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Simone de Beauvoir: A Portrait of Ambiguity

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Simone de Beauvoir: A Portrait of Ambiguity

<p>De Beauvoir is an ambiguous figure in the intellectual landscape, having assumed many identities within and beyond her lifetime: Existentialist philosopher in post-war France, writer and feminist.

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De Beauvoir is an ambiguous figure in the intellectual landscape, having assumed many identities within and beyond her lifetime: Existentialist philosopher in post-war France, writer and feminist. While a highly accomplished philosopher in her own right, she mostly remained in Sartre’s shadow while she was still living. Curiously, she considered herself first and foremost as a writer rather than a philosopher and was happy to defer to Sartre’s views of Existentialism. Through an exploration of such texts as The Ethics of Ambiguity and The Second Sex, we will examine this anomaly and other ways in which the theme of ambiguity features in her philosophy.


SUGGESTED READING
Simone de Beauvoir:
She Came to Stay (1943)
Pyrrhus and Cinéas (1944)
The Ethics of Ambiguity (1947)
The Second Sex (1954)


Jean-Paul Sartre:
Existentialism is a Humanism (1946)


COURSE OUTLINE

  • Course Aims and Overview: Who was Simone de Beauvoir?
    • Introduction to De Beauvoir: Her life and influences, including the socio-political, cultural and intellectual environment from which her philosophical ideas emerged.
    • Overview of the main texts to be studied in the course: She Came to Stay (1943), Pyrrhus and Cinéas (1944), The Ethics of Ambiguity (1947) and The Second Sex (1954).
  • De Beauvoir’s Early Views of Ethics
    • Discussion of her novel, She Came to Stay, and her philosophical essay, Pyrrhus and Cinéas.
    • Exploration of her early ideas of the interrelated themes of freedom, violence and our relationship with others.
  • The Point of Departure of Existentialism: Nietzsche and the "Death of God"
    • Discussion of Nietzsche’s notion of the “death of God” or the advent of nihilism as a crisis in European morality signifying the gradual demise of belief in Christianity.
    • Examination of how the “death of God” could be considered as the starting point of Existentialism.
    • Texts to be examined include Nietzsche’s The Gay Science (1882, 1887) and The Will to Power (1880s) and Sartre’s Existentialism is a Humanism (1946).
  • De Beauvoir’s Existentialist Ethics: The Ethics of Ambiguity
    • In The Ethics of Ambiguity, de Beauvoir employs the central claim of Sartrean Existentialism that “existence precedes essence”. Like Sartre, she delineates human existence as the source of justification, meaning and value in a Godless world and emphasises the importance of freedom, choice and action. However, unlike Sartre, de Beauvoir explicitly characterises Existentialism as a “philosophy of ambiguity” and thereby refutes Dostoyevsky’s infamous assertion that, “If God does not exist, everything is permitted”.
    • Key tenets of Sartre’s Existentialism will also be discussed to set the background for the discussion.
  • De Beauvoir as Feminist: The Second Sex – Based on a reading of The Second Sex, we will address questions such as:
    • What does de Beauvoir mean by her key claim, “One is not born but becomes a woman”?
    • How has the inequality between men and women arisen from the particularity of a woman’s economic, social and historical situation?
    • How has this inequality affected women’s freedom?
    • Why does a woman live in a male dominated universe wherein the man is always the Absolute Subject and she is always the inessential Other?
    • How can women seek liberation from patriarchal oppression?


PLANNED LEARNING OUTCOMES
By the end of this course, students should be able to:

  1. Recognise the various contributions to philosophy and the intellectual landscape that de Beauvoir has made.
  2. Explain the key assumptions, arguments and claims that underlie her ideas.
  3. Critically evaluate the relative strengths and weaknesses of these ideas.
  4. Construct one’s own perspectives and arguments pertaining to de Beauvoir’s philosophical ideas based on the course material.
  5. Engage actively in, and make constructive contributions to, discussions about de Beauvoir’s philosophy.