Ethics of Ambiguity

Simone de BEAUVOIR

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BEAUVOIR, Simone de. The Ethics of Ambiguity. New York: Philosophical Library, (1948). Octavo, original blue-gray paper boards, original dust jacket.

First edition in English of Beauvoir's pivotal second work in philosophy, issued one year after the first French edition and only five years before the French edition of Second Sex, a core argument for existentialist ethics in response to Sartre's Being and Nothingness, with Ethics one of two works she saw as an "important starting point for any interpretation and evaluation of her oeuvre."

In Ethics Beauvoir introduced a concept of ambiguity that would prove elemental to her best known work, The Second Sex [1953; Le deuxième sexe, 1950]. "Although her major theoretical contributions were to feminism, Beauvoir's writings, both novels and nonfiction, were also regarded as brilliant expositions of basic existential belief: that is, that man is responsible for his own destiny" (New York Times). Here she "argues for the possibility and even the necessity of existentialist ethics against those who consider it a form of solipsism and nihilism… Ethics was initially read as an application of Sartre's L'être et le néant [1943; Being and Nothingness, 1956]. But Beauvoir suggests that if existentialism is vulnerable to such accusations, this is because Sartre failed to approach ambiguity from the proper side" (Henghold, in Companion to Simone de Beauvoir, 286). Beauvoir especially noted that she wrote Ethics "in response to requests, from Camus and others, for an essay on action." Divided into three main areas, the section on "women marks the first explicit and sustained recognition in her philosophical prose of an issue which will loom ever larger in her work as the decade progresses, culminating, of course, with… her feminist classic The Second Sex" (Mahon and Campling, Existentialism, Feminism and Simone de Beauvoir, 35).

To Beauvoir, "we are all adrift in the world together and find ourselves in ambiguous situations as freedoms constantly bumping into one another and into brute existence, but our lives are also interconnected like stones in an arch" (Cleary, in TLS). "To say that [existence] is ambiguous," she writes, "is to assert that its meaning is never fixed, that it must be constantly won." While Beauvoir was, at times, dismissive of Ethics, "when asked which of her works she considered the important starting point for any interpretation and evaluation of her oeuvre, she responded without hesitation: "Pyrrhus et Cineás [1944] and Pour une morale de l'ambiguité [Ethics of Ambiguity]… Notwithstanding Beauvoir's own uncertainty about its merit, Ethics makes an important contribution to ethical theory with relevance in particular to questions of violence" (Lewis, Freedom, Oppression and the Ethics of Ambiguity, 48). Serialized in Les temps modernes (1946-7); first published in book form in French, Pour une morale de l'ambiguité, 1947. With the translation of Bernard Frechtman, "one of Sartre's chief translators" (Cotkin, Existential America, 98). First edition: issued in blue-gray paper boards with 16 titles on rear dust jacket panel (this copy), along with copies issued in green cloth with 21 titles on rear dust jacket panel; no priority established. Mahaffey, 216. See France, 287, 298.

Trace of wear to spine ends of book; lightest edge-wear, mild toning to spine of bright dust jacket. A lovely near-fine copy.

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