Vol. 1, No. 1, Winter 1999



Elaine Stavro-Pearce

Transgressing Sartre: 

embodied situated subjects in  The Second Sex


With the emergence of feminism in the late 60's and early 70's, The Second Sex, written twenty years earlier, was embraced as central to women's liberation, and Beauvoir was mythologized as the mother of feminism. In many ways, the Beauvoir/Sartre relationship epitomized a liberated heterosexual couple - a strong intellectual and emotional commitment without the legal or domestic trappings of marriage. However, Beauvoir's insistence that she deferred to Sartre on philosophic issues and her presumed subordinate status was cause for concern.[1] In spite of the overt feminist message of The Second Sex, Beauvoir's claim that her work was philosophically derivative of Sartre has perpetuated a less than feminist interpretation of The Second Sex - as simply an application of Sartrean existentialism to the women's question.[2] With increasing philosophic analysis of Beauvoir's texts, the publication of Sartre's Wartime Diaries (1983) Beauvoir's Letters to Sartre (1991) more penetrating biographies on Beauvoir,[3] the conventional treatment of Beauvoir as philosophically and emotionally dependent upon Sartre is being challenged. Now, fifty years after the publication of The Second Sex debates over interpretating the text and the preoccupation with the Sartre-Beauvoir relationship continue.   

 The legend of the Beauvoir - Sartre couple that persisted for many years portrayed Beauvoir as the loyal and devoted partner who only reluctantly tolerated Sartre's desires for a more open sexual relationship.  This image of Beauvoir has been contested by recent revelations that Beauvoir had multiple sexual partners- male and female, both before and during her relationship with Sartre. Sartre was not her first love, nor did she pine for marriage, as has been generally believed. In fact, Sartre made several efforts to consolidate a more permanent commitment with Beauvoir, which she rebuffed. Her infamous liaisons with Claude Lanzmann (Sartre's student) and Nelson Algren (the American writer) so often interpreted as reactive (due to Sartre's relationships with Olga Kosakievicz and Dolores Vanetti) have proven to be only two of many sexual relationships Beauvoir sustained alongside her relationship with Sartre.

 On the theoretical front, as well, there is a shift in perception taking place. A growing body of scholarly literature has emerged that challenges the assumption of Beauvoir's philosophical dependence upon Sartre, documenting her formative influence on his intellectual development and her theoretical innovativeness. Linda Singer, Margaret Simons, Sonia Kruks, Judith Butler, Kate and Edward Fullbrook, to name a few, have all argued the need to distinguish the philosophic ideas of Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.[4] Linda Singer recognizes that "Beauvoir's writing ruptures, disrupts the structure of the very phallocentric language and speech which claims to speak for and include the position marked as 'other,'"[5] and as such is distinct from Sartre's universal philosophic project. Margaret Simons claims Sartre's theoretical move towards self-reflexivity, his interest in childhood, evident in Words, and in his work on Flaubert, were effects of Beauvoir's influence. Furthermore Simons attributes to Beauvoir the concept of the Social Other, which became central to Sartre's work (Simons, 1986:178). Sonia Kruks has convincingly argued that far from Beauvoir following in Sartre's footsteps and applying his concepts to the women's question, Beauvoir was in fact, Sartre's precursor, implicitly challenging Sartre’s theory of freedom in Being and Nothingness. Hence Beauvoir "anticipat[es]  his own trajectory towards the account of materially mediated freedom which he elaborated in The Critique of Dialectical Reason (Kruks, 1987:203).  Judith Butler, too, endorses this image of Beauvoir as Sartre's forerunner, as less haunted by the Cartesian mind/body dualism than is Sartre, for she  "radicalises the Sartrean program to establish an embodied notion of freedom" (Butler, 1986:38).

 Most recently the Fullbrooks have maintained that Beauvoir's contribution to Sartre's Being and Nothingness is so significant that we should no longer talk of the father of existentialism but rather its mother (Fullbrook, 1994:125).[6]  Drawing upon Sartre's War Diaries, Beauvoir’s Letters to Sartre, interviews between Beauvoir and Deirdre Bair, articles written by Linda Singer and Mary Simon (above), the Fullbrooks reveal Sartre's long kept secret - his philosophic debt to Beauvoir. During Sartre's two-week visit home from the front in the Second World War, they argue, Beauvoir was not simply supplying emotional support and editorial advice, as was commonly believed, for her novel She Came to Stay was read by Sartre as a philosophic text enabling him to overcome a philosophic impasse and formulate the concept 'Social Otherness' which became central to Being and Nothingness.

 While I find these narratives of Beauvoir's formative influence upon Sartre convincing and the arguments that document Beauvoir's innovativeness fascinating, I think it is important not to overstate the case as the Fullbrooks have done. Beauvoir's contribution to Sartre's intellectual development must be acknowledged, and it is long overdue, but it is wrong-headed to see her as the founder/creator of existentialism. This interpretation errs in making too much of Beauvoir’s contribution to Sartrean philosophy.

 However important the concept social otherness was to Sartre's Being and Nothingness it is only one of several core concepts in his philosophic oeuvre during the 40’s. Sartre wrote several plays and novels, which manifest his core philosophical tenets, but they are not reducible to social otherness. In debunking Sartre as founder and suggesting that Beauvoir be enthroned, the Fulbrooks assume that French existentialism is a homogeneous discourse created by an individual, who in this case has been misidentified. Such an approach denies the theoretical differences and tensions between these two philosophers. For Sartre the meaning of the situation is given by the author, whereas Beauvoir's analysis of the situation and situational freedom is different from and a challenge to Sartre's universalism and his negative theory of freedom. In conflating Beauvoir and Sartre we lose sight of the more interesting aspects of French existentialism.

 Beauvoir is neither a disciple of Sartre but nor did he simply follow in her footsteps. Beauvoir's attention to the materially embedded and situated freedom seems to have been appropriated by Sartre many years after The Second Sex, and is evident in the Critique of Dialectical Reason[7], however when The Second Sex was written, they had strong philosophic differences. Those theorists who want to celebrate Beauvoir's innovativeness have understood this, but often fail to acknowledge the extent to which The Second Sex is nevertheless inscribed in a Sartrean philosophic problematic. In my rereading of The Second Sex, I want to acknowledge both Beauvoir's originality and yet her theoretical indebtedness to Sartrean philosophy.  I will show Beauvoir is both wedded to, yet struggles against the philosophic problematic of Being and Nothingness. At times the universal binary categories of Being and Nothingness are employed in the conventional Sartrean way and are prone to the problems of universalist and rationalist thinking. More consistently she employs Sartre's categories transgressively; attending to differences in race, class, gender and ethnicity of the subject, thereby rendering Sartre's universal binaries concrete and  contextually sensitive.[8] 

 Beauvoir's transgressions were not unintended, I will argue that by beginning with Sartre's philosophic categories, and with full awareness of their inadequacies, Beauvoir transcends them and draws closer to a theory of situational freedom and the embodied subject that has much affinity to the problematic of Merleau-Ponty. Her notion of the situated self, or body in situation, sees agency as embodied - culturally, socially and economically conditioned; consequently, free choice and freedom are enmeshed in relations with others and emerge out of these relations. The recognition of freedom as delimited by one’s socio-historical situation marks a radical departure from Sartre's ontological freedom of the will. As we will see, Sartre of Being and Nothingness celebrates the wilful acts of disembodied individual consciousnesses for which freedom is always possible as voluntary, annihilative act or expression. For Beauvoir, freedom requires a transcendental ontological capacity of the will, however it must be distinguished from other aspects of freedom as a collective project. For freedom is not primordially given, nor can it be achieved by a glance of contempt. It is a collective project that ought to be realized. Beauvoir believes that individuals and groups are free agents who make choices, but their agency is circumscribed, delimited by their embodiment and the socio-historical situation in which they act and chose.


Early Sartrean Philosophy

  Before I establish Beauvoir's transgressive use of Sartre's binaries, a summary of Sartre's Being and Nothingness, which is presumed to provide the philosophic foundations of The Second Sex is in order. In this work Sartre establishes the theoretical foundations of his early existentialism: ontological dualism, radical ontological freedom and the falsity of the determinist position.

 Sartre, an ontological dualist, distinguishes the conscious, free human subject, 'being-for-itself' from the positivity of the thing - 'being-in-itself.'  Consciousness is always consciousness of something, in itself it is always empty, there is no ego, or 'I' at the centre or behind consciousness, for that would weigh down consciousness as pure spontaneous transcendence. The human subject as consciousness is nothingness, a lack of substantiality: it is "empty of all content" (Sartre, 1978:17,72), an incompleteness, an anxiety that transcends itself towards the positivity of Being. As a free conscious subject, as nothingness, it is " in perpetual flight away from the snare of the in-it-self"(Sartre, 1978:208-209). As" a pursuant flight" being-for-itself (Sartre, 1978:474) encounters the material and human world as obstacles to be overcome, or worrying threats to be transcended. Sartre identifies "the coefficient of adversity" (Sartre, 1978:628) as lying in the substantiality of things and in other people; these inertial forces are necessarily in conflict with my need for self-realization and self‑recognition.

Although it has become a mantra of poststructuralist and postmodernist discourse, that the humanists (e.g. Sartre) presume a self-identical and autonomous self, this is far from an adequate representation of Sartre's Being and Nothingness.  Even the young Sartre (who is much more of an individualist than the Sartre of Critique of Dialectical Reason) recognizes that the self is constituted in the presence of others and hence the individual is not prior to the situation nor is it self-sufficient, but becomes a self in a struggle for recognition. Sartre says "I am at the very root of my being - the project of assimilating and making an object of the other" (Sartre, 1978:474) Each interlocutor "tries to enslave the other, as well as free themselves from each other's hold" (Sartre, 1978:474) This is not the relationship between a self and thing, for the subject becomes a subject in moving and reciprocal relations of struggle (Sartre,1978:475). In so far as self-identity requires the acknowledgement of the other, and since the gaze of the other is from the outset threatening, a struggle to the death ensues. Hence 'self-identity' is not self-identical, but emerges out of conflictual and non-transparent relations. Humans are neither self-sufficient for their require the other, nor can human conflict be totally eradicated. The fundamental hostility in human relations is immortalized in the refrain of Sartre's play - No Exit, where his main character declares " Hell is - other people!(Sartre,1989:45) As Sartre says in Being and Nothingess, "Conflict is the original meaning of being-for-others" (Sartre, 1978:475). Since the self emerges from intersubjective conflict,  it is hardly and autonomous self-determining agent.

  Sartre recognizes that the subject is an embodied, situated consciousness, further problematizing the notion of a self-identical or transparent subject.  He says:


the body is "a point of view, a point of departure,  which I am and at the same time I surpass toward what I have to be.... it is by nihilation that I escape it.... the body is necessary again as the obstacle to be surpassed in order to be in the world; that is the obstacle which I am to myself." (Sartre, 1978:430)


For Sartre the situated body is both the means by which and from which I apprehend the world, but also an impediment "an obstacle to be surpassed in order to be in the world." (Sartre,1978:430) This demonstrates Sartre's profound ambivalence to the body subject: although he recognizes that a free project requires a situation, and that the conscious subject is necessarily embodied and situated, he makes no effort to understand the socio-historical conditions of one's freedom. Ultimately he treats the situation and embodiment as frustrating the transcendent and translucent capacity of consciousness rather than as providing the context within which one chooses. The disembodied subject that struggles against 'determination' is not contextually sensitive. Sartre fails to theorize the 'determinations' of the situation for they are treated as obstacles to be overcome. This theoretical voluntarism is found in Sartre's reflections on human consciousnesses struggles for self-recognition. Self-recognition occurs with another, in a context or field of power differentials. It is not a level playing field, power differentials exist amongst interlocutors and this affects the struggle. The dynamics of the struggle are neither as abstract nor as reciprocal as Sartre conceives them.  

Since Sartre is a radical ontological dualist, he believes subjects are either wholly free or completely determined, since the latter is not possible, then humans are forever and wholly free, and the non-conscious material world, the social world and body are all sources of stagnation and immanence. The logic of this radical philosophic dualism ends up celebrating the disembodied transcendent/transparent consciousness escaping its determinations - whether they bodily or social.


  Sartre admits that historical situations affect one's actions and projects, but by focussing on the extent to which they presume a prior free choice, he highlights the reflective act that one's project assumes. The ethical subject is able to creatively define, what constitutes a limit to one's project in order to realize his/her goals, consequently he/she is self-determining.


Sartre begins with a relational self, an embodied and situated self, however his binary logic of transcendence and immanence and requires that one escape the social relations, norms of social life, and bodily determinations to be free. This leads to theory of freedom as autonomy, as self-determination. To be truly free and ethical, for Sartre, one must surpass the obstacles (human and non-human that confront us) and create meaning through self-imposed projects. Those who deny their free will, who shun their potential for creative meaningful existence are inauthentic, and are reduced to the existence of a 'being-in-itself.' Those individuals who live out the social roles prescribed to them rather than transforming them live in 'bad faith'. Hence it is those autonomous self-determining individuals who transcend - that is escape collective norms and negate traditional morality - which are free.


For Sartre freedom is the annihilating power of consciousness, the transcendent potential of the will, hence it is always possible to transcend 'what is' through a change of expression or attitude. Even in the most oppressive circumstances, Sartre insists humans are essentially free. "The Slave in chains is as free as his master, Sartre declares, because each is equally free to give a meaning to their situation" (Kruks, 1992:96-7). The logic of this position lead Sartre to the absurd and politically naive conclusion in his book, The Jew and The Anti-Semite   that the Jew is not un-free, for in facing the Anti-Semite in diverse ways, the Jew exercises his/ her freedom.


While it is true, as Sartre argued, that the Jew was able to take up various different attitudes towards the anti‑Semite, and in no way was their meanings determined or prescribed by the situation, it would be silly to assume, that the  circumstances of prison camp life did not severely curtail  the Jew's freedom. This highlights the problem of equating transcendence, which is ontologically given, with freedom. Since Sartre denies the importance of the social/political fields within which the free subject acts, he ignores the way unequal power relations constrain the situation. This voluntaristic claim that we are always free to transcend the situation ignores the fact that we don't chose the situation we find ourselves in, and some situations are more restrictive of freedom than are others.


Transgressing Sartre's Binaries


There are many occasions in The Second Sex we see Beauvoir employing Sartre's dualistic categories of transcendence and immanence, or freedom and stagnation in a conventional Sartrean way. Beauvoir replicates the binary opposition between freedom and stagnation: to act freely is to transcend the giveness or determinations of life, otherwise one is subject to these conditions and degraded to the status of a thing. She says:


Every time transcendence falls back into immanence, stagnation, there is a degradation of existence into the "en-soi" - the brutish life of subjection to given conditions - and of liberty into constraint and contingence. This downfall represents a moral fault if the subject consents to it; if it is inflicted upon him, it spells frustration and oppression. In both cases it is an absolute evil Beauvoir, 1974: xxxiii).



However Beauvoir does not simply endorse Sartre's universal perspective and his binary oppositions which are abstract and decontextualized in application, for she recognizes the gendered nature of social life ‑ freedom gets constituted within historical relations and is affected by them. In the latter part of the quote above, she distinguishes between those who choose their oppression, and those who have it inflicted upon them. This is already a departure from Sartre's universalistic perspective. She tells us:


Men who shun their freedom and their responsibility for living a creative life are morally culpable: women are not.  Women do not freely reject their liberty:  they are denied it (Sartre, 1974: xxxiii).


In this sense she is at odds with Sartre in Being and Nothingness, for whom all situations are equal. Beauvoir acknowledges that women are oppressed; they have been objectified by Western society and culture, constituted as 'Other,' and denied their freedom. The struggle for recognition that Sartre sees occurring between individuals, Beauvoir believes has sedimented into general situations where women have been constituted as 'Other.'  These generalized social and cultural relations militate against individual women trying to realize themselves in the public sphere. Women have immanence and stagnation inflicted upon them: they are not free, autonomous agents in the way men are. Their circumstances are not of their own doing, but have been forced upon them. In fact, Beauvoir says, "the whole of feminine history has been man-made." (Beauvoir, 1974, 144) If Beauvoir concurred with this voluntarist logic, she would have argued that one is always free to transcend one's oppression. Regardless of the situation one finds oneself in, one should act and accept responsibility for one's actions. Just as the condemned are free to face their death in innumerable ways, so too, should women be free to act in a world of oppression and accept the consequences of their acts.


Beauvoir's attention to gender, qualifies Sartre's universalistic discourse, however at times, she speaks in ontological terms of essentially human behaviour, taking up the same abstract universal tone as Sartre, with all his philosophic pretensions.


She believes that all human beings are ontologically free and must transcend the "giveness" that they find themselves within. Since for Beauvoir, women are not born women but become women, they are born human, and as such they are driven to affirm themselves or lapse into idleness as are men. Beauvoir describes women as "revelling in immanence" (Beauvoir, 1974,663) this condition militates against their fundamental human aspirations to "incarnate transcendence" (Beauvoir, 1974, 63).


Now, what peculiarly signalises the situation of woman is that she - a free and autonomous being like all human creatures - nevertheless finds herself living in a world where men compel her to assume the status of the Other.... The drama of women lies in this conflict between the fundamental aspirations of every subject (ego) - who always regards the self as the essential - and the compulsions of a situation in which she is the inessential (Beauvoir, 1974: xxxiv).


Beauvoir’s critics to argue that her universalism is masculinist use these ontological statements. In speaking generally of human nature, it is believed, she treats the male subject and male behaviour as the norm and the goal towards which liberated women should aspire.[9] In the same vein, many poststructuralist feminists claim that Beauvoir is spoken by an Enlightenment humanist or phallogocentric discourse that neutralizes difference between men and women and disparages the feminine body as a hindrance to transcendence.[10]


In these passages, Beauvoir echoes Sartrean freedom as negating existing reality, wherein women's situation is an impediment to the will or ego, and must be transcended if women are to realize their essentially human aspirations. However elsewhere, in the quote below, she speaks of human creativity as situated and delimited by its situation. One is not autonomous and free outside of human relations, freedom is not an act of will that negates what is, but requires the internalisation / assimilation of relations of care and the encumbrances of one's past.


Since the husband is the productive worker, he is the one who goes beyond the family interest to that of society, opening up the future for himself through co-operation in the building of the collective future: he incarnates transcendence. Woman is doomed to the continuation of the species and the care of the home‑ that is to say, to immanence. The fact is that every human existence involves transcendence and immanence at the same time; to go forward, each existence must be maintained, for it to expand toward the future it must integrate the past, and while intercommunicating with others it should find self‑confirmation (Beauvoir, 1974:480).


Here we see Beauvoir using Sartre's philosophical binaries transgressively, for she both uses them in a binary way and then breaks down their binary opposition. Immanence is not radically 'Other' than transcendence. Women in the present are oppressed- bound to immanence and men use women to transcend immanence. Although immanence has been socially designated as woman's domain under patriarchy, and transcendence and progressive historical action as man's, this is a false opposition. For Beauvoir, each human must integrate both immanence and transcendence into a single existence.


Although Beauvoir speaks in very general terms of essentially human behaviour and woman's oppression as 'Other,' she renders these generalities are concrete and contextually sensitive. Beauvoir acknowledges specific differences in women's situations, thereby breaking down simple philosophic binaries - women as oppressed and men as free. For Beauvoir historical situations matter: some women are more constrained by their socio- historic and cultural situations than are other women. For example, Beauvoir notes, women who live in a harem, have far fewer possibilities for free creative activity than do most western women. French working class women have less reproductive freedom than do their middle class counterparts.  Beauvoir speaks in general terms - readily acknowledging social/ structural differences (i.e. class, race and culture) and the affect on one's freedom.


Sometimes abortion is referred to as a  "class crime". Contraceptive knowledge is widespread in the middle class, and the existence of the bathroom makes practical application easier than in the homes of workers and peasants. Poverty, crowded quarters and the need for women to outside the home are among the frequent causes of abortion (Beauvoir, 1974:544).


In spite of Beauvoir's understanding of women as oppressed, no life circumstances however restrictive, rule out free will and the possibility of transcendence. Like Sartre, Beauvoir believes freedom as transcendence, or the taking of an attitude or action is always possible regardless of the situation. However this negative transcendent act is not be confused with freedom as a project- the fulfilment of a goal, which is affected (facilitated or thwarted) by 'the situation' or context.


Digressing from the logic of Being and Nothingness, Beauvoir acknowledges that all acts of freedom occur in a situation or field that is not individually created and not all situations are alike. Hence the future is not entirely open, but nor is it wholly determined, but it is structured. In this way Beauvoir thinks of freedom within determination, rather than freedom from determination, distancing herself from the self-determining, wilful maker of history.


Beauvoir, Sartre and Merleau-Ponty

So far I have shown Beauvoir uses Sartrean categories in their conventional Sartrean manner, but more consistently in a transgressive way, attending to concrete differences in people's situations, and the complexities of an embodied subject, thereby breaking down Sartre's philosophic dualisms and retreating from his theory of absolute freedom. One wonders whether or not Beauvoir was aware of her theoretical departures from Sartre?  There is much evidence to suggest she was not.  Up until her death Beauvoir insisted she deferred to Sartre on philosophic matters and treated their philosophic perspectives as shared.


Many feminist philosophers have made much of Beauvoir's emotional and theoretical identification/ subordination to Sartre. Even those sympathetic to Beauvoir's philosophic work, like Michele Le Doeuff and Toril Moi are critical of Beauvoir's subservience. Le Doeuff, a neo-humanist characterizes Beauvoir's philosophy as a sign of  'feminine' romantic love and commitment. She writes: "The Second Sex is [a] labour of love and [Beauvoir] brings as one of her morganatic wedding presents a singular confirmation of the validity of the Sartrean philosophy - your thought makes it possible to think the feminine condition, your philosophy sets me on the path of my own emancipation" (Le Doeuff, 1980, 279-80).

 Toril Moi, too, believes Beauvoir ultimately submitted to Sartre's authority sabotaging her own creativity. Both rely heavily upon a passage from Beauvoir's autobiography- her account of encountering Sartre in Luxembourg Gardens as a self-confident young philosopher of 21 yrs whose spirit was dashed by Sartre three years her senior. Beauvoir describes Sartre as having taken "apart" her pluralist ethics "piece by piece" - and having defeated her, after a three-hour struggle (Beauvoir, 1987b, 344). Both believe this was a decisive experience. Moi believes Beauvoir "leaves as a women undone, or to put it differently: as a disciple" (Moi, 1994, 17).  Le Doeuff writes:" Sartre trapped Simone de Beauvoir by insisting that she follow him" ( Le Doeuff, 1991, 138).


However convincing Moi and Le Doeuff's rhetorical readings of Beauvoir's autobiographical entry are, the narrative of Beauvoir, as victim of male philosopher/lover shouldn't be overplayed. However true it was on this particular occasion, at this early age, it doesn't adequately capture Beauvoir's stubborn resistance to and transcendence of Sartrean philosophy in Pyrrhus and Cineas (1944)  The Ethics of Ambiguity (1947) her early articles and in  The Second Sex (1949).


Furthermore there is something odd about Beauvoir's insistence that she deferred to Sartre when in fact she did not. She acknowledges they had their theoretical disputes and differences:  in The Prime of Life, an autobiography written in 1960, she recalls an argument in 1940 with Sartre  on the importance of the 'situation'. 


I maintained that from the point of view of freedom, as Sartre defined it - not as a stoical resignation but as an active transcendence of the given - not every situation is equal: what is possible for a woman locked up on a harem? Even such a cloistered existence could be lived in several different ways, Sartre said. I clung to my opinion for a long time and then only made a token submission. Basically I was right. But to have been able to defend my position, I would have to abandon the terrain of individualist, thus idealist, morality, where we stood. (Beauvoir, 1962, 34)


This quote is interesting for it captures both her awareness of their fundamental difference in 1940, and her customary way of dealing with it - by a "token submission". Since the above quote, was written in 1960, her silence regarding her own efforts to theorize the situation in The Second Sex, published in 1949 are notable. To the extent that she sees freedom as embodied and situated, within social and economic fields and not simply flight from the world and others, she moved away from the "terrain of individualist, thus idealist, morality" where Sartre stood.


Perhaps this behaviour sheds light upon Beauvoir's persistent claims to be a Sartrean - are not these statements similarly perfunctory, intended to placate her comrade/lover while allowing her to pursue her independent philosophic position obscuring their theoretical differences from the public at large?


Beauvoir's attitude of deference to Sartre and her reluctance to openly acknowledge her independent philosophic accomplishments/position, continued throughout her life. It is not simply explicable in terms of Sartre's successful dominion over her, for her philosophic work attests to her independence. Beauvoir's experience of misogyny from the general public and philosophic establishment was well known, and perhaps her strategy of self-effacement was a technique of avoiding further public scorn. Even after Sartre's death and the publication of his War Time Letters (where he acknowledges his philosophic debt to her) Beauvoir chose to sustain conventional readings of their relation rather than challenge it. When interviewed by Deidre Bair about She Came to Stay, Beauvoir suggested her novel was incomplete at the time of Sartre's visit home from the front; this conflicted with information published in Sartre's Diaries. Furthermore, Beauvoir denied again, having any war time letters from Sartre, however, shortly after her own death, a bundle were retrieved in her bureau drawer which further confirmed Beauvoir's formative influence on Sartre. Although Beauvoir did not destroy the Beauvoir-Sartre legend during her life, she provided all the clues to do so after her life was over.


Perhaps Beauvoir was philosophically naive, and had unknowingly transcended Sartre in The Second Sex. Given Beauvoir's self-representation of her philosophical derivativeness, one is tempted to agree with this interpretation. However this image of Beauvoir as philosophically confused, conflicts with Beauvoir's actual philosophic accomplishments: her philosophic acumen as demonstrated in her placing second in the aggregation exam of 1929; her published philosophic work; her selection to review Merleau-Ponty's The Phenomenology of Perception, a technical philosophy book, for Les temps modernes. If Beauvoir was philosophic capacities were at all in doubt, she would not have been selected to review the book of a fellow editor, Merleau-Ponty, whose theoretical differences with his fellow editor, Sartre were evident in the text. A sensitive and sophisticated reviewer was necessary - Beauvoir fit the bill.


In fact the review itself unequivocally reveals Beauvoir's awareness of the differences between Sartre's theory of absolute freedom and Merleau-Ponty's theory of incarnate or situated freedom. Beauvoir could not have unintentionally transcended Sartre. 


Although it is generally assumed that Merleau‑Ponty and Sartre parted ways with the publication of  The Adventures of the Dialectic (1955),[11] their philosophic differences were apparent  in the Phenomenology of Perception. Here Merleau-Ponty tackles Sartre 's absolute theory of freedom, which is probably why Sartre would have favoured a sympathetic reviewer like Beauvoir. Merleau-Ponty is critical of Sartre's theory of freedom- his   equation of a slave who lives in fear and yet defiantly glares at this master, with the slave who breaks his chains. Although freedom and transcendence are related, Merleau-Ponty says, they must be distinguished. If transcendence is ontological, as it is for Sartre, it is like a primordial acquisition - guaranteed without effort and work, and as such it must be distinguished from freedom as a collective project. Merleau-Ponty is adament that the individual cannot be free in a world where the majority of people are deprived of their freedom and denied the possibility of realizing their human potential. Although the Jew can face the Anti-Semite in many different ways, this voluntary act is not an act of freedom unless it furthers a more general project of freedom.


Beauvoir's failure to defend Sartre from Merleau-Ponty's challenge is significant, it is hardly the appropriate response of a disciple to her mentor. Further the review decisively   demonstrates Beauvoir's knowledge of their theoretical differences; she distinguishes Sartre's absolute freedom from Merleau-Ponty's situated or incarnate freedom. Although Beauvoir refrains from explicitly passing judgment on these two different approaches to freedom in the review - she does so implicitly in her own theoretical works - Pyrrhus and Cineas (1944), The Ethics of Ambiguity (1947) and The Second Sex (1949) where she draws closer to Merleau-Ponty.


This sheds new light on interpreting Beauvoir's identification/ subordination to Sartre and her theoretical project in The Second Sex. Far from Beauvoir unknowingly and unwillingly transcending Sartre, I believe she deliberately transgresses Sartre's thought to connect it to a more fruitful existentialist way of thinking, as exemplified by Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology, however she doesn't explicitly acknowledge her intentions. In beginning with Sartre's categories and premises, and emphasizing the situated subject- and embodied subject, Beauvoir moves beyond the universal voice of Sartre and challenges his theory of absolute freedom and his valorization of disembodiment.


This helps us make sense of Beauvoir 's claims in The Second Sex, that she is both indebted to Sartre's and Merleau-Ponty's theory of the body subject, a surprising conflation since, several years earlier, in her review of The Phenomenology of Perception, she insisted in distinguishing them. In The Second Sex, Beauvoir says:


            "... The body is not a thing, it is a situation, as viewed in the perspective I am adopting of - that of Heidegger, Sartre and Merleau-Ponty ; it is the instrument of our grasp upon the world, a limiting factor for our projects." (Beauvoir, 1974, 38)


Either Beauvoir is dim - forgetting what she knew only to well, or she is trying to forge a connection between Sartre's and Merleau-Ponty's existentialism, to transcend the rationalism and universalism of Sartre towards a more materially and situational sensitive approach. The latter is more probable.


In light of this we can better understand both why Beauvoir employs Sartre's philosophic binaries of transcendence and immanence in their more conventional way, yet also   challenges their false opposition. In doing so Beauvoir affects a transcendence of Sartre towards a situational sensitive approach.


Following the logic of Sartre's philosophic binaries, Beauvoir portrays the body as immanence, as limiting transcendence; it is the realm of the "in-it-self," the "en soi" that must be escaped. The female pregnant body is archetypically immanence, a tool of nature, hence a negation of that which is fundamentally human. From this logic pregnant existence is seen in a very negative light indeed, women who enjoy the pleasures of pregnancy are "like fowls with high egg-production; they seek eagerly to sacrifice the liberty of action to the functioning of the flesh." (Beauvoir, 1974, 553) Pregnancy is associated with animal existence, being subject to the conditions of nature, life's passive instrument" (Beauvoir, 1974, 553) the realm of the "en soi" - being degraded to the status of a thing - a tool of nature, hence a negation of the truly human aspirations.


Beauvoir goes on to contest the notion that the body is necessarily immanence, "a limiting factor for our projects," by challenging the false opposition of mind and body, or immanence and transcendence. In her review of Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Perception she says "[consciousness] is not pure for itself...to use Hegel's phrase which Sartre has taken up, 'a hole in being' but rather 'a hollow' 'a fold,' which has been made and can be unmade" (Beauvoir, 1945, 366-7).


Sartre recognizes that consciousness is situated and the situated body subject is not as a passive object. He remarks: "the Other's body as flesh can not be inserted into a situation preliminarily defined. The Others's body is precisely that in terms of which there is a situation"(Sartre, 1978,452). However he then proceeds to diminish the effectivity of the situated body, he says: "Meaning is nothing other that than the fixed movement of transcendence" (Sartre, 1978,452). For Sartre I am my body, but at the same time, as consciousness I am able to transcend it, it is that "which I am and at the same time I surpass toward what I have to be." This way of thinking ends up with a mind/ body dualism that valorises the transcendent disembodied activity of the mind that escapes the body. Here consciousness, as lack of substantiality, pure contentless activity  "as pursuant flight," (Sartre, 1978,474), flees determination, and is encumbered by the body in situation.


Beauvoir offers a socially constructivist theory of the body which challenges the notion of the body as necessarily immanence, or an impediment to transcendence. She says that although women may be biologically weaker than men, this biological fact  in itself  has no significance,  "it depends on the social context; the weakness is revealed as such only in light of the ends man  proposes, the instruments he has available, the law he establishes" (Beauvoir, 1974,38). In a modern industrial society where bodily strength is less important in securing a good life, one would assume physical strength would be less significant. Beauvoir calls this an anti-naturalist reading of the body.


To substantiate her anti-naturalist or socially constructivist interpretation of the body subject she quotes Merleau-Ponty's   Phenomenology of Perception, she says: 


To be present in the world implies strictly that there exists a body, which is at once a material thing in the world and a point of view towards this world; but nothing requires that this body have this or that particular structure. (Beauvoir, 1974,7)


The body, for Merleau-Ponty and Beauvoir is not biologically nor sexually determined, but historically situated and socially and culturally constituted, and therefore capable of being reconstituted. The body is not primarily something to escape from, a limit that must be transcended, as it is for Sartre. For reinterpreting the body, for Beauvoir, is a creative transcendent act that is both individual but a thoroughly social cultural act. Following from the logic of the embodied subject-pregnancy isn't necessarily immanence - a negation of the truly human, but socially constructed reality.


The bearing of maternity upon the individual life, regulated naturally in animals by the oestrus cycle and the seasons is not definitely prescribed in woman - society alone is arbiter. The bondage of women to the species is more or less rigorous according to the number of births demanded by society and the degree of hygienic care provided for pregnancy and childbirth. (Beauvoir, 1974,39)



This theorisation of the body subject as a transcendent/immanent activity is able to overcome  the dichotomous thinking that identifies creativity with the action of a reflective subject and demotes all other activities to the realm of the "en-soi." For Merleau-Ponty and Beauvoir the body-subject's situation is the site of its intersubjective social constitution, the place from which and by which free creative activity and agency emerge, within socio-historical fields and not simply as a negation of them.


Since for Merleau-Ponty and Beauvoir transcendence is an encumbered corporeal movement and the body subject is locus of the social world, he is more successful in avoiding the rationalist and voluntarist position of Sartre. Merleau-Ponty's body subject is able to overcome the dichotomous dualisms that identify creativity with pure self-creation, will or intention and de-values all else as stagnation. For the body subject's situation is not only a point of departure for being active, creative, but also the context or site for its intersubjective constitution.


Rethinking the Situated Subject


Beauvoir's understanding of the situated body subject provides a way of explaining how 'external' situations or structures are internalised/assimilated and affect one's choices and ultimately the field of the body subject, likewise what appears to be the intrapsychic - free will, commitment - emerges as a creative response to ‘external’conditions. The body subject is neither a volitional chooser nor a passive recipient of forces outside itself - a docile body.  Some situations inhibit freedom, and others facilitate it.


What are these circumstances that militate against change? The poststructuralist critics of Beauvoir assume as a socialist humanist, she attributes too much determination either to the economy or conversely to the historical agent - Homo Faber. What is important is that an objectivist or subjectivist discourse neither defines Beauvoir.   Beauvoir does not see 'men' or the capitalist masculine order making women victims/objects. They are not simply oppressed, or inscribed in a negative subject position, for they are actively constituted as passive and contribute to their subordination. They are complicitious with affirming their master's existence, and accept "rewards" that follow from accepting a subordinate position. " Man - the sovereign - will provide women - the Liege - with material protection and will undertake the moral justification of her existence; thus she can evade at once both economic risk and the metaphysical risk of liberty in which ends and aims must be contrived without assistance " (Beauvoir, 1974, xxiv).


However women are constituted as 'Other,' the inessential, the object, and are routinely denied their subjectivity, this   does not dictate the future, but it is part of the general situation in which women act. Even if isolated women have been able to transform their status as 'Other,' social / political and economic forces in society reinforce it and militate against it.


Although Beauvoir invokes the language of choice and commitment she does not get trapped by its voluntarist and subjectivist limitations, for choice and commitment are conceived of as situational and conditional terms, so women can chose to take up and carry further the forces of liberation that subvert her otherness, or chose to be complicitious with their masters. Complicity is not simply false consciousness nor is it weakness of will; rather Beauvoir attends to the importance of one's sedimented practices and 'objective' conditions that predispose women to sustain their objectification.  "Thus woman may fail to lay claim to the status of subject because she lacks definite resources, because she feels the necessary bond that ties her to her man regardless of reciprocity, and because she is often very well pleased with her role as the Other" (Beauvoir, 1974, xxiv-xxv).


Beauvoir admits there are psychological, cultural as well as economic factors at work in conditioning women's choices; she is not the crude political economist that her differentialist poststructuralist critics assume (Kristeva, Irigaray). As long as women identify with femininity and cultivate frivolousness, irrationality and delicacy, Beauvoir remarks, they have chosen the path of objectification, which has psychological as well as economic moorings. She rails against fashion, because a preoccupation with dress and toilette serves to perpetuate woman's objectification:  "since woman is an object it is not entirely futile for her to attach so much importance to silk stockings or a hat .... Elegance is also a bondage ... many women engage in prostitution or accept financial 'assistance' in order to be well dressed" (Beauvoir, 1974,595).


So far I have focussed on subjective life choices that women make transform their lives recognizing that transcendence is not a spontaneous, wilful escape from what is, but rather a project or practice informed by choice and commitment which is itself historically situated and conditioned.  The historical situation is not simply an effect of one's will or projects; there are 'objective' facts and situational context that delimits the contours of the field in which subjects act.


Beauvoir's understanding of situated freedom is interesting because it allows for collective as well as individual agency and agency is conceived within a socially, culturally and economically delimited fields rather than being determined by those fields.  The subject as is neither an effect of the social structure, a mode of production, nor a discursive practice, which runs into problems of agency, but on the other hand, nor is her subject a voluntary wilful maker of history, which eschews the importance of determinations.


Feminism as a collective project is in part structured by the 'objective' historical situations of women's lives; for 'subjective' life choices are made in the context of 'objective' historical circumstances. For Beauvoir one could not ignore the lack of community and communication that existed between women at the time she was writing, one could only struggle to within these situations to transform women's oppression. Beauvoir believed there was much work to be done.


[Women]...lack concrete means for organizing themselves...they live dispersed among the males, attached through residence, housework, economic condition and social standing to certain men - fathers or husbands - more firmly than they are to other women. (Beauvoir, 1974, xxii)



In drawing attention to Beauvoir's free subject as enmeshed and situated in a social historical world, her subjects are not self-determining, self-identical autonomous agents, nor are they Sartrean subjects for whom freedom is an act of negative transcendence, an escape from their embodiment and their relations with others. Apart from a few dramatic excesses, Beauvoir sees freedom and autonomy emerging alongside others within a context, which conditions it. The pejorative label of universal humanism used to dismiss Sartrean freedom doesn't seem appropriate for Beauvoir. While she invokes universal philosophic categories and speaks of humans in very general abstract terms, most often in exploring the body subject she attends to differences in race, class, ethnicity and gender.




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[1]. Margaret A. Simons, "Beauvoir and Sartre : The Philosophical Relationship," in  Simone de Beauvoir: Witness to a Century, ed. Helene Wenzel, p. 168. Margaret A. Simons and Jessica Benjamin had interviewed Simone de Beauvoir on March 13,1979, in Paris France, part of the discussion of Sartre's influence on  Beauvoir was deleted from the interview published in Feminist Studies 5 (Summer 1979) but informs this more recent article.

[2]. Toril Moi has a complex reading of Beauvoir's emotional and intellectual dependence upon Sartre. She reconstructs the subject position of Beauvoir, struggling to be a women philosopher facing  enormous institutional and social  barriers; furthermore, subjected to Sartre's "demolition of her philosophical self-confidence," Beauvoir ends up both identifying herself with  and subordinating herself to her lover. Simone de Beauvoir, The making of an intellectual woman, p.35

[3]. Deirdre Bair,  Simone de Beauvoir, a biography (New York: Summit Books, 1990) Kate and Edward Fullbrook, Simone de Beauvoir and Jean‑ Paul Sartre The remaking of a Twentieth‑Century Legend (New York: Basic Books, 1994.) Margaret Crosland, Simone de Beauvoir: the woman and her work ( London: Heinemann, 1992)

[4]. Most recently Feminist Interpretations of Simone de Beauvoir, ed.Margaret Simons (University Park, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995) brings together a series of diverse and controversial reinterpretations of Beauvoir's contribution to philosophy.

[5]. Linda Singer, "Interpretation and Retriveal; Rereading Beauvoir," in Erotic Welfare ( New York: Routledge, 1993),132. She contrasts  Beauvoir's developmental theory of freedom, traced through its embodied, social phases to Sartre's solipsistic, negative theory of freedom that is unable to account for interpersonal relationships.

[6]. Fulbrook, Simone and Sartre, p. 125. A more condensed  version of this story appears in "Sartre's Secret Key" in Feminist Interpretations  of Simone de Beauvoir ed. Margaret Simons, (University Park, The Pennsylvania University State Press, 1995).

[7].Sonia Kruks convincingly argues the case in "Teaching Sartre about Freedom," in Feminist Interpretations of Simone de Beauvoir, ed.  Simons.

[8]. Although it is beyond the bounds of this paper, Beauvoir could be inserted into contemporary feminist debates, on the side of those who seek to acknowledge differences in subject position while retaining general categories and a universalist ethical position.  There is a affinity between the non-postructrualist position of Beauvoir and Seyla Benhabib, Situating the Self, Routledge: New York, 1992) both want to admit that women emerge in  relations; but are neither an effect of discourses or structures (like their opponents) thereby retaining a sense of agency.  The language of Benhabib's interactive universalism which is described as  "contextually embedded and situationally sensitive judgment of particulars," (p. 25) bears a strong ressemblance to Beauvoir's notion of situational freedom, however the use to which it is put is different - Benhabib is more interested in issues of justice and Beauvoir is primarily interested in social change.

[9]. See Susan Hekman, "Reconstructing the Subject: Feminism, Modernism and Postmodernism." In: Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy 6 (2).

[10]. See Julia Kristeva, "Women's Time," in The Kristeva Reader, ed. by Toril Moi, ( New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), Luce Irigaray, je,tu,nous: toward a culture of difference ( London: Routledge, 1993) p.12 and Elizabeth Grosz, Volatile Bodies (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), p. 15.

[11]. For a comprehensive statement of Merleau-Ponty's critique of Sartre see  Maurice Merleau-Ponty The Adventures of the Dialectic, tran. Joseph Bien (Heinemann: London, 1974) pp. 95-203