Saturday, December 19, 2009

How existentialism made women the second sex

Existentialism is one of the more interesting expressions of modernist philosophy.

The logic of existentialism seems to go something like this. First, there's the assertion that God does not exist. This makes the world absurd, chaotic and meaningless. Therefore, the individual must transcend the world. He does so, first, by rising above the natural, instinctive, biological, "animal", determined processes of life. Second, he asserts his own freedom against the world and imposes his own order on it, through his own autonomous will. By doing so he creates a kind of subjective meaning to life, through the pursuit of an individual life project.

This is how Clifford Edwards summarises the existentialist view:

On the testimony and evidence of existence, life is patently chaotic, incoherent, meaningless, and hence absurd; consequently, the only responsible and honest intellectual and emotional response is to turn to the imperatives of the human spirit, to assert the freedom and autonomy of the self in order to impose meaningful form on the chaotic flux of existence.

Existentialism follows the modernist mainstream in making a freedom to be radically autonomous the overriding aim. Man, abandoned by God, is to become the law maker who determines what is, even what he himself is. Jean Paul Sartre wrote:

There was nothing left in heaven ... nor anyone to give me orders ... I am doomed to have no other law but mine ... Man is the being whose project is to become God.

He wrote this too:

We remind man that there is no legislator but himself, that he himself thus abandoned, must decide for himself.

So there is only man himself to create meaning. What happens next? Here's how one critic of existentialism puts it:

But, then the Atheistic Existentialist says, "Here's how we're going to respond to this. We're going to respond by saying that existence precedes essence." Existence precedes essence. In other words, we exist, and then we supply the meaning of life. WE exist, and then we supply the answer to the essence of life. In other words, mankind makes itself. We invent ourselves. We invent meaning. We come into a world which has no meaning, and the job of the Existentialist in this meaningless world is to do what? To create meaning. To create what we are as human beings.

The idea of the Existentialist is that people make themselves who they are. The Existentialist, over against the Nihilist who said people are robots, the Existentialist says, "No. This world is a big machine, but I am not a cog in this wheel. I have a free will. I determine myself. My decisions make who I am." The Existentialist says each person is totally free as regards to their nature and destiny ... 

It's like a choice of the lesser of two evils. The existentialist wants to avoid thinking of himself as a merely biological, determined cog in an absurd materialistic universe. So he asserts his own capacity to create order, against the world, as an autonomous being.

This might sound like a superior option, but it's still radically limited. There is still only a "subjective meaning" to existence. Sartre wrote:

Man does not discover values, he creates them.

But just how meaningful are "values" that have no objective existence? And the "values" themselves seem only to exist in terms of a rebellion against a chaotic, meaningless universe. It might sound heroic but it's not greatly encouraging.

And, in the end, it often ends up as a trite or trivial conception of life. We are each to have a "life project" of our own. The content of the life project doesn't matter much and usually isn't identified. Its purpose has to do not with what it is or what it accomplishes, but in the fact that it's the focus of our attempt to impose our will on the world.

It's unsatisfying, though, to be told that what we do doesn't amount to much in itself - that it only matters as an expression of our will. And what is our life project? Presumably for most people it's their career - and yet for most people the world of everyday work doesn't, in itself, create meaning.

The Second Sex

Another way to see how existentialism goes wrong is to look at how it was applied to the lives of women by Simone de Beauvoir in her feminist work The Second Sex.

For existentialists there is no meaning within a given, predetermined nature. There is, for instance, no essence to the lives of men and women which is meaningful. The point, instead, is to escape from a given nature and to assert our individual autonomy.

What does this mean for women? It means that motherhood, and female biology in general, becomes a negative impediment to the meaning of a woman's life. This is because women are tied more closely to the biological role of motherhood than men are to fatherhood and because men have the more active role sexually:

The female is the victim of the species. During certain periods in the year, fixed in each species, her whole life is under the regulation of a sexual cycle ...

In the female mammal, rut is largely passive; she is ready and waiting to receive the male ... Her body becomes, therefore, a resistance to be broken through, whereas in penetrating it the male finds self-fulfilment in activity.

... But the fundamental difference between male and female mammals lies in this: the sperm, through which the life of the male is transcended in another, at the same instant becomes a stranger to him and separates from his body; so that the male recovers his individuality intact at the moment when he transcends it. The egg, on the contrary, begins to separate from the female body when, fully matured, it emerges from the follicle and falls into the oviduct; but if fertilised by a gamete from outside, it becomes attached again through implantation in the uterus. First violated, the female is then alienated – she becomes, in part, another than herself ... She regains some autonomy after the birth of her offspring – a certain distance is established between her and them ...

At times when she is free from maternal servitude she can now and then equal the male; the mare is as fleet as the stallion, the hunting bitch has as keen a nose as the dog, she-monkeys in tests show as much intelligence as males. It is only that this individuality is not laid claim to; the female renounces it for the benefit of the species, which demands this abdication.

The lot of the male is quite different. As we have just seen, even in his transcendence towards the next generation he keeps himself apart and maintains his individuality within himself. ... This vital superabundance, the activities directed towards mating, and the dominating affirmation of his power over the female in coitus itself – all this contributes to the assertion of the male individual as such at the moment of his living transcendence

In the species capable of high individual development, the urge of the male towards autonomy – which in lower animals is his ruin – is crowned with success. He is in general larger than the female, stronger, swifter, more adventurous; he leads a more independent life ...

Quite logically, de Beauvoir thinks of menopause in highly positive terms:

Woman is now delivered from the servitude imposed by her female nature, but she is not to be likened to a eunuch, for her vitality is unimpaired. And what is more, she is no longer the prey of overwhelming forces; she is herself, she and her body are one. It is sometimes said that women of a certain age constitute ‘a third sex’; and, in truth, while they are not males, they are no longer females. Often, indeed, this release from female physiology is expressed in a health, a balance, a vigour that they lacked before.

So what de Beauvoir is committed to by her existentialism is a liberation of women from motherhood, sexuality and biology. She thinks this is possible because, after all, existence precedes essence:

But man is defined as a being who is not fixed, who makes himself what he is. As Merleau-Ponty very justly puts it, man is not a natural species: he is a historical idea. Woman is not a completed reality, but rather a becoming, and it is in her becoming that she should be compared with man; that is to say, her possibilities should be defined. What gives rise to much of the debate is the tendency to reduce her to what she has been, to what she is today, in raising the question of her capabilities; for the fact is that capabilities are clearly manifested only when they have been realised – but the fact is also that when we have to do with a being whose nature is transcendent action, we can never close the books.


Nevertheless it will be said that if the body is not a thing, it is a situation, as viewed in the perspective I am adopting – that of Heidegger, Sartre, and Merleau-Ponty: it is the instrument of our grasp upon the world, a limiting factor for our projects. Woman is weaker than man, she has less muscular strength, fewer red blood corpuscles, less lung capacity, she runs more slowly, can lift less heavy weights, can compete with man in hardly any sport; she cannot stand up to him in a fight. To all this weakness must be added the instability, the lack of control, and the fragility already discussed: these are facts. Her grasp on the world is thus more restricted; she has less firmness and less steadiness available for projects that in general she is less capable of carrying out. In other words, her individual life is less rich than man’s.

De Beauvoir is concerned that the female body continues to matter, even though we make ourselves who we are, because it is potentially a "limiting factor for our projects" - and these projects require us to "grasp" the world with a strength of will.

Women are to be vital, independent, project pursuers. They are to be considered equal in their human stature when they exert the same "grasp" over the world as men. The female body, femininity, female sexuality and motherhood are all hindrances to this aim, which de Beauvoir thinks can be overcome in their effects by social engineering.

So existentialism effectively undermines the worth of a distinctive womanhood. In effect, women have to transcend their own femaleness, including their own female biology. What we usually think of as one of the most important sources of meaning in a woman's life - motherhood - becomes an impediment to meaning for an existentialist.

The basic mistake is to think that we create meaning by the imposition of our autonomous will on the world.

13 comments:

  1. I'll take the liberty of continuing on from the last thread, seeing as they're related.

    I have provided quotes from modern-day academes which are remarkably similar in both meaning and purpose to those of de Beauvoir.

    No they're not similar, they're diametrically opposed. Blackburn's cv is online, and it appears that her thing is 'inclusion', 'diversity', etc. She has nothing whatsoever to do with existentialism or philosophy more generally.

    You and Mark have pushed a reading of Sartre and de Beauvoir that is deeply misleading. For instance, this claim that Sartre is trying to change the world is refuted by B+N page 580 (Routledge edition), where Sartre explicitly critiques 'materialists' and 'revolutionaries', alleging that they are in bad faith.

    Moreover, the claim that de Beauvior is trying to reconstruct a genderless world is also false. See the closing lines of The Second Sex:

    'To gain the supreme victory, it is necessary, for one thing, that by and through their natural differentiation men and women unequivocally affirm their brotherhood'.

    This one line alone refutes half of the wild generalisations made by commenters on this site about feminism and its discontents.

    Before criticising supposed modernists, you should always go back to the actual source, rather than relying on some stooge with a dubious agenda to convey the source to you.

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  2. The logic of existentialism seems to go something like this. First, there's the assertion that God does not exist.

    Whilst Sartre was an athiest, most existentialists were believers (and some were even theologians). The point is that, believer or not, God can not act as a magical guarantor re: the ethical status of man's actions. Such a proposition is quite separate to questions of God's existence.

    Therefore, the individual must transcend the world. He does so, first, by rising above the natural, instinctive, biological, "animal", determined processes of life.

    I'd put it differently. According to the existentialists, man cannot and ought not be reduced to his biology. All the same, no existentialists have ever claimed that humans leave their flesh and blood for some ethereal plane.

    Second, he asserts his own freedom against the world and imposes his own order on it, through his own autonomous will.


    Will has nothing to do with it. For Sartre, the freedom is there, like it or not. It's a question of whether one opts to assume this terrible freedom, or hides from it in 'bad faith'. It may be, Mark, that you are correct, and that, at bottom, Sartre is merely a liberal 'autonomist' stooge as you seem to imply, but this is not borne out by your reading of him here.

    It's also why this Clifford fellow has it wrong. One doesn't assert freedom against absurdity - both freedom and absurdity are there from the beginning (according to Sartre), so it's more a question fo what to do about them.

    Existentialism follows the modernist mainstream in making a freedom to be radically autonomous the overriding aim.

    I realise that this is a blog, and that Mr Richardson pursues his arguments with exemplary manners and in good faith, but this statement is shockingly inaccurate. The 'modernist mainstream' either denied freedom of the will, or sidelined it - see Nietzsche, Freud, Marx, Darwin, Levi-Strauss, etc.

    This might sound like a superior option, but it's still radically limited. There is still only a "subjective meaning" to existence

    Okay. You take issue with meaning being 'subjective'. I'd be curious whether you'd care to explore the issue further, as I'm not entirely sure what alternatives to subjective meaning there are. If meaning is, at least in part, a psychological 'state' vis-a-vis a given set of phenomena, how can it ever not be subjective? And what 'values' have an objective existence? You can cite those of the Bible, but these are firstly, non-universal, and secondly, require enormous amounts of interpretation to sift through. So, how do you secure an 'objective' set of 'values' and 'meanings'? Surely not evolutionary psychology...

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  3. Moreover, the claim that de Beauvior is trying to reconstruct a genderless world is also false.

    No it's not - or not quite. De Beauvoir starts out by saying that it won't do to deny the reality of gender distinction, as some feminists of her time tried to do.

    She writes that it's obvious to the eyes that such distinctions exist.

    However, as I described in my post, she then goes on to define femininity as inferior to masculinity.

    So she looks to a change in society to make gender distinctions matter less. She approves of the policies outlined in revolutionary Russia but thinks they weren't carried out adequately.

    In her conclusion she admits that the loss of feminine charm she is aiming at will disappoint many but she thinks there will still be some residual forms of gender distinctions to partially compensate.

    It's a radical programme of social engineering that's not quite envisaged in absolute terms.

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  4. Anon, here's a quote from The Second Sex which shows what de Beauvoir was up to:

    But is it enough to change laws, institutions, customs, public opinion, and the whole social context, for men and women to become truly equal? ‘Women will always be women,’ say the sceptics. Other seers prophesy that in casting off their femininity they will not succeed in changing themselves into men and they will become monsters. This would be to admit that the woman of today is a creation of nature; it must be repeated once more that in human society nothing is natural and that woman, like much else, is a product elaborated by civilisation. The intervention of others in her destiny is fundamental: if this action took a different direction, it would produce a quite different result. Woman is determined not by her hormones or by mysterious instincts, but by the manner in which her body and her relation to the world are modified through the action of others than herself.

    She is stating here that women should cast off their femininity; that they can succeed in this because their femininity is not natural but is a social construct; and that therefore there should be a wholesale change to society - to laws, institutions, customs, public opinion and the social context - to enable women to cast off their femininity.

    She does try to reassure readers at the very end that the loss of femininity in women won't render sex relations entirely arid and uninteresting. Her main argument here is that women will remain physically different and so their sexuality will remain a little different to that of men.

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  5. ""The basic mistake is to think that we create meaning by the imposition of our autonomous will on the world.""

    A pretty profound opposing argument.

    Good work Mark. Keep them coming.

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  6. Before criticising supposed modernists, you should always go back to the actual source, rather than relying on some stooge with a dubious agenda to convey the source to you.

    You will either retract that insult to the gracious host of this site, or I will exchange no further words with you.

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  7. Clearly de Beauvoir advances an argument "male privilege." I take it she does not consider male duties?

    On physical strength, for instance, men are considered obligated to use their power on behalf of their mothers, sisters, wives and daughters, even to the point of death in their defense.

    Such an extreme is rare, but millions of ordinary men put their health on the line in work, home maintenance and heavy lifting. Just look at the difference in life expectancy.

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  8. @Anonymous:

    According to the existentialists, man cannot and ought not be reduced to his biology.

    Um..err...what is is there? In the presence of an ethically impotent God, what else motivates us to do anything? Even if the existentialists believed in souls, why should the existentialist choose to a life of "authenticity" rather than non-authenticity? From where does the imperative for self- actulisation come from?

    You can't derive "ought" from "is". Existentialism is the philosophy of "is". It gives us no "oughts", it gives us nothing. It is not a guide.

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  9. You will either retract that insult to the gracious host of this site, or I will exchange no further words with you.

    Settle down, Bart. I was referring to some of the sources used here - the ones which grab a money-quote out of context and purport to unmask an agenda - not the host.

    Even if the existentialists believed in souls, why should the existentialist choose to a life of "authenticity" rather than non-authenticity? From where does the imperative for self- actulisation come from?

    I agree to a point - the idea of 'authenticity' is nonsense, and has been treated as such by successive generations of philosophers. There's still no justification, however, for attempting to construct moral imperatives out of some fabricated biological necessity. And please note that 'self-actualisation' originated with Californian morons who cannibalised and Americanised existentialism, and did not come from the existentialists themselves.

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  10. There's still no justification, however, for attempting to construct moral imperatives out of some fabricated biological necessity.

    Even though it is still wrong, a biological "hard wired" case for morality has more going for it than the philosophy of existentialism. One could quite successfully argue that, on average, we have inherited certain genetic traits which pre dispose us to behave well and that those haven't inherited the traits are bad and so on...... But existenialism is like post-modernism, the argument for meaninglessness without meaning.

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  11. TSP, I'm not trying to advocate on behalf of existentialism. I think the morality underpinning existentialism isn't so explicit - it boils down to 'good faith' and 'authenticity', which differ greatly depending on circumstances. I think there's a lot of confusion regarding 'meaning' and modern philosophy. Most of the 'postmodernists' do not advocate nihilism or meaninglessness per se, and the same goes for the existentialists. Now, I can see why self-identified conservatives distrust modern philosophy. perhaps they don't wish to debate with it fully, as this might lead them to assume premises that they do no wish to accept. The other side of it, however, is that many strands of modern thought have arguably been misconstrued in the present debate. Modern thought is by no means as 'leftist' or 'liberal' as some may believe.

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  12. Anonymous

    Most of the 'postmodernists' do not advocate nihilism or meaninglessness per se, and the same goes for the existentialists.

    That's only because they(the modernists) haven't been thorough in their thinking. Think long and hard and it leads to nihilism.

    Now, I can see why self-identified conservatives distrust modern philosophy. perhaps they don't wish to debate with it fully, as this might lead them to assume premises that they do no wish to accept.

    The other reason is that modern philosophy is wrong. Wanting it to be right or wrong has nothing to do with the matter.

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  13. You are a sophist and know nothing of the truth of existentialism.

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