projected) toward the future and, therefore, remains open to continuous revision and revaluation.

Because the human being appears to inhabit simultaneously the poles of determinate facticity and radical freedom, human existence is characteristically ambiguous. Accordingly, the first half of my presentation explores several related ways in which Beauvoir’s notion of ambiguity—understood broadly as the paradox of one’s “situated freedom”—acts as a structural feature of human existence.

Of course, human beings face constant temptations to evade the anxiety of existing, what with its incessant demand for choice and uncompromising self-accountability. To that end, Beauvoir identifies various possible ways in which one might abuse or retreat from the inescapable freedom one has to create a life for oneself. In the second half of my presentation, I flesh out some concrete examples of this denial of the ambiguity of existence as it manifests in the life of the nihilist (and, perhaps by extension, the cynic and the comedian), the serious person, the adventurer, and the passionate person, respectively.

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  • Sally R.

    Awesome speaker. So clear and on point!

    March 12, 2014

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