- The Philosophy of Simone de Beauvoir: Gendered Phenomenologıes, Erotic Generosities by Debra B. Bergoffen, Sex and Existence: Simone de Beauvoir’s ‘The Second Sex’ by Eva Lundgren-Gothlin, Beauvoir and The Second Sex: Feminism, Race, and the Origins of Existentialism by Margaret A. Simons, Philosophy as Passion: The Thinking of Simone de Beauvoir by Karen Vintges
Anyone who is seriously interested in Simone de Beauvoir’s place in the history of philosophy must contend sooner or later with the fact that she denied, repeatedly and vehemently throughout her lifetime, that she was a philosopher. Of course, a certain species of Beauvoir-detractor will be tempted to take these denials at face value, especially since they almost always went hand in hand with Beauvoir’s plausible-sounding [End Page 688] declarations that anything philosophical about her work could be traced to the thinking of her lifelong companion Jean-Paul Sartre, who, she underscored, was the “real” philosopher in their relationship. But the very strength and frequency of her abjurations of the title of philosopher is a sign that, like Freud, Beauvoir (who wrote several straightforwardly philosophical essays, including the monograph-length Ethics of Ambiguity and Pyrrhus et Cınéas) was motivated not so much by modesty or self-abnegation but by a desire to distance herself from what counted, at least in the middle of this century, as philosophy.
For most of the past 50 years, English-speaking readers of Beauvoir have simply accepted her portrayal of her relationship to philosophy. On the ordinary view, The Second Sex, while an important historical touchstone for “feminist theory” is not, or not quite, a philosophical piece of writing, and those of her publications that merit that title are mere apologetics for Sartrean existentialism. But in the years since Beauvoir’s death in 1986 allowed for the release of her voluminous and revealing letters to Sartre, more and more feminist philosophers have been taking a second look at The Second Sex and Beauvoir’s other essays and fiction as they try to engage productively both with non-academic feminist work and with the philosophical mainstream. As a result, the difficult question of just how to assess Beauvoir’s relationship both to philosophy in general and to Sartre in particular has become pressing and is at the center of the four books under review here.
The authors of these books are each committed, in their own sometimes strikingly different ways, to two theses: first, that to understand Beauvoir’s place in the history of philosophy one must study her appropriations of the work of philosophers other than just Sartre and, second, that at the heart of Beauvoir’s enterprise in all of her work is a desire to think about how to create and sustain reciprocity between an existentially committed self and an equally autonomous other.
The most historically oriented and, on my view, meticulous exploration of Beauvoir’s relationship to her philosophical influences is Lundgren-Gothlin’s superb Sex and Exıstence, which chronicles Beauvoir’s indebtedness to and interest in, especially, Hegel and Marx. Lundgren-Gothlin, a philosophically trained Swedish intellectual historian, shows decisively that one cannot make philosophical sense of The Second Sex as long as one reduces its philosophical dimension to boilerplate Sartreanism. Indeed, given Sartre’s antipathy toward Marx and his ambivalence about Hegel in Beıng and Nothingness, Lundgren-Gothlin’s work raises serious questions about the extent to which Beauvoir’s considered views in The Second Sex are even compatible with those of the early...