If philosophy is the search for truth, then ambiguity is the enemy. What greater way to obscure the light of truth than with the unknown or a factor that makes multiple truths possible. Philosophy, for the most part, hopes for an objective truth, as this is the only way that reality can be truly seen by all in the same way.
Of course we know that not all philosophers accept objective truth. And existentialists, such as Simone de Beauvoir take the concept of “ambiguity” and turn it on its head: it is no longer the enemy, but an escape from nihilism and despair.
Absurdity and Nihilism
At the heart of existentialism is “absurdity”, when one realizes that nothing really matters. “To declare that existence is absurd is to deny that it can ever be given a meaning… Absurdity challenges every ethics”. [De Beauvoir: 129] Indeed, if there is no god, no absolute truth, moral ethics must be called in to question, and ethics in the broad sense (how we are to live) is just as baffling.
Existentialism ultimately leads to nihilism… if nothing really matters, if nothing can be defined, then how is one to believe in anything? Nietzsche has been called an existentialist and a nihilist, and this is to be seen in his de-valuing of all values… once we accept that today’s values are founded on false premises, we are left with nothing to believe in other than ourselves.
“The nihilist is right in thinking that the world possesses no justification and that he himself is nothing. But he forgets that it is up to him to justify the world and to make himself exist validly.” [De Beauvoir: 57] Indeed, nihilism is a curse, but then also a blessing — we become the masters of our own world if nihilism is true.
From Nihilism to Ambiguity
The way out of nihilistic despair is with ambiguity. “The nihilist attitude… experiences the ambiguity of the human condition.” [De Beauvoir: 57] If nothing matters, then any two options are available, creating an “ambiguity” to life and its meaning. To call existence ambiguous, is to escape absurdity, for it simply means that meaning is never fixed, not that it is without meaning. With ambiguity, we go from there being no meaning to the possibility of many meanings — we may give life the meaning that we wish to give it, the purpose of our own choosing.
De Beauvoir offers two suggestions for those facing nihilism to escape it through ambiguity: being the adventurer or the critical thinker.
Escaping Nihilism: The Adventurer
“The adventurer does not propose to be; he deliberately makes himself a lack of being; he aims expressly at existence; though engaged in his undertaking, he is at the same time detached from the goal.” [De Beauvoir: 59] In other words, the adventurer never “is”, but he is always in motion, always action. He cannot be defined outside of his actions… constantly creating, moving forward.
The adventurer “throws himself into his undertakings with zest, into exploration, conquest, war, speculation, love, politics, but he does not attach himself to the end at which he aims; only to his conquest. He likes action for its own sake. He finds joy in spreading through the world a freedom which remains indifferent to its content. Whether the taste for adventure appears to be based on nihilistic despair or whether it is born directly from the experience of the happy days of childhood, it always implies that freedom is realized as an independence in regard to the serious world and that, on the other hand, the ambiguity of existence is felt not as a lack but in its positive aspect.” [De Beauvoir: 58]
Whether we choose to be an adventurer or not, we generally have long-term goals. And it is most interesting to realize that we are not the beginning of our goals (they were created before us) and not the end (they will be achieved when we are gone). “When one fights for the emancipation of oppressed natives, or the socialist revolution, he is obviously aiming at a long range goal; and he is still aiming at it concretely, beyond his own death, through the movement, the league, the institutions, or the party that he has helped set up.” [De Beauvoir: 128] One wonders: if we have a long-term goal that we know will never be seen in our lifetime, why bother fighting for it at all?
Escaping Nihilism: The Critical Thinker
And then there is the attempt to overcome ambiguity with a search for absolute truth, which, according to existentialism, is just ultimately fruitless.
“Some men, instead of building their existence upon the indefinite unfolding of time, propose to assert it in its central aspect and to achieve it as an absolute. They hope, thereby, to surmount the ambiguity of their condition. Thus, many intellectuals seek their salvation either in critical thought or creative activity” (including, most likely, Jean-Paul Sartre). [De Beauvoir: 68]
“He understands, dominates, and rejects, in the name of total truth, the necessarily partial truths which every human engagement discloses. But ambiguity is at the heart of his very attitude, for the independent man is still a man with his particular situation in the world, and what he defines as objective truth is the object of his own choice.” [De Beauvoir: 68]
Aside: Ambiguity, Voting and Politics
De Beauvoir strays a bit from her message of ambiguity when she gets to politics, which may be simply because she’s working from a francocentric framework. Her message may not reflect the global reality, then (1940s) or now. She says “to vote is not to govern; and to govern is not merely to maneuver; there is an ambiguity today, and particularly in France, because we think that we are not the master of our destiny; we no longer hope to help make history, we are resigned to submitting to it; all that our internal politics does is reflect the play of external forces, no party hopes to determine the fate of the country but merely to foresee the future which is being prepared in the world by foreign powers and to use, as best we can, the bit of indetermination which still escapes their foresight.” [De Beauvoir: 139] France, immediately following the Second World War, certainly had little international power and had to submit to England, America and Russia, whether intentionally or otherwise.
Existentialism is a debatable philosophy (as most are), and the views of de Beauvoir are no exception. She tries to remain optimistic, but her views are inherently negative when she makes comments that “there is an element of failure in all success”. [De Beauvoir: 152]
If existentialism is right, then ambiguity is the exit, and the way to live fruitful lives (so long as we don’t dwell on how meaningless it ultimately is). I would like to believe that the existentialists are wrong, and there is an absolute truth. Perhaps no “grand” meaning to the world, but at least a reality to ethics and good conduct.
De Beauvoir, Simone. The Ethics Of Ambiguity. Citadel Press, 1976.