The Cambridge Companion to Simone de Beauvoir
Simone de Beauvoir is the latest in a line of illustrious philosophers to join the equally illustrious Cambridge Companions list. These valuable handbooks, in parallel series covering philosophy, literature, culture, religion, music, and the history of art, offer a range of newly commissioned essays by renowned international scholars on key themes, arguments and works. Other titles in the field of philosophy include the Cambridge Companions to Rousseau, Foucault, Sartre, and Feminism. The Companions are designed for general readers and specialists alike and have acquired a reputation for combining broad, instructive overviews with incisive and original commentaries. In this respect, the Cambridge Companion to Simone de Beauvoir is a model of its kind.
The Companion opens with Claudia Card's essay "Introduction: Beauvoir and the ambiguity of 'ambiguity' in ethics." The title alone signals a dual preoccupation of the essays which follow--a preoccupation with language in all of its nuanced complexity (as, for example, in Mary Sirridge's essay "Philosophy in Beauvoir's fiction") and a preoccupation with "ambiguity" and, conversely, with debating the nature and value of certainty. The certainties of "real evils" [p. 13]--the Nazi death camps, slavery, multiple forms of lived oppression--are of concern throughout the book and are explicitly confronted in one of the last and finest chapters, Robin May Schott's "Beauvoir on the ambiguity of evil."
Ambiguity, as Card helpfully reminds us (here alluding to the argument of Monika Langer's subsequent chapter, "Beauvoir and Merleau-Ponty on ambiguity") is "neither equivocation nor dualism nor ambivalence [...]. Rather, Beauvoir's concept of ambiguity involves irreducible indeterminacy" [p. 5]. She proceeds clearly and effectively (or unambiguously!) to establish the context for Beauvoir's work, and specifically, the cultural background against which the publication and reception of her key works, including The Second Sex and The Ethics of Ambiguity, should be read. She cites the relevance of particular works (Sartre's Being and Nothingness and the Kinsey Report) and broader discourses (post-Kantian and post-Cartesian traditions of German and French thought) to situating and thus understanding Beauvoir's philosophy. The next essay in the Companion, Barbara S. Andrew's "Beauvoir's place in philosophical thought," is equally cogent (her definition of existentialism is admirably clear and precise) and helpfully focuses attention on Beauvoir's bibliographical history, in particular the significant differences between English and French editions / translations of key terms.
The introduction sets the tone for the rest of the Companion in its eloquent exposition of complex principles, of where Beauvoir's interests lie: "Her concerns lie with the complexities of situations, their impact on how we develop character, and with liberation from oppression, taking responsibility for ourselves, and negotiating human relationships" [p. 3]. Card is concerned too, and in this respect she again anticipates the concerns of a number of her contributors, with determining Beauvoir's place in modern philosophy, in feminism, and in culture in general: "Today her agent-centred, relational, and situational approach to ethics finds natural homes not only in continental European philosophy, but also in fairly analytical character ethics, feminist ethics, and conversations about moral luck" [p. 3].
Card identifies an importance of Beauvoir for feminism with which I, for one, concur. Other contributors, though, seem less willing to concede this--indeed Barbara S. Andrew, in what seems to me to be something of an understatement, suggests that Beauvoir's work was only "quite influential to the 2nd-wave feminist movement" [p. 38]. Several point to ambiguity and contradictions in Beauvoir's argument, and to shifts in her thought over time, as factors in feminism's sometimes uneasy embrace of her ideas. Susan James's chapter "Complicity and Slavery in The Second Sex" and Susan Brison's essay "Beauvoir and feminism: interview and reflections" explore these debates.
In "Beauvoir and feminism" Brison reproduces an interview with Beauvoir which she conducted in 1976 and translated and commented on as recently as 2001. The interview is interesting for a number of reasons. First, its own genealogy shadows or reflects a period of enormous theoretical and practical change for feminism. Second, this paradigm shift notwithstanding, it illustrates the persistence--and apparent unanswerability--of key questions, questions which Beauvoir had asked of Sartre and which Brison, in turn, now asks of her: "Should women completely reject the masculine universe or should they find themselves a place in it?" [p. 189]. Beauvoir's 1976 answer is both pertinent and of perennial relevance: "the point is not for women simply to take power out of men's hands, since that wouldn't change anything about the world. It's a question precisely of destroying that notion of power. That's it" [p. 190]. Again, we are returned to the questions of language and perception (the "notion of power") which I mentioned earlier. Later in her interview with Brison, Beauvoir commends Kate Millett's Flying because of its "normal, understandable" language: "What I don't approve of is the choice of a language that is completely different from common language because I think it cuts off communication" [p. 193].
In Judith Butler's important and intriguing chapter "Beauvoir on Sade: making sexuality into an ethic," Beauvoir's contention that "to the extent that there are new things to say, they must be said in a way that's accessible" [p. 193-194] is amply borne out. Those who associate Butler's writing with complexity and a corresponding opacity will find this essay itself refreshingly "accessible." The Sade questions are important ones, and Beauvoir's engagement with Sade's writing forces us to rethink the relationship between feminism, desire and freedom as these are conventionally perceived. This is a thought-provoking essay, although I am surprised not to see Angela Carter's take on Sade referenced alongside Beauvoir's.
Butler is not alone in asking these searching questions. It is a characteristic of the Companion as a whole that multiple, contingent questions are repeatedly posed. Questions about sexuality, desire, and corporeality are central to Beauvoir's thought and thus to a number of chapters here. Eva Gothlin and Sara Heinämaa contemplate the roots and resonance of Beauvoir's philosophical position in their chapters "Reading Simone de Beauvoir with Martin Heidegger" and "The body as instrument and expression."
One of the achievements of the Cambridge Companion to Simone de Beauvoir is its practice of subjecting fiction and autobiographical works to the same thoughtful and informed perusal as the philosophical writings. Mary Sirridge's chapter, cited above, examines Beauvoir's She Came to Stay alongside her autobiographical The Prime of Life. Margaret Simons's "Bergson and Beauvoir's philosophical methodology" offers a fine close reading of her fiction and examines the relationships between Beauvoir's thought and the philosophies of Henri Bergson. Miranda Fricker's "Life-story in Beauvoir's memoirs" discusses her autobiographical and semi-autobiographical works, focusing on the "mechanisms" (Fricker's term) or "technologies" (to borrow from Foucault, although this is not an avenue which Fricker explores) by which the autobiographical subject understands and represents the self.
Monika Langer opens her chapter with the assertion that "Ambiguity is arguably the most important idea in Beauvoir's philosophy" [p. 87]. It is a measure of the value of this book that it manages to accept and respect this ambiguity while retaining a saving measure of clarity and precision.