Is The Second Sex Beauvoir's Application of Sartrean Existentialism?
ABSTRACT: Simone de Beauvoir's 1949 feminist masterpiece, The Second Sex, has traditionally been read as an application of Sartrean existentialism to the problem of women. Critics have claimed a Sartrean origin for Beauvoir's central theses: that under patriarchy woman is the Other, and that 'one is not born a woman, but becomes one.' An analysis of Beauvoir's recently discovered 1927 diary, written while she was a philosophy student at the Sorbonne, two years before her first meeting with Sartre, challenges this interpretation. In this diary, Beauvoir affirms her commitment to doing philosophy, defines the philosophical problem of 'the opposition of self and other,' and explores the links between love and domination. In 1927, she thus lays the foundations of both Sartre's phenomenology of interpersonal relationships and of her own thesis, in The Second Sex, that woman is the Other. Her descriptions of the experience of freedom and choice point to the influence of Bergson, specifically his concepts of 'becoming' and élan vital. Tracing Beauvoir's shift from her apolitical position of 1927 to the feminist engagement of The Second Sex points to the influence of the African-American writer, Richard Wright, whose description of the lived experience of oppression of blacks in America, and whose challenge to Marxist reductionism, provide Beauvoir with a model, an analogy, for analyzing woman's oppression.
Simone de Beauvoir's 1949 feminist masterpiece, The Second Sex, has traditionally been read as Beauvoir's application of the existential philosophy of her companion, Jean-Paul Sartre, to the situation of women. Diane Raymond, in Existentialism and the Philosophical Tradition (1991), for example, characterizes Beauvoir's central thesis, that under patriarchy woman is the Other, as an application of Sartre's "phenomenology of interpersonal relationships," and its "dynamic of consciousness struggling against consciousness" (Raymond 386,389). The political philosopher, Sonia Kruks, in a 1995 essay, writes that: "The central claim of The Second Sex -- 'one is not born a woman but becomes one'--presupposes Sartre's argument that 'existence precedes essence': that human beings become what they are on the basis of no pre-given necessity or 'nature' (Kruks 1). I've argued myself, in a early essay, that this voluntarism reflects a Sartrean influence.
Kate and Edward Fullbrook (1994) have challenged these interpretations of Beauvoir as a Sartrean, arguing that Beauvoir's metaphysical novel, She Came to Stay (1943), traditionally assumed to be an application of Sartre's Being and Nothingness (1943), was actually its philosophical source. Another challenge to the traditional interpretation of Beauvoir as a Sartrean is found in Beauvoir's 1927 diary. Discovered by Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir, Beauvoir's adopted daughter and literary executor, after Beauvoir's death, and deposited in the...