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The Second Sex | Context


Guide to Structure of The Second Sex

The formal qualities of The Second Sex owe a great deal to Maurice Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Perception (1945). In fact, the principles in Phenomenology provide a guide to reading Beauvoir.

As Maurice Merleau-Ponty explains in his text, the field of phenomenology studies

The structures of consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view. The central structure of an experience is its intentionality, its being directed toward something, as it is an experience of or about some object. An experience is directed toward an object by virtue of its content or meaning (which represents the object) together with enabling conditions.

Beauvoir evaluates the problem of the subordination of women according to Merleau-Ponty. She employs a phenomenological analysis to the general problem and the overall structure of The Second Sex, and, similarly, she applies the same principles to each individual section. In that sense, Phenomenology's basic principles serve as an outline for the entire work as well as a structural guide to the arrangements of the argument of each chapter.

Merleau-Ponty approaches these principles of a phenomenological approach in several ways.

  • First is "the realist or empiricist approach to a particular dimension of experience." For example, in The Second Sex, the historical details of the conditions of women's subordination characterize the empirical approach. The survey of the traumas of the girl's sexual initiation versus that of the boy's is another part of the realist account.
  • Second is an "idealist or intellectualist alternative" to the first approach. In Beauvoir's opinion, a Marxist analysis of the details of sex difference as a determining factor in women's subordination and an economic solution that would affect not just the marketplace but ordinary life, in general, represents an idealist approach. Psychoanalytic approaches to sex difference represent an "intellectualist alternative.
  • The third approach deals with the problem common to the first two approaches, namely, "the prejudice that the objective world exists as a ready-made and fully present reality." In The Second Sex, evidence from the past and scientific accounts, i.e., archaeological artifacts and scientific research, are useful, and Beauvoir presents primary research in several parts of her argument. In Chapter 1, "Biological Data," for example, she cites the scientific account of multiplication in one-celled animals. Also, and key to the problem of the objective world argument in opting for the phenomenological approach, she expands the notion of "intentionality" by pushing her accounts of each aspect of her argument—Part One: Destiny; Part Two: History; etc. She does this by employing narratives based in "the structure of various types of experience ranging from perception, thought, memory, imagination, emotion, desire, and volition to bodily awareness, embodied action, and social activity." This argument, while not directly responding to the prejudice, presents an expansive point of view demonstrating at best our individual human resources with optimal accounts of just how much we can know about an object or an experience.
  • And finally, Beauvoir, in her departure from Sartre's existentialism, expands the notion of intentionality by marking not only the individual point of view but a reciprocal account from an Other. This principal and telling difference between Sartre's existentialism and Beauvoir's starts in her recognition of potential for an ethical universe beginning in the relation between Self and Other. She sees the Other as necessary to the subject's freedom, while Sartre posits the Other as a threat to his subjectivity, to his freedom. For Sartre's sovereign subject, the Other is oppositional. For Beauvoir, the relation of Self and Other is reciprocal, relative. This ethic, set out in Beauvoir's earliest philosophical essay, Pyrrhus and Cineas, is the very beginning of what she posits in The Second Sex as basic to the alterity of sex difference—and key to reconciliation of the sexes.

Each chapter of The Second Sex is structured according to the principles named above. Since the objective world is not ready-made, the third way leaves space for the consciousness of the commentator—and the reader—as a valid component of a present reality. In the text, Beauvoir's direct and personal commentary (she often refers to "we" and "us") that closes most sections, and addresses each reader, is part of the world she investigates. This engaging structure provides guidance for the uninitiated reader.

Reading The Second Sex

Reciprocity, a term Beauvoir learned from German philosopher Edmund Husserl, implicates the reader as well as the writer. Husserl views reciprocity as necessary for "relating to the other: to see the other requires that you see him/her as seeing." In other words, both "self" and an "other" are subjects. For Beauvoir, "true alterity is that of a consciousness separate from mine and identical with mine." True alterity for the student of Beauvoir offers the opportunity to engage the difficulties, as well as the lightheartedness of the text without fear. In such a text, the reader is not an alienated other, but a co-conspirator, a subject, a maker of the moment.

French Intellectuals

Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir

Intellectuals in France have traditionally played key roles in public life. As described by Sudhir Hazareesingh in a Politico article called "The Decline of the French Intellectual," they are "expected to provide moral guidance about general social and political issues. Indeed, the most eminent French intellectuals are almost sacred figures, who became global symbols of the causes they championed." The decades after World War II (1939–45) were particularly rich in political foment, and chief among the public intellectuals—and revolutionaries—of the time, were Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. They shared disdain for the public institutions—especially, as Hazareesingh notes, "the republican State, the Communist Party, the French colonial regime in Algeria, [and] the university system."

In their 50-plus years of association, Sartre and Beauvoir consistently read and edited each other's work and spread the word. First and foremost, they emphasized the public role of the citizen. Foundational to Beauvoir and Sartre's existentialist philosophy is the sense that in a godless world the duty to protect moral value rests with the individual. Ethical action is the guarantor of citizenship. In Beauvoir's take on existentialism, freedom for the individual lay in bonding with others to incite action. To be human is to rupture individual being through spontaneous projects, to transcend the stubborn inwardness (the immanence) of the individual's (the existent's) life.

Beauvoir's intellectual break with Sartre's existentialism was based on her understanding that the ethic of a free subject, the base of freedom, is derived from the responsibility to consider other free subjects in the world. Passivity is bad faith. In a world without God, the individual must share in ethical acts with others. By contrast, for Sartre, "hell is other people."

Beauvoir and Her Circle

For the French, intellectual life with its political imperatives was a given. When Beauvoir placed second to Sartre in the daunting philosophy agrégation, it was well known that Sartre's victory had come on his second try, and after elaborate preparation. Thus, at 21, Beauvoir was known as France's most promising intellectual. Her victory, moreover, gave her access to an intellectual circle that, by late mid-century came to dominate not only French thought, but academic life worldwide. The unique nature of Beauvoir's work and the impact of The Second Sex, in particular, have much to do with her association with the major intellectuals of the period. This is not to say she was merely an accomplished assimilator of others' work, but that foundational to her interdisciplinary courage was not only her prize-winning intellect, but her ability to create a synthesis of materials not conventionally placed side by side.

Beauvoir and Feminism

In an earlier era, the author of The Second Sex might have been called male-identified. Beauvoir's father was the first to provide her with books, and many of the intellectual men who were initially classmates and then collaborators in the vivid intellectual life of post-war France provided intellectual models and methodologies that have dominated 20th-century academic life across many disciplines. With the publication of The Second Sex and her subsequent activism in the feminist movement, Beauvoir found herself amidst an international community of brilliant and determined women.

Second wave feminism is the feminism that asserted itself alongside the liberation movements of the 1960s. It begins to a great degree with the notion of female difference: Women's affiliative tendencies, not necessarily beginning with motherhood, but rooted in a natural response to the woman's distinctive patterns of development and her lifelong economic dependency. Beauvoir's contribution does not necessarily contradict the notion of biology as destiny, but instead amends the notion of this destiny through an existential, Marxist, psychoanalytic, and phenomenological consideration of the female body.

Practical application is among the features of second wave feminism. Small groups of women must engage in consciousness raising and the sharing of responses to patriarchy. Women must also address Beauvoir's assertion that women are complicit in their own subordination. Thus, The Second Sex offers both analysis in the notion of an ethics of affiliation, and potential for resolution through such an affiliation.

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