Simone de Beauvoir

Sunday, March 6, 2016
First Aired: 
Sunday, March 9, 2014

What Is It

Simone de Beauvoir is often cast as only a novelist or a mere echo of Jean-Paul Sartre. But she authored many philosophical texts beyond The Second Sex, and the letters between her and Sartre reveal that both were equally concerned with existentialist questions of radical ontological freedom, the issue of self-deception, and the dynamics of desire. This episode explores the evolution of de Beauvoir's existential-ethical thinking. In what sense did she find that we are all radically free? Are we always to blame for our self-deception or can social institutions be at fault? John and Ken sit down at the café with Shannon Mussett from Utah Valley University, co-editor of Beauvoir and Western Thought from Plato to Butler.

Listening Notes

John and Ken begin the show by discussing the ways in which de Beauvoir’s existentialist philosophy comes together with her feminist philosophy. John suggests first talking about the more familiar part of her work, that on feminist theory. Ken explains that de Beauvoir presents much of this in her famous The Second Sex, where she writes of how the roles we associate with women are but social associations and constructions. As an existentialist philosopher, de Beauvoir also wrote about radical freedom, the idea that we are free and always choosing who we are. Both theories are concerned with us casting off societal influence to be who we truly want to be.

The two are joined by Shannon Musset, co-editor of Beauvoir and Western Thought from Plato to Butler and Professor of Philosophy at Utah Valley University. Musset first discovered The Second Sex in a feminism class in college. It opened her eyes to a problem she didn’t realize existed and shifted her whole worldview. Once you look into it, she says, you see that all of the social categories and absolutes Beauvoir talks about are just constructed from the ground up.

Responding to Ken’s inquiry about how, if we are radically free, we can ever have any values imposed on us, Musset says that at the same time as Beauvoir maintains that we are radically free, she also recognizes that not everybody is in the same situation. That’s where the ethics of ambiguity lie. As Ken clarifies it, the job of the oppressor is to blind us of our true potential and metaphysical reality. John wonders about the effects of WWII on de Beauvoir’s writing and second-wave feminism. Musset describes how Beauvoir’s time under Nazi occupation was very influential for her. The three then discuss the (absence of) standards by which we can evaluate our choices under this framework as well as how Beauvoir might respond to eastern societies.

In the final segment of the show, among other topics, the three turn to looking at Beauvoir’s philosophy as it might apply today. What would she say about the progress of women since the release of The Second Sex, and what would her advice be, John wonders? Musset answers that she would likely be pleased, but that she would also remind us to pay attention to history. We don’t come onto the scene in a vacuum, she says. They conclude by discussing the appropriateness of third-wave feminist critiques of the second-wave and of Beauvoir’s work.

  • Roving Reporter (seek to 5:23): Caitlin Esch shares with us a brief biography of de Beauvoir. Born in 1908 to an upper-middle class family, Beauvoir’s father determined that both her and her sister would get an education that could make them independent, a radical thought at the time. After being one of the first women to receive a degree from the Sorbornne, she was deeply influenced by the difficult conditions brought on by WWII. A close friend of existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, Beauvoir herself was a philosopher but also wrote novels to make her material more accessible to lower-class women. She died in 1986, having left an indelible mark as one of the most important French writes of the 20th century.
  • 60-Second Philosopher (seek to 45:29):  Ian Schoales talks about his pre-pubescent fantasies of beatnik women and how the media images of women—strippers, actresses, and beatniks—showed him a large bitter world beyond his own borders.



Ken Taylor  
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John Perry  
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Ken Taylor  
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