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The Ambiguous Ethics and Politics of Simone de Beauvoir

Lecturer: Sameema Zahra

Originally Taught: Summer School 2020

Course overview

This unit offers a detailed study of Simone de Beauvoir’s work on inter-subjectivity and outlines its underlying assumptions, arguments and claims. It begins with the existential phenomenology offered in The Second Sex. In the first three lectures the students focus on the category of the one and the other vis-a-vis man-woman relationship. It engages with questions such as what it means to be One and Other? Whether these categories ever become fixed? How oppression reduces the oppressed to the category of the absolute other? How far this relationship can be called authentic?  In the last two lectures, students focus on Beauvoir’s ethical and political ideas and how her politics is grounded in her ethics. This section focuses on questions such as, whether reciprocal authentic relations are possible? Does authenticity require universal benevolence? Here the question of violence and its legitimacy becomes very crucial. In this section the focus will be on Beauvoir’s earlier philosophical writings as well as some of her political pieces however the ideas developed in the reading of The Second Sex during the first three lectures work as the foil for this section.


I have included two kinds of reading for each lecture. As the headings suggest I expect the students to be familiar with the text under the required readings and encourage them to read the recommended ones. Both the required and the recommended readings are in the order of importance so if students decide to read selectively the readings higher in order will be more relevant to the lecture. I have also included a list of further readings for those who are interested in pursuing Beauvoir’s work further.


This lecture aims to establish the overall structure of the course. The key concepts and the central tenets of Beauvoir’s philosophy will be explored.


  • To understand the existential phenomenological framework of Beauvoir’s philosophy.
  • The meaning of transcendence and immanence and its role in subjectivity.
  • The role of Freedom.

Required Readings

Beauvoir, Simone de. 2011. “Introduction” The Second Sex. Translated by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Beauvoir, Simone de. 2018.“Ambiguity and Freedom” The Ethics of Ambiguity. Translated by B Frechtman. New York: Philosophical Library.

Recommended Readings

Le Doeuff, Michèle. "Simone De Beauvoir and Existentialism." Feminist Studies 6, no. 2 (1980): 277-89.

Lecture- 2

Building on the first lecture, the existential subject’s relation with the world and other will be explored here. We will examine the structures of oppressive relations by engaging with the nature of man-woman relationship in patriarchy.


  • To understand what it means to be an absolute other.
  • Why oppression is inauthentic
  • The role of Ambiguity

Required Readings

The Second Sex  “Myths” (Selection- Chapter 1, First nine pages)

Heinamaa, Sara. “Chapter 6” Toward a Phenomenology of Sexual Difference: Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, Beauvoir. Lanham, Md. ; Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003.

Recommended Readings

The Ethics of Ambiguity  “ Personal Freedom and Others”

Arp, Kristina. 2001. “Chapter 4” The Bonds of Freedom: Simone De Beauvoir's Existentialist Ethics. Chicago : Open Court ; Berkeley,CA. : Distributed by Publishers Group West

Lecture- 3

This lecture engages with the role of struggle and conflict in the inter-subjective world. The discussion of woman’s oppression leads to the question whether Beauvoir argues that woman becomes the inessential other because she fails to challenge man and claim her autonomy? The discussion will centre on the tensions in the self-other relations and whether these tensions can be resolved.


  • Discussing Hegel’s influence on Beauvoir
  • The Ambiguities of the inter-subjective world
  • The possibility of reciprocal relations

Required Readings

The Second Sex, “History” Chapter 1

Sara Heinämaa, Towards a Phenomenology of Sexual Difference, Chapter 5

Recommended Readings

Daigle, Christine, "The Second Sex as Appeal: The Ethical Dimension of Ambiguity." PhiloSOPHIA 4, no. 2 (2014): 197-220.

Green, Karen, and Nicholas Roffey. "Women, Hegel, and Recognition in The Second Sex." Hypatia 25, no. 2 (2010): 376-93.

Boni, Tanella. "Why Is Woman the Other?" In A Companion to Simone De Beauvoir, edited by Laura Hengehold and Nancy Bauer, 174-84. Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons, 2017.


In this lecture we start moving towards Beauvoir’s politics and examine its relation to her ethics. The discussion focuses on action and whether there are any absolute final ends that justify or give legitimacy to actions.


  • Examining the grounds for justification of action.
  • The inauthenticity of evading Responsibility

Required Readings

Beauvoir, Simone de. “Pyrrhus and Cineas” (Part 1 (Selection- Candide’s Garden), Part 2) Philosophical Writings. edited by M A Simons, M Timmermann and M B Mader. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004.

Recommended Readings

Arp, Kristina. "“Pyrrhus and Cineas”." In  A Companion to Simone De Beauvoir, edited by Laura Hengehold and Nancy Bauer, 271-85. Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons, 2017.

Debra Bergoffen,  Introduction to “Pyrrhus and Cineas” in Philosophical Writings. edited by M A Simons, M Timmermann and M B Mader. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004.

Bergoffen, Debra. Chapter 2 The Philosophy of Simone De Beauvoir : Gendered Phenomenologies, Erotic Generosities. SUNY Series, Feminist Philosophy. Albany, 1997.

Lecture – 5

In the final lecture we engage with the ambiguous ethics and politics of Simone de Beauvoir. We ask what kind of political action she endorses by examining the relationship between her politics and her ethics.


To question-

  • Whether she makes universal benevolence the aim of her political endeavours?
  • Where she places violence in this structure?
  • What is one’s true relationship with the other?

Required Readings

The Ethics of Ambiguity “The Positive Aspect of Ambiguity” (especially sub-section 3,4 and 5)

Beauvoir, Simone de. “An Eye for an Eye” Philosophical Writings. edited by M A Simons, M Timmermann and M B Mader. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004.

Recommended Readings

Marso, Lori J 2017 ‘Simone de Beauvoir on Violence and Politics’ In A Companion to Simone De Beauvoir edited by Laura Hengehold and Nancy Bauer, 299-310. Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons.

Murphy, Ann V. ""Violence Is Not an Evil" Ambiguity and Violence in Simone De Beauvoir's Early Philosophical Writings." PhiloSOPHIA: A Journal of Continental Feminism 1, no. 1 (2011): 29-44.

Further Readings

Altman, M. 2007. “Beauvoir, Hegel, War.” Hypatia, 22 (3): 66-91.

Bauer, N. 2001, Simone de Beauvoir, Philosophy  and Feminism. Columbia University Press, New York.

Beauvoir, Simone De. 1962. “Introduction”. Djamila Boupacha : The Story of the Torture of a Young Algerian Girl Which Shocked Liberal French Opinion. Written by Simone de Beauvoir and Gisèle. Halimi.  London: Deutsch and Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

Bergoffen, D B. 2001. ‘Between the Ethical and the Political: The Difference of Ambiguity’. In The Existential Phenomenology of Simone de Beauvoir. Contributions to Phenomenology. eidted by Wendy O’Brien and Lester Embree, 187-203. Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands.

Hutchings, K. 2007. "Simone De Beauvoir and the Ambiguous Ethics of Political Violence." Hypatia 22, no. 3: 111-32.

Kruks, Sonia. 1987. "Simone De Beauvoir and the Limits to Freedom." Social Text, no. 17 : 111-22.

⎯⎯⎯. 2012. Simone de Beauvoir and the Politics of Ambiguity. New York: Oxford University Press.

Landry, Christinia and Christine Daigle. "An Analysis of Sartre's and Beauvoir's Views on Transcendence: Exploring Intersubjective Relations." PhaenEx 8, no. 1 (2013): 91.

Langer, Monika. 2003. "Beauvoir and Merleau-Ponty on Ambiguity" in The Cambridge Companion to Simone De Beauvoir. edited by Claudia Card 87-106. Cambridge, U.K.; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Marso, Lori Jo. 2017. Politics with Beauvoir: Freedom in the Encounter. Durham: Duke University Press.

Murphy, Ann V. “Between Generosity and Violence: Towards a Revolutionary Politics in The Philosophy of Simone de Beauvoir” in The Philosophy of Simone de Beauvoir edited by Margaret Simons, 262-275.

Shelby, Karen. “ Beuavoir and Ethical Responsibilities” in Simone de Beauvoir’s Political Thinking, edited by Lori Jo Marso and Patricia Moynagh, 93-108.