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The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 14.2 (2000) 87-103

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Beauvoir's Philosophical Independence in a Dialogue with Sartre

Margaret A. Simons
Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville

In The Second Sex, her 1949 magnum opus, Simone de Beauvoir argued that women are confined to an inferior role, not by nature, but by men who, for their own advantage, define women as the Other through laws and culture: "[W]hat defines woman's situation in a singular manner is that, being like every human being an autonomous freedom, she discovers herself and chooses herself in a world where men force her to assume herself as the Other" (1949, 1:31). 1 To live authentically, she argued, women must assume the existential burden of constructing the meaning of their own lives and work collectively to win their liberation. Only then, she insisted, will authentic reciprocity be fully possible in relationships with men: "[I]n woman freedom remains abstract and empty, it can only be authentically assumed in revolt. . . . [T]hey must refuse the limits of their situation and seek to open paths for themselves to the future; resignation is only an abdication and a flight; there is for woman no other outcome than to work for her liberation. This liberation can only be collective" (2:455). This message resonated in the lives of millions of women and laid the foundations for the women's liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s. In 1999, on the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of The Second Sex, Beauvoir's achievement was celebrated in scholarly conferences throughout Europe and the Americas. But despite this recent acclaim and her profound impact on the lives of millions of women, Beauvoir's achievement has been slow to find recognition within the male-dominated world of philosophy.

Beauvoir (1908-86) earned a graduate agrégation degree in philosophy and authored several philosophical works in addition to The Second Sex, including "metaphysical novels," such as She Came to Stay [End Page 87] (1943), and two essays in existentialist ethics, Pyrrhus et Cinéas (1944) and The Ethics of Ambiguity (1947). But, for decades, Beauvoir's work was dismissed as merely the application of Jean-Paul Sartre's philosophy in Being and Nothingness (1943). Scholars including myself (1981, 1999), Eva Lundgren-Gothlin (1996), Sonia Kruks (1990), Debra B. Bergoffen (1997), and Karen Vintges (1996) have challenged this sexist dismissal; our reassessments of Beauvoir's work differentiate her philosophy from Sartre's, identify her philosophical influences, and recognize her contributions to ethics and social/political philosophy.

Despite this research, scholarly attempts to differentiate Beauvoir's philosophy from that of Sartre have often left intact the claim that Beauvoir's philosophy begins with Sartre, since, the argument goes, The Second Sex and her essays on ethics were published after Being and Nothingness. Diane Barsoum Raymond, in Existentialism and the Philosophical Tradition (1991), for example, characterizes Beauvoir's central thesis in The Second Sex, 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" (386). Kruks (1990) writes that Beauvoir "deepened and fleshed out Sartre's notion of situation" (85). Hazel Barnes (1997), who translated Being and Nothingness, sees at the heart of The Second Sex "Sartre's concept of a free, self-determining for-itself," his view of consciousness as a "self-creating activity" (147-48, 188).

The most radical challenge to the view that Beauvoir's philosophy begins with Sartre was launched by Kate and Edward Fullbrook in Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre: The Remaking of a Twentieth-Century Legend (1994). They use Beauvoir's and Sartre's posthumously published war diaries and letters to argue that Beauvoir's novel She Came to Stay (1943), widely thought to be a mere illustration of Sartre's philosophy in Being and Nothingness (1943), had in fact been largely written before Sartre began work on his tome. Indeed, many of the philosophical ideas credited as originating with Sartre's essay, including the theory of relations with the Other...