Reviewed by Malise Rosbech
Beauvoir and Western Thought from Plato to Butler is a collection 12 essays on Simone de Beauvoir, discussing her relation to or engagement with individual philosophers ranging from Rousseau and Marx to Bergson and Kant. The contributors, most of them American professors of philosophy, seek to turn the spotlight on Beauvoir’s engagement with the Western philosophy tradition, examining the dialogue with her influences and contemporaries and her impact on later thinkers. The volume concludes with an essay by bell hooks discussing Beauvoir’s influence on her own work. The essays are approachable, but do not, as a result, lack important philosophical engagement or analysis. In fact, these essays not only broaden our understanding of Beauvoir’s philosophical work but also suggest new ways in which we can approach some of the best-known philosophers through her work; the essays are not restricted to addressing influence but further the analysis of other philosophers treated in the volume. Although the volume leaves out a major part of Beauvoir’s work in place of more ‘philosophical’ work, this is exactly its intentions and it is a breath of fresh air in the study of Beauvoir’s thought.
Beauvoir is often taken to be synonymous with the concept of feminism, but the act of confining and reducing her work to that is exactly anti-feminist. Beauvoir is mostly remembered for her great work, The Second Sex, and for the influence she had on later feminist theory and the feminist political movement and this must not be forgotten or undermined. However, what is often overshadowed is her outstanding achievements in the philosophical tradition in general, precisely because of her success in feminist research. Beauvoir was very well aware of the issue of being taken seriously as a woman philosopher in a male dominated field. bell hooks reminds us of Beauvoir’s famous words:
I am a writer … I have written novels, philosophy, social criticism, a play – and yet all people know about me is The Second Sex. Granted, I am pleased that that book has had such an impact, but I want people to remember that I am a writer. A feminist certainly, and I do not deny the importance of feminism in my life, but first of all I am a writer! (227)
Moreover, if we do speak of Beauvoir’s philosophy it is all too often in relation to her lifelong partner Sartre. This volume does not contain more than a few paragraphs on their (theoretical and personal) relationship, showing that Beauvoir’s work is outstanding in its own right, and that it even sometimes stands in contrast to Sartre’s philosophy. Maurice de Gandillac recalls about Sartre and Beauvoir’s early student years that the jury hearing their exams gave first place to Sartre because of his ‘extraordinary self-possession’ but ‘everybody agreed that, of the two, she was the real philosopher’ (228). If anything, this volume demonstrates exactly that.
Of course Beauvoir is only a philosopher inasmuch as she is an anti-philosopher. Her refusal to call herself ‘a philosopher’, and thereby rejecting systematic philosophy and its pretensions, demonstrates just some of the ways in which she was ahead of Sartre, the system builder. Through Beauvoir’s philosophy as a form of ‘anti-philosophy’, she shows how systemising kills the actual ambiguity that is the basis of philosophical thought, and it is this ground that Beauvoir seeks to theorise, understand and display. This notion of anti-philosophy is of course related to her notion of freedom. Individual freedom discloses the world in unique and individual ways, that is, there is no way of disclosing the world in an objective or universal manner. The volume deals with at least three common interrelated philosophical notions which spring out of this anti-universal ontology: Self and Other, bad faith and freedom.
In general the essays in this volume complement each other well and treat both the more theoretical aspects of Beauvoir’s work but also their relation to political praxis. The problem of Self and Other is perhaps the broadest and most general theme in this volume dealing mostly with her work Ethics of Ambiguity and Pyrrhus and Cineas, which both begin with the question of individual freedom, and demonstrates how such freedom can never be fully realised unless the freedom of the other is acknowledged and as such included in the individual project of freedom. Beauvoir understands the living ground of all individual existence as one that is necessarily bound to the Other. This philosophical notion is especially treated in the essays on her relationship to Kant’s universal ethics and de Sade’s logic of sovereignty. The former discusses Beauvoir’s ethical project as anti-universal, temporal and practical-hypothetical rather than spatial and categorical. William S. Wilkerson points out in this essay that while Beauvoir disavowed the Kantian aspects of her own work, they both argue for an ethics of autonomy that understands obligation arising from human freedom. The next essay by Debra Bergoffen on Beauvoir’s relation of Marquis de Sade connects the logic of individualism devoid of ethical obligation with de Sade’s view of sovereignty which circumscribes the possibility of being an individual by way of class privilege or imperialist intervention as certain people use their powers to expel others from being human in the name of humanity.
In another essay, William L. McBride sets out to demonstrate how Beauvoir’s work on Self and Other in the relation to freedom was directly influenced by Marx. Although there are very few references to Marx and marxism in Beauvoir’s published work, McBride sets out to show that Beauvoir’s understanding of Marx and Marxist theory nevertheless had deep roots. We are left with the understanding that although Beauvoir was critical towards Marx’s ideas, she nevertheless defended Marx. Two of her most central ideas McBride claims can, in fact, be attributed to Marx: that freedom of the individual is dependent on the freedom of the Other and that ethical praxis needs to be oriented towards an open and indefinite future rather than an end state (although Beauvoir is aware of Marx’s hesitation to employ the traditional understanding of morality and ethics). Her critique of Marx and marxism is concerned with marxism’s alleged denial of human freedom at the ontological level. Sadly, these points are only mentioned and never discussed further. Although the link between historical materialism and Beauvoir’s insistence on ‘situation’ seems to be a general theme throughout the volume, it is never fully articulated or theorised. Of course it is in The Second Sex that she makes the most explicit arguments about historical materialism, dedicating a whole chapter to it; however, Marxist arguments of economic and social structures are already embedded in Ethics of Ambiguity, and this volume could have provided a more explicit reference to such philosophical arguments.
As this volume is concerned with Beauvoir’s more philosophical work her perhaps most famous book, The Second Sex, is only mentioned at length about twice and it is both in relation to Marx and marxism. However, this is exactly to point out the great philosophical aspect of her gender theorisation and how it has furthered not only feminist and sociological studies and politics but also philosophy in general. McBride discusses Beauvoir’s critique of Engels’ “monistic” account of gender differences and the way in which she replaces this with an existentialist-phenomenological approach developing a new comprehensive worldview involving ‘an ontological, economic, social, and psychological context’ whilst still avoiding what she called the ‘pluralism’ of the right-wing. Although McBride points out that Marx never intended to claim that in order to understand history one needs only to look at class struggle, he demonstrates how Beauvoir’s work on gender as a world-historical fact on the same level as class, show the limits of a Marxist approach and how this later developed to include more ‘situations’ than class and gender. Although the next essay by Elaine P. Miller deals mainly with Beauvoir and Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence, it also includes a great discussion on housework. The repetitive and alienating concept of labour in Marx’s writing is employed in Beauvoir’s analysis of the confinement of women to mostly uncreative (domestic) work. Miller focuses on the way that Beauvoir employs a specific Nietzschean conception of ‘willing through time’ as a way to critique domestic labour and show the possibilities of escaping women’s confinement to it.
The main theme of this volume is not Beauvoir’s relation to Marx and Marxists thinkers, and it would be unfair to judge it on something it has never promised to be. In general the volume provides an informative and for the most part, detailed discussion of Beauvoir’s philosophy through her influences and the thinkers that were influenced by her. By paying particular tribute to The Ethics of Ambiguity, we form a more nuanced picture of her philosophical thought and achievements, and this in turn contributes to a more detailed understanding of not only feminist thought but also marxism, existentialism, ethics and anti-philosophy. Although parts could have been discussed in more detail, it is a good collection of essays which are interesting in their own right, but work even better as a collection.
1 December 2013