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  • Existentialism: A Beauvoirean Lineage
  • Margaret A. Simons

The traditional account of existentialism portrays Simone de Beauvoir as the philosophical follower of Jean-Paul Sartre, who is credited with originating the philosophy they shared, including the description of the Look, and other aspects of relations with the Other found in his book Being and Nothingness and Beauvoir’s metaphysical novel She Came to Stay, both published in 1943. Beauvoir challenged this traditional account in part in her autobiographical writings, claiming that her literary works originated in her own lived experience. But she left unchallenged the traditional account of Sartre as the philosopher, angrily telling me in a 1972 interview that “the only philosophical influence on The Second Sex was Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre.”1 Her assertion was obviously false, given the philosophical differences in the two works; and the line she drew between literature and philosophy was untenable, failing to account for the philosophy in her novels.

A new account of Beauvoir’s work based on original sources became possible after Sartre’s death in 1980 and Beauvoir’s in 1986. Their posthumously published diaries and letters show that Beauvoir completed a final draft of She Came to Stay that Sartre read during a military leave in February 1940, before beginning his own work on relations with the Other in his War Diary.2 Beauvoir’s diary from 1926–27, written while a philosophy student, shows her already working on the problem of the Other years before meeting Sartre in 1929. I discovered an early formulation of the problem in her handwritten student diary while working at the Bibliothèque nationale in 1994. In the diary entry dated July 10, 1927, she writes of her plans to “clearly spell out my philosophical ideas” and deepen her work on problems that interested her: “The theme is almost always this opposition of self and other that I felt upon starting to live.”3 [End Page 261]

The Beauvoirean lineage proposed here includes some familiar figures—such as Husserl (whose work Beauvoir may have encountered as early as 1927 through her mentor at the Sorbonne, Jean Baruzi), as well as Hegel, Kierkegaard, and Heidegger, although her wartime diary and letters show that she didn’t read their works until a decade later.4 Beauvoir read Heidegger for the first time in July 1939 and Hegel’s Phenomenology even later, in July 1940, when she used his idea of History to try and reconcile herself to the Occupation. Beauvoir first read Kierkegaard in March 1940, before the Occupation began, but she returned to him in December 1940 as she turned away in disgust from French intellectual collaboration with the Nazis.

Unfamiliar figures in this lineage include the French philosopher Henri Bergson, a major focus of Beauvoir’s pre–World War II philosophical engagement, and the African American novelist Richard Wright, whose influence is evident in Beauvoir’s postwar texts, including The Second Sex. This lineage is meant to be neither exhaustive nor exclusive. Research on Beauvoir’s early philosophy is just beginning, and other lineages are suggested in Shannon Mussett and Bill Wilkerson’s forthcoming volume from the State University of New York Press, Beauvoir Engages Philosophy: Essays on Beauvoir’s Dialogue with Western Thought, which includes my chapter “Beauvoir and Bergson: A Question of Influence.”

Beauvoir’s student diary opens on August 6, 1926, with an entry revealing the surprising context of her early interest in the problem of the Other—returning from a pilgrimage to Lourdes she recounts her struggle with an ethics of self-abnegation and “the absolute gift,” which she describes as “moral suicide,” proposing instead to achieve an equilibrium between the duties to self and duties to others. Ten days later, on August 16, 1926, comes her first reference to Bergson’s work Time and Free Will: On the Immediate Givens of Consciousness, which she describes as a “great intellectual rapture.” She writes of being “thrilled” by Bergson’s analysis of “the two aspects of the self” and copies several pages of quotations from his individualist essay including his criticism of language (“the brutal word”) for stifling individual consciousness, his celebration of the “bold novelist,” and his...


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pp. 261-267
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