The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Imperialism and Anti-Imperialism

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De Beauvoir, Simone (1908–1986)

  • Elvira BasevichEmail author
Living reference work entry


Simone de Beauvoir published philosophy and literature that explored the nature of freedom, individual and social responsibility, and subjectivity. As a philosopher, she is best known for her magnum opus The Second Sex, which has become an iconic work of second-wave feminism.

A prolific writer, Simone de Beauvoir published philosophy and literature that explored the nature of freedom, individual and social responsibility, and subjectivity. As a philosopher, she is best known for her magnum opus The Second Sex, which has become an iconic work of second-wave feminism. Although the reputation of Jean Paul Sartre had at one point surpassed her own as a thinker, recent scholarly interest in her work now recognises her significant and distinct contributions to philosophy and literature (Bergoffen 2004: 80). Some scholars have even speculated that it was her guidance that spurred Sartre’s intellectual development. Nonetheless, her contributions to political theory and her lifelong activism have yet to be fully recognised. From her autobiographical account of her experience of the Nazi occupation of Paris to her campaign during the Algerian War on behalf of a young Algerian woman and activist, Djamila Boupacha, the extent to which philosophy, literature, and politics were interconnected for her is clear. As Julien Murphy observes, the issues of colonialism and French imperialism took an especially prominent place in de Beauvoir’s political activities and philosophical thought (Murphy 1995).

From an early age, de Beauvoir contested the conventions of her dour, middle-class upbringing. Her biographer, Deirdre Bair, writes that she had always “equated reading with happiness” (Bair 1991: 65). She was part of the first generation of French girls to take advantage of progressive reforms in higher education in early twentieth-century France, which finally allowed them to train for a professional degree. At the Sorbonne, she met Sartre, and they would remain close friends until his death in 1980. Sartre’s approach to existentialist ethics contended that the individual alone generates the meaning of the social world. According to his view, ethics was simply an orientation that the lone individual invents rather haphazardly in building meaningful relationships and intellectual projects. She was intrigued by the idea of radical freedom and the problem of nihilism that preoccupied the young Sartre, but would later criticise his view because of the extreme individualism it presupposed.

It was under the Nazi occupation of Paris that de Beauvoir came of age as a political thinker. Although she would later write novels and a drama about the French resistance and post-war French politics (e.g. The Blood of Others, Who Shall Die? and The Mandarins), the extent of her own participation in the resistance is unclear. Some have even suggested that she and her inner circle colluded with the German occupiers to further their careers and secure steady work (ch. 17). What is clear, however, is that her wartime experience marked her political awakening, motivating her to rethink her pre-war political and philosophical commitments, among which was – as a successful, middle-class French woman – her own relationship to French colonial subjects. She would later describe her wartime experience as throwing her for the first time into the world, forcing her to realise that she could no longer indulge in a life in which she her private and professional ambitions alone were central. Neither could she defend an existentialist philosophy in which meaning is constructed by lonely, anxiety-ridden individuals. She came to find meaning already abundant in the world around her.

In a 1965 interview in The Paris Review, de Beauvoir retrospectively describes her political awakening. She says that she realised that as a young woman she had been “swindled.” She then went on to explain that being “swindled” does not simply mean being tricked:

‘I’m swindled’ also implies something else – namely, that life has made me discover the world as it is, that is, a world of suffering and oppression, of undernourishment for the majority of people, things that I didn’t know when I was young and when I imagined that to discover the world was to discover something beautiful. In that respect, too, I was swindled by bourgeois culture, and that’s why I don’t want to contribute to the swindling of others and why I say that I was swindled, in short, so that others aren’t swindled. It’s really also a problem of a social kind. In short, I discovered the unhappiness of the world little by little, then more and more, and finally, above all, I felt it in connection with the Algerian war and when I traveled. (Gobeil 1965: 35)

Her gradual discovery of the unhappiness of the world is evident in her writing, through which one can trace an arc of moral and political development. Beginning with the musings on the purpose of human engagements that she had jotted down as a young philosophy student in the 1930s, her changing views on the relationship between morality and politics eventually led her to call vehemently on her fellow citizens to end the French occupation of North Africa in the 1950s and 1960s. She would also come to defend the right of colonial subjects to engage in violent revolt against their occupiers in the name of freedom and national self-determination.

Her first philosophical essay, “Pyrrhus et Cineas” (1944), did not endorse such a radical political position, but it did contain the germ of an ethical framework that is consistent with the latter. In the essay, the tyrant Pyrrhus advisor, Cineas, ponders the purpose of endless imperial expansion. For, he concludes, at the closing of a day and of a life, one always ends up back where one started: in one’s motherland, alone. She uses this dialogue to set the stage for a discussion about the purpose of undertaking any project whatsoever, given that human finitude is bound to render our projects unsuccessful or, at the very least, incomplete. She defends the importance of human endeavours in spite of their ultimate futility: our finitude is not an obstacle as much as a necessary condition for constructing meaning, since meaning is only possible for mere mortals, rather than gods and archangels. According to de Beauvoir, the latter could never feel the burden of responsibility for their choices because their lives extend into eternity. The capacity for freedom is distinctly human and thus necessarily an expression of human finitude, of the fact that we have a past and a future and that our present will 1 day dissolve in the impalpable instance of our death.

The imperialist overtones of the essay were lost on the young philosopher, and she decidedly sides with the imperialist Pyrrhus, goading us on to undertake projects in spite of their ultimate futility, as Pyrrhus did when he invaded Macedonia, Rome, and Thessaly before returning to rest in his imperial courts. At this point, she does not provide a clear criterion for distinguishing “meaningful” from “meaningless” collective political projects, contending only that action is better than inaction. She simply stipulates the importance of throwing oneself into the social world and of action more generally. The essay nonetheless demonstrates a nascent political consciousness that recognises the importance of others in building a meaningful life: in order to construct a truly free life, one must involve others in it and ensure that they have the minimal autonomy necessary to pursue collective actions. That is to say, one must be attuned to the miseries and strivings of others.

In the essay, she also begins to ponder how a political community that can feasibly undertake collective action is constituted. A single life, after all, is not expansive enough to include everyone nor is it small enough to exclude everyone. All action throws one into the world and requires one to assume one’s “situation” – constitutive of a particular social identity and historical and geographic context. How to draw the bounds of political fellowship and to decide who warrants one’s concern and who does not is a problem de Beauvoir poses in this early essay but leaves unsolved.

In “Pyrrhus et Cineas,” her concern about colonialism and French imperialism, though palpable, is still only implicit. After all, in drawing the boundaries of human fellowship, French citizens must judge whether or not French colonial subjects belong under the arc of their moral and political consciousness. It was not until the publication of The Ethics of Ambiguity (1948) that she first clearly articulated a conception of freedom and subjectivity that is attuned to a social world marred by colonialism and imperialism. It is also here that she begins her lifelong philosophical engagement with Marxism and affirms her commitment to the universal humanism typical of communist and cosmopolitan political philosophies, though she was often a vocal critic, and never a member, of the French Communist Party (PCF).

She definitively breaks with Sartre’s conception of radical freedom in favour of a position that takes seriously material and political inequality. In his early work, Sartre had argued that insofar as human beings are conscious, they are free. The onus of choosing a path for one’s self and building a meaningful life is equally shared by every selfconscious individual. “[R]elations of unequal power have no bearing on the autonomy of the subject. “The slave in chains is as free as his master because each is equally free to choose the meaning of his own situation.” The question of material or political inequality between master and slave is simply irrelevant to their relation as two freedoms, as two absolute subjects” (Sartre, quoted in Kruks 1992: 96). She instead argues that our capacity to make meaningful choices is profoundly influenced by the social world and our relationships with others. One cannot establish radical freedom due to the mere fact that we are all equally self-conscious agents, since many of us suffer exploitation on account of our sex, gender, race, class, religion, and nationality. This is precisely the “ambiguity” she identifies as the ineradicable feature of ethical life: we are neither wholly determined by our social context nor completely free of it. The social world necessarily mediates all our action and thought without wholly determining them.

In the spirit of Aristotle’s virtue ethics, in The Second Sex de Beauvoir outlines the material conditions of freedom by arguing that women’s liberation requires access to material and social “props” (choregia). These props consist of access to viable, self-affirming work, quality education, public life, and state-subsidised day care and maternity leave. She also emphasised the importance of reproductive rights, lobbying for contraceptives and the right to abortion. Her emphasis on material and social goods is also representative of her commitment to Marxism. For de Beauvoir, true liberation necessitates a more egalitarian organisation of the basic structure of the social and economic world that would support the civil and political rights we gain.

For her, the essential feature of immorality is the treatment of human beings as mere objects; such treatment undermines the prospect of engaging with others on the basis of the mutual recognition of one another’s freedom. She uses several examples from the colonial context to illustrate this point. Colonial overseers often perpetuated atrocities according to a vision of empire that reduces colonial subjects to mere tools subordinate to the end of capital accumulation and the consolidation of power. “Oppression tries to defend itself by its utility” (De Beauvoir 1976: 95). According to this logic, the free market must advance unhampered because of the promise of “productivity”; colonisation exploits resources that would otherwise lie “fallow,” thereby generating “value.” Thus, in spite of all the violence visited upon colonised peoples, colonisers asserted that they were benefiting the latter.

She later develops her account of social and political distortion in The Second Sex to incorporate the phenomenon of “Othering.” A “sovereign consciousness” defines the identity and worth of another human being in terms of the negative features that he projects onto them, often delegating women and certain racial groups as the “Other.” Given the apparent rationality, self-control, and strength of whites and men, women and people of colour are irrational, infantile, and weak. The Other is not perceived to even have the capacity for self-determination – they are a “thing” for the sovereign consciousness to control, define, and exploit.

In her mature political and moral philosophy (The Ethics of Ambiguity and The Second Sex), she argues that the existence of anyone’s oppression limits the freedom of all. She thus espouses the universal humanism that is characteristic of her particular brand of existentialism, which provides her with a conceptual apparatus for expressing solidarity with exploited peoples around the world, including colonial subjects and women of colour. For her, the ideal of reciprocal autonomy must be realised as a collective political project that spans the globe.

For her, the moral ideal is to recognise one another as sovereign subjects equally possessing autonomy and the capacity for self-determination. Although she has historically been associated with white bourgeois feminism, her characterisation and use of her own feminist philosophy galvanised her antiimperialist activism, particularly on behalf of colonised women. She believed that the moral ideal of mutual reciprocity must be achieved between French citizens and France’s colonial subjects. In Force of Circumstances she explicitly links the oppression of women with colonisation, arguing that the same logic of domination operates in both contexts.

From the end of the Second World War, she made her home available to political refugees and other stateless peoples and dissidents emigrating from the so-called Third World (Bair 1991: 400). Arguably, the 1950s and 1960s were her most politically active period. She travelled extensively and lent her support to various political causes, meeting – among others – Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, Mao Zedong, and Franz Fanon. She became actively involved in the liberation movements in North Africa, particularly Algeria.

Presided over by President Charles de Gaulle, the occupation of Algeria protected French business interests in the country, culminating in the Algerian War (1954–62), during which the French army tortured and killed innumerable Algerian citizens in an effort to put down the Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN), the socialist liberation army fighting to end French occupation in the country. Only a year before Algeria would finally win independence (1962), the violence spilled over to France. The Paris-based guerrilla army of the FLN called on Algerian citizens to protest against the military occupation of their homeland. In a show of solidarity, Algerian families crowded the streets. In her memoirs, she describes how, led by a former Nazi collaborator, Maurice Papon, French police massacred the protestors, throwing their mutilated and broken bodies in the River Seine or hanging them from the Bois de Boulogne in what would later be known as the Paris Massacre.

Along with other prominent French intellectuals, de Beauvoir signed the Manifesto 121 in support of Algerian independence, condemning the French military occupation of Algeria. As a feminist and supporter of the FLN, in 1960 she began to campaign on behalf of a young Algerian woman, Djamila Boupacha: an FLN member raped and tortured by French soldiers during the Algerian War (Murphy 1995). She collaborated with Gisèle Halimi, Boupacha’s lawyer and a global advocate for women’s rights, to raise awareness about Boupacha’s case among the French public and the Western media. De Beavoir and Halimi co-authored a book about Boupacha’s ordeal (1962). They would later work together on various feminist causes, spearheading a campaign for the right to abortion and contraceptives in France in the 1970s.

De Beauvoir’s anti-imperialist political action forced her and Sartre into hiding in the early 1960s. They became the targets of the right-wing nationalist militia Organisation de l’Armée Secrète (OAS), which planted several bombs in their residences. She was undeterred and continued her activism. Moreover, she did not limit her criticism to French imperialism; she was a vocal critique of the Vietnam War and a member of the Russell Tribunal, which convened in 1967 to assess the consequences of the US’s war crimes in Indochina.

In The Mandarins, de Beauvoir captures the post-Second World War sentiment of the French. Though many of the novel’s political themes are now passé, the novel depicts the general ethos following the war: “This peace […] gave us back our lives without giving us back our reasons for living” (De Beauvoir 1987: 76). With the end of the Second World War, she developed a moral philosophy that posited the struggle for freedom as expressive of the very fibre of the human spirit, and, to a considerable extent, the struggle for freedom became her own reason for living.


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© The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Queens CollegeCity University of New YorkNew YorkUSA