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The Philosophy of Simone de Beauvoir

Lecturer: Emma McNicol

Originally Taught: Summer School 2018

No prior knowledge of Beauvoir’s work is required, only an interest in the material. No knowledge of the French language is required. All readings are translated from French into English (and all lectures are conducted entirely in English).

Each lecture outline is accompanied by a list of recommended readings. PDFs of all readings will be made available. Wherever possible, the recommended readings are texts written by Simone de Beauvoir herself, so as to facilitate and promote engagement with Beauvoir’s original primary (yet translated) material. Nevertheless, there is no obligation that these texts are read, or studied in detail, prior to the lecture. Each lecture is intended to be comprehensible and interesting even if attendees have not had capacity to prepare in detail beforehand.

Course Schedule

Lecture One: “The Cult of Simone de Beauvoir”
Examining the life and literary-philosophical method of Simone de Beauvoir.

Recommended reading: texts by Simone de Beauvoir

  • Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter. Translated by J. Kirkup. London: Penguin, 1990.
  •  “Literature and Metaphysics (1946).” Translated by Marybeth Timmermann. In Philosophical Writings, edited by Margaret A. Simons, 261-278. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004.
  • “My Experience as a Writer.” Translated by J. Debbie Mann. In The Useless Mouths and Other Literary Writings, edited by Margaret A. Simons and Marybeth Timmermann, 282-301. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2011.
  • “What Can Literature Do?” Translated by Marybeth Timmermann. In The Useless Mouths and Other Literary Writings, edited by Margaret A. Simons and Marybeth Timmermann, 189-210. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2011.
  • When Things of the Spirit Come First. Translated by Patrick O’Brian. New York: Knopf, 1982.

Part One: Who was Simone de Beauvoir?

This first lecture brings together the life and key philosophical concepts of writer, activist, feminist, existentialist, phenomenologist and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir. Using Beauvoir’s autobiographical texts, the lecture forges connections between Beauvoir’s life and key philosophical concepts: freedom and oppression, immanence and transcendence, and self and other.

Part Two: Why was Beauvoir not viewed as a “philosopher”?

The lecture traces Beauvoir’s exclusion from the philosophical canon and explores some of the reasons the philosophical acumen of her work has been neglected and overlooked. While the obvious reasons include her gender, and the fact that she was viewed simply as the romantic partner of the “great” philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, we also explore Beauvoir’s own insistence that she was exclusively a “writer” and that Sartre was a “philosopher”. Indeed, her self-identification as a writer seems (at least partially) plausible on the basis of her body of work, only a small part of which is overtly philosophical in form. She wrote an extensive four-part autobiography, novels, short stories, theatre, reviews, articles, travel journals, political pamphlets and essays. Though her fiction clearly treats philosophical ideas (she characterised her fiction as “metaphysical”), she rarely explored philosophical ideas in recognisably “philosophical” form, with the notable exceptions Pyrrhus and Cineas and Ethics of Ambiguity.

Indeed, this lecture explores the meaning of Beauvoir’s characterisation of her fiction as metaphysical. Accordingly, we turn to her lectures “Literature and Metaphysics” and “What Can Literature Do?” to find her explanation of, and justification for, her metaphysical fiction and literary-philosophical method.

Lecture Two: “Beauvoir on Freedom”
Examining Beauvoir’s concept of freedom as an ethical responsibility.

Recommended reading: texts by Simone de Beauvoir

  • “Introduction to an Ethics of Ambiguity”. Translated by Marybeth Timmermann. In Philosophical Writings, edited by Margaret A. Simons, p 289-298. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004.
  • “Pyrrhus and Cineas” (1944). Translated by Marybeth Timmermann. In Philosophical Writings, edited by Margaret A. Simons, 77-150. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004.
  • Ethics of Ambiguity. Translated by Bernard Frechtman. New York: Citadel Press, 1948.
  • The Second Sex. Translated by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier. Introduction by Sheila Rowbotham. London: Vintage Books, 2011. This lecture looks at the chapter “Maternity” p 481- 497.
  • Jean Paul Sartre Being and Nothingness. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes. Abingdon: Routledge, 2003.  

Part One: Why was freedom a priority for Beauvoir?

In Beauvoir’s 1947 essay Ethics of Ambiguity, she announces: “To will oneself free is also to will others free.[1]” For Beauvoir, freedom is an ethical responsibility we have towards others. In Pyrrhus and Cineas and Ethics of Ambiguity, Beauvoir insists that we have a responsibility to protect the freedom of others. To better understand Beauvoir’s claim that freedom is an ethical responsibility, and the relationship between freedom and oppression in her thought, we look at the historical events of France in the 1930s and 1940s.

During this lecture we also identify the key relationships between Beauvoir’s core concepts. We explore the interrelation between Beauvoir’s concepts of freedom, oppression, the project, transcendence, immanence and ambiguity.

Part Two: from Existentialism to Feminism.

This lecture also explores the difference between Beauvoir’s presentation of freedom in Pyrrhus and Cineas and Ethics of Ambiguity with Sartre’s in Being and Nothingness. We will explore how Beauvoir used existentialist terminology and concepts to produce a feminist philosophical method, concluding this lecture with an examination of Beauvoir’s transposition of Sartre’s being-in-itself and being-for-itself in her study of housework in The Second Sex. Here, Beauvoir transforms and transposes Sartre's philosophical concepts to diagnose the oppressive mechanism of the family structure.

Lecture Three: “What is Woman?”
Examining Beauvoir’s introduction of woman as a philosophical problem.

Recommended reading: texts by Simone de Beauvoir

  • The Second Sex. Translated by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier. Introduction by Sheila Rowbotham. London: Vintage Books, 2011. This lecture explores the chapters “Introduction” p.3-18, “Biological Data” p. 21–49 and “Myths” (Chapter One and Two) p 163–254.
  • Hegel, G.W.F. Phenomenology of Spirit. Translated by A. V. Miller. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977. This lecture explores Chapter Four.

How did Beauvoir make “being woman” a philosophical problem?

Although the 2010 English translation of The Second Sex is one large volume, the text was originally published first in segments in the literary journal Les Tempes Modernes and then ultimately as a two-volume book. Taking into account the original two-volume nature of the text, as well as its incredible historical significance, we will devote two of the five lectures to this awe-inspiring feminist treatise.

In the introductory essay to The Second Sex, Beauvoir famously asks “What is woman?” We study Beauvoir’s critical review of all essentialist responses to this question. Beauvoir dispenses with essentialism altogether, criticising the models of biological essentialism, any essentialist conception of femininity or a woman’s character (as well as a naïve social constructivist view of woman). Eschewing any impulse to define woman, Beauvoir instead transforms “woman” into a philosophical problem. As we will find, The Second Sex makes woman philosophical subject and object.

We also explore Beauvoir’s claim that patriarchal textual history has fashioned woman as an “absolute other”. We read the “Myths” chapter of The Second Sex, exploring how Beauvoir challenges GWF Hegel’s Master-Slave dialectic in order to assert that woman has been transformed into a mythic object (with no potential for a reciprocal exchange). Beauvoir challenges Hegel’s claim that master and slave are always bound to some moment of reciprocal recognition and argues instead that men have instead frozen woman as an “absolute other”.

Lecture four: Beauvoir on the Oppression of Woman
Beauvoir’s examination of Woman’s Situation and curtailed potential under patriarchy.

Recommended reading: texts by Simone de Beauvoir

  • The Second Sex. Translated by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier. Introduction by Sheila Rowbotham. London: Vintage Books, 2011. This lecture explores the chapters “Woman’s Situation and Character” p 653-680, “The Mother” p 537-584 and “Lesbian” p 429-448.

Part One: Woman’s Situation under patriarchy

In Volume II of The Second Sex “Lived Experience” Beauvoir summarises the possibilities for woman’s horizon: “her wings are clipped and then she is blamed for not knowing how to fly”. This lecture explores Beauvoir’s analyses of woman’s Situation under patriarchy. In particular, we examine Beauvoir’s courageous expositions of the hypocrisy of abortion legislation, the humiliations of sexual initiation and the degradation of housework and maternity. We also look at Beauvoir’s absurd and degrading depiction of lesbianism in “The Lesbian”, and explore the role that her own internalised homophobia played a role here.

Part Two: How do women experience their own oppression?

In “Lived Experience”, Beauvoir explores why women have not made a reciprocal claim for freedom. Beauvoir contends that under patriarchy, woman’s character has been formed such that they are bound to submit, and seldom effectively challenge the authority of men.

Lecture five: The Coming of Age
The later years of Beauvoir’s life: the feminist activism of her later years, her reception by second and third wave feminists and her study of the ageing population

Recommended reading: texts by Simone de Beauvoir

  • Feminist Writings. Edited by Margaret A. Simons and Marybeth Timmermann. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2015.
  • Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre. Translated by Patrick O’Brian. New York: Knopf, 1984.
  • The Coming of Age. Translated by Patrick O’Brian. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1996.

Part One: Is Beauvoir’s work capable of an intersectional analysis? 

Beauvoir did not identify as a feminist until twenty years after writing The Second Sex. This lecture examines the development of Beauvoir’s feminist thought and her mature feminist activism. Fortunately, the recently published Feminist Writings (2015) provide us with myriad pamphlets and articles Beauvoir penned between 1950 and 1986. We look at Beauvoir’s treatment by second and third wave feminists, such as her initially warm reception within the Women’s Liberation movement and the way she was subsequently exiled by the next generation of French feminists. We focus in particular on intersectional criticisms of The Second Sex, specifically working with the (well-founded) arguments that the text is unable to think the experiences of women who are not white, middle-class and privileged.

Part Two: how did Beauvoir conceive of her own ageing, as well as ageing more generally? How does Beauvoir’s work on ageing relate to the idea of intersectionality?  

In The Coming of Age, Beauvoir illuminates how society oppresses the ageing population. As we will find, The Coming of Age reiterates the structure and literary-philosophical method operative in The Second Sex. Indeed, by illuminating the elasticity of Beauvoir’s literary-philosophical method – and how it is here applied to oppression on the basis of ageing - enables us to explore the possibility that her work and method can be applied to multiple, and even intersectional, instances of oppression.

[1]Beauvoir Ethics of Ambiguity, trans Bernard Frechtman (New York: Citadel Press, 1948) 101