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What Simone Said

by Anja Steinbauer

Simone Lucie-Ernestine-Marie-Bertrand de Beauvoir, first daughter of a good bourgeois family, was born a hundred years ago, on 9 January 1908. She died on 14 April 1986 one of the most important literary figures of the twentieth century – a woman, an existentialist and a hell of a philosopher.

But, we must ask together with de Beauvoir: What is a woman? What is an existentialist? What is a philosopher? And do any of these shoes really fit her without aches and blisters?

There seems to be very little doubt that Simone de Beauvoir was a woman. However, according to her this is by no means a straightforward category. On the level of gender rather than biological sex, the label ‘woman’ is attributed to an artificial construct, i.e. what is meant by ‘woman’ is a social invention. And Simone de Beauvoir didn’t think that the label as traditionally defined really applied to her: “In researching and writing The Second Sex I did come to realize that my privileges were the result of my having abdicated, in some crucial respects at least, my womanhood. If we put it in class economic terms, you would understand it easily: I had become a class collaborationist. Well, I was sort of the equivalent in terms of the sex struggle. Through The Second Sex I became aware of the struggle needed. I understood that the vast majority of women simply did not have the choices that I had had, that women are, in fact, defined and treated as a second sex by a male-oriented society. ” However, on the biological side of things there are characteristics and experiences that make one undeniably a female member of the species. De Beauvoir thought that these too are open to interpretation and need to be reflected on, as Felicity Joseph explains in her article ‘On Becoming a Woman’.

Surely we can call Simone de Beauvoir an existentialist without much ado? True, it is a label she later came to accept, yet not easily. De Beauvoir herself seems to have been adverse to labels, even ‘existentialist’. When she was first introduced to the philosopher Jean Grenier at the Café de Flore in 1943, he asked her: “And you Madame, are you an existentialist?” De Beauvoir writes of her reaction: “I had read Kierkegaard. In the context of Heidegger people had for some time talked about the philosophy of ‘Existenz’: but I was not familiar with the word ‘existentialist’, which Gabriel Marcel had just launched. Furthermore, Grenier’s question hurt my modesty and my pride.” In a way existentialism is an anti-label kind of philosophy. We are reminded not to pigeonhole people, including ourselves, too easily – a temptation which will invariably lead us into the trap of ‘bad faith’. Existentialism is also the philosophy of choice, which was of great interest to de Beauvoir. Choice operates on all levels of human existence, from choosing a career to choosing a candybar. That choosing to use lipstick can be a salient choice is argued by Annina Lehmann in her article ‘The Accents of Her Ruby Lips’.

Finally, what makes anyone a philosopher? That they think they are one? On that count Simone de Beauvoir doesn’t qualify. Why didn’t she think of herself as a philosopher? Though her training was in philosophy, most of her acknowledged achievement was in literature. Honoured with the most prestigious prizes the French literary establishment had to offer, she was seen – by others as well as by herself – as a literary figure.

Yet de Beauvoir’s contributions to philosophy are manifold. They include the exploration and original rethinking of problems such as freedom, the ‘other’ and the self. She wrestles with traditional issues such as the connection between freedom and moral goodness but manages – against the background of philosophical giants such as Aristotle, Kant and Hegel – to give us a new perspective on these problems. She explores the practical implications of ethics for women – the applicability of moral ideas to women’s lives. Her philosophising also leads her to fascinating discussions of themes such as violence, the significance of love, and vengeance – the latter being the subject of Pauline O’Flynn’s article in this issue.

Apart from her novels, the book that made Simone de Beauvoir world famous is The Second Sex, which is rich in empirical evidence as well as philosophical argument. Sally Scholz introduces this eye-opener of a book. However, among de Beauvoir’s writings there are even more straightforwardly philosophical works. A book which merits far more attention than it is generally given is her Ethics of Ambiguity, aspects of which Charlotte Moore discusses in her article.

She enriched existentialism by adding a new aspect to its picture of the human condition: ambiguity. Existentialism, claims de Beauvoir, is in fact the philosophy of ambiguity. Furthermore, she gives new significance to the existence of others in our lives: “No existence can be validly fulfilled if it is limited to itself,” she argues in The Ethics of Ambiguity.

Simone de Beauvoir was many things, amongst others a woman, an existentialist and a philosopher, but extraordinary in all of them.

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