Simone de Beauvoir refused to be called a philosopher throughout her life, and referred to herself as an activist. Although this characterization may have come after the Second Sex, it is because Beauvoir understood and accepted the significance of her earlier work. Her works on existentialism and phenomenology, although shadowed by her affiliation with her male counterparts, have earned her a special place in philosophy. This article looks into the works Beauvoir produced before the Second Sex, and how she has been remembered since.
On Simone de Beauvoir
Simone Lucie Ernestine Marie Bertrand de Beauvoir was born in Paris in 1908, to a catholic mother and father who was a lawyer. Beauvoir’s family lost most of its wealth in the first world war, leaving Beauvoir with no dowry to offer, and almost no proposals for marriage. Her mother, however, insisted that both her daughters, Hélène and Simone, be sent to a prestigious convent school. Beauvoir grew to be increasingly skeptical of the institution of religion, however- going on to become an atheist in her early teens and remaining one for the rest of her life.
“Faith allows an evasion of those difficulties which the atheist confronts honestly. And to crown all, the believer derives a sense of great superiority from this very cowardice itself (Beauvoir 478).”
She went on to pass the agrégation in philosophy, a highly competitive postgraduate examination which ranked students nationally at the age of 21. Albeit the youngest person to have ever passed the exam, she was ranked second, while Jean-Paul Sartre came first. Sartre and Beauvoir would be in a rather complicated open relationship for the rest of their lives, affecting their academic lives and public perception to great lengths. Their relationship was more of an interest for the readers of Beauvoir, for most of whom she has been but a sexual deviant.
1. She Came to Stay and Pyrrhus et Cinéas
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She Came to Stay was published in 1943. It a fictional piece dwelling on the strains a polyamorous relationship had on a principal couple. The “third” partner has been traced out to be either Olga Kozakiewicz or her sister Wanda Kozakiewicz. Olga was a student of Beauvoir, to whom Beauvoir had taken a liking, and who rejected the advances of Sartre. Sartre subsequently pursued Wanda, Olga’s sister. In the order of publication, She Came to Stay is one of the first works of Beauvoir that focused on the scorching cauldron of sexual repression and subjugation of women.
A year later, Beauvoir materialized her existentialist philosophy with Pyrrhus et Cinéas. Pyrrhus and Cinéas discuss all kinds of existential and phenomenological questions. They begin with the nature of freedom and the permissibility of persuasion. Freedom is radical and situated. What Beauvoir means here, is that the self has finite freedom, and the other (in reference to oneself), is just as free.
She further clarifies that the freedom of another cannot be touched directly and that even in circumstances of slavery, one would not be able to directly violate anyone’s “inner” freedom. Beauvoir doesn’t mean that slavery poses absolutely no threats to individuals. By building on the Kantian dualism of the “inner and the outer”, Beauvoir uses the distinction to create an approach of appeal. Herein, one’s values would only be valuable if others embrace them, for which persuasion is permissible. As a free person, one needs to be able to “appeal” to the other to join us in our ventures.
Beauvoir takes the basic concept of situated freedom from Hegel and Merleau-Ponty and develops it further. Our choices are always framed and limited by our social and historical conditions. As such, there are two folds to the “appeal”: our ability to call to others to join us, and others’ ability to respond to our call. Both prongs are political, but the second one is also material. Meaning only those who are on the same social strata can hear our calls, among which, only those who are not consumed by the struggle to survive. So, a movement for justice demands, as a prerequisite, a social and political condition of equality- where every person is capable of making, accepting, and joining a call to action.
Beauvoir finds that in our ventures as free individuals, violence is inevitable. Our “situation” in society and history establishes us as obstacles to someone’s freedom, condemning us to violence. An intersectional approach to race, gender, and class would reveal that every person is in a relative position to the other, posing a threat to at least one other person’s liberation. We use violence, then, for the purpose of persuasion. So, for the purposes of Beauvoir, violence is not evil but at the same time, it is not endorsed. This is the tragedy of the human condition for Beauvoir.
2. Ethics of Ambiguity
In times of war, philosophy took to the question of evil quite urgently. With The Ethics of Ambiguity, Beauvoir identified herself as an existentialist. With Ethics, Beauvoir takes on intentional consciousness, wherein we want to discover the meaning of being, and subsequently bring meaning to our existence. In adopting the existentialist idea of “existence before essence”, she rejects any institutions that offer “absolute” answers and justifications to the human condition. She undertakes living and life as being reconciled with our limits as human beings, with an open-ended future.
She philosophically dissects religion against Doestoevsky, positing that we are not pardoned of our “sins” if God is dead. Here, “we” are still responsible for our actions, and we are obliged to ensure that every person enjoys their freedom. Beauvoir shows great conviction in our dependence on the other and furthers that we cannot live our freedom at the expense of another and that the material conditions of political life must be assured for each.
A comprehensive reading of Beauvoir quickly reveals that her early works precede her political forthcoming. Both Ethics and Pyrrhus foreshadow her inclination towards socialism.
3. The Second Sex
The Second Sex was published in 1949. What it did for philosophy, is that it introduced the “sexed” and “gendered” human body as a subject of philosophy. What it did for politics, on the other hand, is a question that cannot be answered; not now, not ever. Beauvoir’s work has been adapted, improved, renounced, and rejected all over the world.
The most accurate way to describe Beauvoir’s The Second Sex would be to identify it as an academic manifesto for feminist revolutions. The Second Sex has been called a “treatise” on feminism, because it deals with the “woman”, who is constructed socially, politically, religiously, and economically as an inferior subject to facilitate patriarchal and capitalistic modes of oppression.
Before the Second Sex, Beauvoir was too far gone into phenomenology in the truest form of the idea: the experience and framework of womanhood, to be separated from politics. As we know, Beauvoir never wanted to be called a “philosopher”. And for much of her life, and for a long time after, the rest of the world took her at her word.
Taking Simone de Beauvoir Apart and Forward
Feminist activists have taken up Beauvoir in admiration and dismay, and scholars are still taking Beauvoir apart on account of the stir the Second Sex caused. Contemporary political philosopher Judith Butler has charged Beauvoir with the use of identity politics in particular. Beauvoir, despite criticizing the collectivizing nature of patriarchy when it comes to the identity of women, goes on to generalize the condition of all women in her analyses, without paying any regard to the variation in their social and historical contexts (which is the very premise of her work). The ignorance of class, race, and sexuality in the experiences of women isn’t sufficiently accounted for in the Second Sex. Beauvoir also sometimes invokes arguments which depict certain women as being superior or inferior to other women, which has been criticized as being highly divisive.
African-American author and poet Audre Lorde, in her famous speeches “The Master’s Tool will Never Dismantle the Master’s House”, and “The Personal and the Political”, published in 1979, denounced the Second Sex in a conference organized for the very book. Lorde, as a black lesbian mother, argued that the parallels Beauvoir drew between the Negroes and women at large were highly problematic. Lorde also takes issue with Beauvoir’s limited understanding of racial issues and their interconnection with the prospect of womanhood.
Various memoirs and biographies of students of Beauvoir evidence her predatory tendencies towards young women. Her student Bianca Lamblin wrote A Disgraceful Affair about her involvement with Beauvoir and Sartre, while the parents of Natalie Sorokine, one of her students and a minor, pursued formal charges against Beauvoir, which led to the revocation of her teaching license briefly. Beauvoir also signed a petition seeking to remove the age of consent, which was set at 15 at the time in France.
“Well-behaved women seldom make history (Ulrich 2007).”
While Beauvoir’s contribution to feminist literature, queer theory, political science, and philosophy is uncontested, her personal life has been discussed at length more than her professional work. And while it is integral that we take note of intellectuals who do not conform to societal norms, it is also necessary to take a step back before we take after them.
Beauvoir, Simone de. All Said and Done. Translated by Patrick O’Brian, Deutsch and Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1974.
Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History. Alfred A. Knopf, 2007.