Hypatia 14.4 (1999) 186-191
[Access article in PDF]
Simone De Beauvoir: a Critical Reader. Edited by Elizabeth Fallaize. London and New York: Routledge, 1998.
As this special volume attests, there has been a recent resurgence of interest in Simone de Beauvoir. A number of books on her have been published in the last several years. However, Elizabeth Fallaize's book, Simone de Beauvoir: A Critical Reader (1998), occupies a special niche. Many of its essays are excerpts from studies done of Beauvoir's work before this latest renaissance. Some of these studies are not in print in the United States. Some are perhaps unfamiliar to present-day readers or those from different disciplines. In addition, the articles reprinted here are otherwise not easily accessible. Fallaize has performed an important service by gathering them all in one place and by carefully editing, presenting, and, in some cases, translating them.
The book is divided into three sections, the first entitled "Readings of The Second Sex." Aside from Judith Okely's piece that assesses Beauvoir's chapter on myths from an anthropological standpoint, the essays mainly address the philosophical aspects of this work. Beauvoir herself of course swore that she was not a philosopher and that Jean-Paul Sartre's Being and Nothingness (1953) was the sole philosophical foundation for all her work. Some recent analyses have attempted to turn this picture on its head by arguing that Beauvoir was a central influence on, or even the origin of, the philosophical doctrines put forward in Being and Nothingness. None of the writers in this book addresses this issue. But two emphasize Beauvoir's intellectual independence from Sartre.
The Swedish scholar Eva Lundgren-Gothlin argues that Beauvoir turned to G. W. F. Hegel to find a satisfactory theoretical model with which to explain the subjugation of women (Lundgren-Gothlin's essay is taken from her book [End Page 186] Sex and Existence ) . In opposition to other scholars, she argues that the French Hegelian Alexandre Kojève, not Sartre, influenced Beauvoir's interpretation of Hegel. Following Hegel and Kojève, Beauvoir envisioned a possible resolution to the struggle for recognition—reciprocal recognition—whereas Sartre's view of self-other relations in Being and Nothingness rules such reciprocity out. However, Lundgren-Gothlin judges, Beauvoir was not critical enough of the sexist presuppositions of Hegel's thought, citing the same pronouncements Beauvoir makes that subsequent feminists have criticized.
Another piece that stresses Beauvoir's philosophical originality is "Beauvoir: The Weight of Situation," taken from Sonia Kruks's book Situation and Human Existence (1990). For some time, Kruks has been doing excellent work placing Beauvoir within the wider phenomenological tradition. In this piece, she argues that, starting with the early essay Pyrrhus et Cinéas (1944) and culminating in The Second Sex (1989), Beauvoir elaborated a more nuanced position on the nature and extent of human freedom than Sartre did in Being and Nothingness. According to Beauvoir, human freedom, which Sartre dramatically proclaims is absolute, can under some conditions, notably conditions of severe oppression, "be reduced to no more than a suppressed potentiality" (Fallaize 1998, 57). In The Second Sex, Beauvoir definitively breaks with the philosophical framework of Being and Nothingness by implying that a woman's situation is a general one, not individually self-constituted, and one that she cannot transcend by an act of free choice. The phenomenology of Maurice Merleau-Ponty provides a better foundation for Beauvoir's conception of subjectivity as socially mediated and embodied than does Sartre's philosophy, Kruks suggests.
Another piece in this section, Judith Butler's landmark essay "Sex and Gender in Simone de Beauvoir's Second Sex" (1986), highlights Beauvoir's philosophical originality in a different way. In her introduction, Fallaize points out how this essay served as a foundation for Butler's own subsequent work on a performative theory of gender. Butler argues that Beauvoir's claim that one is not born but becomes a woman implies that gender is socially constructed and not natural, as people have insisted for centuries. But to the extent that we become women, gender is not something...