by Andrew Millar
In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir critically revises Sartre’s existential relations with the other to posit a thesis of Woman as Other.[i] Beauvoir argues that Woman is relegated to the position of a perpetual Other to Man’s absolute Subject. In this essay, I will argue that Beauvoir’s adoption of the Hegelian master-slave dialectic to revise Sartrean ontology is an essential amendment to existentialist notions of the other. Specifically, Beauvoir’s introduction of the concept of oppression as an external force influencing notions of otherness works to centre lived sexual experience in her ontology. I will also argue that Beauvoir offers a solution to a conception of otherness based on conflict; through her project of ‘authentic love’ she privileges a dialectic of subject-object reciprocity between subjects in the hopes to return to a human ‘togetherness’.
In tracing Beauvoir’s conception of Woman as Other, it is helpful to consider how this opposes and revises Sartre’s notion of the other. For Sartre, all relations with the other are rooted in conflict.[ii] Sartre conceives of the other as any free consciousness whose existence threatens to undo a subject’s status as subject-being and to instead relegate their status to object-being. Sartre terms this dynamic ‘being-for-others’; a liminal mode of being whereby a subject—the free consciousness of every being—may suddenly be made aware of their status as an object for the other. This engenders a conflict that must be resolved as the subject retains an awareness of their status as a subject for themselves.[iii] This dynamic of otherness as inherently conflictual draws from Hegel’s work on the master-slave dialectic.[iv] Hegel argues that a being exists for and through its possibility of being recognised as a being by another self-conscious being.[v] For Hegel, Sartre, and Beauvoir, consciousness has a fundamental tendency to oppose. As Beauvoir notes “[the subject] asserts itself as essential and sets up the other as inessential, as the object.”[vi] Beauvoir engages with Hegel’s ontology of the essentiality of otherness and alterity to asserting subjectivity, and the seeming inevitability of this assertion being rooted in conflict.[vii]
Where Sartre positions this relational conflict with others as universal—and by implication, experienced equally by men and women—Beauvoir revises this notion to include the lived sexual experience of women. She argues that Woman is always positioned as the inessential; as a perpetual absolute Other in relation to Man’s absolute Subject. Beauvoir claims that the wide-ranging discriminations of Woman’s situation—social, economic, sexual—are so pervasively exercised on and internalised within women that the consequences of these discriminations appear (to men) as though they “spring from an original nature.”[viii] Beauvoir highlights that a failure to understand lived sexual experience aids in perpetuating Woman as Other, making it seem as though her otherness is born out of an inherent feminine nature and not from the myriad oppressive social, economic, and sexual structures in a patriarchal society. Beauvoir again diverges from Sartre’s ontology by taking Hegel’s dialectic of conflict as a “truth of lived experience”,[ix] rather than merely an abstraction in the manner of Sartre.
Existentialist ethics also posits that while every subject positions itself as a subject ‘for-itself’ and aims towards transcendence, it is possible for the subject to lapse into and consent to objectification (immanence) as an other ‘in-itself’.[x] Beauvoir creates a distinction within this Sartrean ontology by introducing the concept of oppression as a force that subjects women to this immanence and otherness. By doing so, Beauvoir centres the historicity and lived experience of women in her ontology.[xi] Beauvoir thus reaches a complex juncture; Woman, like all autonomous beings, can consent to a degradation of the for-itself into the in-itself, and yet, this same degradation can be inflicted on her through oppression. By virtue of this fact, Beauvoir asserts that Woman may, in discovering “a world where men force her to assume herself as Other,”[xii] internalise her otherness and, in a world where otherness is inflicted as oppression, lack the necessary resources to claim her status as subject. For Beauvoir, Woman’s situation is therefore inherently hostile towards her attempts to assert her subjectivity.
Crucially, though, Beauvoir does not—in the manner of Hegel or Sartre—believe that this struggle for subjectivity is doomed to conflict, as she notes “we will see the difficulties women are up against just when […] they seek to be part of the human Mitsein.”[xiii] Mitsein is a term borrowed from Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time and translates to ‘being-with’, which is an essential mode of Being.[xiv] For Heidegger, Dasein is the unique being belonging to human beings who are ‘in-the-world,’ but importantly, in a world that is always shared with others in a Mitsein.[xv] Sartre fundamentally rejects Heidegger’s Mitsein, claiming that the basis on which a relationship with the other is founded lies not in a ‘being-with’ of togetherness, but in conflict.[xvi] Mitsein for Beauvoir, however, represents a return to the original meaning of self-other relations as one being rooted in a human ‘togetherness’ of reciprocal intersubjectivity. This notion of Mitsein is absolutely essential to understanding Beauvoir’s project of authentic love, and it is in this project that Beauvoir breaks free of the Hegelian dialectic of conflict that positions Woman as the perpetual Other.[xvii]
Beauvoir condemns the notion of romantic love as one that infantilises women and results in their totally embracing their otherness, rejecting their selfhood and transcendence in a way that fixes them in a perpetual object-like state of dependence.[xviii] She instead foregrounds the significance of authentic love, ultimately rejecting Sartre’s view of relations with the other as innately conflictual. For Beauvoir, authentic love represents a recognition of two selves in a dialectic of friendship and generosity; a love that promotes a reciprocal relationship between subjects who exist simultaneously as both subject and object for each other.[xix] This paradoxical simultaneity is pivotal for Beauvoir, who acknowledges that otherness is fundamental to consciousness, but rejects the notion that other-as-object is the only mode in which another being is encountered. Instead, it is only through the recognising of another as both a subject and an object—a self and an other—that this Hegelian dialectic of conflict can be dissolved.[xx] The ambiguity of an individual self’s relation between their status as a subject and an object is expanded to include their relations with all other selves.[xxi] Beauvoir notes that when this authenticity of relations with the other is achieved, it will be possible for Woman to love as Man loves; in a reciprocal relationship between subject and object where neither party threatens to limit the other’s freedom by reducing them to an object, nor do they enslave their own subjectivity to the other by worshipping them as absolute Subject.[xxii] Authentic love, then, is a way to return to the “human Mitsein” and foreground relations of intersubjectivity.
Moira Gatens has criticised Beauvoir, claiming that her resolution to Woman as Other is predicated on a disavowing of femininity and the female body, in essence breaking the link between Woman, her body, and femininity.[xxiii] In re-joining a human Mitsein, Gatens believes that Beauvoir argues for an erasure of Woman’s essential sexual difference from Man in order to achieve a platform of equality, and yet the same is not asked of Man. Luce Irigaray posits a similar concern with Beauvoir and the notion of ‘equality’ between the sexes.[xxiv] For Irigaray, the subjugation of Woman has been predicated upon her sexual difference and can only be resolved through an acknowledgement and re-thinking of this difference. These are valid criticisms and merit discussion, however, I do not believe that Beauvoir’s concept of authentic love is incompatible with an incorporation of recognising sexual difference, as Irigaray outlines a similar project of reciprocity between subjects in her essay “I Love To You”.[xxv] Irigaray specifically gestures towards a re-figuring of the language used in describing interpersonal relations, by replacing “I Love You” with “I Love To You,” the “To” in this case being what Irigaray terms “the guarantor of indirection”.[xxvi] Irigaray diverges in this sense from Beauvoir in that the non-relationality or indirection of this “To” is designed specifically to protect the subject’s reduction to object in intersubjective relations.[xxvii] However, the general outline for intersubjective relations that Irigaray outlines is one that foregrounds a reciprocity and mutuality between subjects in a kind of authentic relationality that does not imprison or reduce the other. I believe that a re-configuring of the concept of authentic love to include the presence of sexual difference would strengthen—but not dramatically alter—the fundamental tenets of Beauvoir’s theory. By including the presence of sexual difference, Beauvoir’s concept of authentic love would arguably still foreground the importance of a mutual recognition of subject-object in relations between men and women as a way to work towards a Mitsein of being-with-others.[xxviii]
For Beauvoir, Woman is assigned the status of a perpetual other for Man rather than existing in a reciprocal self-other dynamic between the sexes. The perpetual status of Other for Woman finds its genesis in a complex interaction between a willing consent to the degradation of self and an inflicting of this otherness in the form of oppression under patriarchal structures.[xxix] This destructive cycle of conflictual relations with the other is rooted in a Hegelian dialectic that Beauvoir employs to demonstrate a fundamental tendency to opposition in consciousness. But significantly, Beauvoir forges a way out of this dialectic of conflict towards one of reciprocity and generosity. Through authentic love it becomes possible for Woman (and Man) to reconcile the coexistence of a simultaneous subject-object relationship between subjects, such that the fate of the other lies not in conflict but in Mitsein.
Andrew is an English literature and philosophy student who loves to read widely. He is interested in the various intersections of literature, philosophy, and literary theory. Phenomenology and existentialism are his particular areas of interest, in addition to modernist and postmodernist literature.
[i] Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, trans. Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier (London: Vintage, 2011), 7.
[ii] Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, trans. Hazel E. Barnes (New York: Washington Square Press, 1996), 490.
[iii] Sartre, Being and Nothingness, 349.
[iv] Sartre however attempts to distance himself from the Hegelian dialectic in that he sees his concept of being-for-others as derivative of his concept of being-for-itself. This contrasts with Hegel who posits that the Master-Slave dialectic is not merely an interaction between self-other but a self-self relation, such that a Master recognises himself via the Slave’s consciousness. The Slave then does not ‘know’ the Master (in order to ‘fix’ their being) so much as they allow the Master to ‘know’ themselves.
[v] G.W.F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. John Dobbins and Peter Fuss (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2019), 92.
[vi] Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 7.
[vii] Beauvoir, importantly, does not seem to share Hegel or Sartre’s belief that this relationality of otherness is fated to conflict, as I will expand on further in her project of Authentic Love and discussion of Heidegger’s Mitsein.
[viii] Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 15.
[ix] Debbie Evans, “Sartre and Beauvoir on Hegel’s Master-Slave Dialectic and the Question of the ‘Look,’” in Beauvoir and Sartre: The Riddle of Influence (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009), 106.
[x] Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 15.
[xi] Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 17.
[xii] Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 17.
[xiii] Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 17.
[xiv] Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1962), 149.
[xv] Heidegger, Being and Time, 155.
[xvi] Evans, Beauvoir and Sartre: The Riddle of Influence, 108.
[xvii] Evans notes however that Beauvoir’s conception of Mitsein is an idealised one, since Dasein for Heidegger is distinguished in death as its “ownmost possibility,” such that one’s own death cannot be shared. Thus, a non-relationality is the utmost potential for Dasein. Mitsein does not then inherently imply a ‘togetherness’ of reciprocal friendship due to Dasein’s non-relationality, however Beauvoir clearly reformulates Mitsein in her ontology to foreground this togetherness through authentic love.
[xviii] Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 707.
[xix] Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 723.
[xx] Simone de Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity, trans. Bernard Frechtman (Secaucus: Citadel Press, 1948), 67.
[xxi] Gail Weiss, “Beauvoir and Merleau-Ponty: Philosophers of Ambiguity,” in Beauvoir and Western Thought from Plato to Butler (New York: State University of New York Press, 2012), 179.
[xxii] Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 725.
[xxiii] Moira Gatens, “Woman as the Other,” in Feminism and Philosophy: Perspectives on Difference and Equality (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991), 57.
[xxiv] Luce Irigaray, “Equal or Different?” trans. David Macey, in The Irigaray Reader (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1991), 32.
[xxv] Luce Irigaray, “I Love To You,” trans. Alison Martin, in I Love To You: Sketch of a Possible Felicity in History (New York: Routledge, 1996), 111.
[xxvi] Irigaray, I Love To You: Sketch of a Possible Felicity in History, 109.
[xxvii] Irigaray, I Love To You: Sketch of a Possible Felicity in History, 111.
[xxviii] Or, perhaps more appropriately, a ‘being-to-others’.
[xxix] Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 15.
de Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex. Translated by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier. London: Vintage, 2011.
de Beauvoir, Simone. The Ethics of Ambiguity. Translated by Bernard Frechtman. Secaucus: Citadel Press, 1948.
Evans, Debbie. “Sartre and Beauvoir on Hegel’s Master-Slave Dialectic and the Question of the ‘Look.’” In Beauvoir and Sartre: The Riddle of Influence, edited by Christine Daigle and Jacob Golomb, 90-115. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009.
Gatens, Moira. “Woman as The Other.” In Feminism and Philosophy: Perspectives on Difference and Equality, 48-59. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991.
Hegel, G.W.F. The Phenomenology of Spirit. Translated by John Dobbins and Peter Fuss. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2019.
Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1962.
Irigaray, Luce. “Equal or Different?” Translated by David Macey. In The Irigaray Reader, edited by Margaret Whitford, 29-33. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1991.
Irigaray, Luce. “I Love To You.” Translated by Alison Martin. In I Love To You: Sketch of a Possible Felicity in History, 109-113. New York: Routledge, 1996.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes. New York: Washington Square Press, 1992.
Weiss, Gail. “Beauvoir and Merleau-Ponty: Philosophers of Ambiguity.” In Beauvoir in Western Thought from Plato to Butler, 171-189. New York: State University of New York Press, 2012.