Simone de Beauvoir

It arrived this week. Reading it so far I’ve felt nostalgia and had a sense of revelation.
The new translation does seem so different to the one I read in my late teens tho I can’t be sure without going back to the original translation if it was because I approached it differently as a younger woman or if it was the nature of the translation that made Simone de Beauvoir seem so different to me now.
Whatever the reason I find her writing much more approachable, more appealing to engage with rather than be lectured by and her long winding sentences seem personal and thoughtful rather than impenetrable.

Focusing on the question of ‘what is a woman’ in the introduction, Beauvoir identifies what an elusive term it is, that really only makes sense in contrast to the term ‘man’.. Yet there is something more absolute about man that doesn’t require definition in the same way.

..if we accept, even temporarily, that there are women on the earth, we then have to ask: what is a woman?

If I want to define myself, I first have to say, ‘I am a woman’; all other assertions will arise from this basic truth. A man never begins by positing himself as an individual of a certain sex: that he is a man is obvious.’

Woman…determines and differentiates herself in relation to man, and he does not in relation to her; she is the inessential in front of the essential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute. She is the Other.

I have always been very aware of this sense of being the ‘Other’ that ‘man’ is somehow the fixed standard against which woman is compared, contrasted and defined. Even when it comes to films I want to watch being dismissed as ludicrous for men to be expected to watch while the films they choose are considered generic and therefore I am expected to join in.

How is it then that between the sexes [this] reciprocity has not been put forward, that one of the terms has been asserted as the only essential one, denying any relativity in regard to its correlative, defining the latter as pure alterity? Why do women not contest male sovereignty?…in order for the Other not to turn into the One, the Other has to submit to this foreign point of view. Where does this submission in women come from?

There have not always been proletarians; there have always been women; they are women by their physiological structure; as far back as history can be traced they have always been subordinate to men; their dependence is not the consequence of an event or a becoming, it did not happen. Alterity here appears to be an absolute, partly because it falls outside the accidental nature of historical fact… If woman discovers herself as the inessential, and never turns into the essential, it is because she does not bring about this transformation herself. Proletarians says ‘we’…Posting themselves as subjects, they thus transform the bourgeois [or whites] into ‘others’. Women – except in certain abstract gatherings such as conferences – do not use ‘we’; men say ‘women’ and women adopt this word to refer to themselves; but they do not posit themselves authentically as Subjects.

They live dispersed among men, tied by homes, work, economic interests and social conditions to certain men – fathers or husbands – more closely than to other women. As bourgeois women, they are in solidarity with bourgeois men and not with women proletarians; as white women, they are in solidarity with white men and not with black women…

The division of the sexes is a biological given, not a moment in human history. Their opposition took shape within an original Mittsein and she has not broken it.

The concept of Subject and Other and Mittsein I know play a big part in Beauvoir’s writing and I do think there is something in how she portrays woman that is useful to work with.
It’s easy to dismiss some of the things she says about women’s position in society because things have changed. But I am interested in to what extent women’s position in relation to themselves and to men has changed… can women say that they have taken the difficult path towards freedom? Are they (am I?) still in some ways accepting the position of the Other because of the benefits it brings?

At the moment that women are beginning to share in the making of the world, this world still belongs to men: men have no doubt about this, and women barely doubt it. Refusing to be the Other, refusing complicity with man, would mean renouncing all the advantages an alliance with the superior caste confers on them. Lord-man will materially protect liege-woman and will be in charge of justifying her existence; along with economic risk, she eludes the metaphysical risk of a freedom that must invent its goals without help. Indeed, beside every individual’s claim to assert himself as subject – an ethical claim – lies the temptation to flee freedom and to make himself into a thing: it is a pernicious path because the individual, passive, alienated and lost, is prey to a foreign will, cut off from his transcendence, robbed of all worth. But it is an easy path: the anguish and stress of authentically assumed existence are thus avoided.


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