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The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 14.2 (2000) 121-137

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The "Paradoxical Displacement": Beauvoir and Irigaray on Hegel's Antigone

Elaine P. Miller
Miami University

Near the beginning of The Ethics of Ambiguity, Simone de Beauvoir writes, "Hegel tells us in the last part of the Phenomenology of Spirit that moral consciousness can exist only to the extent that there is disagreement between nature and morality. It [moral consciousness] would disappear if the ethical law became the natural law" (Beauvoir 1948, 10). 1 In this passage and in a few brief remarks in The Second Sex, Beauvoir refers to the section "Spirit" of the Phenomenology of Spirit in which Hegel discusses Sophocles' tragedy Antigone (Hegel 1977, 267-68). This section of the Phenomenology of Spirit, entitled "Human and Divine Law: Man and Woman," affords Hegel's only explicit description of the relationship between masculine and feminine within the course of the world-historical dialectic that he describes in this work. Beauvoir here engages with the passage, not to comment on the historical and symbolic relationship between men and women that aligns man with culture and woman with nature, an alignment she will make much of in The Second Sex, but rather to illustrate a particular ethical stance. As many commentators have already remarked, 2 when Beauvoir later uses Hegel to discuss the philosophical conceptualization of the historical relationship between men and women, particularly in The Second Sex, she emphasizes Hegel's famous master/slave dialectic, which occurs much earlier in the Phenomenology of Spirit as part of the dialectic of "Consciousness." The use of the master/slave dialectic, and its eventual sublation into a stoic agent characterized primarily by self-control and self-determination, both parallels the later movement from ethical life into legal status and seems to imply that an end to a master/slave prototype of struggle between humans would be accomplished [End Page 121] through an understanding of intersubjectivity that is initially conflictual but eventually subdued by law and gender neutral. I will argue in this paper, however, that by looking at The Ethics of Ambiguity in conjunction with The Second Sex, we can cull from Beauvoir's work both a nonconflictual model of human intersubjectivity and a conception of human existence and, more specifically, of the feminine that cannot simply be understood as assimilation into a preexisting, atomistic, purportedly neutral and yet implicitly masculine conception of subjectivity. Indeed, one of the recurring themes of The Ethics of Ambiguity is a resistance to the Hegelian sublation of particularity into the universality and neutrality of the ethical. If particularity can be aligned with the private sphere against the ethical understood as the public realm, as I contend it can, then Beauvoir would agree with Luce Irigaray (1985a) that the role of the feminine in Hegel's brief discussion of Antigone in the Phenomenology of Spirit holds the key to a much more important facet of the politics of subjectivity in the history of Western philosophy, namely, the need, if the feminine is to be understood as even capable of eluding dialectical subsumption, for the creation of specifically feminine values and even a feminine subjectivity.

Irigaray criticizes Beauvoir for focusing predominantly on the quest for equal rights for women, rather than the search for a sexuate identity that will allow them to "find some value in being women" and thus rethink and transform historical socio-cultural values (Irigaray 1991, 31). In addition, Irigaray critiques the use of the master/slave paradigm to characterize male/female relationships because she questions whether such a struggle can even be said to take place given historical and current masculine and feminine roles, and because she descries a danger in that such a characterization implies advocacy of a simple reversal of the terms of subjugation. Irigaray writes that Antigone "is neither master nor slave" (1993b, 119), and this neither-nor structure complicates the place of the feminine in the history of philosophy. However, by examining Beauvoir's often overlooked comments on Hegel's Antigone, I contend that there is evidence that...


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