Monday, December 22, 2008

What explains Simone de Beauvoir?

I'm reading Simone de Beauvoir's book, The Second Sex, published in 1949.

In my previous post, I briefly summarised de Beauvoir's politics. She held that men and women were distinct, but not for natural reasons. Women were different because they had been "othered".

De Beauvoir was a pioneer of this concept of the "Other". The idea is that for men to establish an identity, it was necessary for them to "other" women - to marginalise women by making them an object rather than a subject, inessential rather than essential, the negative rather than the positive, the exception rather than the norm and so on.

As I pointed out, the dangerous implication of this theory is that it means that no one can have a distinct identity, as to do so involves an act of oppression against some other group.

In particular, it will be thought wrong for any majority group to have an identity, as the majority will be seen as the "subject" group doing the "othering". It will be up to the majority to cease identifying as themselves, and to identify sympathetically instead with the minority "Other".

(Does this help to explain the attitude of writers like Germaine Greer, Michael Leunig and Robert Manne, who have sought throughout their lives to identify with a minority group (e.g. the Aborigines), and who are at pains to show their sympathy with the most alien aspects of the minority culture, even if this conflicts with the liberalism they expect from the majority?)

What, though, led de Beauvoir to explain the existence of a distinct womanhood in this way? Why develop this theory of the Other? Why not accept womanhood in more positive terms?

Here de Beauvoir is a lot less original. In fact, she is orthodox. It turns out that de Beauvoir was following a philosophy of existentialism, which itself appears to be another expression of liberal autonomy theory.

Liberal autonomy theory is the idea that to be fully human we must create our own self - we must be self-determined, rather than predetermined. According to the theory, we are less than human if we are not independent, autonomous creatures who write our own life scripts and are unrestricted in choosing who we are and what we do.

The theory might sound reasonable, but it has unreasonable consequences. It tends to make illegitimate whatever is significant in our life that we have inherited rather than chosen for ourselves. This includes our sex - the fact of being male or female - as this is something we are born into. Therefore, liberals often seek to make our sex not matter, even to the extent of treating sex differences as artificial, oppressive constructs.

It's not difficult to pick up references to liberal autonomy theory in de Beauvoir's book. You can see the assumption that we can be less than human if we are not autonomous in the following quotes:

It was only later, in the eighteenth century, that genuinely democratic men began to view the matter objectively. Diderot, among others, strove to show that woman is, like man, a human being ...

... along with the ethical urge of each individual to affirm his subjective existence, there is also the temptation to forgo liberty and become a thing. This is an inauspicious road, for he who takes it - passive, lost, ruined - becomes henceforth the creature of another's will, frustrated in his transcendence and deprived of every value.

What is the claim being made in the above quote? De Beauvoir seems to think that we create our own value by actively affirming ourselves as a free, autonomous subject. If we do so, we achieve a meaningful state of "transcendence" rather than a meaningless, valueless state of "immanence".

Again, there are high stakes being laid out here. If you accept the theory, then it will seem terribly unjust for anyone to be "othered" into a condition of being the "object" rather than the value creating subject. The whole meaning of life, as well as our status of being human, will be thought to depend on it.

De Beauvoir finishes the introduction to her book by setting out her philosophy at somewhat greater length. She writes:

There is no justification for present existence other than its expansion into an indefinitely open future. Every time transcendence falls back into immanence, stagnation, there is a degradation of existence into the ‘en-sois’ – the brutish life of subjection to given conditions – and of liberty into constraint and contingence.

This downfall represents a moral fault if the subject consents to it; if it is inflicted upon him, it spells frustration and oppression. In both cases it is an absolute evil. Every individual concerned to justify his existence feels that his existence involves an undefined need to transcend himself, to engage in freely chosen projects.

This is classic autonomy theory - you can hear the voice of John Stuart Mill in it. De Beauvoir believes that life is "brutish" (not human) if we are "subject to given conditions" (if we are not self-determined). We are not free if we are constrained or restricted in transcending who we are (which suggests that there is nothing meaningful in what we are given to be).

Note that this requires "an indefinitely open future", as any definite characteristic of society effectively becomes a constraint on what we might choose. (But a completely "open" society is also an empty one - what de Beauvoir is offering is free choice within a social void, which is a very negative kind of freedom - the one you might experience when you think you have nothing left to lose.)

De Beauvoir continues:

Now, what peculiarly signalises the situation of woman is that she – a free and autonomous being like all human creatures – nevertheless finds herself living in a world where men compel her to assume the status of the Other. They propose to stabilise her as object and to doom her to immanence since her transcendence is to be overshadowed and for ever transcended by another ego (conscience) which is essential and sovereign.

The drama of woman lies in this conflict between the fundamental aspirations of every subject (ego) – who always regards the self as the essential and the compulsions of a situation in which she is the inessential. How can a human being in woman’s situation attain fulfilment? What roads are open to her? Which are blocked? How can independence be recovered in a state of dependency? What circumstances limit woman’s liberty and how can they be overcome? These are the fundamental questions on which I would fain throw some light. This means that I am interested in the fortunes of the individual as defined not in terms of happiness but in terms of liberty.

Once more, de Beauvoir insists that the aim is to be free, autonomous and independent, a state of being denied to women because in identifying as "men", males have consigned women to the position of an inessential object - the Other. Men have effectively established their power at the expense of women, they have become essential and sovereign by making women inessential and abnormal.

Obviously, there is nothing wrong with a measure of autonomy and independence. De Beauvoir, though, has tied our status as humans, our life meaning, our freedom and the progress of society to an absolute measure of autonomy, one in which we are unconstrained and in which we create value by transcending our given self.

How is this likely to work out in practice? In my next post, I'll look at how de Beauvoir tried to implement her philosophy in her own life. By looking at what de Beauvoir called her greatest achievement, we get a more practical sense of how autonomy theory is likely to work out in real life.


  1. It did not work out well for Beauvoir.

    "And while Simone de Beauvoir preached her ideal of feminist independence and equality, eschewing such 'bourgeois' concepts as marriage and children, and claiming women should behave just like men, the truth is such a lifestyle made her bitterly unhappy and she became obsessively jealous over Sartre's countless conquests."

    Further: "They would sleep together and have affairs on the side which they must describe to each other in every intimate detail.

    During the first years, Sartre embarked on the arrangement with gusto. He liked to sleep with virgins, after which he rapidly lost interest.

    This left the highly sexed Simone, now teaching philosophy, constantly frustrated, despite the lovers she took."

    This goes back to a comment I wrote your other post about promiscuous English women pretending to enjoy no strings attached sex. There seems to be a subset of women who really want to emulate the worst behavior of men but when they do they are robbed of the enjoyment they envision all men get from such behavior. Perhaps it is based on envy but whatever the case, when we deny our nature we pay a price.

    There will always be trade offs in life but it seems a core belief of autonomy theory is that the male model of human beings doesn't ever suffer for their choices. It certainly doesn't work that way when women apply this model to their own lives.

  2. Liesel, jackpot! I'll develop the point further in a separate post, but Beauvoir's principled efforts to live an autonomous life left her in a much worse position in her personal life. She did not provide an attractive model of life for other women to follow.

  3. Hi Mark,

    Interesting to read your blog. I returned to London from Melbourne last year, and was under the impression from the people I met whilst living there (my wife is a Melbournian) that there were no Conservatives living there! Discovered your site by accident. you raise some interesting points, I'll make a point of checking out your blog.

  4. Jonathan,

    I hope you enjoy reading the site. Your impressions weren't so wrong - we do lack an organised conservative presence here in Melbourne.

    I've organised a network of conservatives which is large enough now (35 people) to organise social events. I'm hoping that it will continue to grow in numbers and in its role.