Simone de Beauvoir

From New World Encyclopedia

Western Philosophy
20th-century philosophy,
Name: Simone de Beauvoir
Birth: January 9, 1908 ( Paris, France )
Death: April 14, 1986 ( Paris, France )
School/tradition: Existentialism
Main interests
Politics, Feminism, Ethics
Notable ideas
ethics of ambiguity, feminist ethics
Influences Influenced
Descartes, Wollstonecraft, Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Freud, the French existentialists The French existentialists, feminists (specifically Betty Friedan)

Simone de Beauvoir (January 9, 1908 – April 14, 1986) was a French novelist, philosopher, and feminist. She wrote novels, essays, biographies, monographs on philosophy, politics, and social issues, and an autobiography. She elaborated on existentialist anthropology and ethics, influenced by Kierkegaard, Sartre, and the phenomenology of Husserl and Heidegger.

Beauvoir is best known for her 1949 treatise Le Deuxième Sexe (The Second Sex), a detailed analysis of the oppression of women. Accepting Sartre's existentialist precept that existence precedes essence, she insisted that one is not born a woman, but becomes one. She identified, as the fundamental basis for the oppression of women, the social construction of woman as the quintessential “Other.” For the liberation of women to move forward, the perception that they are a deviation from the normal, and are outsiders attempting to emulate "normality," must be set aside. Her works, written within anatheist-humanist framework, had a strong impact on feminist theories in the twentieth century.


Early Years

Simone Lucie-Ernestine-Marie-Bertrand de Beauvoir was born on January 9, 1908 in Paris to Georges Bertrand and Françoise (Brasseur) de Beauvoir. The elder of two daughters of a conventional family from the Parisian Bourgeoisie, she depicted herself in the first volume of her autobiography (Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter) as a girl with a strong commitment to the patriarchal values of her family, religion, and country. From early childhood, Beauvoir, a precocious and intellectually curious child, was subject to the opposing influences of her atheist father and her devoutly Catholic mother. The two formative peer relationships of her childhood and adolescence involved her sister Hélène (whom she called Poupette) and her friend Zaza. She traced her love of teaching to her relationship with Hélène, whom she sought to educate and influence from an early age. Beauvoir met her intimate friend, Elizabeth Mabille (Zaza), when she entered the private Catholic school for girls, the Institut Adeline Désir, where she remained until the age of 17. Although doctors blamed Zaza's untimely death (in 1929) on meningitis, Beauvoir believed that her beloved friend had died from a broken heart because of a struggle with her family over an arranged marriage. For the rest of her life, Beauvoir spoke of Zaza's friendship and death, and the intense impact they had each had on her life. The experience influenced her critique of the bourgeois attitudes toward women.

Beauvoir's father encouraged her to read and write from an early age and provided her with carefully edited selections from great works of literature. His interest in her intellectual development continued until her teens when, after World War I, the family fortune was lost and her father was no longer able to provide Beauvoir with a dowry to ensure an upper class marriage. Georges's relationship with his intelligent eldest daughter became complicated by both pride and disappointment at her prospects. Beauvoir, however, had always wanted to be a writer and a teacher, rather than a mother and a wife, and pursued her studies with enthusiasm.

Though deeply religious as a child as a result of her mother’s training, Beauvoir had a crisis of faith at 14 and decided definitively that God did not exist. She remained an atheist until her death. She considered marriage only once, to her cousin, Jacques Champigneulle, but never again revisited the possibility of marriage, preferring instead an intellectual and professional life.

Middle Years

After passing the baccalauréat exams in mathematics and philosophy, she studied mathematics at the Institut Catholique and literature at the Institut Sainte-Marie, then philosophy at La Sorbonne. In 1929, at the age of 21, Beauvoir became the youngest person ever to pass the highly competitive agrégation exam in philosophy. She placed ahead of Paul Nizan and Jean Hyppolite, and just behind Jean-Paul Sartre, who took first place (on his second attempt at the exam). All three men had attended special preparatory classes (khâgne) for the agrégation and were students at the École Normale Supérieure. Beauvoir was not an official student, but attended lectures and sat for the exam at the École. After her success at the agrégation, Sartre asked to be introduced to Beauvoir, and she joined his elite circle of friends, which included Paul Nizan and René Maheu, who gave her the life-long nickname Castor (the French word for "beaver"), a pun derived from the resemblance of her surname to "beaver." Although Sartre and Beauvoir never married (despite Sartre's proposal in 1931), had children together, or even lived in the same home, they remained intellectual and romantic partners until Sartre's death in 1980, though allowing each other "contingent" love affairs whenever each desired. This liberal arrangement between Sartre and herself was extremely progressive for the time and often unfairly diminished Beauvoir's reputation as a woman intellectual, equal to her male counterparts.

Beauvoir became the youngest teacher of philosophy in France, and in 1931, was appointed to teach in a lycée at Marseilles. In 1932, Beauvoir moved to the Lycée Jeanne d'Arc in Rouen to teach advanced literature and philosophy classes; she was officially reprimanded there for her overt criticisms of women’s situations and for her pacifism. In 1940, the Nazis occupied Paris and in 1941, the Nazi government dismissed Beauvoir from her teaching post. Following a parental complaint made against her for corrupting one of her female students, she was dismissed from teaching again in 1943. Although she loved the classroom environment, Beauvoir had always wanted to be an author and never returned to teaching. She wrote a collection of short stories on women, Quand prime le spirituel (When Things of the Spirit Come First), which was rejected for publication and not published until 1979. A fictionalized account of the triangular relationship between herself, Sartre, and her student, Olga Kosakievicz, L'Invitée (She Came to Stay), was published in 1943. This novel, which she had written from 1935 to 1937, gained her public recognition.

Later Years

During the Occupation Beauvoir entered what she called the "moral period" of her literary life. Between 1941 and 1943 she wrote a novel, Le Sang des Autres (The Blood of Others), which was heralded as one of the most important existential novels of the French Resistance. In 1943, she wrote her first philosophical essay, an ethical treatise entitled Pyrrhus et Cinéas; her only play, Les Bouches Inutiles (Who Shall Die?), in 1944; and the novel, Tous Les Hommes sont Mortels (All Men are Mortal), from 1943 to 1946. Although she had been involved only cursorily in the Resistance, Beauvoir's political commitments became more pronounced during this time. With Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Raymond Aron and other intellectuals, she helped found the politically non-affiliated, leftist journal, Les Temps Modernes in 1945, and both edited and contributed articles for it, including Moral Idealism and Political Realism, and Existentialism and Popular Wisdom in 1945, and Eye for an Eye in 1946. Also in 1946, Beauvoir published an article explaining her method of doing philosophy in literature, Literature and Metaphysics. Her leftist orientation was heavily influenced by her reading of Marx and the political ideal represented by Russia. The journal itself and the role of the intellectual in politics became a major theme of her novel The Mandarins (1954). In 1947, Beauvoir published an ethical treatise, Pour une Morale de l'Ambiguïté (The Ethics of Ambiguity), one of the best examples of a treatise on existentialist ethics. In 1955, she published another work on ethics, Must We Burn Sade?

Following extracts which appeared in Les Temps Modernes, Beauvoir published her revolutionary work on the oppression of women, Le Deuxième Sexe (The Second Sex), in 1949. Though Beauvoir had never considered herself a "feminist," The Second Sex was embraced by feminists and intellectuals, and vigorously attacked by both the right and the left. Beauvoir participated in feminist demonstrations, continued to write and lecture on the situation of women, and signed petitions advocating various rights for women. In 1970, she helped launch the French Women's Liberation Movement by signing the Manifesto of the 343 in favor of abortion rights and in 1973, she instituted a feminist section in Les Temps Modernes.

Her later work included the writing of more works of fiction, philosophical essays and interviews, and her autobiography in four volumes. La Longue Marche (The Long March), published in 1957, was written following her visit with Sartre to communist China in 1955. She directly attacked the French war in Algeria and the torture of Algerians by French officers. La Vieillesse (The Coming of Age), published in 1970, was an intellectual meditation on the decline and solitude of old age, and the oppression of aged members of society. In 1981 she wrote La Cérémonie Des Adieux (A Farewell to Sartre), a painful account of Sartre's last years. Beauvoir died of a pulmonary edema on April 14, 1986, and is buried next to Sartre at the Cimetière du Montparnasse in Paris.

Since her death, her reputation has grown, not only because she is seen as the mother of post-1968 feminism, especially in academia, but also because of a growing awareness of her as a major French thinker, existentialist and otherwise. Her influence is seen in Sartre's masterpiece, Being and Nothingness, but she wrote much on philosophy that is independent of Sartrean existentialism.

Thought and Works

Simone de Beauvoir’s own work as well as her association with Sartre resulted in a fame rarely experienced by philosophers during their lifetime. Partly because of her own proclamations, she was unfairly considered a mere disciple of Sartre despite the fact that many of her ideas were original and went in directions radically different than Sartre's. Beauvoir belonged to the French phenomenalist-existentialist tradition. In her first philosophical works, Pyrrhus et Cinéas, and Pour une Morale de l'Ambiguïté (The Ethics of Ambiguity), she elaborated an anthropology and a system of ethics influenced by Kierkegaard, Sartre, and the phenomenology of Husserl and Heidegger. The Second Sex developed her ideas on anthropology and ethics and combined them with a philosophy of history inspired by the historical materialism of Marx and the idealism of Hegel.

Throughout her works, Beauvoir was consistently concerned with freedom, oppression, and responsibility. She maintained the existentialist belief in the individual’s absolute freedom of choice and the consequent responsibility that such freedom entails. Unlike Sartre, she argued that consideration of one’s own freedom implied a simultaneous consideration of the freedom of all other individuals. Freedom involved choosing to act in a way that affirmed the freedom of others. Beauvoir demonstrated her convictions by becoming actively involved with the feminist movement and with certain political activities, as well as in writing about oppression. Beauvoir was not only a philosopher and feminist, but an accomplished literary figure. Her novel, The Mandarins, received the prestigious Prix Goncourt award in 1954.


Simone de Beauvoir’s early work, Pyrrhus et Cinéas (1944), examined the question of ethical responsibility from an existentialist viewpoint long before Sartre attempted the same endeavor. She proposed that a consideration of one individual’s freedom immediately implied an ethical consideration of other free subjects in the world. While Sartre regarded society as a threat to individual freedom, Beauvoir saw the "other" (society) as the necessary medium for revealing an individual’s fundamental freedom. Freedom was not a license to act according to impulsive desires, but implied the ability to continually make conscious choices about how to act, or whether to act at all. In the absence of a God to enforce morality, it was up to the individual to create a bond with others through ethical action. Freedom occurred when an individual took responsibility for himself and the world, thereby transcending the restrictions and oppressions imposed by the objective world. Beauvoir emphasized that people’s transcendence is realized through carrying out human “projects” which the individuals regard as valuable to themselves, not valuable because of reliance on some external standard of value or meaning.

All world views which required the sacrifice and repudiation of freedom, such as projects of unification under a government or scientific advancement, diminished the reality and existential importance of the individual existent. Therefore such undertakings must necessarily honor the individuals who participate in them, and the individuals should not be coerced but must actively and consciously choose to participate.

Every individual has the same capacity to express his or her individual freedom, and it is the individual’s responsibility to actively interact with the world through projects that express his or her own freedom as well as encourage the freedom of others. Freedom cannot be avoided or escaped from because being impassive or inactive is also a conscious choice. To be passive and not exercise one’s capacity for freedom is, in Sartrean terminology, “to live in bad faith.”

The Second Sex

De Beauvoir's The Second Sex, published in French in 1949, set out a feminist existentialism with a significant Freudian aspect. Beauvoir accepted the existentialist precept that existence precedes essence; one is not born a woman, but becomes one. Her analysis focused on the concept of “The Other” and identified, as the fundamental basis for the oppression of women, the social construction of woman as the quintessential “Other.”

De Beauvoir argued that women have historically been considered deviant and abnormal. Even Mary Wollstonecraft had considered men to be the ideal toward which women should aspire. Beauvoir suggested that this attitude had limited women's success by maintaining the perception that they are a deviation from the normal, and are outsiders attempting to emulate "normality." For the liberation of women to move forward, this assumption must be set aside.

De Beauvoir asserted that women are just as capable as men of making choices, and thus can choose to elevate themselves, moving beyond the “immanence” to which they were previously resigned and reaching “transcendence,” a position in which one takes responsibility for oneself and the world, and chooses one’s freedom.


Beauvoir’s concept of woman as “The Other” became central to twentieth century feminism. When The Second Sex was published in 1949, very little philosophical work had been done on women from a feminist perspective, and systematic treatments of the historical oppression of women were almost nonexistent. The Second Sex was so controversial that the Vatican put it (along with her novel, The Mandarins) on the Index of Prohibited Books. Because of its central philosophical insights, supported by serious research, The Second Sex still remains one of the basic texts in philosophy, feminism, and women's studies.

List of works

Some of Simone de Beauvoir's other major works include, Les Mandarins (The Mandarins, (1954) and Mémoires d'une jeune fille rangée (Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, (1958).

  • She Came to Stay
  • Pyrrhus et Cinéas
  • The Blood of Others
  • Who Shall Die?
  • All Men are Mortal
  • The Ethics of Ambiguity
  • The Second Sex
  • America Day by Day
  • The Mandarins
  • Must We Burn Sade?
  • The Long March
  • Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter
  • The Prime of Life
  • A Very Easy Death
  • Les Belles Images
  • The Woman Destroyed
  • The Coming of Age
  • All Said and Done
  • When Things of the Spirit Come First
  • Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre
  • Letters to Sartre
  • A Transatlantic Love Affair: Letters to Nelson Algren

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

Select primary sources

Secondary sources

  • Arp, Kristana. The Bonds of Freedom. Open Court Publishing. 2001. ISBN 978-0812694437
  • Bair, Deirdre. Simone de Beauvoir: A Biography. Touchstone. 1991. ISBN 978-0671741808
  • Bauer, Nancy. Simone de Beauvoir, Philosophy and Feminism. Columbia University. 2001. ISBN 978-0231116657
  • Fullbrook, Kate and Edward. Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre: The Remaking of a Twentieth-Century Legend. Basic Books. 1995. ISBN 978-0465078288
  • Moi, Toril. Feminist Theory and Simone de Beauvoir. Blackwell. 1992. ISBN 978-0631173243
  • Moi, Toril. Simone de Beauvoir: The Making of an Intellectual Woman. Blackwell. 1994.
  • Simons, Margaret. Beauvoir and the Second Sex: Feminism, Race and the Origins of Existentialism. Rowman and Littlefield Publishers. 1999. ISBN 978-0847692569
  • Vintges, Karen. Philosophy as Passion: The Thinking of Simone de Beauvoir. Indiana University. 1996. ISBN 978-0253210708

External links

All links retrieved January 29, 2023.

General Philosophy Sources


New World Encyclopedia writers and editors rewrote and completed the Wikipedia article in accordance with New World Encyclopedia standards. This article abides by terms of the Creative Commons CC-by-sa 3.0 License (CC-by-sa), which may be used and disseminated with proper attribution. Credit is due under the terms of this license that can reference both the New World Encyclopedia contributors and the selfless volunteer contributors of the Wikimedia Foundation. To cite this article click here for a list of acceptable citing formats.The history of earlier contributions by wikipedians is accessible to researchers here:

The history of this article since it was imported to New World Encyclopedia:

Note: Some restrictions may apply to use of individual images which are separately licensed.