Was Simone de Beauvoir considered an intellectual in her own right?

Introduction

Simone de Beauvoir was a prominent writer who wrote extensively on both existentialist and feminist theory. One of her most famous works, Le deuxième sex, published in 1949, continues to influence feminist thought even today. When writing these first two sentences, I thought very hard about how to introduce Beauvoir. Was she a writer? Or was she a philosopher? I will discuss these questions in the latter part of this blog post within the context of her relationship to existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. Beauvoir worked closely with Sartre, and it is evident that while he greatly influenced her work, Beauvoir also played a key role in the development of Sartre’s philosophical theories. Despite her significant contribution to scholarship, at the time, her work was considered by many to be “purely derivative of Sartre’s”[i] and “she is interpreted as applying Sartre’s philosophy to women’s situation… but not as contributing original work.”[ii] Margaret A. Simons adds to this idea, arguing that people saw “Beauvoir’s philosophical perspective as defined by that of her lifelong friend, Jean-Paul Sartre. Indeed, most references to Beauvoir’s work in the philosophical literature cite her primarily as Sartre’s biographer.”[iii] As demonstrated by these authors, people at the time diminished what Simone de Beauvoir achieved in her writing and the contribution she made to Sartre’s thinking and writing. This raises two important questions: Was Simone de Beauvoir considered an intellectual in her own right? And if not, why not? I will discuss the answer to this within the framework of an interview between Margaret A. Simons and Simone de Beauvoir published in the prominent US journal, Feminist Studies, in the summer of 1979, thirty years on from the publication of Beauvoir’s iconic essay, Le deuxième sex. The interview, published in written form, accompanied by a written introduction, aims to discover more about her relationship with Sartre, which has “too often been described as defining her life”[iv], and reflect on society’s failure to recognise her as an original thinker.

Was Simone de Beauvoir an intellectual?

Before we attempt to ascertain whether Simone de Beauvoir was considered an intellectual in her own right, it is important to determine whether she was an intellectual at all. American scholar, Lawrence D. Kritzman, explains that in twentieth-century France “to be an intellectual meant to be engaged in public debate as a means of influencing society.”[v] To expand on this further, the role of the intellectual in France was to speak truth to power through engaging with the mass media. Simone de Beauvoir epitomised this concept of the intellectuel engagé in France, as she propagated her ideas about society through a variety of media forms; television, radio, interview – the list goes on. The interview with Margaret A. Simons is a clear demonstration of Beauvoir’s role as an intellectual, which extends beyond France into the international sphere. As a regular interviewee, interviews played an important role in solidifying her role as an intellectual. In the second half of the twentieth century, the interview became one of the most popular media forms in France[vi], becoming an important space for intellectual discourse. Both Beauvoir and Sartre became well known for their interviews.

Second only to Sartre?

But did people ever think of Beauvoir as an original thinker? Are Andrew and Simons right in saying that she was only ever considered as second to Sartre? The second question that Simons asks in the interview is: “Critics always talk about Sartre’s influence on your work but they never talk about your influence on Sartre’s work. What has been your primary influence on Sartre, on his work?” Beauvoir’s response is as follows: “I think, as suggested in your question, it has been said that it was Sartre who influenced me. This is because in France it is always assumed that it is the man who influences the woman; it is never the other way around.” Here, Beauvoir draws on the gender inequality which she addresses in her essay, Le deuxième sex. She admits that people believe her relationship with Sartre was not reciprocal and it was only discussed in terms of her being influenced by him as opposed to the other way around.

Was Beauvoir a writer or a philosopher?

In the interview, Beauvoir explains that “Sartre is a philosopher, and I am not, and I have never really wanted to be a philosopher. I like philosophy very much, but I have not created a philosophical work.” Prominent professor Toril Moi draws on a scene from Beauvoir’s book, Mémoires d’une jeune fille rangée, to demonstrate this “persistent tendency to cast herself as Sartre’s philosophical Other.”[vii] In the scene, Beauvoir gives in to Sartre after a long philosophical discussion as she says that she realises that her points were invalid anyway. It is interesting that Beauvoir lacks confidence in her philosophical ideas and refuses to recognise herself as a philosopher as in recent years scholars have shown that many of the central principles of existentialism came from Beauvoir’s early diaries, before she even met Sartre. Barbara S. Andrew highlights that there were even areas in which Beauvoir succeeded over Sartre: “Beauvoir was able to develop a social philosophy early on, whereas Sartre was impeded by his notion of radical freedom.” Despite this significant contribution to existentialist theory and influence on Sartre’s philosophical thought, Beauvoir places herself as Sartre’s subordinate. In the interview, she explains: “Obviously, I could not have influenced him, since I did not do philosophy… But that he influenced me is certain.” Was this because Beauvoir was simply not interested in constructing a philosophical system? Or does it perfectly exemplify the patriarchal domination of society that she writes of in Le deuxième sex?; the notion that society at the time instilled a confidence in men that they could succeed at anything, in this case as a philosopher, whilst reducing women to believe they could never as good as men, they were always second to them, in this case to Sartre.

Who is to blame?

The question that remains is: who is to blame for this? Is it Sartre? Is it society? Or is it even Beauvoir herself? Given the context of the patriarchal society that Beauvoir was writing in, it is not surprising that she considered herself a subordinate to Sartre philosophically. Simons explains this in the introduction to the interview: “As she points out in our interview, this failure to recognise women as autonomous persons is the result of a ‘phallocratic prejudice.’” Beauvoir acknowledges the gender inequalities of society at the time but in this interview she does not recognise that she herself is subject to the residual influences of this patriarchal society she grew up in. It strikes me as ironic that she explains these issues so eloquently in her work, “l’humanité est mâle et l’homme définit la femme non en soi mais relativement à lui; elle n’est pas considérée comme un être autonome,”[viii] yet continues to reduce herself to being Sartre’s subordinate. Her own attitude to her work will have significantly influenced the way society regarded her. It is therefore down to both society and Beauvoir herself that she was regarded as Sartre’s ‘other’ and not respected as an intellectual in her own right.

I believe, however, that Beauvoir has since been redefined in modern society as an intellectual in her own right. This interview was published as part of a symposium dedicated to Simone de Beauvoir to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Le deuxième sex. In the same year, her work was celebrated at a conference in New York, National Public Radio produced a special programme about her and Gallimard published a collection of her articles, prefaces and interview. It is clear that as society has modernised and reduced gender inequality (partly due to her contribution to the development of feminist theory), Beauvoir has become recognised as an intellectual in her own right. As Moi describes her, Simone de Beauvoir is “the emblematic intellectual woman of the twentieth century.”[ix]

Further Reading:

  • Imogen Long, Women Intellectuals in Post-68 France: Petitions and Polemics, (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2013).
  • Ursula Tidd, ‘Simone de Beauvoir: The Subject in Question’, Nottingham French Studies, 42, 1 (2003), 21-32.
  • Ursula Tidd, Simone de Beauvoir (London: Reaktion Books, 2009).
  • Dorothy Kaufmann McCall, ‘Simone de Beauvoir, “The Second Sex”, and Jean-Paul Sartre’, Signs, 5, 2 (1979), 209-223.

Endnotes:

[i] Claudia Card, ed, The Cambridge Companion to Simone de Beauvoir (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 24-44.

[ii] Card, ed, The Cambridge Companion to Simone de Beauvoir.

[iii] Margaret A. Simons, ‘Beauvoir and Sartre: The Philosophical Relationship’, Yale French Studies, 72 (1986), Simone de Beauvoir: Witness to a Century, 165-179.

[iv] Margaret A. Simons, Jessica Benjamin and Simone de Beauvoir, ‘Simone de Beauvoir: An Interview’, Feminist Studies, 5, 2 (1979), 330-345.

[v] Laurence D. Kritzman, ‘The Intellectual’ in Laurence D. Kritzman, Brian J. Reilly, M. B. DeBevoise, eds., The Columbia History of Twentieth Century French Thought (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), 363-374.

[vi] Christopher Johnson, ‘Introduction: The Genre of the Interview’, Nottingham French Studies, 42, 1 (2003), 1-4.

[vii] Toril Moi, Simone de Beauvoir: The Making of an Intellectual Woman, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 37-57.

[viii] Simone de Beauvoir, Le deuxième sex, (Paris: Gallimard, 1949).

[ix] Moi, Simone de Beauvoir: The Making of an Intellectual Woman.

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