‘Existentialism’ has long been held as a concept of contention. It has been used as a buzzword for bleakness, and a synonym for pessimism. Despite its misuse within popular culture, it has also been employed as an umbrella term to denote a philosophical movement. The conflation of this concept has led to a legacy of confusion regarding precisely that which constitutes existential thought, and who ought to be considered as an existentialist. Even much of the secondary literature has failed to provide a comprehensive definition of ‘existentialism’. Instead, we are often offered a constitutive list of themes which ‘existentialists’ supposedly share in common, such as nihilism, absurdity, and authenticity. It is precisely this linguistic ambiguity that causes Jonathan Webber to rethink existentialism, and that which he sets about dispelling. In the first chapter, he begins by discarding the outdated interpretations which actively incorporate non-philosophers, and those who rejected this label. Instead, Webber offers a carefully considered account, defining existentialism in accordance with the Sartrean maxim ‘existence precedes essence’. It is from this standpoint that Webber takes the reader on a journey of rethinking ‘existentialism’.
Webber begins to clear the confusion by demonstrating why the label ‘existentialist’ should not be applied to certain associated thinkers. In the second chapter, Webber addresses the misattribution of Camus to the inner circle. Here it is illustrated that Camus rejects the central tenants of existentialism, and that the disagreement between Sartre and Camus is a consequence of their subsequent philosophical stances. Another thinker who was initially associated with existentialism, but whom Webber demonstrates to be on the periphery, is Maurice Merleau-Ponty. In chapter three, Webber depicts Merleau-Ponty’s divergence in terms of his criticism of Sartre’s concept of radical freedom and Beauvoir’s defence that Merleau-Ponty has misunderstood Sartre. Although Webber does an excellent job of disentangling the intellectual connections between these theorists, one would appreciate further elucidation as to why additional thinkers ought to be excluded. Whilst Webber focused his attention on the development of existentialism in post-war France, there are two further thinkers who could have been addressed. Gabriel Marcel, for example, released his Philosophy of Existentialism in 1946, and Jacques Maritain published his Existence and Existent in 1947. As contemporaries of Sartre and self-proclaimed existentialists (at least initially) it would be interesting to see how they fit into Webber’s narrative.
In the positive phase of his project, Webber sets about determining who ought to be included. Until recently, Simone de Beauvoir has been believed to be without philosophical merit. The reason for overlooking her intellectual prowess is often attributed to her own rejection of the label ‘philosopher’ and referral to Sartre as the brains behind their project. Webber takes this to task in chapter four, where he demonstrates that Beauvoir articulates the existential ideal ‘existence precedes essence’ within her metaphysical novel She Came to Stay. Moreover, that the account which Beauvoir presents contains the concept of ‘commitment’ which presents a significant development upon Sartre’s theory of mind. Within chapter eight, a further important, and unexpected, contribution which Webber makes, is to include Frantz Fanon within the existentialist camp. Webber argues that within Black Skin, White Masks Fanon can be seen to ground his theory on the definition of existentialism insofar as he rejects that there is any essential difference between black people and white people. That is, for Fanon the belief that black people are inferior is caused by the sedimentation of a negative cultural representation in the collective consciousness. This is shown to make a significant development from Sartre’s own attempt to explain racial prejudice in terms of bad faith in Anti-Semite and the Jew.
Although Webber defines existentialism in accordance with the maxim ‘existence precedes essence’, he notes that Sartre and Beauvoir initially disagreed upon what this concept entailed. In this way, he maps the development of the definition amongst the advocates themselves. Whilst Sartre is usually considered to be synonymous with existentialism, Webber illustrates that Sartre’s early work is flawed in terms of addressing the problem of absurdity. By tracing the development of Sartre’s thought, Webber shows that Sartre later comes to adopt Beauvoir’s position to reach the mature position where his version of existentialism corresponds to those of Beauvoir and Fanon in terms of their respective concepts of commitment. Having illustrated the various stages in the development of the concept of existentialism, Webber differentiates these forms, which includes Sartre’s early approach, from what he terms the canonical account. Existentialism proper, for Webber, entails that there is no predetermined nature, and that one’s essence is formed through the sedimentation of projects. The canonical accounts of existentialism, according to Webber, are represented by Beauvoir’s Second Sex, Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, and Sartre’s Saint Genet.
The ethical ideal espoused by existentialism is ‘authenticity’ and which is a response to absurdity. Sartre and Fanon are shown to offer eudaimonian arguments for authenticity, which suggests that the desire for authenticity emerges in relation to the realisation that inauthenticity leads to psychological distress. However, Webber notes that Sartre’s and Fanon’s accounts of authenticity fail to sufficiently overcome the issue of absurdity because they cannot address the meta-ethical problem of the grounding of normativity. Although Sartre appears to be at the centre of attention at the beginning of the book, it is Beauvoir who emerges as the hero of absurdity, insofar as she is shown to present the most fully articulated account of authenticity. Beauvoir’s concept of authenticity is shown to be supported by the categorical imperative that we should not value any ends which conflict with the value of human nature. Throughout the text, Webber refers to the ‘virtue of authenticity’, however, he does not explain why we ought to conceive of authenticity as a virtue. It is also difficult to understand the way in which authenticity could be construed as a virtue. If in relation eudaimonia, it does not make sense to refer to authenticity as a virtue because eudaimonia is not a virtue for Aristotle, but the end which the virtues lead to. Again, on the Kantian account, virtues are ends which are also duties, but it is questionable whether a way of life could be considered authentic if we have a duty to live in that particular way. Thus, clarity regarding that which is meant by ‘virtue of authenticity’ would be appreciated in avoiding any such confusion.
Webber makes a number of interesting observations and insights within his book. Whilst existentialism is often thought to be at odds with Freudian psychoanalysis, it is demonstrated that this is not the case. In chapter five, it is argued on the contrary that existentialism in fact falls within the Freudian tradition. Although Freud’s account appeals to innate drives, and the existentialists reject the idea of a predetermined essential-self, Webber illustrates that there is no contradiction, but instead a sustained engagement with Freud in attempting to overcome the Cartesian subject. In chapter six, Webber offers an original interpretation of Sartre’s play No Exit. The standard interpretation is that since ‘hell is other people’, we ought to prefer our own image of ourselves as opposed to that projected upon us by other people. Webber, however, claims that the real moral of the play is that bad faith inevitably impairs our relations with others. In each of these chapters, Webber offers interesting insights which make original contributions to the literature. However, with regards to the overall aim of defining a canonical account of existentialism, neither of these chapters seem directly related.
In the final chapter, Webber brings his analysis to a close by discussing the future direction of existentialism. In particular, he illustrates the practicality of his canonical account and the impact that it could have upon interdisciplinary exchange. Namely, he portrays what experimental science can learn from a more refined account of existentialism, and that this will enable existential-infused approaches to develop further. Although psychoanalytic approaches which have been built upon Sartre’s concept of radical freedom are subject to the same criticism as Sartre, Webber claims this field could undergo a revival were it to instead be built upon the theory of commitment. Webber also notes that there are further lessons which can be learnt from existentialism. Whilst certain insights have been confirmed by experimental psychology, other claims, such as Fanon’s suggestion that psychiatric problems stem from the internalisation of stereotypes by the victim, remain unexplored. Thus, not only does Webber provides us with an analytically satisfactory account of existentialism, but also demonstrates the benefits possessing a more accurately defined theory.
The current political landscape has been marked by the sustained engagement with race and gender discourse. One can hardly open a newspaper, or read a social media news-feed without encountering a story about gender wage gaps, for example, or racism within first world countries. Whilst much philosophy remains decisively abstract in terms of application, Webber demonstrates how existential philosophers, such as Beauvoir and Fanon, engage with these very issues. In this respect, Rethinking Existentialism is a timely text which demonstrates the contemporary relevance of existential philosophy. Moreover, Webber’s book is lucidly written, and composed in an accessible manner which navigates both the personal relationships between theorists, and the development of their thoughts. Rather than individual sections which trace the trajectory of each theorist’s isolated intellectual development, Webber presents an interwoven account, articulating the development of particular existentialist figures in relation to one another. Whilst other authors confuse and conflate existentialism and existentialists, Webber clears the rubble piled-up and built upon by previous commentators. Webber provides elucidation and a clearing for those with an obscured view of existentialism, and a fresh and coherent perspective for those first approaching the subject. In this way, Webber’s Rethinking Existentialism is not only essential reading for anyone interested in existentialism, but the only book one needs.
As conventionally posed, the problem of other minds concerns how, given that we can only observe the outward behavior of others, we can identify them as persons, as possessing minds. In phenomenology, this question more often takes the form, “How can we perceive others?” In other words, how can others figure as contents of our perception. Susan Bredlau’s new book, The Other in Perception, takes up not only this challenging question, but moves beyond it to ask how others become part of the very form of perception. The result is a helpful, insightful, and comprehensive treatment of our perceptual engagement with others.
Bredlau takes a phenomenological approach to the perception of others, i.e., she is concerned with describing the experience of others, both as contents of experience and as constituents of the very act of experiencing. Specifically, she aims to describe the role of others in perceptual experience, or more generally, in our embodied and pre-intellectual engagement with the world. Bredlau undertakes the project of describing this experience using the work of Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, and John Russon as her principal resources. Besides these three, Bredlau draws on a variety of other sources, including developmental psychology, Hegel, and de Beauvoir, to present a distinctive and insightful account of intersubjectivity.
Bredlau examines the role of the other in perception over the course of four chapters. The first explains the phenomenological framework Bredlau uses to analyze intersubjectivity. The second presents Bredlau’s phenomenology of interpersonal life, rooted in Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, and Russon. The third considers the formation of interpersonal life in childhood. The fourth analyzes the phenomenon of sexuality in order to provide insight into the nature and norms of interpersonal life generally. This leads Bredlau, in conclusion, to a reflection on the ethical dimension of the perception of others.
Bredlau’s first chapter provides the phenomenological account of perception she will use to analyze interpersonal life. This explanation involves three main parts. First, Bredlau introduces Husserl’s notion of intentionality, and explains some essential features of perceptual intentionality: its foreground-background and horizon structures. In doing so, Bredlau aims to establish the phenomenological account of the perception of things not as mental representations, but – to use Merleau-Ponty’s terms – in terms of there being for-us an in-itself. Second, Bredlau explains the embodied dimension of perception as described by Merleau-Ponty, arguing the embodied nature of perceptual experience is constitutive of its meaning and form. Drawing on Heidegger, she makes this point by noting that the meaning the world takes on for us is fundamentally rooted in practical rather than theoretical activity. Our practical engagement with the world, though, is shaped by the lived sense of one’s body as a capacity for such engagement, what Merleau-Ponty calls the “body schema.” Bredlau then turns to Russon’s concept of polytempoprality to show that every perceptual meaning is informed by a larger contextual meaning. The idea is that just as the distinct layers of a piece of music – its rhythm, harmony, and melody – fit together in a complex temporality which informs the meaning of each particular sound, so each of our isolated experiences is informed by the complex temporality of our lives. Each of our experiences, then, is embedded in a set of background meanings often not readily apparent to us.
Chapter 2 turns to the phenomenology of experiencing others. First, Bredlau confronts the problem of other minds – the problem of how we can perceive others as minds, given that mind is not outwardly observable. Bredlau argues that widespread psychological answers to this question – such as the “simulation theory” and “theory theory” – are phenomenologically inadequate. A careful description of experience reveals that we can in fact experience others as subjects, albeit as subjects engaged in a shared natural and cultural world, rather than as detached minds. Here too, Bredlau draws on Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, and Russon. From Husserl, Bredlau draws the notion of a “pairing” relation, as an account of how I experience the other not just as a body distinct from mine, but as a perceiver. In Bredlau’s terms, this entails not just perceiving the other as within a world oriented around me, but perceiving the world as oriented around the other. With Merleau-Ponty, Bredlau emphasizes that the perception of others is not primarily a cognitive theoretical activity, but practical and embodied: there is a bodily pairing between two perceivers that Bredlau describes as a “shared body schema.” Thus, when I perceive an object, I perceive it as perceivable not just for me, but for any perceiver, such that we experience the world as jointly – and not just individually – significant. In this sense, even though my experience of an object is not identical with the experience had by another, neither are they wholly cut off from each other, since they both participate in a shared world. With Russon, Bredlau moves beyond the problem of other minds to argue that others are not just part of the content of perception, but part of its very form. If each of our particular experiences is shaped by a meaningful context, surely one of the most significant such contexts is our relations with others. A child’s relation to their parents, for example, informs the way they approach their future relationships. Following Russon, Bredlau demonstrates this point through an analysis of neurosis. Bredlau argues that neuroses are best understood as cases in which habitual modes of taking up relationships (i.e., the meaningful context) conflict with the demands of one’s personal life. Much like Merleau-Ponty’s phantom limb example, neuroses show how our relationships are sustained by habitual modes of relating to others that can nourish or sap one’s present projects.
Having presented this phenomenological framework, in Chapter 3 Bredlau confirms it through the example of the child’s relations with others. For Bredlau, the child’s interpersonal life is a matter of the institution or Stiftung, in Husserl’s terms, of “the form of a meaningful world” (45), and as presenting a fundamental form of our relations with others, childhood offers special insight into our relations with others. Bredlau’s central claim in this chapter is that even very young children perceive others not just as things within the world, but as perceivers, sources of meaning. Bredlau introduces this claim by drawing on Merleau-Ponty’s example of playfully pretending to bite a fifteen-month old’s finger, to which the child responds by opening its mouth, as if imitating Merleau-Ponty. This example illustrates that infants recognize and are able to adopt others’ modes of behavior – not through some sort of reasoning by analogy (an infant would be unable to recognize the similarity between her outward appearance and the outward appearance of the other, given that very young children cannot recognize themselves in a mirror), but by directly perceiving the other’s behavior as intentional. Bredlau draws our attention to an overlooked feature of this passage: that the child mirrors not only Merleau-Ponty’s action, but seemingly the very moodedness of his behavior, as playful. This indicates that the child is able to perceive the world as it has become meaningful to Merleau-Ponty through this mood, i.e., as a place for play. Thus, the child already perceives Merleau-Ponty, then, not just as an object, but as “expressing a meaningful perspective” (48).
In the rest of Chapter 3, Bredlau supports this account through an analysis of childhood intersubjectivity. Here, Bredlau largely draws on child psychology, demonstrating how such phenomena as “joint attention” and “mutual gaze” confirm that a pairing relation exists between very young children and their caretakers. Bredlau relies on two main phenomena to make this point. First, she focuses on infants’ capacity to interact playfully with their caretakers. Drawing on the research of Daniel Stern (1977), she argues that this capacity for playfulness, for coordinating behavior with a caretaker, indicates that children perceive their caretakers as perceptive, for if they merely perceived their caretakers as things, they could not play with their caretakers. Second, Bredlau turns to examples of social referencing in slightly older children. For example, she draws on Suzanne Carr’s finding (1975) that children prefer to stay within the gaze of their mother – a behavior which requires that they not merely see their mothers, but see them as perceivers. Bredlau then notes that one of the distinctive features of the child’s pairing relation is that it is one of trust, i.e., one of being initiated into a meaningful world. She draws on Russon’s work to show how a child gains her sense of validity or agency from her relationship with her parents.
Chapter 4 provides a study of sexuality, a facet of interpersonal life of special interest since sexuality offers a uniquely bodily mode of engagement with others; in sexual attraction, we intend the other as a body. But as Bredlau shows, sexuality does not intend the other as a mere body, but rather as an intentional body, i.e., as a bodily subject; sexual desire for the other is, ultimately, desire for the other’s desire. This allows Bredlau, drawing on Hegel’s account of recognition, to argue that what we are ultimately concerned with, in the sexual sphere, is “embodied recognition.” Bredlau makes this point by engaging with de Beauvoir’s distinction between the sexual body as expressive and as passive. The latter points out that while men’s bodies are habituated to expressivity, women’s bodies are not. Ultimately, this disparity undermines erotic desire for both parties, indicating that sexual desire is oriented toward the mutual expressivity and passivity of both bodies. According to Bredlau, sexuality is characterized by what Merleau-Ponty calls reversibility, in which each party is simultaneously touching and touched, expressive and passive. Sexuality is fulfilled when this reversibility is affirmed in mutual recognition, in which the expressivity of one body is not lived as opposed to the expressivity of the other. Sexuality, Bredlau claims, is a case in which “our autonomy is most fully realized only to the extent that the others’ autonomy is also most fully realized” (86). Following Russon, Bredlau illustrates this idea by exploring how the vulnerability entailed by this reversibility can be “betrayed” in numerous ways, e.g., by attempting unilaterally to take control of a sexual situation or denying the shared character of the relation. Ultimately, Bredlau’s claim is that sexuality is characterized then by a sort of normativity – it is normatively oriented toward recognition – which is not the same as normalcy: when authentic, sexuality is a site for free mutual creation, rather than beholden to received notions of normal sexual life.
This claim leads Bredlau to conclude with a reflection on the ethical dimension of this project. In her view, the experience of the other is never value-neutral, but reveals ethical demands.
Bredlau’s work leaves open some questions the reader might want to find addressed in a work concerning these topics. For example, Bredlau does not consider the complications that erotic desire can pose to recognition suggested by phenomenologists like Sartre or, for that matter, Merleau-Ponty (2010, 28-40). Or, in terms of childhood intersubjectivity, it might have been interesting to consider Merleau-Ponty’s claim of a primitive “indistinction” between self and other (1964, 120). Though not exhaustive, Bredlau’s work makes a substantial contribution to the existing literature.
Specifically, in my view, this work achieves three main goods. First, it succeeds in integrating and offering a concise and lucid exposition of Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, and Russon on interpersonal life. There is some room for Bredlau to clarify the relation between these thinkers – for example, it is a question whether Merleau-Ponty would accept Husserl’s description of “pairing” (see, e.g., Carman 2008, 137-140) which for Husserl involves an association between the interior and exterior of myself and the other (see Husserl 1999, §§50-2) that Merleau-Ponty criticizes (Merleau-Ponty 2012, 367-8). Still, Bredlau has succeeded in drawing together these distinct lines of thinking into a single and compelling account.
The second good lies in having provided such a cohesive and convincing exposition of the phenomenology of interpersonal life. Bredlau makes these often difficult concepts more readily available, and contributes an insightful account of interpersonal life that should be valuable to anyone interested in this topic.
Finally, Bredlau’s most original contributions come in her rich and compelling analyses of childhood interpersonal life in Chapter 3 and sexuality in Chapter 4. Her argument in Chapter 3 draws on contemporary psychological findings to substantiate her points about interpersonal life, not only updating the psychology used in Merleau-Ponty’s work, but creatively augmenting the phenomenology of childhood intersubjectivity. Further, her discussion of immanent norms of embodied recognition in sexuality offers an insightful avenue for thinking about the normative dimension of the perceptual experience of others. These analyses are both creative and contribute a great deal of phenomenological weight to the framework Bredlau provides in Chapters 1 and 2.
In sum, Bredlau’s work makes a substantial and engaging contribution to the phenomenology of interpersonal life at the perceptual level.
Carman, Taylor. 2008. Merleau-Ponty. New York, NY: Routledge.
Carr, Suzanne J. 1975. “Mother-Infant Attachment: The Importance of the Mother’s Visual Field.” Child Development, 46, 331-38.
Husserl. 1999. Cartesian Meditations. Translated by Dorion Cairns. Boston, MA: Kluwer Academic Publishers.
Merleau-Ponty. 2010. Institution and Passivity. Translated by Leonard Lawlor and Heath Massey. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.
Merleau-Ponty. 2012. Phenomenology of Perception. Translated by Donald Landes. New York, NY: Routledge.
Merleau-Ponty. 1964. The Primacy of Perception. Edited by James M. Edie. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.
Stern, Daniel. 1977. The First Relationship. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
 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).
 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).
Nietzsche wrote that a philosophy is always the biography of the philosopher. However, a philosophy taken outside of the context of the philosopher’s life can make their ideas seem, at best, un-relatable and, at worst, inaccessible.
In her latest work At the Existentialist Café, Sarah Bakewell revisits the texts that defined her adolescence and adopts this premise, writing, “Ideas are interesting, but people are vastly more so” (p. 326) This feeds into her interest of investigating the lives of the seminal philosophers who re-appropriated German phenomenology into a redefined brand of continental philosophy known as existentialism. In doing so, Bakewell assumes the role of cultural tour guide and frames an ever-vivid and occasionally nostalgic milieu of love affairs, mentorships, rebellions, lifelong partnerships, and the fallings-out of Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone De Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Richard Wright, Edmund Husserl, Jean Genet and other larger-than-life thinkers who defined the thinking and culture of the post-World-War II generation.
In the book’s opening pages, Bakewell encapsulates the depth of her scholarship and biographical pluck by encapsulating the birth of existentialism into a singular point, “near the turn of 1932-3 when three young philosophers were sitting in the Bec-de-Gaz bar on the rue du Montparnasse in Paris, catching up on gossip and drinking the house specialty, apricot cocktails” (p. 1). These burgeoning philosophers included a 27-year-old Sartre, his 25-year-old girlfriend Beauvoir as well as Raymond Aron, an academic colleague of Sartre’s who was visiting during winter break from his philosophical studies in Berlin.
Suffering from intellectual atrophy in their own careers, Sartre and Beauvoir were interested in the intellectual discoveries Aron had unearthed in Berlin. Aron was only happy to oblige by describing a new brand of philosophy purported by Martin Husserl and refined by Aron’s mentor, Edmund Heidegger. Using vivid prose, Bakewell richly describes the Husserlian word phenomenology,
[Aron] was now telling his friends about a philosophy he had discovered there with the sinuous name of phenomenology—a word so long yet elegantly balanced that, in French as in English, it makes a line of iambic trimester all by itself (p. 2).
Though well-educated in their own right, neither Sartre or Beauvoir found Heidegger’s treatise on phenomenology to be linguistically accessible. However, on this day, in this café, Bakewell describes the moment Sartre and Beauvoir jumped into the phenomenological abyss, arguably spurring the most influential cultural movement of the 20th-century. Speaking directly to Sartre, Aron said, “You see mon petit camarade…if you are a phenomenologist, you can talk about this cocktail and make philosophy out of it!” (p. 3).
Flying in the face of the analytic calculus in which they were formally trained, Beauvoir wrote that, “Sartre turned pale on hearing this” (p. 3). Similarly, Sartre would recall in an interview some 40 years later that moment “knocked me out”, because there was now a treatise for, “doing philosophy that reconnected it with [the] normal, lived experience” (p. 3). In fact, Bakewell’s rendering of just how much Aron piqued Sartre and Beauvoir’s curiosity gives her opening a flavor of France at that time; feverish, yet relaxed.
Ultimately, this new-fangled notion of phenomenology was the ingredient that both young philosophers needed to refine their own theories and a starting point for Bakewell to chronicle how their ideas fuse and infuse the European cultural scene.
Yet, a discussion of phenomenology and existentialism would be incomplete without considering the role of World-War II. Bakewell does this by recounting how even the celebrated minds of philosophy are sometimes thrust into the fray of reality. She illustrates her case with an account of Sartre being held as a German prisoner of war and his anti-climatic escape by making an ophthalmology appointment and leaving unattended, only to never return. Bakewell also parallel’s Sartre’s experience with the measures Beauvoir was taking to survive the rationing of food and other items in Nazi-controlled Paris.
Upon Sartre’s return to France, Bakewell sets the stage to evidence just how much reality can affect even the staunchest of pure practitioners, writing, “Beauvoir was briefly jubilant at seeing Sartre, then frankly pissed off by the way he began passing judgement on everything she had been doing to survive” (p. 143). Sartre’s confrontation with Beauvoir regarding her philosophical compromises would ultimately cause both philosophers to make an introspective inquiry as to how existentialism should now be defined, leading to Sartre’s seminal work Being and Nothingness (1943) and Beauvoir’s feminist treatise The Second Sex (1949).
Combined, these examples are the formative means that Bakewell uses to frame the case that phenomenology and existentialism are more than just a couple of philosophical theories. Rather, they are rather formative notions of the nature of living, suffused with the real experiences and personal sufferings of those who developed the ideas and lived their lives according to their dictates.
Early-on, Bakewell acknowledges the influence existentialism welded on her adolescent years and acknowledges the cherished the role it serves in her life today. She writes, “when reading Sartre on freedom, Beauvoir on the subtle mechanisms of oppression, Kierkegaard on anxiety, Albert Camus on rebellion, Heidegger on technology and Merleau-Ponty on cognitive science, one sometimes feels one is reading the latest news” (pp. 28-29). This is why Sartre, Heidegger, and especially Beauvoir would likely approve of Bakewell’s approach to telling the story of existentialism. As a storyteller, she reconnects their lived experiences with their contribution to the development of existentialism as a philosophy. She also pervades her storytelling with the mark of her own interdisciplinary education and experiences.
Born in England and raised in Australia, Bakewell is a polymath and self-reformed academic. She read philosophy at the University of Essex and eventually took a postgraduate degree in Artificial Intelligence. Professionally, she has worked as a factory worker on a tea-bag assembly-line, bookshop attendant, library cataloguer, and is now an award-winning full-time author and professor of Creative Writing at Kellogg College, Oxford, UK. These experiences have influenced Bakewell’s biographical style, giving rise to her willingness to ground the high-brow, biographical tone of her characters to their own story, while also intertwining her own lived experiences.
At the Existentialist Café offers a nostalgic and introspective look at the birth and development of pure existentialism through the eyes of the most notable philosophers of the movement and the author, whose experience with the philosophy provides grounded clarity. The book is also a refreshing glance at the mid-twentieth century ideas that led to the post-modern and deconstructionist philosophies that we continue to refine. Ms. Bakewell’s method of storytelling exudes a personal sense that is neither overreaching nor overtly critical. It is seemingly the result of a conversation between her, a historian, a philosopher, and a cultural critic, all draining Apricot cocktails along a bustling Parisian street, while reminiscing on an earlier period forgotten by most, remembered by some, but loved by all.