July 2010


Reading Non-fiction book # 3 I was aware that I was being selective about what chapters I really paid attention to: My interest lies in what Karen Vintges says in one of the essays is Simone de Beauvoir‘s concept of art de vivre or art of living, which aligns her to the tradition of “philosophy as a way of life” as outlined by Pierre Hadot in his book of that title.
I’m drawn to how she makes use of Hegel‘s master-slave dialectic and how she seems to demand something quite rigorous from women.
The previous post sets out a vague framework for what I’m going to read and write about: I am interested in what Simone de Beauvoir has to say about being a woman and have a sense of wanting to wrestle with some of her thinking about how it applies to my life.
Please let me know what you think about Simone de Beauvoir and her thinking today.

This is the point I want to start from: What has Simone de Beauvoir‘s thinking got to say to women today?

Karen Vintges
thinks she gives us “important clues” as to how to conceive of a feminism for the twenty-first century. In an essay titled Simone de Beauvoir: A Feminist Thinker for the Twenty-First Century, she writes that Beauvoir’s thinking on ethics and politics:

..already suggests the contours of a feminism of the twenty-first century, that is a cross-cultural feminism based on a shared ethos and demanding access to all women to ethical-spiritual self-creation.

Themes such as the logic of “equality and difference” and identity that are interwoven in Beauvoir’s thinking offer solutions to some of the “apparent dilemmas of contemporary feminism”, Vintges argues in her essay, which is one of 16 in The Philosophy of Simone de Beauvoir, Critical Essays.

Vintges says her work and life amount to the creation of an “art of living” that could inspire women to imagine what life as an active and creative woman could be like. Throughout another book, The Mandarins, Beauvoir,

..suggests that such an ethical life-project or ethos, takes constant exercise such as dialogue with oneself and writing practices. Her autobiographical work should be seen in the framework of her art of living concept of ethics. The five volumes of autobiography as well as her diaries and letters are writing practices through which she takes stock of her daily life and stylises her behaviour. They are the means to shape herself as the ethical subject that she wanted to be.

Beauvoir‘s emphasis on the necessity of creating a self or identity is at odds with postmodern feminist thinking in terms of identity, suspicion of any essential subject “woman” and cultural imperialism.
But Vintges argues that we can still benefit from her ideas and that Beauvoir‘s “concept of the self prefigures and anticipates the postmodern and multiculturalist critique on the essential autonomous self”

Vintges dismisses claims that The Second Sex was merely an application of Jean Paul Sartre‘s existentialism and argues that Beauvoir‘s work was focused on the idea that women were reaching a point in history when, emancipated, they would have the opportunity to develop a Self.
Vintges denies that Beauvoir was male-biased and argued that women should aspire to be like men, instead suggesting that she was concerned that both men and women have to change to overcome their enmity.

Reading Beauvoir‘s The Ethics of Ambiguity is important in order to understand her later book, The Second Sex:

Her argument in The Second Sex that the enmity between men and women can be overcome clearly builds on her own ethics of ambiguity. She argues that both sexes should assume their ambiguity and stop using the other sex to hide from themselves their ambiguous condition, “projecting into the partner that part of the self which is repudiated”.

Another important aspect of her work is the originality of her appropriation of Hegel‘s master-slave dialectic.

Both men and women should not only accept each other and themselves as subjects, but they should accept as well their objective, that is, bodily, dimension. Beauvoir‘s appeal to women in The Second Sex to grasp their chance at developing into a self cannot be considered a plea for women to become pure Cartesian, rational selves. She wanted women to become selves, but in contrast to Sartre, it is the situated, sensitive self she is after, for women and men.

This desire and the further significant aim of The Second Sex to “enable women to invent new ways of experiencing life as a woman on the individual and collective level” are “feminist projects that will take us far into the twenty-first century” writes Vintges.

Beauvoir‘s thinking offers a way for a collective political feminism to emerge “as a shared ethos, or a shared ethical spiritual way of life” that resists

…all essentialist and fundamentalist attempts to postulate the universal Truth about woman and all normativity with regard to women and femininity that is based on scientific, religious or metaphysical “knowledge” of what woman is (her nature, her desire, her destiny). It presents itself with a (shared) ethos that explicitly articulates gender by wanting to side with “women,” demanding access for them to a life of ethical-spiritual creation.

Photocredit: cdrummbks via a Creative Commons licence