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Simone de Beauvoir, 1908-1986

Simone de Beauvoir

In place of our usual editorial, in this issue we publish
differing responses to Simone de Beauvoir’s death from
two French newspapers.

Rob,ert Maggiori (from Liberation, 15 April 1986)
In 1929 two young people, like many others before and
after them, must have rushed across to the rue de
Grenelle to see pinned up behind a metal grill the results
of the agregation in philosophy. They came away happy.

One of them had his name at the top of the list and the
other’s was in second place. The first was Jean-Paul
Sartre, the second was Simone de Beauvoir. Everyone
knows that two itineraries had converged here which only
death would separate. The verdict of the agregation
panel will not be disputed: in philosophy, Simone de
Beauvoir will always be in second place, in Sartre’s
shadow. Unlike Sartre, she would not leave behind “a
philosophy”, and her writings were not to become a
chapter in the history of philosophy.

Simone de Beauvoir wrote how at the age of fifteen she
dreamed of the day she would meet a man and be
subjugated by his intelligence, his culture and his
authority. She found this creative spirit in Sartre. Would
it be true to say that Sartre did “subjugate” her to the
point where he inhibited any ambition she might have had
to do original work in philosophy? To a journalist who
asked her whether it was not something of a contradiction,
that she who was to become the force behind modern
feminism should have wanted to be “subjugated”, Simone de
Beauvoir replied that her literary work was, from the
point of view of creativity, in all respects the equal of
Sartre’s. But she added, “I was not creative in philosophy.

My writing was in other fields; I wrote about people and I
affected them and that’s enough for me.” In her memoirs
she is even more frank when she says, “I really was not
all that interested in doing philosophy.”
So are we to conclude that Simone de Beauvoir, whose
literary works are clearly already among the classics,
will be condemned, as far as philosophy is concerned, to
being no more than a source of footnotes to the philosophy
of Sartre? To see the mountains of books about Sartre one
would think this were true. Simone de Beauvoir appears in
them only in verification, by reference to her
autobiography or her novels, of some points concerning the
biographical context of Sartre’s thought.

Simone de Beauvoir’s first book, published in 1943, was
L’lnvitee (She Came to Stay, 1949). Its epigraph was a
sentence from Hegel: “Each consciousness pursues the

death of the other.” In fact the novel, which broke with
the procedures of introspective psychology, could be seen
as a metaphysical novel, a kind of fleshing out of themes
which were to be popularised by existentialism, themes
which were to find a place in Sartre’s work later,
especially the problematic of the hellishness of other

As for Simone de Beauvoir’s truly philosophical works,
we can cite only Pyrrhus et Cineas (1944), a philosophical
tale called Tous les hommes sont mortels of 1946 (All
~en are ~ortal, 1955), Pour une. morale de l’ambigliTte
published in 1947 (The Ethics of Ambiguity, 1948),
L ‘Existentialisme et ~ sagesse des nations (1948} and
Privileges (1955) which, infected by the ideological cold
war, is an attack on bourgeois idealist philosophy based on
good intentions and ignorance of social problems.

No biographer of Simone de Beauvoir has ever estimated
the value of this oeuvre very highly. We find in ita
“defience and illustration” of existentialism, and an
attempt to provide a “material content” for ethics. But
there is in it no “original solution” to any of the problems
which were debated at the time as they arose from reading
Kierkegaard, Jaspers, or Hegel.

pyrrhus et Cineas dealt with the infinite, God, the
other, vocation and the idea of situation. Though Simone
de Beauvoir did not renounce it, she did admit that it was a
failure: “I thought I had escaped from individualism but in
fact I remained engulfed in it. My subjectivism was
inevitably accompanied by an idealism which deprived my
speculations of any consequence.”

Pour une morale de l’ambiguite, which is perhaps her
most important philosophical work, seems to have had a
rather ambiguous status in Simone de Beauvoir’s own mind.

She seemed almost irritated whenever the book was
referred to but the problems it raised were at the very
centre of her development and that of Sartre. It is quite
astonishing to see that Pour une morale raises, and claims
to solve, a problem which Sartre himself raised later in
Being and Nothingness and which he failed to solve even in
his Cahiers pour une morale (Note books on Ethics),
namely the problem of ethics. Can existentialism, which
is a philosophy of freedom, provide an ethics? Sartre and
De Beauvoir shared this problematic but also shared the
failure to which it led. “An ethics of ambiguity” wrote
Simone de Beauvoir, “would be an ethics which would not
rule out a priori that beings could be both independent and
yet at the same time be bound to one another, that their
individual liberty could forge laws valid for all.”
Was this not the very same problem as that raised by
Sartre? How can free beings escape from seriality, how
can they join together without self-denial, in order to
build fraternity without lapsing into terror? That Sartre
returned yet again to this question in Cahiers pour une
morale, which was published after his death, this question
on which the meaning of each life depends, and that
Simone de Beauvoir discussed it in her most philosophical
work, bears witness to an intellectual adventure lived in
common, or rather to a shared life which was in practice but only in practice – a resolution of the problem.

There are many other illustrations of this undertaking,
this shared life, from the founding of Les Temps modernes
to their anti-colonial struggles, from the defence of
litterature engagee to the fight for Algerian
independence, from the problem of relations with Marxism
and Communism to their support for Maoism: in all this
very little separates the itineraries of Sartre and Simone
de Beauvoir.

It is well known that each of them retained their
freedom of action and freely lived “other lives”. But
there was no question, no theoretical problem, no moral
or political position which was not studied by them
together. The publication of their letters to each other
demonstrates this. But of this couple each member chose
their own way of saying the same thing. One opted for
philosophy, the other preferred literature and abandoned

But if the force of a philosophy were to be measured, as
was once thought, by the changes which it brings about in
the real world, then it would be Simone de Beauvoir and
not Sartre who would be counted the true philosopher.

For with The Second Sex Simone de Beauvoir brought about
greater changes in the world and in people’s attitudes
than did Sartre with Being and Nothingness or The Critique
of Dialectical Reason. She made real what for Sartre was
only a dream, whereas Sartre helped her to make real her
enterprise of a shared life. This was truly an osmosis.

(translated by John Mepham)

Michel Contat (from Le


Simone de Bealvoir, with characteristic lucidity, had a
clear idea of her worth as a philosopher: she had not, she
thought, created her ideas herself, she owed them to
Sartre. But, she added immediately and with equal
fairness, Sartre’s ideas had often been arrived at through
discussion with her. To be a privileged partner, a fertile
interlocutor of one of the few creative philosophers of the
century, this is not to be dismissed. Each of Sartre’s two
major works bears witness to her contribution, being
dedicated simply “To Castor” [this being the nickname
which friends had found for her in 1928, being a play on
her name, “castor” being French for beaver; the name stuck
and Sartre used it for the rest of his life].

“As far as philosophy is concerned, I was aware of my
limits. L’Etre et le Neant had not yet come out, but I had
read and re-read the manuscript; I had nothing to add to
it,” she wrote, in explanation of her hesitation in writing a
book on existentialism during the war as Jean Grenier had
asked her to do. It was her first philosophy book, Pyrrhus
et Cineas, and it came out in 1944. It outlined an ethics in
the form of a slogan: “liberate liberty”. Later, having
followed in Sartre’s footsteps to arrive at a
philosophical-political position close to Marxism, she
judged this work harshly as still trapped in individualism.

Similarly, she distanced herself from her second
philosophical work, Pour ~ morale de l’ambiguite in
which she gives a rather closed, inflexible version of
Sartre’s ethical inquiries but which nevertheless remains
an excellent introduction to them.

On the other hand, Simone de Beauvoir never apologised
for the one of her works which it is impossible to re-read
today without real embarrassment, her polemic with
Merieau-Ponty (1955), who had attacked Sartre for the
ultra-bolshevik position of the articles he wrote as a
fellow-traveller of the Communist Party. This essay is
reprinted in Privileges together with another polemical
text, “La Pensee de droite aujourd’hui” (I945). The first
sentence gives us the tone of this work which was the tone
of Les Temps modernes at the worst moments of the
ideological cold war: “Truth is one: error is multiple. It
is no accident that the right preaches pluralism.”
Stalinism could be based on such a proposition.

In fact, we should not look for philosophy in these
ephemeral works in which intellectual good faith is not
always in command, but rather in a novel which does not
deserve the oblivion to which its author seems to have
consigned it, Tous ~ hommes sont mortels (I946) (All
~en are ~ortal, 1955). This story of a man .condemned to
immortality, who suffers the martyrdom of being unable to
live and to love in the finite time of others, is the most
adventurous, the most outraged and the most oddly
impassioned interrogation of the human condition ever
instigated by this great rationalist author. Many young
people would be astonished to find out what an
existentialist could make of this science-fiction theme.

They would discover there the real Simone de Beauvoir
who was not only an intellelctual but whose writing was
allitated by anxiety about death and inspired by a violent
appetite for life which she sometimes found frightening.

This Simone de Beauvoir was very different and far more
likable than the attentive philosopher that she wished to
be in the company of Sartre.

(translated by John Mepham)


16 April 1986)

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