Monthly Archives: August 2019

Sartre and de Beauvoir: on essence, existence, and becoming woman

Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre were the two leading lights of French existentialism during the middle decades of the 20thcentury. Sartre’s theory of existentialism is known as phenomenological ontology, which is one of the most difficult topics in twentieth century continental philosophy. A somewhat simpler idea is the expression ‘existence precedes essence’. Apart from Sartre’s own elaboration of this idea, it was also used by de Beauvoir to discuss her thesis that ‘One is not born but becomes (a) woman’, a central concept in the development of the post-war feminist movement. Both Sartre and de Beauvoir also discussed the concept of ‘the Other’, an expression which was central in later discussions in continental philosophy of the concept of ‘alterity’. Sartre and de Beauvoir were lifelong companions and lovers, although they were not monogamous and did not live together.


Jean-Paul Sartre was born 1905 and, after an unorthodox education, he studied at the Ecole Normale Superieurebetween 1924 and 1929 so as to sit the teaching qualification agregationexam. He failed the exam on his first attempt, but on his second attempt in 1929, he was awarded first place, although he and Simone de Beauvoir, whom he had only met that year, were virtually equal in marks. In 1930, Sartre became aware of the phenomenological method of Edmund Husserl and the phenomenological ontology of Martin Heidegger. Sartre taught at various lycees in Le Havre before winning a scholarship to study phenomenology in Berlin between 1933 and 1935. His first book ‘The Transcendence of the Ego’ was published in 1936 and ‘Sketch for a Theory of Emotions’ and ‘Nausea’ in 1938. Sartre returned to teaching in various lycee in Paris from 1936 until the outbreak of war in 1939. Sartre was drafted into the French army as a meteorologist but was captured in Padoux in 1940. He spent nine months as a prisoner of war but was released due to poor health. He returned to teaching in Paris and was involved in the formation of an underground group ‘Socialism and Liberty’. He was strongly opposed to collaboration with the Germans. In 1943, he published his major work ‘Being and Nothingness’. After the war, Sartre became one of the leading figures of French existentialism. His 1945 public lecture ‘Existentialism is a Humanism’ was one of the most important statements of existentialist philosophy. Sartre wrote little on politics during the thirties, but after the war he became a defender of Stalinist Russia.

Simone de Beauvoir was born in 1908 and educated in a Catholic school for girls until 1925. She then studied at the Sorbonne and although not a student at the Ecole Normale Superieure, she attended the lectures and sat for the agregationin 1929, coming second to Sartre by the barest of margins. At the age of 21, she was the youngest student to have passed the exam. From 1929 to 1943 she taught at various lycee until her licence to teach was revoked for seducing a female student. In 1943 she published her first book, ‘She Came To Stay’, which established her as a writer and secured her financial independence. This was followed by ‘Pyrrhus and Cineas’ in 1944, ‘The Ethics of Ambiguity’ in 1947, and her major work ‘The Second Sex’ in 1949.

Philosophy: Existence precedes essence

Sartre’s philosophy of phenomenological ontology is a complex system of various difficult ideas such as absolute freedom, bad faith, and authenticity. However one simple introduction to his philosophy can be found expressed in the phrase ‘existence precedes essence’. For the Christian scholastics of the medieval period, essence was said to precede existence, such as in the example of a essence of rationality leading to the existence of a human. Sartre opposed this view, arguing that there is no predetermined essence to be found in any human and that any such essence is defined by how an individual person creates and lives their life. As he expressed it in ‘Existentialism is a humanism’: “…man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up into the world – and defines himself afterwards.” It is only through the exercise of choice, of absolute freedom, that a human essence can be created.

De Beauvoir transformed the phrase ‘essence precedes existence’ into the feminist proposition ‘One is not born but becomes (a) woman.”[1](“On ne naît pas femme, on le devient”) The importance of this sentence was that it distinguished for the first time between sex and gender. One may be born as a female sex but becomes a woman as having a certain gender as involving specific ways of acting, speaking, dressing, etc.. A woman may then choose to act ‘like a man’ in being assertive, confident, out-going, sexually promiscuous, etc., rather than, ‘like a woman’ such as being quiet, reserved, sexually ‘pure’, etc..

Philosophy: The Other

In ‘Being and Nothingness’, Sartre argued that the way we perceive the world is altered by the appearance of ‘The Other’. Hegel, in the 19thcentury, had argued that when the Self moves beyond its own self-conscious awareness, it must confront the Other (i.e. Not-Self) as an object of experience. The Other, in this sense, is part of the defining of one’s own Self. Husserl, at the start of the 20thcentury, had argued that the Other must be the basis of intersubjectivity (i.e. the relations between people) although for Husserl this conception of the Other was primarily a problem of knowledge. Sartre took this idea of the Other to be the issue of the psychological presentation of the Other to the experience of our Self. We experience the Other as an expression of who we are.

De Beauvoir took the idea of the Other to be something which is determined by gender. A woman is only Woman as she is determined by Man. In the history of philosophy, women were represented as inferior to men. Aristotle stated that women were “female by virtue of a certain lack of qualities”, while Aquinas referred to woman as “imperfect man”. In other words, traditional western culture was a patriarchy where women were a ‘second sex’. Further, this conception of women as the Other was also the basis of systematic injustice against women. Irrespective of identities such as race, religion, ethnicity, or class, women are always ‘second’ to men in terms of power, status, wealth, etc. and even so far as to the ownership of their own bodies. De Beauvoir also argues that in the creation of the woman as Other, an aura of ‘mystery’ is created whereby women cannot, in principle, be understood, which negates any attempt by men to do so (See quote below).



[1]In the 1952 translation of ‘The Second Sex’, the translator Howard Parshley, a professor of biology with only a basic familiarity with French, under pressure from Blanche Knopf, the wife of the publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, excised more than a third of the original text and translated one of the more important sentences in the text as‘One is not born but becomes a woman.” This translation suggested that the idea of ‘becoming’ simply referred to woman as a particular. i.e. that one becomes awoman, either as an individual or a part of a group, whereas the sentence should have been rendered ‘One is not born but becomes woman.” which implies that ‘becoming’ relates to woman as a universal ideal. i.e. that one becomes woman. Despite constant requests over the following decades for a new translation of the book, this was not done until 2009, and in 2010 the original missing third of the book was re-instated.




“In the chapter “Woman: Myth and Reality” of The Second Sex, de Beauvoir argued that men had made women the “Other” in society by application of a false aura of “mystery” around them. She argued that men used this as an excuse not to understand women or their problems and not to help them, and that this stereotyping was always done in societies by the group higher in the hierarchy to the group lower in the hierarchy. She wrote that a similar kind of oppression by hierarchy also happened in other categories of identity, such as race, class, and religion, but she claimed that it was nowhere more true than with gender in which men stereotyped women and used it as an excuse to organize society into a patriarchy.”

What do you think this quote means and do you think its true?

“In a patriarchal culture, the Man-Woman relation is society’s normative binary-gender relation, wherein the sexual Other is a social minority with the least socio-political agency, usually the women of the community, because patriarchal semantics established that “a man represents both the positive and the neutral, as indicated by the common use of [the word] Man to designate human beings in general; whereas [the word] Woman represents only the negative, defined by limiting criteria, without reciprocity” from the first sex, from Man.”

What do you think this quote means and do you think its true?


Further reading

de Beauvoir: The Ethics of Ambiguity

de Beauvoir: The Second Sex

Sartre: Authenticity:

Sartre: Ethics:


Being and Drunkenness: How to party like an existentialist (Aeon blog by Skye Cleary)