The Ethics of Ambiguity

by

Simone De Beauvoir

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Ambiguity Term Analysis

Most specifically, by talking about life’s ambiguity, Simone de Beauvoir points to the sense in which life has no fixed meaning, but that rather its meaning is up to every individual, depending on their commitments, actions, and predilections. She carefully distinguishes this from absurdity, or the notion that life can never have meaning at all. Ambiguity results from the paradoxes at the center of the human condition: people both have subjectivity and appear as objects to everyone else; they recognize their own freedom as well as their powerlessness in relation to the world as a whole; and they (at best) relentlessly pursue their goals even though they know they are going to die. It is therefore ambiguous whether people are subjects with freedom or objects with facticity, but there is no real truth of the matter one way or the other. Rather, people are both, and living ethically requires coming to terms with this tension or ambiguity at the foundation of human life. Because everyone confronts different circumstances but everyone is also free, each individual has the opportunity to construct their own identity through the way they apply their individual will to the world.

Ambiguity Quotes in The Ethics of Ambiguity

The The Ethics of Ambiguity quotes below are all either spoken by Ambiguity or refer to Ambiguity. For each quote, you can also see the other terms and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Existentialism and Ethics Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Citadel edition of The Ethics of Ambiguity published in 1948.
Part 1 Quotes

“The continuous work of our life,” says Montaigne, “is to build death.” He quotes the Latin poets: Prima, quae vitam dedit, hora corpsit. And again: Nascentes morimur. Man knows and thinks this tragic ambivalence which the animal and the plant merely undergo.

Related Characters: Simone de Beauvoir (speaker)
Page Number: 5-6
Explanation and Analysis:

Men of today seem to feel more acutely than ever the paradox of their condition. They know themselves to be the supreme end to which all action should be subordinated, but the exigencies of action force them to treat one another as instruments or obstacles, as means. The more widespread their mastery of the world, the more they find themselves crushed by uncontrollable forces. Though they are masters of the atomic bomb, yet it is created only to destroy them. Each one has the incomparable taste in his mouth of his own life, and yet each feels himself more insignificant than an insect within the immense collectivity whose limits are one with the earth’s. Perhaps in no other age have they manifested their grandeur more brilliantly, and in no other age has this grandeur been so horribly flouted. In spite of so many stubborn lies, at every moment, at every opportunity, the truth comes to light, the truth of life and death, of my solitude and my bond with the world, of my freedom and my servitude, of the insignificance and the sovereign importance of each man and all men.

Related Characters: Simone de Beauvoir (speaker)
Page Number: Part 1: Ambiguity and Freedom 7-8
Explanation and Analysis:

Since we do not succeed in fleeing it, let us therefore try to look the truth in the face. Let us try to assume our fundamental ambiguity. It is in the knowledge of the genuine conditions of our life that we must draw our strength to live and our reason for acting.

Related Characters: Simone de Beauvoir (speaker)
Page Number: 8
Explanation and Analysis:

My contemplation is an excruciation only because it is also a joy. I can not appropriate the snow field where I slide. It remains foreign, forbidden, but I take delight in this very effort toward an impossible possession. I experience it as a triumph, not as a defeat. This means that man, in his vain attempt to be God, makes himself exist as man, and if he is satisfied with this existence, he coincides exactly with himself. It is not granted him to exist without tending toward this being which he will never be. But it is possible for him to want this tension even with the failure which it involves.

Related Characters: Simone de Beauvoir (speaker), Sartre, Hegel
Page Number: 11
Explanation and Analysis:

The characteristic feature of all ethics is to consider human life as a game that can be won or lost and to teach man the means of winning. Now, we have seen that the original scheme of man is ambiguous: he wants to be, and to the extent that he coincides with this wish, he fails. All the plans in which this will to be is actualized are condemned; and the ends circumscribed by these plans remain mirages. Human transcendence is vainly engulfed in those miscarried attempts. But man also wills himself to be a disclosure of being, and if he coincides with this wish, he wins, for the fact is that the world becomes present by his presence in it. But the disclosure implies a perpetual tension to keep being at a certain distance, to tear oneself from the world, and to assert oneself as a freedom. To wish for the disclosure of the world and to assert oneself as freedom are one and the same movement. Freedom is the source from which all significations and all values spring. It is the original condition of all justification of existence.

Related Characters: Simone de Beauvoir (speaker)
Page Number: 23
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 2 Quotes

The fundamental fault of the nihilist is that, challenging all given values, he does not find, beyond their ruin, the importance of that universal, absolute end which freedom itself is.

Related Characters: Simone de Beauvoir (speaker), The Nihilist
Related Symbols: Suicide
Page Number: 62
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 3, Section 4 Quotes

Society exists only by means of the existence of particular individuals; likewise, human adventures stand out against the background of time, each finite to each, though they are all open to the infinity of the future and their individual forms thereby imply each other without destroying each other. A conception of this kind does not contradict that of a historical unintelligibility; for it is not true that the mind has to choose between the contingent absurdity of the discontinuous and the rationalistic necessity of the continuous; on the contrary, it is part of its function to make a multiplicity of coherent ensembles stand out against the unique background of the world and, inversely, to comprehend these ensembles in the perspective of an ideal unity of the world.

Related Characters: Simone de Beauvoir (speaker), Sartre, Hegel
Page Number: 131-132
Explanation and Analysis:
Conclusion Quotes

Regardless of the staggering dimensions of the world about us, the density of our ignorance, the risks of catastrophes to come, and our individual weakness within the immense collectivity, the fact remains that we are absolutely free today if we choose to will our existence in its finiteness, a finiteness which is open on the infinite.

Related Characters: Simone de Beauvoir (speaker)
Page Number: 172-173
Explanation and Analysis:
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Ambiguity Term Timeline in The Ethics of Ambiguity

The timeline below shows where the term Ambiguity appears in The Ethics of Ambiguity. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Part 1: Ambiguity and Freedom
Existentialism and Ethics Theme Icon
Ambiguity, Being, and Existence Theme Icon
This ambiguity is central to all existentialism, which gets attacked for giving people no principles on the... (full context)
Ambiguity, Being, and Existence Theme Icon
...people to become their true selves, they must seek to realize, not overcome, their being’s ambiguity. Rather than denying that one transcends oneself, one must “refuse to lose [one]self in” that... (full context)
Existentialism and Ethics Theme Icon
Ambiguity, Being, and Existence Theme Icon
Freedom Theme Icon
Politics, Ethics, and Liberation Theme Icon
...an idealized abstraction of what perfected individual morality would look like. Conversely, “an ethics of ambiguity” must leave open the possibility that “separate extants can […] be bound to each other”... (full context)
Part 2: Personal Freedom and Others
Ambiguity, Being, and Existence Theme Icon
Freedom Theme Icon
The nihilist, de Beauvoir insists, is correct to see “the ambiguity of the human condition.” But nihilism does not see that people are responsible for defining... (full context)
Ambiguity, Being, and Existence Theme Icon
Freedom Theme Icon
...particular end. Like the nihilist, he scorns the serious world, yet he sees nothingness and ambiguity as a positive potential rather than a negative lack. (full context)
Part 3: The Positive Aspect of Ambiguity, Section 5: Ambiguity
Ambiguity, Being, and Existence Theme Icon
Saying that life is ambiguous (that its meaning is unfixed), de Beauvoir begins, is not the same as saying it... (full context)