Simone de Beauvoir's Feminist Art of Living
This essay advances the idea that Simone de Beauvoir can be read as articulating a feminist art of living in her life and oeuvre. I survey influential interpretations of Beauvoir to show that this scholarship focuses on the conceptual work in her philosophy at the expense of discussing her art of living. To substantiate my interpretation of Beauvoir, I highlight a part of what I take to be her art of living—one that is connected to her reflections on the body—namely, what I refer to as her "sensualism." By "sensualism," I have in mind an appreciation of the body from an intimate, first-person perspective, one not derived from the body's appearance. I show how Beauvoir develops this feminist art of living by looking at The Second Sex and The Prime of Life. While The Second Sex depicts how women are often encouraged to identify with their bodies as sexual and aesthetic objects, Beauvoir's descriptions of hiking in The Prime of Life suggest a different way of living the body, one that is predicated on a sensual appreciation of the body.
Simone de Beauvoir, body, gender, art of living, feminism
This essay aims to motivate a different way of reading Simone de Beauvoir's feminist philosophy than that which has become dominant in Beauvoir scholarship. I wish to argue that we can read Beauvoir as articulating what I will call a "feminist art of living." To substantiate this thesis, I highlight a crucial feature of her art of living—one that is connected to her reflections on the body—namely, what I refer to as Beauvoir's "sensualism." [End Page 448] By "sensualism," I have in mind a subjective experience of the body from an intimate, first-person perspective that is not derived from the body's appearance.
Before delving into the idea of sensualism, let me preview the stages of my argument. I first discuss examples of how Beauvoir embodies sensualism in her own life, in particular the hiking habits she describes in her autobiographical memoir, The Prime of Life. I then turn to The Second Sex to elaborate an account of sensualism. Building on this account, I conclude with suggestions for understanding Beauvoir's art of living in a more inclusive key, by shifting the argument away from physical activities, such as hiking, to other "sensual" practices, such as meditation, which might be more accessible for women of varying physical abilities or more restorative for women whose lives already demand physical labor.
To understand what Beauvoir's feminist art of living consists in, I should first explain what I have in mind by an art of living. To do so, I want to contrast two conceptions of the nature of philosophy. The first is articulated in the work of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. The other comes from Pierre Hadot's research on ancient philosophy. On the one hand, in What Is Philosophy? Deleuze and Guattari claim that philosophy is the art of creating concepts. Unlike scientific activity, which formulates functions, and unlike art, which works with percepts and affects, philosophy operates via conceptual terms. The task of the philosopher is to create concepts because they are not ready-made, awaiting our discovery.1 For example, Deleuze and Guattari have in mind such ideas as Aristotle's notion of substance or the Leibnizian monad.2 On the other hand, writing roughly at the same time, French philosopher Pierre Hadot became well known for arguing that, for ancient philosophers, philosophy was a way of life or an art of living.3 More specifically, ancient philosophical schools formulated what Hadot calls "spiritual exercises" as a way of learning how to lead a good life.4 Spiritual exercises are mental exercises that one undertakes in order to develop virtues, to better respond to the daily events of one's life. As an example of a spiritual exercise, consider the Stoic practice of describing the negative events that might befall oneself in order to better anticipate any misfortunes.5 For Hadot, the spiritual exercises practiced by a school, along with their precepts, constitute that school's way of life.
My point in bringing up these two conceptions of philosophy, which are by no means mutually exclusive, is to highlight the fact that, in my eyes, Beauvoir scholarship emphasizes the conceptual work in her oeuvre [End Page 449] and focuses less explicitly on her art of living. The renaissance in Beauvoir scholarship that gained momentum in the 1990s and 2000s has gravitated toward a way of reading Beauvoir that connects her writings with those of philosophers more established in the philosophical canon. Consider the following examples. In What Is a Woman? (1999), Toril Moi devotes much time to presenting the existentialist concept of a situation to clarify Beauvoir's striking claim that "the body is a situation." Nancy Bauer's Simone de Beauvoir, Philosophy, and Feminism (2001) illuminates Beauvoir's appropriations of Descartes's and Hegel's philosophies, and emphasizes the differences between Beauvoir's understanding of the master-slave dialectic and that of Sartre. In Toward a Phenomenology of Sexual Difference (2003), Sara Heinämaa analyzes Beauvoir's use of such phenomenological concepts as the lived body and styles of being. A similar trend marks more recent scholarship. For example, Sonia Kruk's 2012 monograph Simone de Beauvoir and the Politics of Ambiguity delves into the concept of ambiguity and its relation to Beauvoir's political philosophy. Lori Jo Marso's discussion of the concept of the encounter and its importance to Beauvoir's philosophy in her recent Politics with Beauvoir (2017) may also be considered.
The emphasis on the conceptual side of Beauvoir's philosophizing has its roots in two tendencies, I believe: first, the tendency of contemporary philosophy to conceive of itself as the art of creating, or sometimes clarifying, concepts; second, the attempt to justify Beauvoir's work as philosophical by tying her to philosophers who see themselves as creators of concepts. But can we learn to read Beauvoir's feminism with a different focus? What can we learn from her life and her writings about how to live better? Philosophy, when practiced as an art of living, encourages us to lead better lives. So, the question at stake is this: What is Beauvoir's art of living? Rather than immediately giving an answer, I want to take a detour into Beauvoir's own life, one that will help clarify this art of living. This detour passes through her time hiking in Marseille, which is chronicled in the second volume of her memoirs, The Prime of Life, first published in 1960.
Beauvoir began hiking in 1931, when she received a position as a philosophy teacher in a high school in Marseille. The Prime of Life describes the excitement she experienced as she hiked long hours on her days off. She relished the feeling of physical exertion at the end of the day. Beauvoir writes, "I had never practiced any sport, and therefore took all the more pleasure in driving my body to the very limit of its endurance."6 She also fell in love with the sights and sounds and smells of the landscapes she discovered. [End Page 450] Of her hikes around Marseille, she writes: "I followed all the coast guard's tracks, too. Here, at the base of the cliffs & in the morning splendor [the Mediterranean] surged fiercely in the headlands, dazzling white, and I felt that if I plunged my hand in it it would be chopped off." And a few lines later: "[T]here came a day in spring, on the Valensole plateau, when I found almond trees in blossom for the first time. I walked along red-and-ocher lanes in the flat country, and recognized many of Cézanne's canvases."7 Whereas hikers of the day typically wore sturdy boots and were outfitted in hiking gear, Beauvoir prided herself on trekking in espadrilles and a dress. She comments that she and her sister "ploughed through the snow near Toulon in espadrilles."8 Most often, though, Beauvoir hiked alone. In fact, she reveled in her solitary expeditions—much to the dismay of locals who warned her of the dangers of rape.
As I see them, Beauvoir's journeys through the Mediterranean Alps belong to a process of self-discovery and self-affirmation: self-discovery in the sense that Beauvoir was discovering a new part of herself—her body; self-affirmation in the sense that she was developing a practice that fostered her growing independence from the customs into which she was born. In Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (1958), Beauvoir recounts how awkward she felt about her body during her childhood and puberty. In a gymnastics session, she bemoans her inability to perform various exercises, and envies the agility of other children.9 Speaking of her sexuality, or lack thereof, as an adolescent, she describes how ignorant she was both of sexual matters and of the experience of sexual desire. Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, Beauvoir' first autobiographical memoir, reads as a tale of the emergence of an independent intellectual woman. Indeed, Beauvoir scholars have typically chronicled her early academic achievements and passion for philosophy. Consider, for instance, Toril Moi's Simone de Beauvoir: The Making of an Intellectual Woman (1994). In this biography, Moi dwells on Beauvoir's pioneering position in the French educational system. Beauvoir was the ninth woman to pass the prestigious agrégation examination in philosophy and the youngest person to have passed it in 1929.10 Of course, Moi is right to highlight Beauvoir's intellectual promise and its fruition in her philosophical works. But comparatively little has been said about Beauvoir's physicality. The only exception to this characterization is a piece by the writer Emily Witt in the New York Times devoted to the hikes described in The Prime of Life. Witt, who had just finished writing a book, wanted to connect with her body. Having read The Prime of Life several [End Page 451] years earlier, she decided to hike in the Alps in Beauvoir's strenuous and solitary manner. Witt writes: "My intention was never to follow exactly in Beauvoir's footsteps but rather to engage in the spirit of her adventures: to hike alone, to push myself, to improvise when necessary, but mostly to reduce my life to the simple goal of daily physical exhaustion."11 However, besides Witt's article, as far as I know, there has been no sustained attention to Beauvoir's hiking.
There is a striking difference to me between Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter and The Prime of Life. In the latter text, we witness Beauvoir, the budding Parisian intellectual, morph into an athletic outdoorswoman. Previously, as was just noted, Beauvoir says she "had never practiced any sport." In my eyes, this transformation matters for understanding the aspect of Beauvoir's art of living that is my focus here, sensualism. But to understand what I mean by "sensualism," we first need to comprehend a key Beauvoirian idea: our existential ambiguity.
Beauvoir first develops this notion in her Ethics of Ambiguity (1947), whose starting point is the recognition that our existence straddles categories that are in tension with one another. Our ambiguity includes the fact we are born and die, that we are in some ways alone in the world but in other aspects are part of communities. With respect to her art of living, the facet of ambiguity she describes that is most relevant is that we are both subjects and objects. On the one hand, being a subject means being free, that is, being self-conscious and capable of acting on the world. On the other hand, being an object means being perceivable by and open to the judgment of others. Note that Beauvoir's claim is phenomenological; she is concerned with our experience of ourselves as both subjects and objects and not with defending any particular ontological dualism.12
Our existential ambiguity, Beauvoir suggests, is uncomfortable and unsettling. On the one hand, we become responsible for ourselves and for others when we exercise our freedom. As Sartre underscores in Existentialism Is a Humanism, this responsibility is a source of "anguish."13 On the other hand, in virtue of living in the eyes of others, we are vulnerable to actions and judgments that are beyond our control. Thus, with the ambiguity of one's condition comes the temptation to flee it. More specifically, as a way of coping with one's ambiguity, one can either deny the existence of others and conceive of oneself as a "pure subject," as an unaffected freedom, or let the presence of others determine the course of one's actions and conceive of oneself as a "pure object." [End Page 452]
For Beauvoir, authenticity is the virtue we embody when we assume the ambiguity of our existence, when we negotiate our being as both subjects and objects. In fact, Thomas Flynn says that if freedom is the first "value" of existentialism, then its "primary virtue" is authenticity.14 This seems as true of Beauvoir as of other existentialists, and yet, how can we embody authenticity? Beauvoir offers us an answer in The Second Sex (1949), revealing how the erotic can be a domain within which one can live one's ambiguity and embody authenticity. In erotic situations, she maintains, we are both subjects and objects for another; that is, we are subjects experiencing desires for, perceiving, and acting on our sexual partners but, at the same time, we are objects for our sexual partner. More than that, Beauvoir wants to show how each sexual partner can experience the other in his or her ambiguity; in authentic sexual relations, she suggests, I do not merely treat my sexual partner as an object, but I also take into account his or her desires, preferences, boundaries, and so on.15
Another key point about ambiguity in The Second Sex is that men and women cope with their ambiguity in different ways. She explains that women are more tempted than men to identify with themselves as objects. Power struggles between men and women reflect the fact that, historically, by and large, men have leaned toward conceiving of themselves as pure freedom, and women have been lured into objectifying themselves.16
Beauvoir brings the "allure of self-objectification" to the fore in her chapter on feminine narcissism, which I discuss to begin unraveling her art of living.17 In the chapter of The Second Sex titled "The Narcissist," Beauvoir characterizes feminine narcissism as one manifestation among several of women's tendency to flee their freedom. Beauvoir says, "If she can put herself forward in her own desires, it is because since childhood she has seen herself as an object. Her education has encouraged her to alienate herself wholly in her body, puberty having revealed this body as passive and desirable."18 Beauvoir's claim that girls are taught to "alienate" themselves in their bodies highlights the fact that feminine narcissism typically takes the form of an over-investment in one's appearance. Over the course of the chapter on feminine narcissism, she covers a range of autobiographical pieces by women and discusses their repeated references to the effects of seeing themselves in a mirror.19 Despite the prevalence of feminine narcissism, her position on its origins is clear. Narcissism is not an essential trait of women's psychology; instead, social circumstances lead them down this path. Responding to the claim that "narcissism is [End Page 453] the fundamental attitude of all women," she writes, "[w]hat is true is that circumstances invite woman more than man to turn toward self and to dedicate her love to herself."20
What can be done about narcissism and the alienation that it entails? I see Beauvoir's sensualism as a promising solution to alienation. Sensualism, first and foremost, involves a subjective apprehension of the body as it is directly experienced rather than valuing it for its appearance. For example, rather than appreciating our bodies from the outside, through the hidden gaze of the mirror, we can appreciate our bodies through our intimate experience of them. Think of the difference between delighting in the sensations of dancing as opposed to delighting in the mirror at one's muscle tone as a result of dancing.21 Another aspect of Beauvoir's sensualism, which we saw in her descriptions of the Alps but that I cannot further explore adequately here, is being open onto and appreciating the world around oneself. This comes to the fore in Beauvoir's evocative descriptions of the landscapes around her, mentioned earlier. Now, this world need not be the natural world; the outer world could be the space of one's dance studio, for instance. But more to my point, I think Beauvoir is advocating cultivating a sensual relationship to our bodies.
To better convince you that this sensualism is part of Beauvoir's philosophy of the body, I return to Beauvoir's descriptions of hiking. The Prime of Life stresses Beauvoir's joy in her bodily activity. She does not describe her days in Marseille as being spent in front of her mirror focusing on what body parts that she found ugly or imperfect; instead, she loved the sensations of walking and the feeling of exertion. These aspects of her hiking lead me to believe that she would endorse the notion of sensualism as a way of counterbalancing narcissistic fixations on the body. One could enjoy the sensations of fatigue or the soreness that come from hiking, as Beauvoir did, rather than focusing on the body shape or musculature strenuous physical activity might produce. In short, I think that Beauvoir would encourage us to focus on our own subjective experience of our bodies rather than on our appearance. Of course, this suggestion is based on biographical details. Therefore, to further substantiate this claim let's turn to The Second Sex. In her discussion of childhood Beauvoir worries about girls' lack of athletic training: "In fact, in many countries, most girls have no athletic training; like fights, climbing is forbidden to them, they only submit to their bodies passively; far more clearly than in their early years, they must forgo emerging beyond the given world, affirming themselves [End Page 454] above the rest of humanity; they are banned from exploring, daring, pushing back the limits of the impossible."22
Clearly, Beauvoir's concern about girls' lack of athletic training rests on the idea that such training would allow girls to embody an active rather than passive relation to their bodies; bodily activity would be a form of self-affirmation. In another passage, from her chapter on lesbians, she notes: "Many women athletes are homosexual; they do not perceive this body which is muscle, movement, extension, and momentum as passive flesh; it does not magically beckon caresses, it is a hold on the world, not a thing of the world."23 Here Beauvoir's language suggests that she equates athleticism with the power to affirm oneself over one's environment; rather than being an object, the athletic body is a "hold on the world." Indeed, in the chapter of The Second Sex titled "Biological Data," she defines the body as "our grip on the world" and the "sketch of our projects."24 By this, she means that our being-in-the-world is bodily in character: the body is our vantage point on our surroundings, and that through which we cope with other persons and things. So, to the extent that women are alienated from their bodies and invest themselves in their bodies as objects, to that extent they have a "lesser" grasp of the world.
In general, Beauvoir's worry is that girls and women, when they are not encouraged to develop their bodily abilities, end up embodying the passivity that they are already condemned to in patriarchy. Their bodily education reinforces their positioning as objects. Or, to put a more positive spin on this, athleticism would be one mode of resistance to the self-objectification that patriarchal norms encourage. To summarize my discussion so far, Beauvoir's descriptions of her experience in The Prime of Life and passages from The Second Sex suggest that for her an important part of wellbeing would lie in cultivating a delight in one's body that is not dependent on its appearance.
At this point, however, one might object that Beauvoir's focus on athleticism and physical domination as a remedy to narcissism is especially relevant to the situation of white middle-class women, for whom athleticism was discouraged and of whom hard physical labor was rarely, if ever, demanded. As Shannon Sullivan rightly points out in "Race After Beauvoir," "Beauvoir's treatment of physical activism & privileges the experiences of white middle-class females."25 Sullivan notes that black women, for example, are already perceived as aggressive and physically strong, and that, as such, developing their physicality would lack the significance that [End Page 455] Beauvoir prizes.26 In general, Sullivan draws our attention to the fact that an intersectional analysis of the role of physical activities in the lives of women of different classes and races would highlight the differing social significances of such activities. Therefore, I should emphasize that the sensualism that I see as an important part of Beauvoir's art of living deserves further refinement to encompass the different situations of women. This is not to say that sensualism is irrelevant to the experiences of marginalized women, but that it might take other forms than the athleticism and activities of physical domination Beauvoir underscores.
While a detailed description of how to formulate sensualism in an inclusive manner is beyond the scope of this essay, allow me to sketch a few suggestions for expanding on my argument. To begin, one may rightly be worried that the philosophy of sensualism excludes those who cannot participate in athletic activities. Indeed, in the passages on athleticism, Beauvoir equates transcendence with being athletic, and this seems to exclude women who cannot engage in conventionally athletic activities. This is a significant worry. Yet I believe that by focusing on the notion of sensualism rather than strictly on athletic ability, Beauvoir's philosophy of the body can be formulated in an inclusive way. Sensualism, as I have presented it, consists in apprehending the body from an intimate, first-person perspective—rather than through its appearance. This is an appreciation that one might experience in certain forms of meditation, such as those that invite the meditator to attend to bodily sensations or to ambient sensations, such as sounds.27 As a result, I would not say that sensualism is necessarily a feature of the body in movement, although that was Beauvoir's own focus in The Second Sex. What matters in sensualism is the opposition between cultivating a first-person versus an objectifying relationship to one's body.
By articulating Beauvoir's sensualism in this manner, I have sought to offset the worry that this philosophy of the body is ableist. As I have just noted, I believe that this sensualism is expandable beyond the athleticism that is highlighted in The Second Sex. But beyond this worry, one might also think that the focus on athleticism erases the experiences of those for whom athleticism would not have the same emancipatory significance. For Beauvoir, personally, and for the women whose experiences primarily inform The Second Sex, athleticism could indeed have been emancipatory, by allowing them to overcome the narcissistic fixation on their appearance that their culture bred. But for those whose lives entail physical labor, [End Page 456] athleticism might lose the allure that it has for Beauvoir. My response to this concern is to return to the proposal I offered in the case of those who cannot engage in the physical activities that Beauvoir highlights. I would again argue that restorative bodily practices, such as meditation, might be promising for cultivating a positive relation to one's body. Such bodily practices would constitute a form of self-care, one focused on the body, and one more appealing to women whose lives demand taxing physical activity. All in all, while I maintain that Beauvoir's sensualism is a promising idea for developing an art of living, I want to signal the limits of her focus on athletics and activities of physical domination, since it glosses over the lives of those for whom such exercises might not hold the same promise.
In closing, I should also note that in building up to the idea of sensualism I discussed three concepts deployed by Beauvoir: ambiguity, freedom, and authenticity. These concepts are important to understanding what sensualism involves. And this is why I do not see conceptual work as at odds with the project of articulating an art of living. My point is not to deny that Beauvoir created concepts or appropriated ones she inherited from other philosophers but to encourage us to focus both on the conceptual work she accomplishes and on the art of living that flows from these concepts. More generally, I ask philosophers today to revisit the relationship between the task of creating concepts and the bearing of such concepts on life. In my eyes, we miss out on the original vocation of philosophy, which was to help us live better lives, when we focus exclusively on creating concepts and disregard how these concepts can affect our very existence.
In summary, Beauvoir's descriptions of her experience hiking and the passages from The Second Sex suggest that for her an important part of a healthy relationship to one's body would lie in cultivating an appreciation of one's body that is not merely predicated on one's appearance. I see this sensualism as an important feature, though not the only one, of Beauvoir's feminist art of living. Put simply, Beauvoir could be said to offer an art of living the body or, more specifically, of how gendered subjects can live their bodies in a world that interprets the significance of their bodies in limiting ways. In this sense, Beauvoir's art of living is a feminist one: it takes into account the specificity of gender norms in its vision for how to lead a good life. Altogether, I believe that we can learn much about how to lead better lives when we make explicit the art of living that Beauvoir embodied and communicates to us in her oeuvre. [End Page 457]
3. Of course, Hadot was not the first to make this point. Michel Foucault, for instance, discusses the distinctive character of ancient philosophy's focus on "care of the self."
4. For Hadot's interpretation of ancient philosophy as a way of life, the reader should consult the following works: Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1995); The Inner Citadel: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001); What Is Ancient Philosophy? (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002).
11. Emily Witt, "A Six-Day Walk Through the Alps, Inspired by Simone de Beauvoir," The New York Times, October 13, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/13/t-magazine/entertainment/simone-de-beauvoir-hiking-alps.html?emc=eta1.
21. The contrast between a sensual appreciation of the body and one predicated on its appearance might remind the reader of Iris Marion Young's work on "breasted experience," where she contrasts "the look" and "the feel" of breasts. See Iris Marion Young, "Breasted Experience: The Look and the Feeling," in her On Female Body Experience (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005). I thank Jacqueline Martinez for pointing out this connection.
27. Here I have in mind the practice of "mindfulness meditation." As William Edelglass explains, the word "mindfulness" is often used to identify a form of meditation where one is encouraged to increase one's capacity to "sustain focused attention." See William Edelglass, "The Bodhisattva Path: Santideva's Bodhicaryavatara," in Buddhist Philosophy: Essential Readings, ed. W. Edelglass and J. Garfield (Oxford: Oxford University: 2009), 390. Mindfulness includes a wide variety of practices—from those that encourage one to focus on one's breath or, by contrast, on external objects (for example, sounds). Such practices encourage the meditator to become aware of the sensations that are attendant to the object of attention.