Friday, February 04, 2011

Simone de Beauvoir and the Transcendence of Realism

Among the books I’m currently reading is “the first, complete scholarly edition of Beauvoir’s philosophical essays in English translation:” Simone de Beauvoir, Philosophical Writings (Edited by Margaret A. Simons, with Marybeth Timmons and Mary Beth Mader) (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2004). I thought I’d share a small snippet from one of the essays,“Moral Idealism and Political Realism” (1945), that I found stuffed with food for thought:

“…[U]pon closer examination, the lines separating utopianism from realism are less distinct than they may have appeared at first. In fact, we can prove that squaring the circle and perpetual motion are impossible, but man is not what he is in the way a circle is, whose radii remain invariably equal. He is what he makes himself be, what he chooses to be.[1] Whatever the given situation, it never necessarily implies one future or another since man’s reaction to his situation is free. How can he decide in advance that peace, war, revolution, justice, happiness, defeat, or victory are impossible? When Lenin was preparing in Switzerland for the coming of a new order, he could have been taken for a great dreamer; and if no one had been so bold as to want the Russian Revolution, if Lenin and all the revolutionaries had thought of themselves as insane, they would indeed have been so, for the revolution would not have happened.

That is why, when reform is suggested, the first reaction of the political conservative is always to declare it impossible, because he knows that by declaring it impossible, he contributes to making it so.[2] It was, no doubt, not enough, as French pacifists imagined it was, simply to declare ‘There will be no war’ for it not to happen. However, it is also true that the impulse through which we accept the advent of a certain future contributes to its formation. We therefore do not accept the collaborators’ excuse of having been victims of a simple intellectual error. They argue that they believed Germany’s defeat to be impossible. This means that they consented to her victory. In reality, they opted for the German supremacy that they claimed merely to have recognized. Furthermore, the word ‘recognition’ is itself ambiguous, because when we recognize a government, we make it exist as such. Gaining an awareness is never a purely contemplative process; it is engagement, support or rejection. In 1940 some Frenchmen accepted collaboration with Germany in the name of realism. But they are striking proof of the weakness of an attitude that mutilates and distorts the very reality on which it claims to base itself, since it refuses to make the fact of human freedom an integral part of this reality. If all nations had resigned themselves to accept Hitler’s triumph, Hitler would have indeed triumphed; but they could refuse and they did. It is this refusal that the collaborator was unable [or refused] to see. Anxious to give up his own freedom, he wished to be carried along on the great current of history, forgetting that history is made by men. To be sure, the occupation of France by Germany was a reality. But it was equally real that the French remained free to give the event the meaning they chose. If everyone had collaborated, Germany would have become an ally. If they resisted, she would remain an adversary. [….] The first mistake of the political realist is to underestimate the existence and weight of his own reality. This reality is not given. It is what it decides to be. The lucid political man who truly has a hold of things is also conscious of the power of freedom in him and in others.

The ends of action, therefore, are neither given nor even prefigured in reality; they have to be willed. Despite his desire to lose himself in pure objectivity, the realist cannot avoid the question of what to will. But he will try to regain on the level of values the objectivity that eludes him on the level of being. [….]

The conservative associates the interests of the bourgeois class with the preservation of spiritual values whose guardian it claims to be. At the same time he strives to demonstrate the primitive and purely material character of the interests of the working class.[3] [….] In the name of his spiritual authority, the bourgeois declares himself to be in a better position to define the conditions suitable for the working class than the working class itself. [….]

The standard of living that the worker demands is not required by his immediate needs, nor is it called for by dreams of compensation. It is the actualization, the expression of the idea that the worker has of himself, in the same sense that our body is the expression of our existence. It is the objective form that a transcendence takes on. For this reason it is not absurd that a man is willing to risk his life in a strike, or in a war, in order to maintain or gain a certain standard of living. The aim of the striker is not so much an increase in salary, as a crude amount of money, but an increase of something he has gained; it affirms his power to improve his condition on his own. [….]

Ethics is not [simply?] an ensemble of constituted values and principles; it is the movement that an authentically moral man must reproduce for himself. The great moralists were not virtuous souls, docilely subject to a preestablished code of good and evil. They created a new universe of values through words that were actions, through actions that bit into the world; and they changed the face of the earth more profoundly than kings and conquerors. Ethics is not negative; it does not require that man remain faithful to a static image of himself: to be moral means to seek to found one’s own being and to transform one’s contingent existence into a necessity. [….]

Reconciling ethics and politics is thus reconciling man with himself; it means affirming that at every instant he can assume himself totally. However, this requires that he give up the security that he hoped to gain by enclosing himself within the pure subjectivity of traditional ethics or the objectivity of realist politics.”

Notes [these are my notes, not Beauvoir’s]:

[1] I think we can here rightly infer that existentialists like Beauvoir and Sartre presupposed the Enlightenment notion of “perfectibility” first formulated by Condorcet and Godwin. In the latter’s account, by the proposition that “man is perfectible,”

“it is not meant that he is capable of being brought to perfection. But the word seems sufficiently adapted to express the faculty of being continually made better and receiving perpetual improvement; and in this sense it is here to be understood. The term perfectible, thus explained, not only does not imply the capacity of being brought to perfection, but stands in express opposition to it. If we could arrive at perfection, there would be an end to our improvement. There is however one thing of great importance that it does imply: every perfection or excellence that human beings are competent to conceive, human beings, unless in cases that are palpably and unequivocally excluded by the structure of their frame, are competent to attain.” (William Godwin, Enquiry Concerning Political Justice. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1976 [1793])

As Thomas Hurka has explained, a “perfectionist” moral theory begins from an account of the “good human life” and an open-ended conception of human nature, the good life being one capable of progressively (at both the individual and species level) realizing the fundamental or intrinsic properties of human nature (whatever those are said to be…or turn out to be). It proffers, in an ethical view that goes back to Plato, an objective theory of the good. The problem of moral development is thus one of discovering the conditions necessary and sufficient for the manifestation of the virtues and the actualization of value(s). Each person is morally obligated, from the perspective of ethical perfectionism and virtue ethics, to sincerely and persistently endeavor to actualize, conserve and defend those values he or she identifies with as the product of self-examination and the prerequisite of self-direction and self-realization. The specific cluster of values so identified may (and usually does) vary from person to person and no one individual is capable of realizing all such values, although one might nonetheless recognize and appreciate all values (or value as such), especially insofar as these values have become identified with other individuals. Individual values identification brings in its wake the intrinsic and intangible rewards of personal fulfillment and flourishing. We are all alike with regard to values-potentialities by virtue of our human nature, but we differ, owing to genetic inheritance, upbringing, circumstance and so forth in the manner of values-identification and actualization. We might see this as the interdependence of value-actualizers, serving to confirm our inherently social nature as human beings. Such interdependence, furthermore, is capable of (has implications for) filling out the meaning of true community. Godwinian perfectibility and perfectionist ethics are not to be confused with, although they are inextricably related to, Enlightenment conceptions of progress. See Hurka’s original and timely examination of “perfectionist ethics” in Perfectionism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993) and Stephen Eric Bronner’s chapter, “In Praise of Progress,” in his Reclaiming the Enlightenment: Toward a Politics of Radical Engagement (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004).

[2] Of course, conservatives may propose something other than nay-saying, but this typically amounts to a literal de-construction or even destruction, as in the dismantling of the Welfare State, or a return to a an earlier, idealized and imaginary era, as expressed in the nostalgia for fictional “laissez-faire” capitalism. For an exploration of what Beauvoir calls “the first reaction of the political conservative,” see Albert O. Hirschman’s The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1991).

[3] In a “capitalist democracy,” the expression of working class interests invariably assumes a crudely materialist form (or consumption character) for, as Joshua Cohen and Joel Rogers have explained, the nature of “capitalist democracy” places structural constraints on both the articulation and satisfaction of interests within the system. With regard to the latter, for instance, and owing to their control of investment, “the satisfaction of the interests of capitalists is a necessary condition for the satisfaction of all other interests in the system,” which means “the welfare of workers remains structurally secondary to the welfare of capitalists,” a fact we conveniently forget in times of economic abundance and low unemployment but resurrect in the wake of the inevitable cycles, crashes, and panics endemic to capitalism. The decisions of capitalists are directly responsible for the well-being of workers, and thus we see the “interests of capitalists appear as general interests of the society as a whole, [with] the interests of everyone else appear as merely particular, or ‘special.’” As for the articulation of those interests inextricably tied to basic human and political rights: “In a capitalist democracy the exercise of political rights is constrained in two important ways. In the first place, the political rights granted to all citizens, workers among others, are formal or procedural, and not substantive. That is, they do not take into account in their own form and application the inequalities in the distribution of resources, characteristic of capitalism, which decisively affect the exercise of political rights and importantly limit their power of expression. [….] Capitalist democracy also tends to direct the exercise of political rights toward the satisfaction of certain interests. The structuring of political demand, or what we call the ‘demand constraint,’ is crucial to the process of consent. [….] Capitalist democracy is in some measure capable of satisfying the interests encouraged by capitalist democracy itself, namely, interests in short-term material gain.” (See Joshua Cohen and Joel Rogers, On Democracy: Toward a Transformation of American Society. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1983)

This “demand constraint” canalizes the articulation of the interests of working people into the exclusive pursuit of economic advantage (the demand for a higher wage and sundry benefits), in part owing to the ubiquitous conditions of “material uncertainty” for all but the wealthy classes. This dramatically lessens the likelihood that workers will be spontaneously moved to awaken the requisite energy and craft the collective tools for the political action necessary for critiquing and (eventually) transcending the system—and thus its peculiar structural constraints—as such. I will not address here the questions raised by the fact that the working class appears rather content to be “bought-off” when it comes to consumer goods, trading such things for, say, an increase in meaningful leisure time or more participation in the decision-making that determines the conditions of labor and the nature of work.

[cross-posted at]


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