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The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 14.2 (2000) 104-120

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Differences in Equality: Beauvoir's Unsettling of the Universal

Emily Zakin
Miami University

One way of reading The Second Sex (1949) is as a prolonged meditation on the patriarchal relation between femininity and universality, a relation in which each term is reciprocally defined by its exclusion of the other. By querying the masculine presumption of the universal subject, Beauvoir exposes the limitations and dangers inherent in the Cartesian cogito (to which she nonetheless remains loyal) and invites feminists to articulate (theoretically and politically) woman as subject. Such a project would seem conducive to, or at least complementary with, the agenda of much contemporary French feminism, a genre that for all its diverse and fractious positionings can generally be said to negotiate this same conflict. Yet, Beauvoir is more often read in contrast to, or against, the likes of Julia Kristeva and Luce Irigaray than with them.

Although what is called French feminism is less a single definable set of theoretical doctrines than a varying constellation of philosophers, theorists, and writers, it is remarkable that Beauvoir is often understood to be on the outside of this assemblage. Irigaray and Kristeva, perhaps the most prominent members of this coterie (and unlike Beauvoir, not themselves of French origin), each have tense theoretical relations with Beauvoir, recognizing her work as perhaps historically important but nonetheless somehow outmoded. Despite the major differences between Irigaray and Kristeva, they share similar reasons for this relegation: a training in and commitment to psychoanalysis and a suspicion of the abstract universal and its repression of difference. Irigaray, for instance, suspects Beauvoir of caring more for a politics of equality based on a masculine standard than for granting "cultural values to femininity" (1993a, 13), and Kristeva in her turn [End Page 104] places Beauvoir among the first of three generations of feminism, a generation committed to allocating a place for women within the social and symbolic orders. "Existential feminists," Kristeva writes, "aspire to gain a place in linear time as the time of project and history" (1986, 193). Both of them interpret Beauvoir's project as one destined to reinstantiate a masculine universal under the name of neutrality and reason, and therefore as an evasion of difference and the unconscious. Beauvoir is viewed as rejecting femininity in order to assimilate women to the universal. 1

Yet Beauvoir concludes The Second Sex by reiterating that "there will always be certain differences between men and woman" (1989, 731). Despite her (ambivalent) Cartesianism, she understands that the self is not only a rational agent, but also an affective and bodily one, subject to forces and situations that cannot always be mastered. In addition, Beauvoir's reading of the Marquis de Sade (a reading that is itself manifestly influenced by Freud) shows clearly that she rejects the claims of an all-encompassing neutral reason that operates without limit. Finally, her Ethics of Ambiguity (1994) raises questions about the political as the sphere of abstract reason, universality, law, and right and makes clear that politics does not define ethics, but is in fact conditioned by it. If politics occupies the domain of the universal, it is possible only on the basis of an ethics that is the domain of ambiguity.

For these and similar reasons, recent work in Beauvoir scholarship has raised questions about the reading of Beauvoir as feminist but antifeminine. As Debra Bergoffen has argued, Beauvoir is concerned not only with a politics of equality (though this is an especially prominent theme in The Second Sex), but also with an ethics of openness to the other, of alterity and ambiguity, what Bergoffen calls an "erotics of generosity" (1997, 36). Bergoffen defends this interpretation of Beauvoir by maintaining that there is a subterranean, "muted" voice at work in her writings, a voice that gives expression to theses that may not be overtly stated, but perhaps exhibit philosophical commitments that the dominant voice occludes. The muted voice is "a legacy of hints" (39), and it gestures toward positions that are otherwise and elsewhere than...


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