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Masters, Slaves and Others

Masters, Slaves and Others

Genevieve Lloyd

In The Second Sex; Simone de Beauvoir utilised some
of the basic concepts of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness – concepts such as ‘immanence’ and ‘transcendence’, ‘being-for-self’ and ‘being-for-others’, ‘bad
faith’ and ‘authenticity’ – in a profound diagnosis
of the con4ition of women. That she could thus use
the framework of Sartrean existentialism. is, as
Michele Le Doeuff has pointed out [1], both surprising and impressive. The existentialist emphasis on
radical freedom seems to leave little scope for the
idea of oppression; and Sartre’s notorious descriptions of the horrifying ‘immanence’ of the female
body may well seem to make his book unpromising
material for appropriation to the expression of feminist ideals. It cannot be denied that the apparently unpromising Sartrean framework, as used by de
Beauvoir, has proved very fruitful for understanding
the peculiarities of the situation of women, and the
strange tensions they continue to experience between
their gender and prevailing cultural ideals of what
it is to be human. This philosophical framework,
however, also underlies some of the limitations which
can now be seen in de Beauvoir’s diagnosis of the
situation of women and some tensions in her articulation of feminist objectives.

The problems centre on the central notion of
‘otherness’ which de Beauvoir presents as the basic
trait of woman – the peculiar way in which a free
autonomous being finds herself compelled to assume
the status of the Other, stabilised as an object,
doomed to ‘immanence’. Woman’s’ transcendence’ is
overshadowed and itself transcended by another ego
which is ‘essential and sovereign’. In Force of
Circumstance (1963) de Beauvoir expres?ed some
second thoughts about her formulation of this central
theme of female ‘otherness’. She did not however
express any reservations about her articulation of
feminism in terms of the existentialist ideal that
women should come to present themselves as ‘the eye
that looks, as subject, consciousness, freedom’ [2].

The goal is a female attainment of Sartrean ‘transcendence’. In this paper I want to explore some of
the philosophical tensions in Fhis ideal. De
Beauvoir’s concept of ‘otherness’ and the co-relative
ideal of ‘transcendence’ have their origins in
Hegel’s version of the struggle of consciousnesses
in the section on Lordship and Bondage in The
Phenomeno~ogy of Spirit.

To see the problems in de
Beauvoir’s application of them, we must take them
back to their Hegelian origins and follow them
through their adaptation by Sartre.


Hegel on Masters, Slaves and Women
Hegel’s famous master-slave dialectic occurs in the
context of his treatment of the emergence of sustained self-consciousness out of less advanced stages of
consciousness – sense-certainty, perception, understanding [3]. Two points are crucial for our purposes: Hegel’s understanding of the relationship
between self-consciousness and Life, and his claim
that sustained self-consciousness involves a struggle
between consciousnesses.

For Hegel, self-conscious·
ness is one stage along the grand unfolding of
Spirit from Nature and its eventual return to Nature.

It is a moment in the series of negatio~s and transformations through which Substance becomes determinate, a stage in the unfolding of Spirit in which
consciousness ‘presses forward to its true existence’

~lliat is distinctive about the stage of self-consciousness is that it defines itself against Life as
its opposite; its peculiar richness derives from
what it has as its opposite pole. The stage of
simple immediacy of consciousness – ‘sense-certainty’

– gives way to the stage of ‘perception’, in which
determinate but static objects are set over against
consciousness. This is in turn transformed into
Understanding, the stage where objects of consciousness are construed as having inner natures operating
in accordance with Forces. This is associated with
a tenuous form of self-consciousness: in thus understanding the world, consciousness understands itself.

However Understanding, if it is to become full selfconsciousness, must be transformed so that its
objects are not enduring, static things following
external laws, but rather organic, living things the proper objects of desire. Consciousness now
apprehends itself as confronted with Life – an
‘infinite unity of differences’ – and this emerging
self-consciousness takes the form not of a bare
awareness of an object, but rather desire for a
living thing.

The transition to Desire sets the scene for
Hegel’s claim that self-consciousness involves an
inevitable struggle between consciousnesses. There
can, he insists, be no self-consciousness without
inter-subjective awareness; an isolated consciousness
cannot sustain self-consciousness. A consciousness
can be aware of itself only by having consciousness
presented to it as an outer object; but because this
stage of developing consciousness takes the form
of desire, a contradiction arises. The emerging self
realises that the object of its desire is independent

of itself. The object is an ‘other’ and its otherness must be overcome if the truth of self-certainty
– the sustained grasp of self as there in the world is to be achieved. Even the lower forms of life,
Hegel quaintly observes, act in conformity with this
need to supersede the other by making it a part of
themselves – they devour what they need from the
world. However for fully self-conscious beings the
necessary incorporation of the other is a more
complex matter than mere eating. Self-consciousness
is certain of itself only by overcoming the other,
cancelling its otherness. The satisfaction of desire
overcomes this independent otherness. In destroying
the independence of the other, a self objectifies
its own self-consciousness as in the world. But this
can now be seen as a self-defeating enterprise, for
the very being of self-consciousness demands that
there be an independent other to thus overcome. t’li th
the incorporation of the other, self-consciousness
itself disintegrates for want of an external consciousness in which its own being will be mirrored
back to it. Hegel’s conclusion is that, if selfconsciousness is to be sustained, the object set
over against it must allow itself to be incorporated
without thereby ceasing to exist: and the only way
this can be achieved is through the recognition of
one consciousness by another. ‘Self-consciousness
achieves its satisfaction only in another selfconsciousness’. Consciousness here ‘first finds
its turning point, where it leaves behind it the
colourful show of the sensuous here-and-now and the
nightlike void of the supersensible beyond, and steps
out into the spiritual daylight of the present’

(pp. 110-11) .

It is the necessity of recognition which makes
sustained self-consciousness, for Hegel, inherently
conflict-ridden. If self-consciousness is to be
sustained it must be, a.s it were, confronted by
itself in another; there can be no self-consciousness
without consciousness of the Other. But this mutual
need of the other’s recognition – demanding, as it
does, that each engage in its own negation in order
to sustain the other’s self-certainty – means that
the two consciousnesses must ‘prove themselves and
each other through a life-and-death struggle’ (p.114).

The struggle may end in the actual death of one of
the antagonists. The more interesting outcome, however, which makes possible a transition to richer
forms of consciousness, is that whereby both survive
but with one in a state of subjection to the other.

Both have staked their lives, and by living through
the fear of death they have attained to a kind of
consciousness which transcends mere absorption in the
immediacy of Life. They are now conscious of Life as
something not exhausted by any of the particular
determinate forms it takes. Hegelian self-certainty
is grounded in this detached awareness; it stands
above Life, rather than being absorbed in it as are
the lesser forms of consciousness. The two consciousnesses in Hegel’s story, however, are transformed in
different ways by this fear of death they have each
lived through. They survive as different kinds of
self-consciousness: Lord and Bondsman.

It now turns out that, from the point of view of
the Lord, the existence of the subjected consciousness no longer serves the purpose for whic!1 it was
needed. Self-consciousness was to be sustained
through the satisfied desire for recognition; but the
outcome of the struggle is a recognition that is
‘one-sided and unequal’. The object in which the
Lord has achieved his mastery is not an independent
consciousness but a servile one in which he cannot
recognise himself; the required reflection of independent consciousness is distorted by the subjection
which has been the condition of its attainment.

Despite his ‘victory’, the Lord has found no external
object in which his free, independent consciousness
can be mirrored back to him and hence sustained. The
kind of recognition he receives from the Bondsman is
in fact detrimental to the project of sustaining
awareness of self as free, independent consciousness;
the self-certainty of the victor is once again under
threat. Nor is this all there is to the souring of
the Lord’s victory. His relation to non-conscious
things is now mediated through the bondsman’s labour
on them. He is thus deprived of what, for the bondsman, will prove the ultimately successful externalisation of self – the capacity to labour on things and
thus make them over in one’s own form.

A correspondingly advantageous reversal is the lot
of the ‘dependent’ consciousness of the bondsman.

Whereas the externalised truth of the Lord’s selfconsciousness is the servile consciousness of the
bondsman, that of the bondsman is the free consciousness of the Lord – at any rate, for as long as that
free consciousness can be sustained. The bondsman,
moreover, is able through his enforced labour on
things to transform his immediate relationship to the
world into self-conscious awareness of it. Mere
labouring on things, without having been through the
life and death struggle, would leave consciousness
immersed in the immediacy of lower forms of consciousness. But the consciousness of the bondsman has been
through the fear of death, which has shaken everything stable in his world to its foundations; he is
now aware of Life as something not exhausted by the
immediate and particular vanishing moments of

experience. Work, for this transformed consciousness,
can now become a way of actually bringing about the
‘dissolution of the stable’, a reworking of natural
existence in the worker’s own form. It becomes
‘desire held in check, fleetingness staved off’.

Through forming and shaping things, the bondsman’s
consciousness acquires what eludes the Lord – an
‘element of permanence’; he discovers himself in the
forms his work imposes on objects (p.118).

To see how all this bears on the question of women,
we must see the master-slave dialectic in relation to
the later sections of The PhenomenoZogy of’Spirit
where Hegel explicitly discusses male-female relations [4]. His treatment of the theme arises in the
context of a discussion of the ethical life and the
contrasts between its self-conscious and its unreflective forms. In many ways, this reproduces the
structure of Hegel’s treatment of the relations
between individual self-consciousness and the more
immediate, unreflective forms of consciousness. The
ethical life is an early stage in the unfolding of
Spirit into social, cultural and political life – a
relatively primitive stage which must go under in
response to inner strains, passing over into the
more advanced stages in Spirit’s self-realisation:

law, culture and philosophy. The ethical life, in a

typical Hegelian fission, splits into two forms: two
‘ethical substances’, identified with the ‘human’ and
the ‘divine’ law. These are respectively associated
with Society and the Family and also explicitly with
the male-female distinction. Each side of the
division is construed as a genuine ‘moment’ of the
spiritual, ethical life. The Family, however,
represents the ‘unconscious’ notion of the ethical
order, as opposed to its self-conscious existence,
embodied in the wider life of Society, where the
ethical ‘shapes and maintains itself by working for
the universal’ (p.268).

We have seen that individual self-consciousness,
for Hegel, demands an externalisation of the self, so
that it comes to find self, as it were, in the outer
world. Without such objectification of selfhood,
self-consciousness remains tenuous, liable to slip
back into immersion in mere Life. The externalisation of self makes possible a sustained selfconsciousness; mere immersion in Life, in contrast,
cannot sustain a stable self-consciousness. This
contrast is echoed in Hegel’s treatment of human and
divine law. Self-conscious ethical life demands an
externalisation into an outer realm beyond the
particularities of Family Life; it is sustained
through access to the wider life of Society, beyond
the confines of the Family. And for Hegel, the
crucial ‘working for the universal’ which goes on
out there is explicitly the prerogative of the male
individual. In the wider public arena, the male,
on behalf of the Family, pursues the ‘acquisition
and maintenance of power and wealth’ – a pursuit
which for Hegel transcends its significance for the
private gain of the individual and his family. The
enterprise takes on a ‘higher determination’, which
‘does not fall within the Family itself, but bears
on what is truly universal, the community’. In
relation to the Family, in fact, this external
activity of the male has a negative role ‘expelling
the individual from the Family, subduing the natural
aspect and separateness of his existence, and training him to be virtuous, to a life in and for the
universal’ (p.269).

The Hegelian individual is ‘actual and substantial’

only through this richer dimension of universality,
associated with life as a citizen, external to the
Family. In so far as he is not a citizen but belongs
to the Family, the individual is only an ‘unreal,
impotent shadow’ (p.270). The realm of the Family
is the realm of ‘divine law’ – the realm of duties
and affections towards blood relatives. All this
Hegel sums up as the ‘nether world’; and since women
are not citizens it is also the realm of women. For
them, there is no actual participation in the unfolding of Spirit into the advanced forms which go beyond
family life. It should be stressed, again, that this
is not for Hegel a matter of excluding women from
the ethical order. Ethical life does occur within
the Family; and despite their confinement to it women
can be concerned with the ‘universal’ rather than
with the particularity of ‘natural’ feelings. But
because they lack access to that wider domain of
fully self-conscious ‘working for the universal’,
their ethical life involves a predicament which does
not arise for men.

In the ethical household, it is not a question
of this particular husband, this particular
child, but simply of husband and children
generally; the relationships of the woman are
based, not on feeling, but on the universal.

The difference between the ethical life of the
woman and that of the man consist just in this,
that in her vocation as an individual and in
her pleasure, her interest is centred on the
universal and remains alien to the particularity

of desire; whereas in the husband these two
sides are separated; and since he possesses as
a citizen the self-conscious power of universality, he thereby acquires the right of desire
and, at the same time, preserves his freedom
in regard to it. Since, then, in this relationship of the wife there is an admixture of
particularity, her ethical life is not pure;
but in so far as it is ethical, the particularity
is a matter of indifference, and the wife is
without the moment of knowing herself as this
particular self in the other partner.

The point is that in so far as relations within
the Family are ‘particular’ – focused on this particular husband or child – they are not also ‘ethical’.

Men, in contrast to women, have an additional,
external sphere of activity, where they ‘work for
the universal’. A man can thus treat his family
relationships as entirely ‘particular’, without
sacrificing his ethical life. But a woman can have
the ethical life only to the extent that she can
transform the particularity of family relationships
into ethical, ‘universal’ concerns – for husband and
children as such, rather than for these particular
people. So what for the male is ‘particular’ is for
the woman ‘universal’ and ethical. And this gives
rise, Hegel goes on to point out, to inevitable
conflicts between male and female. From the male
perspective, there are conflicts between the ethical
and the merely particular. Family Life drags him
back to the particular from the outer realm of
universality. But for the female, as Hegel sees,
the conflicts take the form of external encroachments
on the ethical demands of the Family. The conflicts
between the two spheres thus takes the form of
conflict between male and female as different embodiments of the ethical stage of Spirit. ~ot.just
Family concerns but womankind itself becomes the
enemy of the wider community.

Since the community only gets an existence
through its interference with the happiness
of the Family, and by dissolving (individual)
self-consciousness into the universal, it
creates for itself in what it suppresses and
what is at the same time essential to it an
internal enemy – womankind in general. Womankind – the everlasting irony (in the life) of
the community – changes by intrigue the
universal end of the government into a private
end, transforms its universal activity into a
work of some particular individual, and perverts the universal property of the state into
a possession and ornament for the Family.

Under these strains, the ethical stage of Spirit goes
under and Spirit advances on into its next stages legal status and personality, which need not concern
us. l’1hat is important is how, in the light of Hegel’s
treatment of male-female relations, we are to understand the implications of the earlier master-slave
dialectic. The two struggles – master-slave and
male-female – I want to suggest, should be taken in
conjunction. They are, of course, not meant to be
chronologically related. Rather they represent
similar ‘moments’ in different versions of the story
of Spirit’s unfolding from Nature, told once as the
story of the emergence of individual self-consciousness as a stage in human knowledge, and again as the
emergence of fully self-conscious forms of social
life. Each story illuminates the other, and what
connects them is the theme of the conditions of sustained self-consciousness. Individual self-consciousness is associated with a breaking away – achieved
through surviving the fear of death – from immersion

in mere Life and its particular transient attachments.

And self-conscious ethical life is likewise associated with a breaking away from the Family, which – at
any rate from the male perspective – is also associated with particularity. In either case, it is by
breaking away from the merely particular that true
individuality is attained. The wider public domain
outside the Family is the realm where the ethical
life attains self-consciousness and is hence able to
maintain itself in stable being without lapsing back
into the particularity of merely natural feeling.

From the male perspective, the Family serves as a
realm of containment of the particular: he must
transcend it to reach self-conscious ethical life
through ‘working for the universal’. In thus breaking away from the realm of mere particularity the
male is breaking away from the domain and concerns
of women. Women, if they are to be ethical beings,
must do the best they can with the personal relatio~­
ships that belong within Family Life. The brothersister relation, Hegel thinks, has more potential for
sustaining ethical self-consciousness than either
husband-wife or parent-child relationships, holding
some prospect of a free mutual recognition between
selves, unmixed with struggles for independence or
the sway of merely natural feeling (pp.274-75). But
the proper sphere of sustained selfhood is out there
beyond the Family. Women are relegated to a different, private sphere, which is not primarily associated with sustained self-consciousness.

The point here is not that what awaits the male
beyond the confines of Family Life is engagement in
life-and-death struggles for recognition, issuing in
relations of Lordship and Bondage. The two stories
do not intersect in that way. The male, when he
leaves the constraints of Family Life, engages in
civilised activities associated with the acquisition
and maintenance of power and wealth. The stories do
nonetheless map one another. The master-sl~ve story
describes a struggle for dominance between oonsciousnesses intent on obtaining recognition of a kind which
will sustain self-certainty. And women, for Hegel,
are outside the whole drama of the achievement of
sustained self-consciousness. This is not to say
that Hegel thinks that women do not actually have
self-consciousness, or that they have no share in the
more advanced stages of the unfolding of Spirit in
human culture. The position is more complex.

Spirit ‘in its entirety’ is supposed to be present
at each of the advancing stages; but it is always a
later stage that gives this presence of Spirit to a
former. It is through its relation to human law that
divine law can be seen as containing ethical Spirit,

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and this dependence is reflected in Hegel’s corresponding remarks about the male/female relation. It is
through their relation to men that women are part of
the ‘upward movement of the law of the nether world
to the actuality of the light of day and to conscious
existence’: and it is through their relation to the
Family and the feminine that men are involved in the
corresponding ‘downward movement’ from actuality to
unreality (p. 278). ~’lomen do have selfr-conscious
existence and activity but only by virtue of their
relation to men.

Hegel’s master-slave dialectic is of course not
formulated in ways that explicitly exclude women from
engagement in life-and..ldeath struggles for recognition. However, if we read these passages in the light
of Hegel’s subsequent explicit discussion of the malefemale distinction it can be seen that the struggle
which dramatises Hegel’s understanding of the preconditions of sustained self-consciousness is fundamentally a struggle between male consciousnesses. Women
are outside the drama, although they are given a
share in the spoils of victory. Hegel’s struggle for
self-consciousness is really a struggle between male
selves and others. Women do not – at any rate, in
their own right – fit into this dialectic as either
masters or slaves. Ne should then expect some
oddities in any attempt to apply the relations of
recognition between Hegelian selves and others to
understanding the condition of women. And some of
the puzzling features of de Beauvoir’s analysis of
the condition of women, as we shall see later, do
seem to derive from the underlying maleness of the
original Hegelian confrontation of consciousnesses.

However, de Beauvoir’s application of the masterslave story is in fact taken not from the original
Hegelian version but from Sartre’s retelling of the
story, which differs from Hegel’s in some important
and relevant respects.

The Sartrean Other
In the opening chapter of Part Three of Being and
Nothingness [5], Sartre hails Hegel’s Haster-Slave
dialectic as a break-through in the philosophical
understanding of self-consciousness. As Hegel sees,
the appearance of the Other is indispensable to the
very existence of self-consciousness. Self-consciousness cannot be attained simply by looking into oneself, as if one could perform some impossible
intellectual contortion in which the subject becomes
the object of its own gaze. Rather than trying to
somehow derive our awareness of others out of our
self-awareness, we must go the other way round.

Sartre is deeply impressed, too, by Hegel’s stress on
negation and the element of conflict it introduces
into the nature of self-consciousness. The Other is
both the same as me, in being self, and not the same,
in being another self. To be conscious of the Other
is to be conscious of what is not me; and to be conscious of myself is to be conscious of what is not
the Other. ‘The Other is the one who excludes me by
being himself, the one whom I exclude by being myself’

(p.236). Sartre elaborates Hegel’s idea that there
is an unavoidable power-struggle at the heart of selfconsciousness into the claim that it is only in so
far as each is opposed to the Other that they grasp
themselves as selves, as having ‘being-for-self’.

Confronting the Other, each asserts his right of
being an individual self.

Sartre’s version of Hegel’s master-slave story
highlights this aspect of reciprocal recognition.

The final stage of Hegel’s story – the externaliswtion of self through labour – drops out altogether in
Sartre’s version. Sartre, moreover, gives his own

twist to Hegel’s description of the struggle for
recognition. The power-struggle becomes a struggle
between competing ‘Looks’. ~Jly very existence as a
self-conscious being depends not just on the fact of
the Other’s recognition but on what kind of self the
Other recognises me as being. This creates a crucial
dependence on the Other. ‘As I appear to the Other,
so I am’ (p.237). This mutual dependence on the
content of the Other’s perception gives a rather
different role, in Sartre’s version, to the contrast
between the consciousness of the Master and that of
the Slave. In Hegel’s version, both consciousnesses
live through the fear of death, and it is the freedom
this brings that later enables the slave to externalise self in the world through labour. In 5artre’s
version, the benefits of having staked one’s life and
lived through the fear of death accrue entirely to
the riaster.

The value of the Other’s recognition of me
depends on the value of my recognition of the
Other. In this sense, to the extent that the
Other apprehends me as bound to a body and
immersed in life, I am myself only an Other.

In order to make myself recognised by the
Other, I must risk my own life. To risk one’s
life, in fact, is to reveal oneself as notbound to the objective form or to any determined
existence – as not-bound to life.

Sartrean slave consciousness remains immersed in
life as something too dear to lose; the consciousness
of the Master, in contrast, through risking life
breaks free to stand above it. Being prepared to die,
he is no longer confined by the determinacies of his
situation; he transcends all determination to any
particular mode of existence. We can see emerging
here Sartre’s own existentialist preoccupation with
absolute freedom as the achievement of a transcendence of all determinate situations. The Sartrean
Master exults in having risked his life. On the other
hand, ‘the Other remains bound to external things in
general; he appears to me and he appears to himself
as non-essential. He is the Slave I am the Master;
for him it is I who am essence’ (p.237).

Sartre himself makes explicit some other relevant
aspects in which he departs from the Hegelian treatment of the role of the Other in self-consciousness.

For Hegel, he complains, the problem of self-conscious
ness remains form~lated in terms of knowledge, and
this is falsely optimistic in two ways. Firstly, it
is ‘epistemologically optimistic’. Hegel thinks that
selfhood, through the mediation of the Other, can be
adequately presented to perception as an outer object.

But, Sartre argues, this is impossible. Consciousness
cannot be an object to consciousness without this
fact modifying what it really is. To appear as an
object to consciousness is no longer to be consciousness. I cannot be an object to myself, for the
object is precisely ‘what I make myself not-be’ (p.

242). According to Hegel, the Other is an object and
I apprehend my own selfhood in recognising this
external self. But the one of these affirmations,
Sartre argues, must destroy the oLher. To be an
object is precisely not-to-be-me. If the Other is to
me an object, for that very reason it cannot reflect
back to me my own selfhood. Between the ‘Other-asobject’ and ‘Me-as-subject’ there is no common
measure (p.243). Secondly, Hegel’s position is
‘ontologicallyoptimistic’. In considering the problem of the Other, he places himself at the standpoint
of the whole; and from this standpoint there is no
real problem of particular consciousnesses. They can be
considered as in genuine relations of recognition to
one another; each is located in the unfolding, allembracing Spirit. But from the standpoint of each

consciousness this all-·embracing perspective in which
conflicts can be reconciled is not available. And
this makes the struggles between consciousnesses of
more consequence to each of them. ‘No logical or
epistemological optimism can cover the scandal of the
plurality of consciousnesses’ (p.244). ‘So long as
consciousnesses exist, the separation and conflict of
consciousnesses will remain … ‘ (p.244).

For Sartre, an adequate treatment of the relationship between self and other must start ‘at the only
possible standpoint’ – that of a particular consciousness. It must nonetheless retain Hegel’ s ‘brilliant
intuition’ that the self is dependent on the other in

its very being. What this yields is the idea that we
attain to self-consciousness not through an intellectual awa~eness of the Other as an outer object, but
rather through emotion. Self-consciousness does not
arise from intellectual awareness of , objects but
rather from the experience of such emotions as shame
and pride; and at the heart of such emotions is the
experience of finding within my own consciousness
‘the Other himself as not being me’. The experience,
and its bearing on self-consciousness and freedom,
are described in the section on ‘The Look’ (pp.252302). As the points Sartre makes here are essential
to understanding de Beauvoir’s application of the
Sartrean notion of the Other, I will focus on the
section in some detail.

The experience of being looked at is the source of
our apprehension in our own ‘inmost depths’ of the
Sartrean Other. But the apprehension of another’s
look – a look directed at me – cannot, Sartre argues,
be the apprehension of an object. The experience of
being looked at is quite different from the apprehension of an object and excludes it. The point becomes
clearer in Sartre’s contrast between the experience
of looking at someone who is not looking at me, and
our experience of a look directed at ourselves. I am
in a public park. Not far away there is a lawn and
along the edge of that lawn there are benches. A man
passes by those benches. Instead of a grouping
towards me of the objects, there is now an orietation
which ‘flees’ from me. I experience a ‘reorganisation
of space’. This man, we suppose, sees the lawn. He
may walk on the grass, and so on. I am aware of a
spatiality that is not my spatiality. Among the
objects of my universe, an element of disintegration
has appeared. ‘ … an object has appeared which has
stolen the world from me’. There is a decentralisation of the world which ‘undermines the centralisation which I, as perceiver, am simultaneously effecting’. ‘ … it appears that the world has a kind of
drain hole in the middle of its being and that it is
perpetually flowing off through this hole’ (p.256).

But all of this, so far, is contained within my


centralisation of the scene. This man who is effecting the ‘internal hemorrhage’ (p.257) of my world is
himself an object in my spatialisation. The bleeding
away of my world is controlled, localised. His look
directed at other objects is itself contained in my
world. The situation becomes quite different if he
now looks at me; his look can no longer be contained
as an object in a world centred around my own look.

The point Sartre extracts from all this is that we
cannot at the same time perceive a look as an object
and apprehend a look fastened on ourselves as object;
it must be either one or the other. To apprehend a
look directed at us is not to apprehend an object; it
is consciousness of being looked at. It is this
experience which yields the Other to us. The Other
is in principle the One that looks at me’ (p.257).

This Look need not be ‘the convergence of two ocular
globes in my direction’; it can be a rustling of
branches, the sound of a footstep foll~wed by
silence, the opening of a shutter, the movement of a
curtain. It is this sense of the Other’s Look that
is involved in shame. Listening behind a door out of
jealousy, I hear footsteps behind me and experience
shame, which involves awareness of myself as object
to the Other (p.259). The immediate effect of this
awareness is a denial of my ‘transcendence’, so that
I become fixed with a determinate nature. The Look
of the Other fixes my possibilities. By thus denying
my transcendence it denies my freedom. I am placed
in danger – a danger which is no accident, but the
permanent structure of my ‘being-for-others’ (p.268).

This is the state of the Sartrean ‘slave consciousness’. nhereas the consciousness of the Master
retains transcendence of all determinate situations,
that of the Slave is immersed in determinacy.

The self that is given me through awareness of
being looked at, then, is never the self as transcendent. :’lhat I am aware of through being looked at is
not my self as a free subjective being, but rather an
objectified self – the ‘self-for-others’. For Sartre
there is no possibility of reciprocal recognition
between transcendent selves. The Look transforms its
object from a transcendent being into a degraded
consciousness. This objectification is a ‘radical
metamorphosis’. My being-for-others is a fall
through absolute emptiness towards objectivity.

There is, however, something intrinsically false,
Sartre suggests, about this objectification. I
cannot ultimately be deprived of my transcendence,
for this would involve an alienation of my selfhood.

The Other does not constitute me as an object for
myself, but only for him. I take on, as it were, his
alienating gaze; but I cannot really be alienated
from myself. The objectifying force of the Other’s
Look can in principle always be resisted. My absolute freedom as a subject cannot be denied. The
resistance of the Other’s objectifying Look is
central to Sartre’s version of Hegel’s life-and-death
struggle between rival consciousnesses. Each strives
to be the one that retains freedom, turning the
other into a mere object. It is impossible for both
lookers to be reciprocally free, recognising one
another’s ‘being-for-self’. Thus the Sartrean antagonists struggle for the role of Looker. Each consciousness rejects the Other’s objectifying Look,
refusing to be limited to what it is perceived as
being. Sartrean selfhood essentially involves this
constant wrenching away from the Other’s attempt to
fix my possibilities by perceiving me as abject; it
involves a constant surpassing of fixed or ‘dead’

possibilities. The true Sartrean self is in this
way a ‘perpetual centre of infinite possibilities’,
which refuses to be known as an object. And it is
this ideal of transcendence which de Beauvoir takes
over in The Second Sex [6].

De Beauvoir on Woman as Other
De Beauvoir’s idea of woman as ‘other’ is articulated
in terms drawn from the Sartrean struggle for dominance between Lookers and Looked-at. There can at
anyone time be only one Sartrean Looker; the other
must be looked-at. In appropriating this point to
the analysis of the female condition, de Beauvoir
introduces two variations to the Sartrean theme.

The first is that, with respect to relations between
the sexes, one sex is, as it were, permanently in
the privileged role of Looker; the other is always
the Looked-at. The second is that in her version of
the struggle between hostile consciousnesses, one
side connives in its defeat. Women are engaged in
the struggle, but they are somehow not serious antagonists. Unlike the original master-slave struggle
from which it all derives, the outcome here is not
really a ‘subjugation’. Women have themselves submitted to constitute a permanent Other. In the
Sartrean struggle, two consciousnesses are locked in
a combat of fierce, uncompromising Looks. The outcome is uncertain, although one must go under. In
de Beauvoir’s application of this model to the sexual
division, woman connives at being the objectified
Other. Women accept their own objectification, being
well-pleased with the arrangement.

To decline to be the Other, to refuse to be a
party to the deal – this would be for women to
renounce all the advantages conferred on them
by their alliance with the superior caste.

Man-the-sovereign will provide woman-the-liege
with material protection and will undertake the
moral justification of her existence …

What makes this extraordinary arrangement appealing to women is elaborated in terms drawn from
Sartre’s treatment of the demands of freedom. The
condition of being female comes out as, ·as it were, a
permanent state of Sartrean ‘bad faith’, in which
women connive at being turned into objects, denying
their transcendence. The condition and its ideal
alternative are expressed in terms of ‘immanence’

and ‘transcendence’.

Every subject plays his part as such specifically
through exploits or projects that serve as a
mode of transcendence; he achieves liberty only
through a continual reaching out towards other
liberties. There is no justification for
present existence other than its expansion into
an indefinitely open future. 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 on him, it spells frustration and
oppression. In both cases it is an absolute
evil. Every individual concerned to justify
his existence feels that his existence involves
an undefined need to transcend himself, to engage
in freely chosen projects.

Many contemporary readers of The Second Sex will
have reservations about Sartrean transcendence as a
human ideal, even apart from what limitations it may
have as a feminist one. Can any will really be as
free as Sartre would have it? And should we really
want to be transcendent selves, leaping about in
triumphant assertions of will in defiance of all the
apparent determinacies in our situations? The ideal
of radical freedom and the associated idea of bad
faith can be seen, too, as in some ways just adding
an extra burden of self-recrimination on those – male

or female – who find themselves caught in oppressive
situations. However, the queries I want to raise
here concern rather more specifically what becomes of
the Hegelian and Sartrean treatments of selfconsciousness in de Beauvoir’s analysis of the predicament of women.

First, let me stress what I regard as a positive
feature of de Beauvoir’s use of the original Hegelian
framework, as mediated by Sartre. De Beauvoir is of
course not explicitly addressing herself to Hegel’s
treatment of the condition of women. But her own
account of the female predicament can nonetheless be
seen as illuminating an inner tension in Hegel’s
position.. Hegel did not regard women as lacking the
status of spiritual subjects. It is true that he
saw them as, in a sense, closer to Nature than men:

the form of ethical life with which they are associated is a less advanced form of Spirit than that
associated with men. It is nonetheless supposed to
be genuinely ethical. Woman does share in the more
advanced stages of Spirit; but, as we have seen, she
does so in a curiously vicarious way, through her
relations to man. For de Beauvoir, as for Sartre,
the conditions of selfhood are in contrast quite
uncomprom1s1ng. Nothing short of actual engagement
in ‘projects’ and ‘exploits’ will do. In the lack
of that, human subjects are forced back into mere
‘immanence’. There can be no vicarious selfhood; and
it can be only through bad faith that women regard
their relations to men as giving them a share in
transcendence. The middle zone which Hegel sets
aside for women – located between the merely ‘natural’

and the full participation in the outer world of
projects and exploits – must be seen as a delusion.

If women are not out there engaging in their own
projects and exploits, they are reduced to mere
immanence or immersion in Life. There is no middle
zone between transcendence and immanence, between
‘being-for-self’ and ‘being-in-itself’.

In this way, we can see de Beauvoir’s treatment of
the Otherness of women as drawing out the inner
inconsistencies in Hegel’s treatment of woman’s
status as a spiritual subject. This repudiation of
the Hegelian ‘nether world’ as nothing but the zone
of bad faith, however, has some more negative consequences for de Beauvoir’s account of the condition of
being female. They come out especially in some of
her remarks about female biology. In some passages,
the female predicament is presented as a conflict
between being an inalienable free subject, reaching
out to transcendence, and being a body which drags
this subject back to a merely ‘natural’ existence.

It is as if the female body is an intrinsic obstacle
to transcendence, making woman a ‘prey of the species’

During menstruation, says de Beauvoir, a woman ‘feels
her body most painfully as an obscure, alien thing;
it is, indeed, the prey of a stubborn and foreign
life …. 110man, like man, is her body; but her body
is something other than herself’ (p.61). This
apparently stark dualism between transcendence
through the will and confinement to bodily ‘immanence’ is a disconcerting picture of , the condition
of being female. At this point the notion of woman
as ‘other’ may well seem to have over-reached itself.

How can objectification of consciousness make one’s
very body other to oneself? Why should a woman’s
direct experience of her own body be an experience
of lack of transcendence, of ‘immersion’ in mere
Life? Why, at any rate, should this be so in any way
that would not apply equally to the direct experience of a male body? Here it may well seem that de
Beauvoir has appropriated, along with Sartrean ideas
of transcendence, his notorious treatment of the
female body as the epitome of immanence [7]. One
need not endorse the more exultant celebrations of

the personal and pOlitical potential of female
biology and motherood to think there is something
unduly negative about de Beauvoir’s depiction of
female biology.

In partial defence of de Beauvoir here it can of
course be said that the experience – however direct of a female body which she is describing is the
experience of a body which has been culturally
objectified by centuries of exposure to the male

De Beauvoir warns in the Introduction to
Book Two of The Second Sex that her use of the words
woman or feminine are not intended to refer to any
changeless essence; that the reader must understand
the phrase ‘in the present state of education and
custom’ after most of her statements. And there is
certainly something correct about the suggestion that
women experience even their own bodies in ways that
reflect the conditioning effects of a male objectifying Look. It is not female biology itself, we may
say, that poses the obstacle to a feminine ‘transcendence’, but rather what men, with the connivance
of women, have made of female biology. And de
Beauvoir does seem to have this distinction clearly
in mind in the following passage:

Men have presumed to create a feminine domain
– the kingdom of life, or immanence – only in
order to lock up women therein. But it is
regardless of sex that the existent seeks selfjustification through transcendence – the very
submission of women is proof of that statement.

What they demand today is to be recognised as
existents by the same right as men and not to
subordinate existence to life, the human being
and its animality.

But perhaps there is more to it than this. What
makes the female body such a threat to Sartrean
transcendence seems to be not just the resillt of its
having been objectified by the male Look. Underlying
de Beauvoir’s descriptions of female biology is the
original Hegelian opposition between the individuality of self-consciousness and the inchoate generality
of mere Life. It is not just for straightforward
practical reasons that woman’s greater biological
involvement in ‘species life’ poses obstacles to her
attaining ‘transcendence’. It is not just that,
given the prevailing modes of social organisation,
woman’s primary responsibility for child care or
domestic labour sets limits to her involvement in
‘projects and exploits’. There seem to be conceptual
reasons, too, for her greater proneness to Sartrean
‘immanence’. Sartrean transcendence, like its
Hegelian predecessor, is precisely a transcendence
of mere ‘Life’. Man transcends species life; he
‘creates values’. Thus the existentialist perspective, de Beauvoir claims, enables us
to understand how the biological and economic
condition of the primitive horde must have led
to male supremacy. The female, to a greater
extent than the male, is the prey of the species;
and the human race has always sought to escape
its specific destiny. The support of life
became for man an activity and a project through
the invention of the tool; but in maternity
woman remained closely bound to her body, like
an animal. It is because humanity, calls itself
in question in the matter of living – that is
to say, values the reasons for living above mere
life – that, confronting woman, man assumes
mastery. Man’s design is not to repeat himself
in time: it is to take control of the instant
and mould the future. It is male activity that
in creating values has made of existence itself
a value; this activity has prevailed over the

confused forces of life; it has subdued Nature
and Woman.

‘Transcendence’, in its origins, is a transcend~
ence of the feminine. In its Hegelian version this
is a matter of breaking away from the ‘nether world’

of women. In its Sartrean version it is associated
with a repudiation of what is supposedly signified by
the female body, the ‘holes’ and ‘slime’ which
theaten to engulf free subjecthood [8]. It is as if,
in the lack of a Hegelian ‘nether world’, all that is
left for male subjecthood to ‘transcend’ is the
female body itself. In both cases, of course, it is
only from a male perspective that the feminine can be
seen as what must be ‘transcended’. But the male
perspective has left its marks on the very concepts
of ‘transcendence’ and ‘immanence’. Perhaps it is
not, after all, surprising that de Beauvoir should
slip into those disconcerting passages where it seems
that women must struggle not only with their own bad
faith and male power but with their own bodies, if
they are to achieve true selfhood and freedom; as if
they can achieve ‘transcendence’ only at the expense
of alienation from their bodily being.

What I am suggesting here is that the ideal of
‘transcendence’ is – in a more fundamental way than
de Beauvoir allows – a male ideal; that it feeds on
the exclusion of the feminine. This is what makes
the ideal of a feminine attainment of ‘transcendence’

puzzling. In Hegel’s original version of the transcendence of mere Life, women were outside the drama,
relegated to a ‘nether world’. In de Beauvoir’s
application of the model, mediated through Sartre,
women are slotted into the conflict of hostile consciousnesses; and her ideal is that they struggle to
become Lookers rather than always the Looked-at. But
can ‘transcendence’ be taken over in this way as if
it were in principle a gender-neutral ideal? And what
remains of it in the lack of that Hegelian middle
zone which Sartre and de Beauvoir would have us
repudiate as the zone of bad faith? Male transcendence, as Hegel himself partly saw, is something quite
different from what female transcendence would have
to be. It is a breaking away from a zone which for
the male remains intact – from what is for him the
realm of particularity and merely ‘natural’ feelings.

There is for the female, in contrast, no such realm
which she can both leave and leave intact. What
would the distinction between ‘transcendence’ and
‘immanence’ amount to in a framework that entirely
lacked that other more central and basically maleoriented distinction, between the ‘private’ realm of
the Family and that ‘outer’ public domain into which
free consciousnesses leap for the exhilarating
pursuit of projects and exploits?

Further Reading
Below is a selective list of books and articles
on feminism and philosophy:

S. Okin, Women in Westepn Political Thought, Virago,
London, 1980
J.B. Elshtain, Public Man, Private Woman: Women in
Social and Political Thought, Martin Robertson,
London, 1981
H. Vetterling-Braggin et al (eds.), Feminism and
Philosophy, Littlefield Adams &Co., New Jersey,
J. Charvet, Feminism, Dent, London, 1982
G. Lloyd, ‘The Man of Reason’, Metaphilosophy, 1979
L. Blum, ‘Kant’s and Hegel’s Moral Rationalism – a
Feminist Perspective’, Canadian JOUPnal of
Philosophy, 1982
T. Brennan and C. Pateman, ‘Here Auxiliaries to the
Commonwealth’, Political Studies, 1979
E. Spelman, ‘Woman as Body’, Feminist Studies, 1982
C. Merchant, The Death of Natupe: Women, Eco logy and
the Scientific Revolution, Harper and Row, San
Francisco, 1979
B. Easlea, Science and Sexual Opppession, Weidenfeld
and Nicolson, London, 1981
B. Easlea, Witch-Hunting, Magic, and the New
Philosophy, Harvester, Sussex, 1980
A. Jaggar, ‘On Sexual Equality’, Ethics, 1973-74
J. Annas, ‘Plato’s Republic and Feminism’,
Philosophy, 1976
J. Richards, The Sceptical Feminist, Pelican, London,
J. English, ‘Review Essay: Philosophy’, Signs, 1977
E. Marks and I. de Courtivron (eds.), New Fpench
Feminisms, University of Mass. Press; Amherst,
C. Battesby, ‘An Enquiry Concerning the Humean Woman’,
Philosophy, 1981
S. Harding and M. Hintikka (eds.), Discoveping





Reality: Feminist Pepspectives on Epistemology,
Metaphysics, Methodology, and Philosophy of
Science, Synthese Library No.16l, D. Reidel,
Holland, 1983
le Doeuff, ‘Women and Philosophy’, Radical
Philosophy, No.17, 1977
le Doeuff, ‘Pierre Roussel’s Chiasmas’, Ideology
& Consciousness, No.9, 1981/82
Gould and M. Wartofsky (eds.), Women and
Philosophy, Perigree Books (G.P. Putnam), New
York, 1980
Mahowald (ed.), Philosophy of Women: Classical
to Cuppent Concepts, Hackett Publishing Co.,
Indianapolis, 1978


Hiche1e le Doeuff, ‘Operative Philosophy: Simone de Beauvoir and
Existentialism’, I & C, No.6, Autumn 1979
Force of Circumstance, trans. R. Howard (Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1968),

3 Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A.V. ~Iiller (Oxford, OUP, 1977),
pp .104-119. All quotations and page references are from this

Op.cit., pp.267-290.

Being and Nothingness, trans. H.E. Barnes (London, Methuen, 1958).

All quotations and page references are from this edition.

6 The Second Sex, trans. H.I1. Parsh1ey (Harll’ondsworth, Penguin, 1972).

All quotations and page references are from this edition.

Being and Nothingness, Part IV, Chapter 2, Section 3.

Op.cit., pp.609-14.



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