Simone de Beauvoir is probably best known as a writer and feminist, but there’s a strong existentialist foundation for her views on women, and we’ve started exploring that in our recent episode on Beauvoir’s The Ethics of Ambiguity. Her take on the human condition, the tension between our freedom and that of others, as well as her concern for the ensuing ethical implications place Beauvoir in a line of well-established existentialists such as Camus, Merleau-Ponty, and Sartre.
But what is the connection between existentialism and feminism in Beauvoir’s work? Does one stem from the other, or is there a conflict that Beauvoir somehow manages to solve? How can we reconcile Beauvoir’s famous claim that “one is not born, but rather becomes a woman” with the wider existentialist movement and its concerns with freedom, authenticity, and living “in good faith”? These questions are the starting point for a laid-back yet very informative Philosophy talk podcast featuring Shannon Mussett, Professor of Philosophy at Utah Valley University and co-author of Beauvoir and Western Thought from Plato to Butler.
Radical freedom (the crux of Sartrean existentialism) implies choosing what we really want to be and defining ourselves through our own actions, rather than accepting the norms and identities that are handed to us (which would mean living “in bad faith”). In patriarchal society, Beauvoir would say, women are perceived as “the other” and consequently given socially constructed roles, conditioning them to be and behave a certain way, drawing restrictive contours around their identity by telling them, from childhood, what they can and cannot do.
But in a context of radical freedom, is it even possible to have your identity carved out for you? If women have had their identity chosen for them, doesn’t that also mean they somehow “let it happen,” thus making them, in a way, guilty of living inauthentically, “in bad faith”? How can oppression (in this case, based on gender) be successful within the existentialist worldview?
As Prof. Mussett explains, whereas Sartre fully embraced the explosive idea of radical freedom, Beauvoir considered cultural contingencies and the role of social circumstances in shaping the different forms of oppression and our understanding of it. As opposed to Sartre, she considered the importance of factors such as race, poverty, or even age in forming our self-image and self-perceived freedom. As some argue in this podcast, this might make her philosophy even more sophisticated than Sartre’s.
To find out more tune in and enjoy as the episode goes on to elucidate other questions about Beauvoir’s philosophy as it applies today, as well as discussing third-wave feminists’ critique of her work.
If you not only want to find out more about Beauvoir but also wish to benefit from Mussett’s scholarly work, I recommend her book Beauvoir and Western Thought from Plato to Butler. It fills what has been a significant gap in the study of Beauvoir’s work, by placing her in a dialogue with ancient thinkers, her contemporaries, as well as later thinkers she’s influenced. The book concludes with an autobiographical essay written by the revolutionary bell hooks, whose work we discussed in episode 139. And finally, for a more in-depth discussion of Beauvoir’s probably most existentialist work, The Ethics of Ambiguity, stay tuned for the second part of our episode here on PEL.
Ana Sandoiu is a writer, researcher & philosophy lover living in Brighton, UK. She also writes on her personal blog, On a Saturday Morning.