Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre studied at the Sorbonne for their postgraduate agrégation in philosophy in 1928-29 (fellow students included Claude Lévi-Strauss and Maurice Merleau-Ponty). Both distinguished themselves, of that there is no doubt. During the examination, Sartre presented his case with typical confidence and self-possession. “The entire jury, particularly the president, Lalande, were captivated,” said Maurice de Gandillac – future eminent professor of philosophy. Of de Beauvoir, he said she was:
“rigorous, demanding, precise, very technical… she was the youngest in the promotion. Only twenty-one, three years younger than Sartre… As two members of the jury, Davy and Wahl, told me later, it had not been easy to decide whether to give the first place to Sartre or to her. If Sartre showed great intelligence and a solid, if at times inexact, culture, everybody agreed that, of the two, she was the real philosopher… The examiners were so impressed by the precision of her philosophical expression that they wanted to give her the first place. Finally, they decided it had to be given to Sartre, because he was the normalien (student at an École Normal supérieure)] and, besides, he was taking it for the second time.”
In the complex marking system, Simone de Beauvoir missed first place by a mere one fiftieth of a point.
The period 1943-49 saw the peak of de Beauvoir’s literary and philosophical output, beginning with her first novel, L’Invitée, (She Came To Stay) and culminating in her most famous philosophical work, Le Deuxième Sexe (The Second Sex). During this time she also published her other important, shorter philosophical work: Pour Une Morale de L’Ambiguïté (The Ethics of Ambiguity).
In reading de Beauvoir, one must also bear in mind Sartre. Whereas Sartre’s ontology (description of existence) is a-situational, de Beauvoir shies away from absolutes. In fact, throughout her work, her ontology rejects absolutes. In the Morale she describes a psychologically-linked ontology, assuming implicitly that her psychological descriptions are universal to mankind. In Le Deuxième Sexe, her ontology is linked with history and socio-politics. By creating such links, de Beauvoir shows us that the moods of joy or anguish are as much linked to contingent circumstances as they are to ontological rigour. In the Morale she illustrates this by situating her argument within the process of human psychological development, from childhood, through adolescence and into adulthood. In Le Deuxième Sexe the illustration focuses on women’s historical and socio-political development. In doing this, de Beauvoir argues, against Sartre, that there are circumstances when Bad Faith (Sartre’s most famous contribution defined as the phenomenon of self-deception) does not apply: in circumstances when one is unable to recognise the potential freedom in one’s situation. For instance, children are not aware of freedom for they live attuned to the world of the other. It is only in adolescence that they reach the crisis of existential freedom. Similarly, de Beauvoir shows that women, in living attuned to the world of the other, were ignorant of their own ability to recognise freedom. Where such ignorance exists, Bad Faith cannot be applied. That is not to say that de Beauvoir rejects Sartre’s concept of Bad Faith but that she defines the terms of its existence. Not engaging in the anguish of freedom is not necessarily a sign of refusal to engage; it could just as well be a sign of the other’s success in confining me inside a certain condition. Bad Faith can only arise in proportion to the degree of experienced conditions which trigger the possibility of a challenge. By situating the ontology in this way, de Beauvoir upholds and develops the importance Sartre places on the particular circumstances of any situation.
The Morale provided the foundational concepts which would be expanded upon in Le Deuxième Sexe. The analogy between slaves and women, for instance, has so often been misinterpreted by ignoring the extensive use of the slave analogy in the Morale. Its purpose is not to compare the material well-being of women to that of slaves (an argument used extensively by feminists), but to compare the similarities of mystification which both groups experience. Mystification is shown by de Beauvoir to be a major condition where Bad Faith has no significance as a concept. Mystification is the root of the creation of the inessential other, the foundation of her famous phrase: “one is not born, one becomes a woman”.
De Beauvoir has only recently begun to be taken seriously as a philosopher, though her work has shown all along that she not only supported Sartre’s argument but that she made significant new contributions. One must not discredit the genius of Sartre. It is perhaps time, however, to begin to consider whether he was the seed of a much more robust body of work – the work of Simone de Beauvoir.