Philosophy 498/698: Simone de Beauvoir

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Philosophy 498/698: Simone de Beauvoir Carolyn Korsmeyer

Fall, 2003 131 Park Hall

645-2444 x. 131
Simone de Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity

The Second Sex

The Woman Destroyed

Friedrich Engels, Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State

[Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness]

Simone de Beauvoir (1908-86) was an existentialist philosopher and feminist theorist, as well as a prize-winning novelist. Although her philosophical work has long been overshadowed by that of her close associate Jean-Paul Sartre, recent scholarship has begun to reveal the extent of her independence and originality of thought. The main texts for this course are her two philosophical treatises and a collection of three related novellas, all listed above. [Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, which Beauvoir edited in draft and on which she was closely consulted, is a work she remained committed to all her life. This text is useful background when reading Beauvoir’s works.] We shall examine the existentialist commitment to radical freedom, Beauvoir’s concept of the social Other, her formulation of an existentialist ethics, her analysis of women and the origin of sex oppression, her concept of “situation” and how it plays out according to gender and other social variables, and her relation to the feminist movement of the 1970s and 80s.

1. A class presentation of about 15 minutes, to be delivered individually or in pairs. (See topics attached.) You will turn in a brief write-up of your presentation.
2. A final research paper of about 15 pages.
A prospectus for the research paper is to be submitted early for suggestions. The prospectus can be submitted any time that you think you have a paper topic that suits you, but no later than November 17. Your paper may be on the same topic as your presentation or on something new.

Schedule of Readings and Presentations

August 25 Introduction: biographical background and intellectual context for Beauvoir.

Radical freedom: existentialism, ethics, and responsibility
Sept. 8 The Ethics of Ambiguity, Part I

Passages from She Came to Stay (handout)

[Sartre, Being and Nothingness (BN): Pt. 2: ch 1:iii; Conclusion, Pt. II]


Sept. 15 Ethics of Ambiguity, Part II

[BN, Pt. 1: ch. 2, “Bad Faith”]

Presentation: ____________________________________________
Sept. 22 Ethics of Ambiguity, III: 4-5, conclusion

[BN, Pt. 3: ch 3:iii]


Sept. 29 Film: Simone de Beauvoir: The Feminist Mandarin. (1982; 53 mins.)

Presentation: ____________________________________________
Self and Other
Oct. 13 The Second Sex: Introduction: woman as “Other.”

[BN Pt. 2: ch. I.]

Presentation: ____________________________________________
The origin of sexual inequality
Oct. 20 The Second Sex: “Destiny,” Chapters 1 and 2

Existentialism and Psychoanalysis

[Being and Nothingness: IV:2:i.]

Presentation: ____________________________________________

Oct. 27 Beauvoir and dialectical materialism (2 weeks):

The Second Sex: Chapter 3

Engels, Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State

Introduction: Eleanor Leacock

Engels: Prefaces, Chapters I and II

Chapter IX

Presentation: ___________________________________________

Nov. 3 Origins and Engels, continued. Application of analysis to history: Second Sex chapters 4-8.


Nov. 10 Oppression and “the body.”

Beauvoir’s analysis vs. other feminist analyses.

[BN, Pt. 3: ch. 2]


Nov. 17 Second Sex, selections from Parts IV and V, including Chapter 26, “The Married Woman”; Chapter 27, “The Mother.”


Women’s situation: Philosophy articulated in literature
Nov. 24 The Woman Destroyed, “The Woman Destroyed”


Dec. 1 The Woman Destroyed, “Monologue”

“The Age of Discretion”

Second Sex, chapters 20 and 21.


Dec. 8 Film. Ribowska and Dayan, Simone de Beauvoir. (1982; 110 mins.) Assessment of Beauvoir’s intellectual life and philosophy.


Seminar Presentations
One of the requirements for this course is a presentation of about 15 minutes on one of the following topics. You will be presenting on materials that the rest of the class has not read, so choose a topic that you feel confident you can present accurately. You may present individually or – even better – with someone else.
1. Prepare a handout for the class that highlights the points you will make and that explains anything particularly difficult. (Do not read this to the class for the presentation.)

2. Present orally a brief summary of your topic. Note: Many of these topics are potentially unwieldy. Remember that you will not be able to present everything that is relevant or interesting, so single out only a few points for discussion. (For most of these topics, your presentation will represent a small portion of your preparation.)

3. Turn in a write-up of the presentation to me. (NOT LONG, c. 5 pp.)

Choose from these or similar topics for presentation:

Beauvoir and her intellectual circle
The rejection of Husserl’s transcendental ego. (Consult Sartre, The Transcendence of the Ego).

The Kantian influence on The Ethics of Ambiguity. (Consult Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals.)

Hegel and the master-slave relation.

Comparison of existentialist concept of “being” and Heidegger’s Dasein; “disclosure.”

Other speculations about the origin of sexual inequality: Rousseau.

Existentialism and psychoanalysis

Beauvoir’s relation to Marxism
Feminist reception/critiques of The Second Sex.

Analysis of woman as immanent.

Disputes about “essentialism.”

Criticism that Beauvoir adopts a “masculine” perspective

French feminism: neither French nor feminist (Beauvoir’s disputes with Psych et Po, l’écriture féminine).

Feminist controversies over “the body.”

Philosophy embedded in narrative

Philosophy and autobiography

Other suggestions?

Simone de Beauvoir


1908 Simone Lucie Ernestine Marie Bertrand de Beauvoir born in Paris.

1913-25 Educated at the Cours Désir; Baccalaureat in 1925. Studied mathematics at the Institut Catholique, Paris.

1927-28 Degree in literature, Latin, Greek, and philosophy at Institut Sainte-Marie, Neuilly.

1928-29 Attended philosophy courses at the Sorbonne and lectures at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, where she met Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Jean-Paul Sartre. The latter became her lifelong companion.

1929 Awarded Agrégée de Philosophie (the degree that permits assignment to teach in the Lycée system).

1931-43 Taught at lycées in Marseille, Rouen, Passy, and Paris.

1939 World War II declared; Sartre drafted.

1940 Sartre sent to German POW camp.

1949 Sartre released. He and Beauvoir attempt with little success to start a Resistance cell.

1943 Beauvoir’s first novel published: L’Invitée (She Came to Stay).

1944 Published essay in moral philosophy, Pyrrhus et Cinéas.

1945 Founded Les Temps Modernes with Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, and others.

Reviewed Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception.

Play, Les bouches inutiles (Who Shall Die?)

Second novel, Le Sang des autres (The Blood of Others).

1946 Third novel, Tous les hommes son mortels (All Men are Mortal).

1947 Lecture tour of the United States. Met Nelson Algren and began a long relationship.

  • Pour une morale de l’ambiguité (The Ethics of Ambiguity).

1948 L’Amérique au jour le jour (America Day by Day).

She and Sartre became founding members of the anti-Stalinist leftist group Rassemblement Démocratique et Révolutionnaire (RDF).

1949 Published Le Deuxième sexe, vols. I and II.

  • The Second Sex: English translation by H.M Parshley (1953)

1951 Faut-il brûle Sade? (Must We Burn de Sade?)

1954 Fourth novel, Les Mandarins (The Mandarins) Awarded the Prix Goncourt.

1957 La Longue marche: essai sur la Chine (The Long March).

1958 First of four volumes of memoirs: Mémoires d’une jeune fille rangée (Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter).

1960 Death of friend Albert Camus.

Second volume of memoirs, La Force de l’âge (Prime of Life).

Met Sylvie le Bon, young philosophy student, who was to be her companion for the rest of her life and eventually her adopted daughter.

Visits Cuba with Sartre.

1962 Active with friends (e.g. Sartre and Claude Lanzmann) against the French war in Algeria.

1963 Third volume of memoirs, La Forces des choses (Force of Circumstance).

1964 Une Mort très douce (A Very Easy Death) (reflection on her mother’s dying).

1966 Fifth novel, Les Belles Images.

1967 L Collection of stories, La Femme rompue (The Woman Destroyed).

Attended International Russell Tribunal in Stockholm. [“Russell”=the philosopher Bertrand Russell] with Sartre: activity against the Vietnam war.

1968 Joined in demonstrations during the 1968 student uprising in France.

1970 La Vieillesse (Coming of Age).

Marched for abortion rights and contraception.

1971 Signed “The Manifesto of 343,” a list of 343 women declaring they had had abortions, illegal in France. (Beauvoir herself never had an abortion, but she had permitted them to take place in her apartment and sometimes paid for them.)

1972 Fourth volume of memoirs, Tout compte fait (All Said and Done).

1974 President of the Ligue du Droit des Femmes (League of Women’s Rights).

1975 Awarded the Jerusalem Prize, awarded to writers for promotion of the concept of individual liberty. (Other winners include Bertrand Russell, Jorge Luis Borges, Ionesco).

1979 Second collection of stories: Quand prime le spirituel (When Things of the Spirit Come First).

Founded journal Questions féministes with Christine Delphy and Monique Wittig.

1980 April 15: Death of Sartre. [50,000 people attend his funeral procession to the Montparnasse Cemetery].

Beauvoir adopts Sylvie le Bon.

1981 La Cérémonie des adieux (A Farewell to Sartre).

Death of Nelson Algren.

Second trip to the U.S.

1985 Preface to Claude Lanzmann’s script Shoah.

1986 Simone de Beauvoir died of pulmonary edema. 5,000 people attended her funeral. She is buried next to Sartre at Monparnasse Cemetery.

1990 Lettres à Sartre, ed. Sylvie le Bon de Beauvoir (Letters to Sartre).

1997 Lettres à Nelson Algren: un amour transatlantique: 1947-1964, translated and edited (English and French) by Sylvie le Bon de Beauvoir (A Transatlantic Love Affair).

Chronology selected from The Cambridge Companion to Simone de Beauvoir, ed. Claudia Card (2003) pp. xvii-xxii.

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