How did Sartre and Beauvoir explain the philosophy of existentialism?

Did Simone de Beauvoir improve on Sartre’s views?

Jean Paul Sartre (1905-1980) was the leading light in the philosophy of existence known as existentialism, and an award winning author. Together with Simone de Beauvoir (1908—1986) – herself a  preeminent French existentialist philosopher and writer – he would hang out in Parisean Cafes in the 1940’s with other intellectuals discussing existentialist ideas.

In assessing Simone de Beauvoir’s philosophical departures from Jean-Paul Sartre’s version of existentialism it will be be necessary to briefly set out the central tenets of existentialism on which they both concur, before highlighting the points where Beauvoir departs from Sartre’s views. These departures can then be considered as either additions, oppositions, or enhancements (by way of further explanation or simplification). It will then be possible to argue whether these differences are improvements in philosophical terms.

The major precepts of existentialism, in so far as areas on which both philosophers agreed, can be summarised as: the construct that for human beings existence precedes essence, humans have complete freedom which comes with the burden of responsibility, human existence is essentially absurd without pre-defined meaning, one should live a life of authenticity (to not do so leads to “bad faith”), and people who are not us are “other”.

The first postulate that existence precedes essence is not entirely novel in philosophical terms, as English philosopher John Locke (1632 – 1704) had stated that humans were born with a “tabula rasa” (blank slate) to be written on by ourselves. Sartre proposed that every day objects, such as pens, had an essence before they existed, so far as they were designed before they were made. In Sartre’s godless world there is no human creator of humanity and he asserts “Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself. That is the first principle of existentialism.”

Sartre came down firmly on the side of nurture in the well established “nature versus nurture” argument, insisting we are completely self made and we always have choice. Sartre believed that as we have unbridled freedom of choice in all decisions effecting our lives, and we must accept complete responsibility for our actions. Furthermore, he dismissed the importance of the background tapestry of our environmental, cultural and even familial circumstances on to which we weave our life story, proposing we are inherently at liberty to choose who (or what) we want to be. The price of this freedom, however, is that there can be no excuses for the outcomes of our actions.

Sartre used the term “authenticity” to give practicality, or real life meaning, to the act of truly living free, as freedom for existentialists might be considered as a solely cerebral activity, whereas freedom of thought leads to freedom of action hence invoking the burden of individual responsibility. So to be our true authentic selves is a duty, but it may lead to ‘existential angst’ upon the realisation that unfavourable outcomes of chosen actions make us culpable for those decisions. Against an atheist backdrop, we are alone in our own reality, which is unique to, and created by, ourselves. There is no succour from the cosmos, as each other person is also an individual with their own constructed version of reality. Thus living authentically means accepting that freedom is inseparable from the responsibility of thought, action and consequence.

When Sartre talked about “bad faith”, he extended his argument on authenticity surmising that not following the rules of self-governance and personal responsibility would be living a false life. To deny one’s ownership of decisions and responsibility, or to blame external circumstances is to live a life of bad faith, as is knowingly allowing others to decide for us, in other words accepting complicity to the norm.

Of the topics of existentialism on which Sartre and Beauvoir agree, perhaps the greatest area of divergence is around the concept of “other”. Sartre believed that with obligation of personal freedom comes the consequence of affecting other individual’s freedom in that those individuals become objects or “other”. This deduction is supported by envisaging how the other would necessarily see themselves as an object, this reality causes a paradox as they too are free. Therefore, the freedom of others limits our own freedom condemning us not to be free. This is a two way street – whilst one may seek to limit the freedom of others by making them in to objects, others deny our freedom by objectifying us.

Moving on to areas of philosophical departure, Beauvoir departed marginally from Sartre’s first principle of existentialism that “man” has no pre-existing essence of a human being and thus has a void in terms of fixed nature. Whilst Beauvoir agreed women do not have a fixed nature, hence there cannot exist “essence of woman”, she questioned if there was an equal magnitude of environmental pressures of nurture between the genders. She argues famously ‘One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman’. This is important because, unlike Sartre, Beauvoir centred on gender, whereas when Sartre used the term “man” one is left to conclude that the noun is used in an asexual sense and implies the noun “human”. So in Beauvoir’s view “becoming a woman” is an irresistible imposition, which is inescapable.

For Beauvoir the concept of women’s freedom can be distinguished from Sartre’s on gender lines also. Although Beauvoir accepted that the idea of freedom presents a metaphysical risk, in that in the absence of freedom we can blame our circumstance for outcomes, Beauvoir believed that many women are blind to their true liberty because they are oppressed by their gender’s social standing.

Furthermore, Beauvoir ‘s views on authenticity were those of expansion rather than philosophical counterflow, as she again explored the effect of the female gender on an individual’s ability to embrace freedom of thought and action. Over the notion that freedom was implicit and equal for both sexes, she superimposed the social constraints of a mid-twentieth century western female in terms of inferior opportunities and standing, in such areas as employment, politics, wealth and influence, and the ability to act independently from men. Her belief was that a life of authenticity for the female gender did not allow true freedom to escape from the female stereotypes they persistently portray, because the theatre in which they act is designed by, and perpetuated by, men – the analogy being that it is against the theatre owner’s subconscious interest to redesign a theatre which is consistently bringing him success.

When it comes to Sartre’s view of bad faith, Beauvoir critiqued this by saying ‘Clearly no woman can claim without bad faith to be situated beyond her sex’ and by that she challenged the simplicity of Sartre’s universality approach that all humans are equal, but rather bought into focus the hierarchical standing in the two genders, stating that a woman lives as a woman first and a human being second.

As discussed the concept of other was where we see the most striking departure of Beauvoir from Sartre’s philosophy. Again it relates to gender and Sartre’s assumption of the neutrality of man as a representation of human, Beauvoir considered that if this view were true then women would be seen as other. Beauvoir thought the status quo of elevated male hierarchy is perpetuated by the conflict that women would need to seemingly sacrifice their position as “other” by way of gender and break from their reliance on men. Conversely, Beauvoir did not see that men (being the archetype gender) become other through gender difference in reverse symmetry.

When considering the question as to whether Beauvoir ‘s version of existentialism was an improvement it is necessary to define the term “improve” in this context. In philosophical terms, “improve” could be to extend an argument and to address its relevance; or to make it more lucid in terms of its logic, ethics or mortality. One could question if the departure acknowledges any problems with Sartre’s views.

On the point of the “nature of man” Beauvoir can be seen to improve Sartre’s argument by highlighting the gender element in the development of nurture and therefore the creation of self. In a parallel to Mary Wollstonecraft’s critique of Jean-Paul Rousseau’s “Nature of Man” treatise, where the former had countered the latter’s premise that man (the male) had no pre-defined state whereas the female had pre-existing traits, so too Beauvoir accentuated the disproportionate role of nurture in gender development.

Beauvoir ‘s views on essence and freedom can be viewed as an amplification of Sartre’s views, in that as well as supporting the central tenet, they also challenge the term “man” as being inclusive of both genders. In supporting Sartre’s view that there is no essence of man, she clarifies this argument by stating there is no female essence, thus encompassing gender. However, she re-positions “man’s” freedom in terms of nurture along gender lines also. She improves Sartre’s argument by making it more relevant and accessible to half the world’s population by highlighting women’s contemporaneous impaired societal freedoms. The obvious advantage of this doctrine of freedom is that we are free to become the best possible version of ourselves through totalitarian self government and personal responsibility, whilst having no accountability.

However, when considering freedoms in terms of equality it would be fair to put forward the counter question – freedom from, and equal to what? And here context does become important. Beauvoir can be seen to fall into the same trap as Sartre in that when considering equality, they both did so from the perspective of being white, western, French intellectuals (following a line of other French philosophers such as Descartes, Voltaire and Rousseau), famous, financially independent, and able-bodied. Here Beauvoir ‘s possible improvement on the doctrine of equality falters as it does not address the fact that everyone (including every female) is not born with the same opportunities. Furthermore, it can be questioned as to whether all women (as a separate gender) are equal when family units are diverse, and motherhood and being childless is not always a choice – the ability to conceive is not a decision.

Beauvoir does improve on Sartre’s view of “other” through the promotion of gender issues because she discounts the idea that there is no “female essence” as Rousseau had eluded, whilst recognising that the female form does exist. Furthermore, she stated that for a woman to be authentic she must be a woman foremost. This promotes, rather than demotes, the female in existentialist thinking. Nevertheless, although Beauvoir ‘s views were outlined in her book “The Second Sex” in 1949, it was not until two decades later that she became an active campaigner in the women’s movement, championing such causes as abortion and equal rights. This is important because like so many other philosophers before her, theories do not necessarily stand the test of real world circumstances.

Sartre’s view of bad faith echoes very much Karl Marx’s thoughts on false consciousness; Lenin had his practical interpretation and application of Marx’s philosophy, just as Robespierre had his own style of the prosecution of the manifesto of Rousseau. Accordingly, for Beauvoir to move her own philosophy forward, it could be argued that she needed to position it in the real world, and as her existentialism expounded total self autocratic agency at its core, so Beauvoir needed to cast herself as the lead actor, as she had freely chosen to be the playwright. In doing so, perhaps, she made the philosophy of existentialism more “real”, and though her name outside philosophical circles is not as well known as that of Sartre’s, her impact on modern life may be seen as more profound.

In summary, Beauvoir’s philosophy was very much more in alignment with, rather than divergent from, the existentialism of Sartre. However, her commentary on the topics of freedom, equality, and ‘other’ stand as improvements in philosophical terms by providing increased clarity and highlighting the asymmetry of gender issues.

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