- Toward a Phenomenology of Sexual Difference: Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, Beauvoir
Toward a Phenomenology of Sexual Difference by Sara Heinämaa makes an extremely important contribution to the growing body of secondary literature on Simone de Beauvoir by contemporary feminist scholars.1 Heinämaa succeeds in [End Page 194] showing the uniqueness as well as the continued relevance of Beauvoir's insights regarding the specificity of women's experiences. She accomplishes this in the face of the more universal challenge with which all human beings must contend daily, namely, the challenge of creating meaning out of a situation that is always ambiguous insofar as it is capable of being interpreted in more than one way. Not only may any given situation be perceived and responded to differently by different people, or even by the same person if she varies her perspective on that situation, but, as Heinämaa reminds us, each situation also comes with its own sedimented history that privileges some interpretations (especially those of white males) at the expense of others.
Heinämaa decisively rejects the view of some Beauvoir critics who have argued that Beauvoir was trapped within an oppositional dualistic ontology (for example, between transcendence and immanence, masculine and feminine, and so on) that necessarily limited her analysis of the situation of women in The Second Sex. However, rather than claim that Beauvoir moved beyond a dualistic framework altogether, Heinämaa asserts that Beauvoir's recognition that Western patriarchal culture is structured along oppositional, hierarchical, and dualistic axes motivated her to offer a phenomenological investigation of the effects of such constraining frameworks on individual women's lives. The point Heinämaa is making here is subtle yet crucial in assessing the feminist legacy Beauvoir bequeathed us with the publication of The Second Sex. Heinämaa's position can be summed up as follows: Beauvoir's recognition that oppositions between man and woman, consciousness and the body, freedom and facticity, and the like have become sedimented and naturalized over time means that the influence of these dichotomies must be discussed and described; however, this does not mean that Beauvoir herself viewed these distinctions as adequate frameworks for understanding human experience more generally and women's experience in particular. For this reason, Heinämaa sees Beauvoir's project in The Second Sex as closely aligned with Michel Foucault's genealogical approach in The History of Sexuality, Volume 1,where Foucault acknowledged and discussed the impact and influence of the "repressive hypothesis" in depth while at the same time rejecting the hypothesis as an accurate explanation for human sexual attitudes and behavior.
One of the reasons Toward a Phenomenology of Sexual Difference is so refreshing is that Heinämaa does not follow the dominant strategy many Beauvoir scholars use of meticulously and carefully separating Beauvoir's existentialist concerns and views from those of her philosophical interlocutors, most notably Jean-Paul Sartre, Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Those who follow this approach tend to highlight the places in which Beauvoir's work is in opposition to or advances beyond the work of these other thinkers. Toward a Phenomenology of Sexual Difference marks a new turn in Beauvoir scholarship, since Heinämaa does not argue for Beauvoir's importance [End Page 195] by stressing how she moves away from the continental philosophical tradition, taking up new topics and new perspectives that hitherto had not been systematically examined (for example, gender or race oppression). Rather, Heinämaa masterfully situates Beauvoir's work where it rightfully belongs, namely within the canon of phenomenological and existential thought. More specifically, Heinämaa shows us how Beauvoir creatively deployed phenomenological concepts and existential insights to offer, in The Second Sex, a philosophical genealogy of sexual difference.
Heinämaa's central goal in Toward a Phenomenology of Sexual Difference, aside from her successful effort to reposition Beauvoir's work within the phenomenological and existential traditions in which she was an active participant, is to demonstrate that both phenomenology and existentialism can continue to provide rich resources for understanding the limitations as...