The Other's Freedom: Existential Vulnerability in the Philosophy of Simone de Beauvoir

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2020

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In this project, I define existential vulnerability as the idea that the meaning and value of our actions depends on other people’s responses to us. We depend upon others to make our lives meaningful. Others do this by taking our actions as points of departure for their own projects and goals. I argue that existential vulnerability is a foundational concept for understanding Simone de Beauvoir’s philosophy. I show that Beauvoir discovers the idea in Pyrrhus and Cineas, her first philosophical essay, further uses and refines it in her short book, The Ethics of Ambiguity, and finally puts it to work in her most famous text, The Second Sex.

Across her oeuvre, Simone de Beauvoir develops an ethics that integrates freedom and vulnerability. In Pyrrhus and Cineas, Beauvoir teaches us that our existential vulnerability originates not in our own freedom, but in the freedom of others. This vulnerability is painful for us and we desperately try to avoid it, often by minimizing or denying the freedom of others. It is also the basis of a responsibility we have towards others. Our actions create their situations—the background against which they exercise their freedom. In The Ethics of Ambiguity, Beauvoir shows us how we are all both free and vulnerable. Her concept of subject/object ambiguity defines our relationship with others; each of us is both a transcendently free subject and an object of judgment to others. Her ethics demand that we face up to and accept both our own and others’ ambiguity. To value the other’s freedom requires us to accept and choose our own vulnerability. Finally, in The Second Sex, Beauvoir shows us that under patriarchy, woman is the Absolute Other to man. This famous analysis depends on her existential ethics of vulnerability. Women are existentially vulnerable to men because men’s judgments create their situation; but men are also still existentially vulnerable to women, a fact they try to avoid. Beauvoir’s philosophy criticizes those who try to avoid their vulnerability. These critiques are directed at the people in power—at the people who seem at first glance to be the least vulnerable.

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Wallace, Heather (2020). The Other's Freedom: Existential Vulnerability in the Philosophy of Simone de Beauvoir. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/20917.

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