One evening in 1932, Simone de Beauvoir joined Jean-Paul Sartre and his old schoolfriend, the philosopher Raymond Aron, for a drink at a bar in Montparnasse.1 The three of them enthusiastically ordered apricot cocktails, the specialty of the house. Aron, who had just returned to Paris from a year studying philosophy in Berlin, suddenly pointed to his glass and said: “If you are a phenomenologist, you can talk about this cocktail and make philosophy out of it!” According to Beauvoir, Sartre “turned pale with emotion.” This was exactly what he wanted to do: “describe objects just as he saw and touched them, and to make philosophy out of it.”
Phenomenology—the tradition of philosophy after Husserl and Heidegger—sets aside questions of essence and ontology and tries instead to grasp phenomena as a particular subject experiences them. A philosophy concerned with perception and experience would allow Sartre to shrink the gap between literature and philosophy and write philosophical texts filled with scintillating, though sometimes sexist, descriptions, anecdotes and stories: a cafe waiter playing at being a waiter, a woman who has gone to a cafe for a first date, a man flooded with shame when he is caught peeping through a keyhole in a hotel corridor.
Beauvoir doesn’t say anything about how Aron’s remark impacted her, but phenomenology became a cornerstone for her work, too. In her most famous book, The Second Sex, she briskly rejects traditional philosophical attempts to define “woman,” and declares that she will begin afresh, by turning, in phenomenological fashion, to her own perceptions, her own experiences as a woman living in Paris in the late 1940s. It’s no coincidence that the second half of The Second Sex, called “Lived Experience,” draws copiously on excerpts from women’s fiction, memoirs, letters and diaries.
Showing us the world as different women have seen it, Beauvoir brings out the philosophical relevance of their experiences and perceptions, as when she describes a housewife’s struggle against dust and dirt as an activity permitting the maniacal cleaner to cast herself as the heroine of a Manichean struggle between good and evil. A philosophy incapable of making sense of such experiences, she thought, would be pointless. For her, philosophy was a way of experiencing life: as she noted in her diary when she was eighteen, “I put reason into my feelings and my spontaneity into my ideas.” By 1948, the year before the publication of The Second Sex, she would go so far as to write, in one of my favorite quotations of hers: “In truth, there is no divorce between philosophy and life.”
Reflecting on the differences between herself and her friend Maurice Merleau-Ponty, in her student diary, she noted that “those problems that he lives in his mind, I live them with my arms and my legs.” Reading through this diary that same month, the nineteen-year-old Beauvoir concluded that “the theme is almost always this opposition of self and other that I felt upon starting to live.” She wanted philosophy to begin with lived experience, and the aspect of lived experience that obsessed her from the start was otherness.
The importance of Beauvoir’s work on discussions of the Other is obvious. Her use of the concept in The Second Sex was groundbreaking. Nobody before her had politicized the concept of otherness in relation to women, and her work on women’s embodied otherness paved the way for Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks. By now, the idea of “the Other” has become ubiquitous. In English, the word has long been used as a verb, usually with negative connotations: “Don’t other me!” Conjuring up objectification and alienation, it figures prominently in discussions of sexism, racism and empire. Women, Black people and postcolonial subjects are all said to experience, in different modes, the effects of being cast as the Other. They are not the only ones, for nowadays any conversation about oppression, discrimination and exclusion usually has recourse at some point to the idea of the Other. But such conversations are often hampered by a far too simplistic understanding of what it means to be other to someone else. The result is often a far too negative idea of otherness, as if it always entails objectification or exploitation. If we take a look at Beauvoir’s writing in the 1940s, we will find a series of different notions of otherness, enabling us to have more nuanced discussions of the concept.
Beauvoir teaches us that otherness is not one unified, rigidly defined and bounded concept. Rather, there are many modes of otherness, and not all of them are nefarious. A Wittgensteinian would say that with her first novel, L’Invitée (1943), Beauvoir begins to establish a grammar of otherness. By “grammar” Wittgenstein (a philosopher Beauvoir never read) means a clear overview of different ways to use a term or expression. Think of it as a mapping of some parts of the terrain of otherness, an attempt to get clear on some strands of the weave of otherness, without pretensions to exhaustiveness. Such work is “invitational”—it invites the reader to try to see what the writer sees, welcomes further conversation and encourages others to find ways to go on, perhaps ways to map new terrain, get clear on more strands. Beauvoir’s contributions to a “grammar of otherness” remind us of the diversity of experiences of otherness and begin the work of clarifying what we mean when we talk about “the Other,” “otherness” or “alterity.”
Although she was obsessed with the question of the Other right from the start of her life as thinker, Beauvoir struggled to give her thoughts shape and form until the publication of L’Invitée (in English, this novel is called She Came to Stay, but I prefer to use the French title, which emphasizes the action of invitation). The action of L’Invitée begins in October 1938, just after the Munich accords. Beauvoir tells a simple story: an established couple, Françoise and Pierre, invite a young woman, Xavière, to leave the provinces and join them in Paris. Soon the three of them decide to form a trio. Suffering from a severe case of solipsism, Françoise begins by finding Xavière charming but insignificant. As Pierre becomes increasingly fascinated by Xavière, Françoise begins to perceive her as a hostile presence, a threat to her own existence. Inevitably, the experiment with the trio ends badly. When Xavière discovers that Françoise has slept with her boyfriend, Françoise kills her.
L’Invitée conveys what it is like to “be” metaphysical and to “feel ideas.” In one particularly impressive scene, Beauvoir sets out to convey Françoise’s experience of pure otherness. The trio has gone to a Spanish nightclub, where Xavière deliberately burns herself with a cigarette. Xavière is totally absorbed by the experience, to the point of being “in the grip of hysterical ecstasy.” An equally transfixed Françoise watches her in horror:
This hostile presence, which had just betrayed itself in a lunatic’s smile, was coming closer and closer: there was no longer any way of avoiding its terrifying disclosure. Day after day, minute after minute, Françoise had fled the danger; but that was all over now: at last she had come face to face with this insurmountable obstacle, which she had felt as a shadowy foreboding since her earliest childhood. Through Xavière’s maniacal pleasure, through her hatred and jealousy, the scandal was unleashed, it was as monstrous and as final as death. Facing Françoise, and yet apart from her, something existed like a sentence without appeal: free, absolute, invincible, an alien consciousness loomed. It was like death, a total negation, an eternal absence, and still, through a shocking contradiction this abyss of nothingness had the power to make itself present to itself, to exist completely for itself: it engulfed the entire universe, and Françoise, who had lost the world forever, was dissolving into a shapeless, infinite emptiness that no word, no image could ever define.
No longer this or that particular woman, Xavière has become the pure presence of the Other, described in Gothic imagery of fear and horror, in images of sexual menace, suffocation, claustrophobia and death. How was it possible, Françoise asks herself, for a real human body with a “beautiful face” to harbor such a “scandalous presence”? She had thought of Xavière as a “mere fragment” of her life, but now, in this moment, she turns into “the only sovereign reality”—and Françoise in turn loses her own sense of being, feels increasingly insubstantial, as if she were nothing but an image. Her hypnotic submission to Xavière’s menacing Otherness destroys her sense of existence. Pure alterity overwhelms and destroys the spellbound and horrified subject.
The emphasis on Françoise as spellbound, absorbed, engulfed, makes me think of the experience of being absorbed in fiction, or a movie. Beauvoir even underlines the theme of spectacle by setting the scene in a nightclub featuring a floor show with flamenco dancers. Unlike a reader’s pleasurable absorption in a novel, however, Françoise experiences her absorption in the spectacle of Xavière as a form of annihilation: she is nothing, Xavière is everything. Caught in the radical all or nothing of metaphysics, Françoise finds herself on a see-saw between two equally unlivable positions. The logic is terrifying: if Xavière’s mere existence as Other destroys Françoise, then Françoise must destroy Xavière to survive.
L’Invitée is an immense effort to convey the experience of pure alterity, or metaphysical otherness, beyond all social and psychological categories, beyond language and identity and beyond ethical categories. Precisely because Françoise’s visceral experience precedes reason and judgment, the novel’s style entirely avoids the moral register. The result is a vision of the Other as a force that negates the very idea of the ethical.
At the end of the first part of the novel, her confrontation with the Other leaves Françoise stricken by pneumonia. Reduced to “an inert mass, not even an organized body,” the experience strips her of the last remnants of identity. By turning on the gas, Françoise turns Xavière into a body without consciousness, an empty form. It may not be a coincidence that in both cases, the lungs are attacked: to kill by suffocation is to deprive the victim not just of breath, but of voice.
At the very end of the novel, Françoise goes to bed, knowing that she has turned on the gas in Xavière’s room next door. Xavière is still sleeping, but Françoise knows that she will never wake up:
On the bed there still remained a living form, but it was already no one. There was no one any longer. Françoise was alone.
Alone. She had acted alone. As alone as in death. One day Pierre would know. But even he would only know her act from the outside. No one could condemn or absolve her. Her act belonged to her alone. “I am the one who wants this.” It was her will that was being done, now nothing separated her from herself. She had chosen at last. She had chosen herself.
The murder of Xavière is purely metaphysical. The Hegelian epigraph, “Each consciousness seeks the death of the other,” invites us to read it as a gloss on Hegel’s idea of coming to self-consciousness as a subject in a life-and-death struggle. Yet it’s hard to see how killing Xavière by stealthy gas exemplifies a genuine struggle with an Other. I am tempted to say that Françoise never really enters into the dialectics at all. Or maybe we could say that while she almost gets to the first step, the life-and-death struggle, she flees the actual confrontation. But if this is right, it’s not clear that killing Xavière will enable her to escape her solipsism, her incapacity to relate to others as free subjects in their own right.
In her memoirs, Beauvoir writes that for her, the act of writing the murder, the ultimate act of annihilation of the other, was an experience of “separation,” an experience of herself as a finite existence. But to face one’s own finitude is not necessarily to avoid solipsism. In the novel, Françoise’s “separation” contrasts markedly with the constant refrain that she and Pierre are one [on ne fait qu’un]. In this sense, Pierre has never been an Other to Françoise, but rather an extension of herself. Although Pierre regularly has affairs, to Françoise the other women are insignificant specks at the edge of her own universe. It takes the experiment of the trio, and particularly the experience of Xavière’s otherness, to teach her that she is finite, separate, responsible for her own desires, words and actions—that the murder of Xavière stands as an act of pure freedom. She is, at last, her own woman.
World War II, and particularly the German occupation of France, caused Beauvoir to turn her investigation of otherness in a more political direction. In the essay “Pyrrhus and Cineas” (1944) and the novel The Blood of Others (1945), the question is no longer “How can there be others?” but rather “How should I live with others?” Beauvoir rejects the temptation to pontificate about others or “the other” in abstract and general terms, for example by declaring that “all men are my brothers,” or that we ought to “help everyone.” We can’t actually do everything. We have to choose a specific action. So who are we going to help? Generalizing moral claims don’t give us any criteria for choosing among the manifold others who all need our assistance and our solidarity: “If all men are my brothers, no particular man is my brother any longer,” Beauvoir notes. Meaningful choice is only possible in specific situations: “If I am transported outside of all situations, any given seems equally indifferent to me.” This is why a vague aspiration to be “good” is useless as a guide to action in the world.
If I am to make moral or political choices, other people have to exist concretely for me: “They exist for me only if I have created ties with them or if I have made them into my neighbors. They exist as allies or as enemies according to whether my project agrees with or contradicts theirs.” To “create ties” to people is to work with them or to struggle against them; it is, in short, to be concretely involved with them. This conception of otherness situates the other in their historical and social specificity. It is also rich in ethical implications.
Both texts use as a key example the death of the child of a servant. In The Blood of Others, Jean Blomart, the eight-year-old son of the owner of a print shop, learns that their maid’s baby is dead. He goes with his mother to see their maid Louise: “In the cradle was a white-faced baby with closed eyes. I looked at the red tiles, at the bare walls, at the gas ring, and I began to cry. I was crying, Mother was talking, and the baby remained dead.” Back home, over dinner, the father asks what’s wrong with Jean. The mother tries to explain: “She had already told them the story, but now, with words, she tried to make them feel it: meningitis, the night of agony, and in the morning, the little stiff body.” Urged to eat by both his parents, Jean simply can’t. The father scolds him: “‘Listen,’ said my father, ‘it’s very sad that Louise’s baby is dead, I’m deeply grieved for her, but we aren’t going to mourn it for our whole life. Now, just hurry up!’” Jean eats, but feels as if he has betrayed something.
In “Pyrrhus and Cineas,” Beauvoir uses the same example to ask: How I can know what I should do in this world? How can I tell what I care about? What will count as meaningful action for me? A child cries over the death of the concierge’s baby. The parents tell him to get over it. For Beauvoir this is a dangerous lesson. By telling the child to ignore her own spontaneous responses to the world, they are teaching her not to take her own experiences seriously. But if we are ever to discover what matters to us in a bewildering and potentially alienating world, we need to pay attention to what we feel and what we do. “I am not first and foremost a thing, but a desiring, loving, wanting, acting spontaneity,” Beauvoir writes. “‘This little boy is not my brother.’ But if I cry over him, he is no longer a stranger to me. It’s my tears that decide. … What is mine is therefore first what I do.” We don’t actually choose, coolly and rationally, what we care about. We find ourselves caring. Our spontaneous passions, affective intensities and desires tell us what matters to us. Beauvoir believes that to sacrifice one’s passions and desires is to risk alienation. This is why blocking someone from acquiring experience of the world, and thus from discovering what they care about, is a form of oppression. But we also may be mistaken about what our actions and desires tell us; we may change our mind; our commitments may shift. For Beauvoir, this is natural, for human beings are a constant becoming.
In both “Pyrrhus and Cineas” and The Blood of Others, Beauvoir shows that for our projects to make sense—“for our existence to be grounded and necessary,” as she puts it—we need others. In a world without others, nothing would matter. To make our own choices meaningful, “Pyrrhus and Cineas” teaches us, we need others, and we need them to be free to respond to our projects. The two protagonists find existential meaning when they accept the anguish and responsibility that comes with freedom and join with others in a close-knit Resistance group. They have learned that others are both free subjects (for themselves) and objects (for others). No longer hallucinating the Other as an abstract metaphysical enemy, Beauvoir creates characters committed to engaging their freedom in particular projects. Because coerced responses have no value, I must struggle for others to gain concrete freedoms (for example health, education, well-being, leisure) necessary to act in the world. Our projects, then, are appeals to the freedom of others, for without their free response our actions would mean nothing.
“Woman is the Other,” Beauvoir famously declared in The Second Sex: “He [man] is the Subject, he is the Absolute—she is the Other.” This is not a metaphysical description (we have not returned to L’Invitée). Nor is it simply a statement that women are particular others (we have not returned to Pyrrhus and Cineas). It is, rather, a claim that one group of human beings are placed, right from birth, in a situation in which they are imprisoned in the category of Other, defined as secondary beings, as creatures whose existence is relative to some other group. Otherness in this sense is neither a metaphysical concept, nor a particular person, but an ideology, or what Beauvoir calls a “myth.”
Beauvoir stresses that the otherness that characterizes the situation of women is of a quite particular kind: they are, she writes, “the absolute Other, without reciprocity.” Here she is alluding to Hegel, for according to the logic of the master-slave dialectic, the slave may one day become the master. An “absolute Other,” however, never enters into the dialectic at all. In other words: Man is the [absolute] Subject, Woman the [absolute] Other.
The idea of reciprocity also draws on Beauvoir’s essay The Ethics of Ambiguity (1947), in which she analyzes the human temptation to flee existential ambiguity, including the ambiguity arising from the fact that we are at once subjects and objects. In The Second Sex, this idea resurfaces in the claim that patriarchy offers men the option to flee ambiguity by projecting otherness and objecthood on to women.
In ordinary human relations, however, nobody is ever the absolute other. When we interact with others, whether in friendship or hostility, reciprocity is bound to arise. Sooner or later, Beauvoir notes, “individuals and groups have no choice but to recognize the reciprocity of their relation.” To acknowledge reciprocity is to recognize that the others we are dealing with, whether as friends or enemies, are just as free, just as capable of action and reflection as we are.
This makes “reciprocity” sound very similar to “particular otherness.” Yet the word “reciprocity” doesn’t appear in “Pyrrhus and Cineas.” Is Beauvoir simply repeating the idea that we must understand that everyone is subject and object to everyone else? As I see it, “reciprocity” means more than that. “Pyrrhus and Cineas” offers no political analysis. Its “particular others” are subjects imagined as equal, and as equally free (on the metaphysical level). In The Second Sex, Beauvoir shows, over and over again, that patriarchy blocks women from becoming ordinary, particular others. (This is part of what Beauvoir means when she notes that patriarchy refuses women “access to the universal.”) In this context, “reciprocity” gains a new, specifically political use. The very word becomes a constant reminder of what is lacking under patriarchy. In The Second Sex, “reciprocity” becomes the sine qua non of women’s future freedom, at once the counterpoint to and a critique of the ideology of “absolute otherness.”
The distinction between reciprocity and absolute otherness, then, is crucial to the understanding of The Second Sex. Yet it may look as if it introduces a contradiction. How can Beauvoir argue both that reciprocity is bound to arise from interactions with others and that woman under patriarchy is the Absolute Other? After all, even in sexist societies, men and women often work together, or struggle side by side against exploitation and oppression. The daily life in a family also gives men ample opportunity to discover the freedom and agency of their female partners. From such relations acknowledgments of reciprocity should naturally arise, according to Beauvoir’s own argument. In fact, she even notes that in her experience, some men already manage to relate to women with reciprocity. Why, then, does she also insist that woman remains the Other?
Beauvoir is not making a logical error; she is, rather, diagnosing a major contradiction at the very heart of sexism. Although “absolute otherness” is an ideological construct, it unfortunately gets enmeshed in social customs and practices, infiltrating lived experience. Sexism, then, exists as a tension between the ideological insistence on absolute otherness and the constant possibility that ordinary, practical acknowledgment of reciprocity will nevertheless arise in local and specific circumstances. Some women may never experience reciprocity; others will, even under patriarchy. This is why sexism can never be all-encompassing, for the very contradictions arising from this tension produce the opportunity for consciousness-raising and critique.
Beauvoir’s understanding of sexism as a profoundly contradictory situation explains why women can discover and analyze their own oppression. In this respect, Beauvoir’s notion of “myth” is more like various Marxist notions of ideology than like more recent postmodern theories that present power as all-encompassing. Theorists ranging from Michel Foucault to Luce Irigaray and Judith Butler have embraced the idea that power produces its own resistance, usually in the form of some kind of undermining, ironic mimicry or subversion.
Such theories are to my mind profoundly depressing, for they seem to make a struggle for genuine change hopeless. Beauvoir, by contrast, helps us understand why some women realize that they are cast as Other in a sexist world, while others passionately deny it, or why some women will claim that they affirm their freedom precisely by alienating and objectifying themselves. Such conflicts will be the starting point for debate, disagreement and political struggle, but not for hopelessness.
Reciprocal otherness, then, is not simply something that may or may not arise in concrete cases of work and struggle. It is also a utopian—and therefore political—goal. Unless we can get to a point where genuine reciprocity arises between the previously oppressed and their erstwhile oppressors, women will not be free. This is why Beauvoir speaks, over and over again, about the future friendship between men and women, about the sexes working together on common projects.
What will reciprocity look like in a society unmarred by the contradictions of sexism? How would we live in a non-sexist world dominated by genuine respect for the other’s freedom? Right now, women’s reciprocity with men is constantly threatened by recuperation by sexist ideology. It is still possible for a man to feel smug and self-satisfied when he recognizes a woman as equal, just as a woman may feel grateful for a recognition no man in her position would feel was more than his due.
In a sexist world characterized by partial opportunities for reciprocity, it is often difficult to tell whether a man’s dismissive behavior towards a woman is a manifestation of sexism, or whether the woman actually earned his rebuff. In a non-sexist world, a woman’s projects might be opposed by a man, not because he is a man and she is a woman, but simply because they genuinely disagree on the issue at hand. In the same way, today a woman who receives an award or an honor may still wonder whether she earned it, or whether she was mostly chosen to fulfill a gender quota. Such uncertainty is a consequence of the fact that today every moment of recognition and reciprocity still plays out against a background of sexism.
The Second Sex remains a powerful feminist text because of Beauvoir’s unswerving commitment to freedom and reciprocity, and because of her faith that we can construct a world in which women will no longer be the Other. In such a world, men and women will freely and spontaneously feel themselves bound not by bonds of enmity, hostility and oppression but by solidarity.