Laura Hengehold, Nancy Bauer (Eds.): A Companion to Simone de Beauvoir

A Companion to Simone de Beauvoir Book Cover A Companion to Simone de Beauvoir
Laura Hengehold, Nancy Bauer (Eds.)
Wiley-Blackwell
2017
Hardcover $195.00

Reviewed by: Rose Trappes (Department of Philosophy, Bielefeld University)

On the back cover of Margaret Simons’ 1995 edited collection Feminist Interpretations of Simone de Beauvoir, you can find a story about Beauvoir scholarship at the time:

For almost twenty years, feminist readings of Simone de Beauvoir’s feminist classic The Second Sex have been dominated by dismissive interpretation of Beauvoir’s philosophy as Sartrean and phallocentric. […] It was not until Beauvoir’s death in 1986 that this interpretive impasse would be broken. […] Some of the most exciting new interpretations of Beauvoir’s philosophy that have resulted are brought together here for the first time.

Beauvoir scholarship has travelled a long way since that impasse was broken. The idea that Beauvoir is a philosopher is no longer quite so revolutionary, and following Simons’ breakthrough volume, a number of collections of Beauvoir scholarship have been published.[1]

Yet it has now been over ten years since a major companion to Beauvoir has been released. The intervening years have seen a new and improved publication of The Second Sex (Beauvoir 2009) and a great number of original publications concerning various aspects of Beauvoir’s thought in ethics, metaphysics, phenomenology, and social and political philosophy. A Companion to Simone de Beauvoir is thus a timely and necessary update of Beauvoir scholarship. With forty articles spread across four parts, the book combines overviews of Beauvoir’s social and intellectual context, her philosophical influences and the reception of her work, with discussions of major conceptual and methodological questions. Many of these essays respond to the new translation and build on the last twenty to thirty years of burgeoning work on Beauvoir, making the collection an important publication for taking stock of Beauvoir’s position and relevance for contemporary feminism.

The volume attests to Beauvoir’s interdisciplinary and far reaching influence, exhibited by her entire œuvre as intellectual, writer, and autobiographer. The essays together develop several themes in contemporary feminist readings of Beauvoir’s work, including the questions of Beauvoir’s treatment of race and intersectionality, her understanding of biology, childhood and motherhood, the relationship between fiction, life writing and philosophy, and her ethical and political thought. Though The Second Sex features prominently, most authors in the volume also confirm the philosophical and historical importance of Beauvoir’s earlier ethical essays, her life writings and letters, her fiction and travel writings, and her work on ageing, The Coming of Age. The Companion thus serves to demonstrate Beauvoir’s interdisciplinary reach as well as her philosophical import.

Readers can find contributions from some of the most reputed Beauvoir scholars, but the collection also introduces a number of younger academics. With this combination of voices, the Companion covers old ground as well as demonstrating the changing interests of scholars. Beauvoir’s ethics and politics, her discussion of motherhood, and her intellectual engagements with thinkers like Hegel, Merleau-Ponty and Sartre continuing to feature prominently. On the other hand, there seems to be far greater interest in topics like biology and race than in earlier collections, while conversely less attention for phenomenology, socialisation, and sexuality.

Now, often these kinds of reviews step through essays section by section. Unfortunately, the articles in the Companion are rather indifferently distributed to sections and parts in a way that often obscures rather than draws out main themes and connections and debates between papers. For instance, while analyses of Beauvoir’s account of motherhood are grouped together, discussions on race and on biology are scattered throughout the volume. In addition, the choice to structure the text around The Second Sex belies the way that almost all the authors in the volume cite a variety of Beauvoir’s writings in their articles. Thus, in part one (“Re-reading The Second Sex”) and especially in the “Central Themes” section, one finds discussions of Beauvoir’s ethical writings and life writings, as well as discussions of her intellectual engagements and references to contemporary feminism. On the other hand, some key themes of The Second Sex are developed in other parts and sections, as in Penelope Deutscher’s discussion of intersectionality (appearing in Part III section C) and the two discussions by Shannon Sullivan and Alexander Antonopoulos of the “Data of Biology” chapter of The Second Sex (appearing in Part IV).  Moreover, while Laura Hengehold introduces the volume with a brief overview of each chapter in turn, she neglects to provide an overarching picture or satisfactory discussion of the central themes and connections. For this review I will therefore discuss the contributions by their themes and the debates generated between articles in the collection, rather than according to their place in the Companion.

Beauvoir’s Context

A number of essays in the volume discuss the philosophical context of Beauvoir’s works. Two essays by Kimberly Hutchings and Zeynep Direk debate and ultimately disagree about the way Beauvoir takes up Hegel’s thought. Hutchings contends that Beauvoir encountered Hegel’s thought on her own terms and rejected the absolutism of Hegelianism as a system. In contrast, Direk claims that Beauvoir largely took on the dominant French version of Hegelianism popularised by Alexandre Kojève in the 1930s, and that she consequently accepted the Hegelian Absolute and understood history as a meaningful totality.

Two essays, this time more concordant, cover Beauvoir’s relationship with fellow phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Jennifer McWeeny argues that Beauvoir generated an idea of “flesh,” the ontological ground of the ambiguity between being at once bodily object and bodily subject, before Merleau-Ponty could put a name to it. William Wilkerson, on the other hand, compares the ideas of freedom and authenticity in Beauvoir and Merleau-Ponty, arguing that Beauvoir is ultimately more sensitive to the difficulties subjects face in everyday life in acting freely and authentically.

Much ink has been spilled on the relationship between Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. Yet the topic must be dealt with, and several articles in the Companion do so. Like the essays on Merleau-Ponty, Christine Daigle’s analysis of Beauvoir’s intellectual relationship to Sartre highlights the active contributions Beauvoir made to her philosophical milieu. The article by Margaret Simons (which I also mention below) accords with this view, claiming that Beauvoir originated many of the ideas Sartre later took up in his philosophical works.

A notable feature of the Companion is the inclusion of two essays on Beauvoir’s relation to both Marx’s thought and Marxism in its twentieth century French form, often not a focus in other collections on Beauvoir. Missing, however, is a discussion of many of Beauvoir’s other important influences. For instance, the influence of other phenomenologists like Heidegger and Husserl is not treated, and I am sure that productive discussion could be had concerning Beauvoir’s relationship with other philosophers (for instance, with Descartes’ philosophy).[2]

Somehow, what I found more interesting were the essays on Beauvoir’s social and historical context. Sandra Reineke provides a helpful overview of the state of French feminism prior to The Second Sex, written twenty years before the popular French feminist movements began. The delightfully personal recount of Margaret Simons’ fraught quest to understand Beauvoir’s relationship with philosophy and with Sartre reveals a trail of investigation, from interviews in the 1970s to reading Beauvoir’s diaries and letters, in which Simons attempts to come to terms with Beauvoir’s apparent denial of her own originality. William McBride reads Beauvoir’s travel memoirs America Day by Day and The Long March to discuss Beauvoir’s relation with the political and social situations in America and China respectively, praising her acuity with respect to America’s hypocrisy and fatalism and China’s future-directedness, though he challenges her overly apologetic attitude towards the Chinese communist regime.

Receptions and Translations

Beauvoir has had a varied reception over time in France. Ingrid Galster’s posthumously published chapter covers the scandal and intellectual neglect generated by the original publication of The Second Sex in France. Turning to more recent times, Karen Vintges challenges the way Elisabeth Badinter and other French liberal feminists cite Beauvoir in support of their stance against Islamic veiling. Critiquing Badinter’s interpretation of laicism, Vintges highlights Beauvoir’s belief in the importance of respecting Islamic women’s views of their own lives and their potentially different ways of practicing freedom. On the other side of French feminism, Diane Perpich examines the way young feminists from poor migrant neighbourhoods in France take up Beauvoir’s famous phrase (“One is not born…”) for their own purposes. Perpich’s discussion is enlightening and it would be nice to see more discussion of how Beauvoir’s famous words have travelled through popular feminist movements in other contexts.

The English translation of The Second Sex has been much discussed, and Emily Grosholz’s article is particularly valuable for its overview of the failings of HM Parshley’s original translation as well as a discussion of the merits of the new translation by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier. Though she concludes that the new translation is more philosophically adequate, Grosholz calls for a complete scholarly edition of The Second Sex, complete with full citations and elaborations. Grosholz provides a detailed plan for such a work and I encourage anyone who is interested to contact her to offer their assistance. Kyoo Lee’s contribution adds to the discussion of translation, bringing in Chinese and Korean translations of Beauvoir’s famous phrase “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” (On ne nait pas femme: on le devient) and inviting further discussion of its translation in a wide variety of other languages, certainly a crucial task for the future.

Finally, Beauvoir’s reception in and relationship to contemporary feminist theory receives treatment in a number of essays throughout the volume. With the first chapter Stella Sandford considers Beauvoir’s role as a founder of feminist philosophy and gender theory. Beauvoir’s interdisciplinary research, she argues, introduced the very question of sex and gender as a philosophical and theoretical question. In addition, as I discuss below, a number of the chapters on biology, motherhood, and race and intersectionality contain useful summaries of how Beauvior’s ideas have been received by later feminist theorists.

Biological Body

The topic of biology and its relation to bodily existence is treated in many of the essays. Many of these discussions focus on reading The Second Sex’s chapter “Biological data” (Les données de la biologie), as well as its forceful descriptions of female physiology, in light of contemporary feminist discussions. Ruth Groenhout’s “Beauvoir and the Biological Body” does an excellent job of elaborating Beauvoir’s view that the meaning of biological factors depends on social, cultural, environmental and economic factors. As Groenhout attests, Beauvoir’s understanding of biology is surprisingly similar to that of feminist science scholar Anne Fausto-Sterling and could prove useful for the feminist critique of evolutionary psychology. Emily Anne Parker’s “Becoming Bodies” compares Beauvoir with poststructuralist theories of bodily materialisation, finding that Beauvoir is more sensitive to bodily agency than theorists like Judith Butler. Similarly, Alexander Antonopoulos brings Beauvoir’s understanding of biology into contact with trans studies.

As well as these explicit articles, the theme of biology also returns in contributions on motherhood, childhood, and race. It is thus far more prominent here than in previous collections, indicating that there is a growing interest in this topic. This is perhaps related to the growth of new materialist and feminist science studies discussions of biology in the past twenty years. The contributions in the Companion provide a starting point for an important dialogue about the relevance of Beauvoir for these new fields of research.

Motherhood and Childhood

Three contributions renew discussion of Beauvoir’s relation to maternity, with Alison Stone, Sara Cohen Shabot, and Nancy Bauer all concluding that Beauvoir is not as anti-motherhood as she is often supposed to be. Instead, these three authors highlight the ambiguity of motherhood in The Second Sex as well as in some of her fictional and autobiographical writings. Being a mother involves a specific set of physiological states as well as a special and often fraught kind of relation with other beings, and the authors highlight Beauvoir’s sensitivity to the multiple meanings that can attach to motherhood and the importance of social and economic factors in shaping mothers’ and children’s experiences.

Turning to childhood, Emily Zakin looks at Beauvoir’s understanding of childhood dependency and development in light of psychoanalytic theories, while Mary Beth Mader compares Foucauldian emphasis on institutional discipline with Beauvoir’s focus on the role of the family and intimacy in child development. Both of these essays invite further research into Beauvoir’s conceptual frameworks and how they can be combined with other paradigms to yield new insights on topics like childhood. Also relevant here is Shannon Sullivan’s article on black girlhood (which I also discuss below), where she considers the different roles that physical activity and violence play in child development for white and black girls.

Race and Intersectionality

Beauvoir is often criticised for drawing an analogy between racial and gender-based oppression in a way that excludes multiple oppression and the insights of intersectionality. Here this argument is voiced by Tanella Boni, Katherine Gines, Patricia Hill Collins and Shannon Sullivan, as well as being mentioned in several other papers. Rehearsing the argument, Gines criticises Beauvoir’s analogy and her inattention to Black and Black feminist thought in the 1950s. Although Gines fails here to provide a satisfactory treatment of the method of analogy, this can be found in Collins’ chapter. Collins offers an in-depth exploration of the function of analogy in Beauvoir’s work, arguing that Beauvoir ultimately relies on ideological connections between animal, child, Black person and woman.

Acknowledging these arguments, Sullivan nevertheless finds Beauvoir’s emphasis on the implication between the physical and biological body and social and cultural factors fruitful for a critical theory of race that goes beyond social constructionism. Interestingly, Sullivan echoes Groenhout in referring to Anne Fausto-Sterling, this time to her work on how race comes to exist physiologically.

Providing a counterpoint, Penelope Deutscher argues that Beauvoir’s analysis of old age is sensitive to issues of multiple oppression, especially of class and gender intersecting with age. Deutscher’s paper is surprisingly the only chapter on Beauvoir’s The Coming of Age, a shame given the great importance of this often neglected work. It is also worth noting that Debra Bergoffen contextualises Beauvoir’s analogy between racial and gender-based oppression, arguing that Beauvoir was making a powerful political claim for women by associating them with a group that was more easily recognised as oppressed in mid-twentieth century France.

Ethics and Politics

Beauvoir’s ethical and political philosophies have received considerable recognition in the past twenty years. The Companion adds to this with a number of chapters discussing aspects of Beauvoir’s ethics and politics. Examining Beauvoir’s reflections on love from her teenage diaries to her later life, Tove Petterson discusses the importance of mutual recognition for ethical relationships and thus for authentic love. Kristina Arp provides an excellent essay arguing that Beauvoir’s “Pyrrhus and Cineas” is ideal as an introductory text on existentialist ethics, and she facilitates this with an explanatory text that is suitable for the earliest of undergraduates or even late high school students.

The three contributions from Laura Hengehold, Lori Marso and Debra Bergoffen together provide extensive and informative examination of the place of violence and vulnerability in Beauvoir’s ethics. While Marso and Bergoffen focus on the effects of violence and human vulnerability to violence, Hengehold emphasises Beauvoir’s acknowledgement of our vulnerability to committing violence. Bergoffen’s text, with its discussion of rape, prostitution and race is an especially interesting chapter for its extensive scope and largely sensitive analysis. Hengehold’s is also notable for the way she presents Beauvoir as a counterpoint to the focus on vulnerability in recent feminist and queer ethics such as that of Judith Butler.  It is also worth mentioning that other contributions, such as those from Vintges and Collins, contain thorough discussions of aspects of Beauvoir’s ethical and political theory.

Writing

Finally, a number of essays deal with Beauvoir’s approach to writing and her considerable body of fiction and life writing. In an enlightening discussion of literary techniques and the history of the novel, Meryl Altman argues that Beauvoir must be recognised as an important novelist with a specific literary approach designed to convey lived experience, one which she employed even in parts of The Second Sex. Sally Scholz adds to this with her discussion of Beauvoir’s idea of the metaphysical novel as disclosing lived experience rather than delivering a message. Anne van Leeuwen and Shannon Mussett complement these pieces with analyses of Beauvoir’s novels for insights about ethical relationships and the difficulties of achieving authentic subjectivity.

In addition, Ursula Tidd’s contribution provides an excellent discussion of Beauvoir’s extensive collection of many varieties of life writing, arguing that Beauvoir displays a sensitivity to the way histories and events are co-implicated and use to interpret each other, something she calls “ethical witnessing”. Reinforcing Tidd’s point, Michel Kail argues that Beauvoir’s understanding of history as situation is an important alternative to dominant Hegelian and Marxist understandings of history as mechanistic, naturalistic or essentialist. We can also cite here Margaret Simons’ reflection on the way Beauvoir’s life writings sometimes conflict with each other, and William McBride’s recognition of Beauvoir as a sensitive and astute witness of mid-twentieth century cultures.

Concluding Remarks

The essays in the Companion cover a vast swathe of topics in contemporary feminist theory and Beauvoir scholarship. As mentioned earlier, the main drawback of the collection is that the arrangement of chapters sometimes seems arbitrary and often obscures connections and debates occurring between the various contributions. Hopefully this review amends some of this lack. It is also worth noting that there is an extensive index that enables researchers or students looking for particular topics to find their way around the text.

One of the more unique features of the Companion is its inclusion of contributions with diverging views on the same topic. For instance, the chapters discussing Beauvoir’s Hegelianism—including the two by Hutchings and Direk as well as others like Vintges’ and van Leeuwen’s—provide conflicting interpretations of whether Beauvoir took on Kojève’s reading of Hegel. As another example, while Gines, Boni, Collins and Sullivan see Beauvoir as lacking sensitivity to intersectionality (especially concerning the race-gender intersection), Penelope Deutscher qualifies this assessment by arguing that Beauvoir did employ a kind of intersectional analysis with respect to gender, class and age. Such disagreements can be important and productive, and their inclusion in the collection certainly serves to give readers a sense of the lay of the contested fields.

Despite its decidedly wide scope, there are some topics missing from the Companion. It would have been nice to have seen more discussions of ageing, for instance, and of Beauvoir’s phenomenological approach to women’s lived experience. And though the discussion of the reception of Beauvoir in the French context was enlightening, it would have been interesting to have had similar pieces on her reception in other places and times.

The Companion could also have benefited from more chapters that review and respond more directly to the recent literature on certain aspects of Beauvoir’s theory since its rise to prominence in the past thirty years. Some chapters do summarise the past literature: Grosholz surveys the debates about the English translation of The Second Sex, Sullivan gives an excellent review on literature about Beauvoir and race, and the articles on motherhood nicely summarise the field. However, none of the chapters on Beauvoir’s ethics and political philosophy gave a clear overview for the student or researcher wishing to get oriented in the vast amount of literature published on these topics.

That being said, the collection for the most part builds on and extends previous Beauvoir scholarship. Moreover, with its clear documentation of the rising popularity of topics like biology and race, it reinforces Beauvoir’s continuing relevance to current new materialist and intersectional trends in feminist theory and provides new avenues for research employing Beauvoir’s work in relation to current debates. A Companion to Simone de Beauvoir is thus a worthy, indeed essential, addition to any library wishing to stay up to date with Beauvoir scholarship and provides some useful texts for students and researchers alike.

References

Bauer, Nancy. 2006. Beauvoir’s Heideggerian Ontology. In: Margaret Simons (ed.), The Philosophy of Simone de Beauvoir: Critical Essays, pp. 65-91. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Beauvoir, Simone de. 2009. The Second Sex. Trans. Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier. London: Jonathon Cape (also 2010, New York: Alfred A. Knope).

Card, Claudia (ed.). 2003. The Cambridge Companion to Simone de Beauvoir. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Fallaize, Elizabeth (ed.). 1998. Simone de Beauvoir: A critical reader. London: Routledge.

Gothlin, Eva. 2003. Reading Simone de Beauvoir with Martin Heidegger. In: Claudia Card (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Simone de Beauvoir, pp. 45-65. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Grosholz, Emily (ed.). 2004. The Legacy of Simone de Beauvoir. Oxford : Clarendon Press.

Heinämaa, Sara. 2006. Simone de Beauvoir’s Phenomenology of Sexual Difference. In: Margaret Simons (ed.), The Philosophy of Simone de Beauvoir: Critical Essays, pp. 20-41. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Heinämaa, Sara. 2004. “The Soul-Body Union and Sexual Difference from Descartes to Merleau-Ponty and Beauvoir.” In Feminist reflections on the history of philosophy, pp. 137-151. Dordrecht: Springer.

Simons, Margaret (ed.). 2006. The Philosophy of Simone de Beauvoir: Critical Essays. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Simons, Margaret (ed.). 1995. Feminist interpretations of Simone de Beauvoir. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Vintges, Karen. 1995. The second sex and philosophy. In: Margaret Simons (ed.), Feminist interpretations of Simone de Beauvoir, pp. 45-58. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.


[1] In chronological order: Simone de Beauvoir: A critical reader (Fallaize 1998), The Cambridge Companion to Simone de Beauvoir (Card 2003), The Legacy of Simone de Beauvoir (Grosholz 2004), and The Philosophy of Simone de Beauvoir: Critical Essays (Simons 2006).

[2] Useful discussions of these topic can nevertheless be found in earlier work on Beauvoir. On Beauvoir and Heidegger, two examples are Nancy Bauer’s chapter “Beauvoir’s Heideggerian Ontology” (2006) and Eva Gothlin’s “Reading Simone de Beauvoir with Martin Heidegger” (2003). On Beauvoir and Husserl, see Sara Heinämaa “Simone de Beauvoir’s Phenomenology of Sexual Difference” (2006) or Karen Vintges (1995) “The second sex and philosophy,” amongst many others. On Beauvoir and Descartes, see Heinämaa “The Soul-Body Union and Sexual Difference from Descartes to Merleau-Ponty and Beauvoir” (2004).

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