In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Simone de Beauvoir

  • Introduction

Philosophy Simone de Beauvoir
by
Edward Fullbrook, Margaret Simons
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 June 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 March 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0277

Introduction

Simone de Beauvoir (b. 9 January 1908–d. 14 April 1986) contributed to shaping the philosophical movement of French existential phenomenology. But recognition of her importance as a philosopher has come mostly since her death. The delay resulted from the convergence of two factors. One was the sexism that ruled Western intellectual culture; the other was Beauvoir’s close half-century working relationship with the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, which meant that all the ideas that they publicly shared could, given the dominance of sexism, automatically be attributed to him. By the time of Beauvoir’s death sexism’s grip on intellectual culture was, thanks in part to her book The Second Sex, beginning to weaken. Also beginning in 1983 the voluminous diaries and letters of Beauvoir and Sartre were published, which revealed in chronological detail the her/him origins of the philosophical ideas that they so famously shared. These developments led to an increasing proportion of Beauvoir scholarship focused on her work and role as a philosopher. Continental philosophy tends to be more inclusive with regard to literary form than does the analytical tradition. This is especially true of its phenomenological branch, which includes existentialism, the school to which Beauvoir belonged and helped develop. This inclusiveness stems directly from the method of discovery employed by phenomenological philosophers. One of Beauvoir’s foundational ideas was that the universal point of view is, as with everyone else, not available to the philosopher. Instead, thought begins from individual points of view and then proceeds on the basis of inductive generalization. This emphasis on the particular and the concrete, from which philosophical propositions may be drawn, invites the use of fiction as a medium for philosophical discovery, especially at the ontological level. For this reason and because traditional publishing platforms for philosophers were not generally open to women, Beauvoir used this method extensively. Beauvoir’s primary focus in the earliest stage of her philosophical work was on the structure of human consciousness: how it relates to itself, how it relates to the physical world, and, most especially, on the problem of the existence of other human consciousnesses. She developed her theory of the Other from the experience of finding oneself the object of the other’s gaze. The second stage of Beauvoir’s philosophical work, reflecting her experience of living under the Nazi occupation, moves from the metaphysical and moral solipsism of She Came to Stay to focus on the ethical implications of relationships with the Other. In the third and final stage, Beauvoir returned to her earlier focus on the structure of human consciousness to work on the problem of ontological commonalities among individuals who share social and historical situations. In The Second Sex she originated a theory of the structural variability of pre-reflective consciousness to describe women’s experience as the Other in a sexist society. Later, she applied a similar approach to condemn the treatment of the aged poor in Old Age.

General Overviews

Introductions, the first of this section’s five subheadings, includes books that focus on Beauvoir’s philosophy as a whole. Anthologies features collections of scholarly articles dealing with a wide range of the subject matters that Beauvoir dealt with as a philosopher. Because Beauvoir’s work and life as a philosopher were to an unusual degree historically contingent, we have included a short Historical Studies section of books that place her work in a historical context. The Bibliographies and Biographies headings are self-explanatory.

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