There are some thinkers who are, from the very beginning, unambiguously identified as philosophers (e.g., Plato). There are others whose philosophical place is forever contested (e.g., Nietzsche); and there are those who have gradually won the right to be admitted into the philosophical fold. Simone de Beauvoir is one of these belatedly acknowledged philosophers. Identifying herself as an author rather than as a philosopher and calling herself the midwife of Sartre’s existential ethics rather than a thinker in her own right, Beauvoir’s place in philosophy had to be won against her word. That place is now uncontested. The international conference celebrating the centennial of Beauvoir’s birth organized by Julia Kristeva is one of the more visible signs of Beauvoir’s growing influence and status. Her enduring contributions to the fields of ethics, politics, existentialism, phenomenology and feminist theory and her significance as an activist and public intellectual is now a matter of record. Unlike her status as a philosopher, Simone de Beauvoir’s position as a feminist theorist has never been in question. Controversial from the beginning, The Second Sex’s critique of patriarchy continues to challenge social, political and religious categories used to justify women’s inferior status. Though readers of the English translation of The Second Sexhave never had trouble understanding the feminist significance of its analysis of patriarchy, they might be forgiven for missing its philosophical importance so long as they had to rely on an arbitrarily abridged version of The Second Sex that was questionably translated by a zoologist who was deaf to the philosophical meanings and nuances of Beauvoir’s French terms. The 2010 translation of The Second Sex changed that. In addition to providing the full text, this translation’s sensitivity to the philosophical valence of Beauvoir’s writing makes it possible for her English readers to understand the existential-phenomenological grounds of her feminist analysis of the forces that subordinate women to men and designate her as the Other.
Some have found Beauvoir’s exclusion from the domain of philosophy more than a matter of taking Beauvoir at her word. They attribute it to an exclusively systematic view of philosophy which, deaf to the philosophical methodology of the metaphysical novel, ignored the ways that Beauvoir embedded phenomenological-existential arguments in her literary works. Between those who did not challenge Beauvoir’s self-portrait, those who did not accept her understanding of the relationship between literature and philosophy, and those who missed the unique signature of her philosophical essays, Beauvoir the philosopher remained a lady-in-waiting.
Some have argued that the belated admission of Beauvoir into the ranks of philosophers is a matter of sexism on two counts. The first concerns the fact that Beauvoir was a woman. Her philosophical writings were read as echoes of Sartre rather than explored for their own contributions because it was only “natural” to think of a woman as a disciple of her male companion. The second concerns the fact that she wrote about women. The Second Sex, recognized as one of the hundred most important works of the twentieth century, would not be counted as philosophy because it dealt with sex, hardly a burning philosophical issue (so it was said). This encyclopedia entry shows how much things have changed. Long overdue, Beauvoir’s recognition as a philosopher is now secure.
Simone de Beauvoir was born on January 9, 1908. She died seventy-eight years later, on April 14, 1986. At the time of her death she was honored as a crucial figure in the struggle for women’s rights, and as an eminent writer, having won the Prix Goncourt, the prestigious French literary award, for her novel The Mandarins. She was also famous for being the life-long companion of Jean Paul Sartre. Active in the French intellectual scene all of her life, and a central player in the philosophical debates of the times both in her role as an author of philosophical essays, novels, plays, memoirs, travel diaries and newspaper articles, and as an editor of Les Temps Modernes, Beauvoir was not considered a philosopher in her own right at the time of her death.
Beauvoir would have appreciated the fact that her current philosophical status reflects our changed understanding of the domain of philosophy and the changed situation of women, for it confirms her idea of situated freedom—that our capacity for agency and meaning-making, that whether or not we are identified as agents and meaning-makers, is constrained, though never determined, by our situation. She would also have appreciated the fact that while her works were instrumental in effecting these changes, their lasting effect is a tribute to the ways that others have taken up her philosophical and feminist legacies; for one of her crucial contributions to our ethical and political vocabularies is the concept of the appeal—that the success of our projects depends on the extent to which they are adopted by others
Beauvoir detailed her phenomenological and existential critique of the philosophical status quo in her 1946 essay Literature and the Metaphysical Essay, and her 1965 and 1966 essays Que Peut la Littérature? And Mon expérience d’écrivain. This critique, influenced by both Husserl and Heidegger, focused on the significance of lived experience and on the ways that the meanings of the world are revealed in language. Heidegger turned to the language of poetry for this revelation. Beauvoir, Camus and Sartre turned to the language of the novel and the theater. They looked to Husserl to theorize their turn to these discourses by insisting on grounding their theoretical analyses in the concrete particulars of lived experience. They looked to Heidegger to challenge the privileged position of abstract discourses. For Beauvoir, however, the turn to literature carried ethical and political as well as philosophical implications. It allowed her to explore the limits of the appeal (the activity of calling on others to take up one’s political projects); to portray the temptations of violence; to enact her existential ethics of freedom, responsibility, joy and generosity, and to examine the intimacies and complexities of our relationships with others.
Beauvoir’s challenge to the philosophical tradition was part of the existential-phenomenological project. Her challenge to the patriarchal status quo was more dramatic. It was an event. Not at first, however, for at its publication The Second Sex was regarded more as an affront to sexual decency than a political indictment of patriarchy or a phenomenological account of the meaning of “woman”. The women who came to be known as second-wave feminists understood what Beauvoir’s first readers missed. It was not sexual decency that was being attacked but patriarchal indecency that was on trial. The Second Sex expressed their sense of injustice, focused their demands for social, political, and personal change and alerted them to the connections between private practices and public policies. The Second Sex remains a contentious book. No longer considered sexually scandalous, its analysis of patriarchy and its proposed antidotes to women’s domination are still debated. What is not contested, however, is the fact that feminism as we know it remains in its debt.
As The Second Sex became a catalyst for challenging women’s situations, Beauvoir’s political and intellectual place was also reset. With regard to feminism, she herself was responsible for the change. After repeatedly refusing to align herself with the feminist movement, Beauvoir declared herself a feminist in a 1972 interview in Le Nouvel observateur and joined other Marxist feminists in founding the journal Questions féministes. With regard to the philosophical field it took the efforts of others to get her a seat at the table; for though Beauvoir belatedly identified herself as a feminist, she never called herself a philosopher. Her philosophical voice, she insisted, was merely an elaboration of Sartre’s. Those denials coupled with the fact of her life-long intimate relationship with Sartre positioned her in the public and philosophical eye as his alter ego. Decoupling Beauvoir from Sartre became the first priority of those interested in establishing her independent philosophical credentials. Sometimes the issue concerned Sartre’s originality: Were the ideas of hisBeing and Nothingness stolen from Beauvoir’s She Came to Stay? Sometimes they concerned matters of influence: What happened in their discussions and critiques of each other’s work? Eventually these arguments abated and scholars turned from exclusive attention to the matter of Sartre’s influence to the more fruitful question of influence in the broader sense. They began to trace the ways that she, like her existential-phenomenological contemporaries, took up and reconfigured their philosophical heritage to reflect their shared methodology and unique insights. We now understand that to fully appreciate the rich complexities of Beauvoir’s thought, we need to attend to the fact that her graduate thesis was on Leibniz; that her reading of Hegel was influenced by the interpretations of Kojève; that she was introduced to Husserl and Heidegger by her teacher Baruzi; that Marx and Descartes were familiar figures in her philosophical vocabulary; and that Bergson was an early influence on her thinking.
Radical Freedom and the Other
Pyrrhus and Cinéas, published one year after She Came To Stay, is Beauvoir’s first philosophical essay. It addresses such fundamental ethical and political issues as: What are the criteria of ethical action? How can I distinguish ethical from unethical political projects? What are the principles of ethical relationships? Can violence ever be justified? It examines these questions from an existential-phenomenological perspective. Taking the situation of the concrete existing individual as its point of departure, it provides an analysis of the ways that as particular subjects we are necessarily embedded in the world, and inescapably related to others. Though not feminist in any identifiable sense, Pyrrhus and Cinéas raises such compelling feminist questions as: Under what conditions, if any, may I speak for/ in the name of another?
After opening Pyrrhus and Cinéas with Plutarch’s account of a conversation between Pyrrhus and Cineas, where the justification of action is questioned, Beauvoir, finding the recommendation to be passive inconsistent with the realities of human nature and desire, asks three questions: What is the measure of a person? What goals can one set for oneself? What hopes are permitted to us? She then divides the text into two parts. Part one moves from the ontological truth—that I am a finite freedom whose endings are always and necessarily new beginnings—to the existential questions: How can I desire to be what I am? How can I live my finitude with passion? These existential questions lead to moral and political ones: What actions express the truth and passion of our condition? How can I act in such a way as to create the conditions that sustain and support the humanity of human beings? Part I concludes with the observation that: “A man alone in the world would be paralyzed by … the vanity of all of his goals. But man is not alone in the world” (Pyrrhus and Cinéas, 42). Beauvoir opens Part II with the properly ethical question: What is my relation to the other? Here the analysis is dominated by the problem created by Beauvoir’s insistence on the radical nature of freedom. According to Beauvoir, the other, as free, is immune to my power. Whatever I do—if as master I exploit slaves, or as executioner I hang murderers—I cannot violate their inner subjective freedom. Substituting the inner-outer difference for the Cartesian mind-body distinction, Beauvoir argues that we can never directly touch the freedom of others. Our relationships are either superficial, engaging only the outer surface of each other’s being, or mediated through our common commitment to a shared goal or value. As free, I am saved from the dangers of intimacy and the threat of dehumanization.
This line of argument would seem to lead either to benign Stoic conclusions of mutual indifference, or to the finding that tyrants and terrorists pose no threat to individual freedom. Beauvoir does not, however, let it drift in these directions. Instead she uses the inner-outer distinction and the idea that I need others to take up my projects if they are to have a future, to introduce the ideas of the appeal and risk. She develops the concept of freedom as transcendence (the movement toward an open future and indeterminate possibilities) to argue that we cannot be determined by the present. The essence of freedom as transcendence aligns freedom with uncertainty and risk. To be free is to be radically contingent. Though I find myself in a world of value and meaning, these values and meanings were brought into the world by others. I am free to reject, alter or endorse them for the meaning of the world is determined by human choices. Whatever choice I make, however, I cannot support it without the help of others. My values will find a home in the world only if others embrace them; only if I persuade others to make my values theirs.
As radically free I need the other. I need to be able to appeal to others to join me in my projects. The knot of the ethical problem lies here: How can I, a radically free being who is existentially severed from all other human freedoms, transcend the isolations of freedom to create a community of allies? Given the necessity of appealing to the other’s freedom, under what conditions is such an appeal possible?
In answering these questions Beauvoir turns the inner-outer distinction to her advantage as she develops the concept of situated freedom. Though I can neither act for another nor directly influence their freedom, I must, Beauvoir argues, accept responsibility for the fact that my actions produce the conditions within which the other acts. However irrelevant my conduct may be for the other’s inner freedom, it concerns mine. I am, Beauvoir writes, “the face” of the other’s misery. I am the facticity of their situation (Pyrrhus and Cinéas, 58). Pursuing this difference between my power to effect the other’s freedom and my responsibility for their situation, and exploring the conditions under which my appeal to the other can/will be heard, Beauvoir determines that there are two conditions of the appeal. First, I must be allowed to call to the other and must struggle against those who try to silence me. Second, there must be others who can respond to my call. The first condition may be purely political. The second is political and material. Only equals, Beauvoir argues, can hear or respond to my call. Only those who are not consumed by the struggle for survival, only those who exist in the material conditions of freedom, health, leisure and security can become my allies in the struggle against injustice. The first rule of justice, therefore, is to work for a world where the material and political conditions of the appeal are secured.
Violence is not ruled out. Given that Beauvoir has argued that we can never reach the other in the depths of their freedom, she cannot call it evil. She does not, however, endorse it. Neither does she envision a future without conflict. The fact that we are differently situated and engage in the work of transcendence from different historical, economic, sexed and racial positions ensures that some of us will always be an obstacle to another’s freedom. We are, Beauvoir writes, “condemned to violence” (Pyrrhus and Cinéas, 77). As neither evil nor avoidable, violence, she argues, is “the mark of a failure which nothing can offset” (Pyrrhus and Cinéas, 77). It is the tragedy of the human condition.
The argument of Pyrrhus and Cinéas ends on an uneasy note. As ethical, we are obliged to work for the conditions of material and political equality. In calling on others to take up our projects and give these projects a future, we are precluded from forcing others to become our allies. We are enjoined to appeal to their freedom. Where persuasion fails, however, we are permitted the recourse to violence. The ambiguity of our being as subjects for ourselves and objects for others in the world is lived in this dilemma of violence and justice. Becoming lucid about the meaning of freedom, we learn to live our freedom by accepting its finitude and contingency, its risks and its failures.
It is impossible to know where Simone de Beauvoir’s thinking would have gone had she been spared the cold, the hunger and the fear of living in Nazi occupied Paris. What we do know is that coming face to face with forces of injustice beyond her control, the questions of evil and the Other took on new urgency. Beauvoir speaks of the war as creating an existential rupture in time. She speaks of herself as having undergone a conversion. She can no longer afford the luxury of focusing on her own happiness and pleasure. The question of evil becomes a pressing concern. One cannot refuse to take a stand. One is either a collaborator or not. In writing The Ethics of Ambiguity, Beauvoir takes her stand. She identifies herself as an existentialist and identifies existentialism as the philosophy of our (her) times because it is the only philosophy that takes the question of evil seriously. It is the only philosophy prepared to counter Dostoevsky’s claim that without God everything is permissible. That we are alone in the world and that we exist without guarantees, are not, however, the only truths of the human condition. There is also the truth of our freedom and this truth, as detailed in The Ethics of Ambiguity, entails a logic of reciprocity and responsibility that contests the terrors of a world ruled only by the authority of power.
The Ethics of Ambiguity, published in 1947, reconsiders the Pyrrhus and Cinéas idea of invulnerable freedom. Dropping the distinction between the inner and outer domains of freedom and deploying a unique understanding of consciousness as an intentional activity, Beauvoir now finds that I can be alienated from my freedom. Similar to She Came To Stay, which bears the imprint of Hegel’s account of the fight to the death that sets the stage for the master-slave dialectic, and Pyrrhus and Cinéas, which works through the Cartesian implications of our existential situation, The Ethics of Ambiguity redeploys concepts of canonical philosophical figures. Here Beauvoir takes up the phenomenologies of Husserl and Hegel to provide an analysis of intersubjectivity that accepts the singularity of the existing individual without allowing that singularity to justify an epistemological solipsism, an existential isolationism or an ethical egoism. The Hegel drawn on here is the Hegel who resolves the inequalities of the master-slave relationship through the justice of mutual recognition. The Husserl appealed to is the Husserl who introduced Beauvoir to the thesis of intentionality.
The Ethics of Ambiguity opens with an account of intentionality which designates the meaning-disclosing, meaning-making and meaning-desiring activities of consciousness as both insistent and ambiguous—insistent in that they are spontaneous and unstoppable; ambiguous in that they preclude any possibility of self-unification or closure. Beauvoir describes the intentionality of consciousness as operating in two ways. First there is the activity of wanting to disclose the meaning of being. Second there is the activity of bringing meaning to the world. In the first mode of activity consciousness expresses its freedom to discover meaning. In the second, it uses its freedom to become the author of the meaning of the world. Beauvoir identifies each of these intentionalities with a mood: the first with the mood of joy, the second with the dual moods of hope and domination. Whether the second moment of intentionality becomes the ground of projects of liberation or exploitation depends on whether the mood of hope or domination prevails.
Describing consciousness as ambiguous, Beauvoir identifies our ambiguity with the idea of failure. We can never fulfill our passion for meaning in either of its intentional expressions; that is, we will never succeed in fully revealing the meaning of the world, and never become God, the author of the meaning of the world. These truths of intentionality set the criteria of Beauvoir’s ethics. Finding that ethical systems and absolutes, insofar as they claim to give final answers to our ethical dilemmas and authoritarian justifications for our actions, offer dangerous consolations for our failure to be the absolute source of the world’s meaning or being, Beauvoir rejects these systems of absolutes in favor of ethical projects that acknowledge our limits and recognize the future as open. From this perspective her ethics of ambiguity might be characterized as an ethics of existential hope.
Beauvoir’s Ethics of Ambiguity is a secularism that rejects the ideas of God and Humanity. Their apparent differences conceal a common core: both claim to have identified an absolute source for, and justifications of our beliefs and actions. They allow us to evade responsibility for creating the conditions of our existence and to flee the anxieties of ambiguity. Whether it is called the age of the Messiah or the classless society, these appeals to a utopian destiny encourage us to think in terms of ends which justify means. They invite us to sacrifice the present for the future. They are the stuff of inquisitions, imperialisms, gulags and Auschwitz. Privileging the future over the present they pervert our relationship to time, each other and ourselves. Insisting that the future is undecided and that its form will be shaped by our present decisions Beauvoir argues that it is only by insisting on the dignity of today’s human beings that the dignity of those to come can be secured.
Beauvoir rejects the familiar charge against secularism made famous by Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor: “If God is dead everything is permitted”. As she sees it, without God to pardon us for our “sins” we are totally and inexcusably responsible for our actions. Dostoevsky was mistaken. The problem of secularism is not that of license, it is the problem of the “we”. Can separate existing individuals be bound to each other? Can they forge laws binding for all? The Ethics of Ambiguityinsists that they can. It does this by arguing that evil resides in the denial of freedom (mine and others), that we are responsible for ensuring the existence of the conditions of freedom (the material conditions of a minimal standard of living and the political conditions of uncensored discourse and association), and that I can neither affirm nor live my freedom without also affirming the freedom of others.
Beauvoir’s argument for ethical freedom begins by noting a fundamental fact of the human condition. We begin our lives as children who are dependent on others and embedded in a world already endowed with meaning. We are born into the condition that Beauvoir calls the “serious world”. This is a world of ready made values and established authorities. This is a world where obedience is demanded. For children, this world is neither alienating nor stifling for they are too young to assume the responsibilities of freedom. As children who create imaginary worlds, we are in effect learning the lessons of freedom – that we are creators of the meaning and value of the world. Free to play, children develop their creative capacities and their meaning-making abilities without, however, being held accountable for the worlds they bring into being. Considering these two dimensions of children’s lives, their imaginative freedom and their freedom from responsibility, Beauvoir determines that the child lives a metaphysically privileged existence. Children, she says, experience the joys but not the anxieties of freedom. Beauvoir also, however, describes children as mystified. By this she means that they believe that the foundations of the world are secure and that their place in the world is naturally given and unchangeable. Beauvoir marks adolescence as the end of this idyllic era. It is the time of moral decision. Emerging into the world of adults, we are now called upon to renounce the serious world, to reject the mystification of childhood and to take responsibility for our choices.
All of us pass through the age of adolescence; not all of us take up its ethical demands. The fact of our initial dependency has moral implications, for it predisposes us to the temptations of bad faith, strategies by which we deny our existential freedom and our moral responsibility. It sets our desire in the direction of a nostalgia for those lost Halcyon days. Looking to return to the security of that metaphysically privileged time, some of us evade the responsibilities of freedom by choosing to remain children, that is, to submit to the authority of others.
Beauvoir does not object to the mystification of childhood. She acknowledges that parental authority is necessary for the child’s survival. To treat adults as children, however, is immoral and evil. To choose to remain a child is an act of bad faith. If we are exploited, enslaved or terrorized, however, our submission to authority of the other cannot be counted as an act of bad faith. Absent these conditions, Beauvoir holds us accountable for our response to the experience of freedom. We cannot use the anxieties of freedom either as an excuse for our active participation in, or our passive acceptance of the exploitation of others. Hiding behind the authority of others or establishing ourselves as authorities over others are culpable offenses.
Beauvoir portrays the complexity of the ways that we either avoid or accept the responsibilities of freedom in the imaginary and (sometimes) historical figures of the sub-man, the serious man, the nihilist, the adventurer, the passionate man, the critical thinker and the artist-writer. The point of delineating these human types is several fold. It is a way of distinguishing between two kinds of unethical positions. One, portrayed in the portraits of the sub-man and the serious man, refuses to recognize the experience of freedom. The other, depicted in the pictures of the nihilist, the adventurer and the maniacally passionate man, misreads the meanings of freedom. The ethical person, as portrayed by Beauvoir, is driven by passion. Unlike the egoistic, maniacal passion of the tyrant, however, the ethical passion of the artist-writer is defined by its generosity – specifically the generosity of recognizing the other’s singularity and protecting the other in their difference from becoming an object of another’s will.
In describing the different ways that freedom is evaded or misused, Beauvoir distinguishes ontological from ethical freedom. She shows us that acknowledging our freedom is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for ethical action. To meet the conditions of the ethical, freedom must be used properly. It must, according to Beauvoir, embrace the ties that bind me to others, and take up the appeal – an act whereby I call on others, in their freedom, to join me in bringing certain values, projects, conditions into being. Artists and writers embody the ethical ideal in several respects. Their work expresses the subjective passion that grounds the ethical life. They describe the ways that the material and political complexities of our situations can either alienate us from our freedom or open us to it. By envisioning the future as open and contingent, artists and writers challenge the mystifications that validate sacrificing the present for the future. They establish the essential relationship between my freedom and the freedom of others.
The Ethics of Ambiguity does not avoid the question of violence. Determining that violence is sometimes necessary, Beauvoir uses the example of the young Nazi soldier to argue that to liberate the oppressed we may have to destroy their oppressors. She distances herself from the argument ofPyrrhus and Cinéas; now she identifies violence as an assault on the other’s freedom (however misused) and as such this violence marks our failure to respect the “we” of our humanity. Thus, The Ethics of Ambiguity provides an analysis of our existential-ethical situation that joins a hard-headed realism (violence is an unavoidable fact of our condition) with demanding requirements. It is unique, however, in aligning this realism and these requirements with the passion of generosity and a mood of joy.
In her memoir The Force of Circumstance, Beauvoir looks back at The Ethics of Ambiguity and criticizes it for being too abstract. She does not repudiate the arguments of her text, but finds that it erred in trying to define morality independent of a social context. The Second Sex may be read as correcting this error – as reworking and materially situating the analyses of The Ethics of Ambiguity. Imaginary caricatures will be replaced by phenomenological descriptions of the situations of real women.
Where Beauvoir’s earlier works blurred the borders separating philosophy and literature, her later writings disrupt the boundaries between the personal, the political and the philosophical. Now, Beauvoir takes herself, her situation, her embodiment and the situations and embodiments of other women, as the subjects of her philosophical reflections. Where The Ethics of Ambiguity conjured up images of ethical and unethical figures to make its arguments tangible, the analyses of The Second Sex are materialized in Beauvoir’s experiences as a woman and in women’s lived realities. WhereThe Ethics of Ambiguity speaks of mystification in a general sense, The Second Sex speaks of the specific ways that the natural and social sciences and the European literary, social, political and religious traditions have created a world where impossible and conflicting ideals of femininity produce an ideology of women’s “natural” inferiority to justify patriarchal domination.
Beauvoir’s self criticism suggests that her later works mark a break with her earlier writings. We should, however, resist the temptation to take this notion of discontinuity too far. Rather than thinking in terms of breaks it is more fruitful to see The Second Sex in terms of a more radical commitment to the phenomenological insight that it is as embodied beings that we engage the world. Our access to, awareness of, and possibilities for world engagement cannot be considered absent a consideration of the body.
Before The Second Sex, the sexed/gendered body was not an object of phenomenological investigation. Beauvoir changed that. Her argument for sexual equality takes two directions. First, it exposes the ways that masculine ideology exploits the sexual difference to create systems of inequality. Second, it identifies the ways that arguments for equality erase the sexual difference in order to establish the masculine subject as the absolute human type. Here Plato is her target. Plato, beginning with the premise that sex is an accidental quality, concludes that women and men are equally qualified to become members of the guardian class. The price of women’s admission to this privileged class, however, is that they must train and live like men. Thus the discriminatory sexual difference remains in play. Only men or those who emulate them may rule. Beauvoir’s argument for equality does not fall into this trap. She insists that women and men treat each other as equals and that such treatment requires that their sexual differences be validated. Equality is not a synonym for sameness.
The Second Sex argues against the either/or frame of the woman question (either women and men are equal or they are different). It argues for women’s equality, while insisting on the reality of the sexual difference. Beauvoir finds it unjust and immoral to use the sexual difference as an argument for women’s subordination. She finds it un-phenomenological, however, to ignore it. As a phenomenologist she is obliged to examine women’s unique experiences of their bodies and to determine how these experiences are co-determined by what phenomenology calls the everyday attitude (the common-sense assumptions that we unreflectively bring to our experience). As a feminist phenomenologist assessing the meanings of the lived female body, Beauvoir explores the ways that cultural assumptions frame women’s experience of their bodies and alienate them from their body’s possibilities. For example, it is assumed that women are the weaker sex. What, she directs us to ask, is the ground of this assumption? What criteria of strength are used? Upper body power? Average body size? Is there a reason not to consider longevity a sign of strength? Using this criterion, would women still be considered the weaker sex? A bit of reflection exposes the biases of the criteria used to support the supposedly obvious fact of women’s weakness and transforms it from an unassailable reality to an unreliable assumption. Once we begin this questioning, it is not long before other so-called facts fall to the side of “common sense” in the phenomenological sense.
What is perhaps the most famous line of The Second Sex, translated in 1952 as “One is not born but becomes a woman” and in 2010 as “One is not born but becomes woman”, is credited by many as alerting us to the sex-gender distinction. Whether or not Beauvoir understood herself to be inaugurating this distinction, whether or not she followed this distinction to its logical/radical conclusions, or whether or not radical conclusions are justified are currently matters of feminist debate. What is not a matter of dispute is that The Second Sex gave us the vocabulary for analyzing the social constructions of femininity and a method for critiquing these constructions. By not accepting the common sense idea that to be born with female genitalia is to be born a woman this most famous line of The Second Sex pursues the first rule of phenomenology: identify your assumptions, treat them as prejudices and put them aside; do not bring them back into play until and unless they have been validated by experience.
Taken within the context of its contemporary philosophical scene, The Second Sex was a phenomenological analysis waiting to happen. Whether or not it required a woman phenomenologist to discover the effects of sex/gender on the lived body’s experience cannot be said. That it was a woman who taught us to bracket the assumption that the lived body’s sex/gender was accidental to its lived relations, positions, engagements, etc. is a matter of history. What was a phenomenological breakthrough became in The Second Sex a liberatory tool: by attending to the ways that patriarchal structures used the sexual difference to deprive women of their “can do” bodies, Beauvoir made the case for declaring this deprivation oppressive. Taken within the context of the feminist movement, this declaration of oppression was an event. It opened the way for the consciousness-raising that characterized second-wave feminism; it validated women’s experiences of injustice. What from an existential-phenomenological perspective, was a detailed analysis of the lived body, and an ethical and political indictment of the ways that patriarchy alienated women from their embodied capacities, was, from a feminist perspective, an appeal that called on women to take up the politics of liberation.
Several concepts are crucial to the argument of The Second Sex. The concept of the Other is introduced early in the text and drives the entire analysis. It has also become a critical concept in theories that analyze the oppressions of colonized, enslaved and other exploited people. Beauvoir will use it again in her last major work, The Coming of Age, to structure her critique of the ways that the elderly are “othered” by society.
Beauvoir bases her idea of the Other on Hegel’s account of the master-slave dialectic. Instead of the terms “master” and “slave”, however, she uses the terms “Subject” and “Other”. The Subject is the absolute. The Other is the inessential. Unlike Hegel who universalized this dialectic, Beauvoir distinguishes the dialectic of exploitation between historically constituted Subjects and Others from the exploitation that ensues when the Subject is Man and the Other is Woman. In the first case those marked as Other experience their oppression as a communal reality. They see themselves as part of an oppressed group. Here, oppressed Others may call on the resources of a common history and a shared abusive situation to assert their subjectivity and demand recognition and reciprocity.
The situation of women is comparable to the condition of the Hegelian Other in that men, like the Hegelian Master, identify themselves as the Subject, the absolute human type, and, measuring women by this standard of the human, identify them as inferior. Women’s so-called inadequacies are then used as justification for seeing them as the Other and for treating them accordingly. Unlike the Hegelian Other, however, women are unable to identify the origin of their otherness. They cannot call on the bond of a shared history to reestablish their lost status as Subjects. Further, dispersed among the world of men, they identify themselves in terms of the differences of their oppressors (e.g., as white or black women, as working-class or middle-class women, as Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist or Hindu women) rather than with each other. They lack the solidarity and resources of the Hegelian Other for organizing themselves into a “we” that demands recognition. Finally, their conflict with men is ambiguous. According to Beauvoir, women and men exist in a “primordial Mitsein”: there is a unique bond between this Subject and its Other. In contesting their status as inessential, women must discover their “we” and take account of theMitsein. Beauvoir uses the category of the Inessential Other to designate the unique situation of women as the ambiguous Other of men. Unlike the Other of the master-slave dialectic, women are not positioned to rebel. As Inessential Others, women’s routes to subjectivity and recognition cannot follow the Hegelian script (The Second Sex, xix–xxii).
This attention to what Beauvoir, borrowing from Heidegger, calls a “primordial Mitsein” may be why she does not repeat her earlier argument that violence is sometimes necessary for the pursuit of justice in The Second Sex. Often criticized as one mark of Beauvoir’s heterosexism, this reference to the Mitsein is not made in ignorance of lesbian sexuality and is not a rejection of non-heterosexual sexualities. It is a recognition of the present state of affairs where the heterosexual norm prevails. If patriarchy is to be dismantled we will have to understand how heteronormative sexuality serves it. We will have to denaturalize it. To Beauvoir’s way of thinking, however, the institutional alienations of heterosexuality ought not be confused with the erotics of heterosexual desire. The realities of this desire and the bond of the “primordial Mitsein” that it forges must be taken into account: not only is it used to enforce women’s isolation and to support their inability to identify a common history, it is also responsible for the value and relationship that Beauvoir calls the “bond”, a situation-specific articulation of the appeal found in in The Ethics of Ambiguity.
A brief but packed sentence that appears early in the The Second Sex alerts us to the ways that Beauvoir used existential and Marxist categories to analyze the unique complexities of women’s situation. It reads,
Hence woman makes no claim for herself as subject because she lacks the concrete means, because she senses the necessary link connecting her to man without positing its reciprocity, and because she often derives satisfaction from her role as the Other. (p. 10)
This statement needs to be read in the context of Beauvoir’s ethical-political question, “How can a human being in a woman’s situation attain fulfillment?”
Between the statement and the question we discover that the ethical-political issue of fulfillment does not concern a woman’s happiness. Happiness may be chosen or accepted in exchange for the deprivations of freedom. Recalling the argument of The Ethics of Ambiguity we know why. As Others, women are returned to the metaphysically privileged world of the child. They experience the happiness brought about by bad faith—a happiness of not being responsible for themselves, of not having to make consequential choices. From this existential perspective women may be said to be complicitious in their subjugation. But this is not the whole story. If women are happy as the other, it may be because this is the only avenue of happiness open to them given the material and ideological realities of their situation. Beauvoir’s existential charge of bad faith must be understood within her Marxist analysis of the social, economic and cultural structures that frame women’s lives. Though Beauvoir will not argue that these structures deprive women of their freedom, neither will she ignore the situations that make the exercise of that freedom extremely difficult. Her assertion that woman feels a necessary bond with man regardless of a lack of reciprocity, however, escapes existential and Marxist categories. It is crucial to Beauvoir’s analysis of women’s condition and draws on the notion of the appeal developed in The Ethics of Ambiguity. In making an appeal to others to join me in my pursuit of justice I validate myself and my values. Given that my appeal must be an appeal to the other in their freedom, I must allow for the fact that the other may reject it. When this happens, I must (assuming that the rejection is not a threat to the ground value of freedom) recognize the other’s freedom and affirm the bond of humanity that ties us to each other. In the case of women, Beauvoir notes, this aspect of the appeal (the affirmation of the bond between us) dominates. She does not approve of the way that women allow it to eclipse the requirement that they be recognized as free subjects, but she does alert us to the fact that recognition in itself is not the full story of the ethical relationship. To demand recognition without regard for the bond of humanity is unethical. It is the position of the Subject as master.
Moving between the statement that women are pleased with their alienated status as the Other and the question, “How can women achieve human fulfillment?”, Beauvoir argues that women’s exploitation is historical, and therefore amenable to change. As an existential situation, however, women are responsible for changing it. Liberation must be women’s work. It is not a matter of appealing to men to give women their freedom, but a matter of women discovering their solidarity, rejecting the bad faith temptations of happiness and discovering the pleasures of freedom. Further, though Beauvoir alerts us to the tensions and conflicts that this will create between men and women, she does not envision a permanent war of the sexes. Here her Hegelian-Marxist optimism prevails. Men will (ultimately) recognize women as free subjects.
The last chapters of The Second Sex, “The Independent Woman” and the “Conclusion”, speak of the current (1947) status of women’s situation—what has changed and what remains to be done. Without ignoring the importance of women’s gaining the right to vote and without dismissing the necessity of women attaining economic independence, Beauvoir finds these liberal and Marxist solutions to women’s situation inadequate. They ignore the effects of women’s socialization (the subject of volume two of The Second Sex) and they are inattentive to the ways that the norm of masculinity remains the standard of the human. The liberated woman must free herself from two shackles: first, the idea that to be independent she must be like men, and second, the socialization through which she becomes feminized. The first alienates her from her sexuality. The second makes her adverse to risking herself for her ideas/ideals. Attentive to this current state of affairs, and to the phenomenology of the body, Beauvoir sets two prerequisites for liberation. First, women must be socialized to engage the world. Second, they must be allowed to discover the unique ways that their embodiment engages the world. In short, the myth of woman must be dismantled. So long as it prevails, economic and political advances will fall short of the goal of liberation. Speaking in reference to sexual difference, Beauvoir notes that disabling the myth of woman is not a recipe for an androgynous future. Given the realities of embodiment, there will be sexual differences. Unlike today, however, these differences will not be used to justify the difference between a Subject and his inessential Other.
The goal of liberation, according to Beauvoir, is our mutual recognition of each other as free and as other. She finds one situation in which this mutual recognition (sometimes) exists today, the intimate heterosexual erotic encounter. Speaking of this intimacy she writes, “The dimension of the relation of the other still exists; but the fact is that alterity has no longer a hostile implication” (The Second Sex, 448). Why? Because lovers experience themselves and each other ambiguously, that is as both subjects and objects of erotic desire rather than as delineated according to institutionalized positions of man and woman. In Beauvoir’s words, “The erotic experience is one that most poignantly discloses to human beings the ambiguity of the condition; in it they are aware of themselves as flesh and as spirit, as the other and as the subject” (The Second Sex, 449). The concept of ambiguity, developed abstractly in The Ethics of Ambiguity, is erotically embodied inThe Second Sex and is identified as a crucial piece of the prescription for transcending the oppressions of patriarchy. This description of the liberating possibilities of the erotic encounter is also one of those places where Beauvoir reworks Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of embodiment. For in drawing on Merleau-Ponty’s descriptions of the ways that we are world-making and world-embedded subject-objects, she reveals the ways that it is as subject-objects “for the world”, “to the world”, and “in the world” that we are passionately drawn to each other.