The Second Sex | Study Guide

Simone de Beauvoir

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The Second Sex | Main Ideas


Alterity and Opposition

Man and woman are not opposites, although linguistically, they are constituted as an opposing pair. One might say humanity consists of two kinds of individuals, and the relation between them is just the notion of asymmetrical differences—or alterity. The human infant's first recognition of the boundaries of his body, and his separateness from other bodies and objects in his world, is characterized by the British analyst D.W. Winnicott as "me" and "not-me." In other words, the earliest trope of cognition recognizes difference. For the infant this difference can be as great as his body and the string of pearls he has often grasped when feeding. "Not-me" may be a foul odor or the sweet scent of a mother's fragrance. If a person is essential, the other is the negative of that person. Beauvoir follows the German philosopher Hegel (1770–1831) when she states, "The subject ... asserts itself as the essential and sets up the other as inessential, as the object." The male, the sovereign subject, operates through opposition.

Alterity and Reciprocity

Alterity is the term for the relation between the sexes, best understood as a cognitive mode, a way of perceiving difference. For example: in a foreign land, a stranger appears, easel under her arm, an artist seeking new vistas. She is a standout at nearly seven feet tall. The locals raise their eyebrows and look away. She is seen not as she is, but as alien, as Other. This response to difference is—in an existential vocabulary—oppositional. Oppositional alterity characterizes male perception. The man sees himself as essential, and the other as non-essential. The initial response is defensive.

If, however, one local is brave enough to wish to dance with the suave foreigner, or, perhaps, he is intrigued by novelty, he must recognize her not as Other but as an individual who both sees him and can be seen. In this scenario, both are sovereign subjects, related by difference and capable of functioning in a reciprocal relation. The picture they present is not a regulation-size male dancing with a towering female, but one of animated conversation, smiles and laughter, and perhaps eventually tears: Self and Self, rather than Self and Other. This alternative relation is relativity, and reciprocity is the functional consequence. The liberated woman, rejecting her otherness, bids for individuation by operating reciprocally.

Transcendence and Immanence

Transcendence is the expansion of the individual toward an open future. The moral subject accomplishes his freedom only by perpetual surpassing towards other freedoms. The moral life consists of a reaching out, a progress toward the good of humankind. Immanence is a turning inward. Beauvoir states that when woman is defined as Other, as a womb or sexual body, "an attempt is made to freeze her as an object, and doom her to immanence." Even the independent woman finds herself divided between her femininity, her potential immanence, and her desire to function as a transcendent human being.

The Dream of a Common Reality

In the conclusion to The Second Sex—"Men and women must ... beyond their natural differentiations, unequivocally affirm their brotherhood"—two words stand out: differentiations and brotherhood. The first is a transcendent process, the act of sorting out differences, holding them in one's hand, and examining them. Beauvoir's history and biology of women has clearly done the sorting, and with the sorting she has provided an understanding, an appreciation for the act of respecting difference rather than reading it as oppositional. The second word, brotherhood, reveals that in a world of appreciation for difference, in acceptance of difference, self and other dissipate. What takes their place is self and self, two sovereign selves in which biological sex is no longer the determining factor of a relationship. In such a world, alterity is a richness, and leads to potential for exchange, a community of sovereign selves, and a brotherhood of individual human beings.

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