chapter  6
11 Pages

Simone de Beauvoir


Simone de Beauvoir’s life stretched across most of the twentieth century, encompassing tremendous events and changes from the impact of two world wars to post Second World War violent processes of decolonisation in Asia and Africa, the civil rights movement in the US, uprisings in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, student radicalism and the birth of second wave feminism in Europe and the USA. She was a philosopher, a feminist, a novelist, a political commentator and (sometimes) a political activist. She was also a public intellectual, part of a group of thinkers and writers who helped to develop the distinctively French phenomenological philosophy: existentialism. Jean-Paul Sartre, the leading exponent of existentialist philosophy, was Beauvoir’s lover, friend and philosophical partner for fifty years, until his death in 1980. As commentators on Beauvoir have noted, her association with Sartre has often led to the dismissal of the independent value of Beauvoir’s philosophical work. However, Beauvoir did make a significant contribution to traditions of critical theory, in her work on ethics and politics in The Ethics of Ambiguity (first published in 1947, see Beauvoir 1948) and in her groundbreaking feminist text The Second Sex (first published in 1949, see Beauvoir 1997). We have an unusually detailed knowledge of Beauvoir’s life. Not only did

she use her personal experiences in her novels, but she was also very public about the unorthodox way she chose to live her personal life, and wrote about this extensively in her autobiographical works (Beauvoir 1959, 1965a, 1965b, 1972, Rowley 2007). Beauvoir came from a middle class family and was brought up with the stultifying expectations on girls that this implied in early twentieth century France. She challenged these expectations, however, through her brilliance as a scholar, becoming a graduate student in philosophy at the Sorbonne. During the 1930s, she developed her philosophical ideas in dialogue with Sartre, Merleau-Ponty and others, whilst also teaching philosophy and studying German phenomenology, including the work of Husserl and Heidegger. She spent most of the war in occupied Paris, during which time she studied Hegel, and published her first novel in 1943. Although Beauvoir herself played no major role in any resistance movement, it is clear from The Ethics of Ambiguity that the example of the French resistance

during the war, for Beauvoir, posed key questions about the meaning of ethical responsibility and resistance to injustice, and the role of violence in politics. In the aftermath of the war, Beauvoir was one of the founders of the leftist journal Les Temps Modernes, and also aligned herself with the antiStalinist left in France. As an increasingly famous (notorious) public intellectual and writer, she openly opposed the French war in Algeria, and in her later years supported student radicals in 1968 and the women’s movement, including campaigns against legal and political discrimination and for the legalisation of abortion. As second wave feminism took off in the 1960s, feminist scholars began to study The Second Sex systematically and to identify Beauvoir as a foundational feminist thinker. For some commentators, both Beauvoir and Sartre failed to live up to their own ideals as critical, committed philosophers pursuing resistance to oppression (Rowley 2007). But whether they were successful or not, there is no question that they set up a model for the meaning of being a critical theorist that continues to resonate in debates about critical theory today (Moi 2004a).