Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Simone de Beauvoir


Simone de Beauvoir, a French writer, is perhaps best known for authoring The Second Sex (1949), a book detailing the treatment of women throughout history. She is not only identified as a writer but also a feminist, existential philosopher, and social theorist. Her works, over twenty separate titles, are considered widely influential, but she is generally referenced as an important feminist theorist rather than a philosopher. Her relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre has also contributed to her fame, but her work extended far beyond her association with Sartre. She made major contributions to philosophy, literature, and feminism.

Simone was born in Paris in 1908 to Francoise Brasseur de Beauvoir and Georges de Beauvoir. She studied philosophy at the University of Paris, eventually teaching upon completion of her agrégation. In 1944 Simone became a full-time writer. She traveled the world and took part in various political demonstrations. She died in 1986 at the age of 78.

Interestingly enough, Simone viewed herself first and foremost as a writer, not a philosopher. She seemed aware of the philosophical implications of literature, describing accomplished novels as that which "seeks to evoke the living unity and ambiguity of the subjective and the objective, the relative and the absolute, the historical and the eternal" (262). For whatever reason, she chose to identify herself primarily as a writer even though her works were often very philosophical. And in many ways, based on that quote, I think she understood the connection something like a fictional novel has to philosophy. Her writings include autobiographical pieces, fictional stories, and philosophical essays. Simone's most famous work, The Second Sex, argues that women have been subjected to the myth of the "Other," causing men to view them as the as lesser or different. As an existentialist, Simone believed that existence preceded essence, including in the case of being a "woman." In her book she argued that femininity is a socially imposed characteristic. Accordingly, the formation of the Other comes from the human desire to dominate. Her knowledge and exposure to the philosophies of people like Hegel or Marx influenced her examination of the treatment of women throughout history, including materialistic impact.

Personal Response

I would have loved to hear more about Simone's life. The biography was on the smaller side; this allowed for a more detailed description of her works and philosophy. And considering that we actually have access to her original work, that was refreshing. Many of the figures we've read about this semester had a known body of work. Often, especially among the earlier philosophers, all we had was the testimony of others that certain texts existed or that the woman in question held a certain philosophical stance. I did a little extra research, and I was surprised to see how incredibly interesting and exciting Simone's biography is. I would have loved to see more about her education as well as her relationship with Sartre. (Apparently, Simone was considered brilliant by her peers. One lecture I found suggested that Sartre beat her in an examination only due to there interaction.) So while I understand the need to limit the biography in this book, I also would be interested in reading a more detailed description of her life.

I was struck by Simone's interest in writing from her own personal experience. Apparently The Second Sex began as an examination of what it meant to Simone to be a woman. She seemed to be interested in conceptions of "self" as a philosophical concept and "herself" as a subjective person with experiences and things to say. Unlike many philosophers I've read, Simone seemed to be very interested in her own experience. She did not claim to be "objectively" impartial. Instead she was driven by the things that impacted her life.

It saddened me to hear that even Simone was overshadowed by Sartre. Apparently she viewed herself as a lesser philosopher, and their works, much like Émilie and Voltaire, were heavily influenced on both sides. Though such a relationship of two intellectuals would probably be greatly beneficial to both, it seems troubling when considering Sartre receives more attention. His works and contributions are often seen on a college syllabus, whereas Simone is not nearly as iconic.

Reading either Simone's autobiography and/or a biography would be incredibly interesting. As long and detailed as this chapter was, due to its expansive coverage, it left me feeling like there was much more to Simone and her work then could be reasonably summarized in twenty-plus pages. One of the highlights in this chapter was getting to read so many quotes from Simone herself. Her writing is elegant and clear. And I even recognized several of her arguments or issues from various philosophy classes I've taken. She was clearly well educated in many philosophical areas, but she was equally as clearly thinking about the knowledge she received through her education. Based on outside research, it looks like Simone's father, like many of the other figures we've discussed, also encouraged her education and intellectual pursuits.

In the end, I think this chapter made me want to know more about Simone. Her interest in writing, especially fiction, caught my attention especially due to my own interest in that area. It reminded me of  Murasaki Shikibu's use of literature to convey philosophy. I hope to have the opportunity to learn more about Simone de Beauvoir in the future.


Chapter 12 "Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986)" by Jeffner Allen and Jo-Ann Pilardi in A History of Women Philosophers: Contemporary Women Philosophers, 1900-Today by Mary Ellen Waithe

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