Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex

•January 6, 2018 • Leave a Comment

“Enough ink has been spilled in the quarreling over feminism, now practically over, and perhaps we should say no more about it.”

This is from the opening paragraph of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, the woman and the book that most modern feminists look back to as the start of the movement. Was she being ironic? Yes and no. It is easy to recognize the ironic part. Weighing in at nearly 1000 pages it certainly seemed like there was more to be said and much of what she said set the feminist agenda for the next generation. The serious side of her comment is a little harder for us to see today but from where she stood in the late 1940’s it looked like feminism had run its course.

We don’t think about it much today but what is now known as First Wave Feminism started in the 19th century and lasted until the mid-twentieth century when de Beauvoir was writing her book. The aim of First wave feminism get woman the right to work, own property in their own name and most importantly to vote. As the first women cast their ballots in the French election of 1945, it looked like feminism may achieved its goals.

But de Beauvoir knew that while the aims of the only feminism she knew were being accomplished there was so much more to do. Drawing on Sartre’s existentialist idea that “existence precedes essence” she examines the social construction of the idea of woman and its effects on society.  The Second Sex laid the groundwork for what would come to be known as Second Wave Feminism which became widespread in the 1960’s through works like Betty Freidan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963), Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics (1970) and Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch (1970). Her formulation that “one is not born a woman, but becomes one” distinguishes sex from gender and inspired later Third Wave Feminists like Judith Butler who try to break down rigid categories and create a more fluid notion of gender.


Simone de Beauvoir was born in Paris in 1908. She had a strict Catholic upbringing and at one point considered becoming a nun. At the age of 14 she had a crisis of faith and declared herself an atheist. She attended the Sorbonne where she studied philosophy and completed her thesis on Leibniz in 1929. That same year she met Jean-Paul Sartre, forming a partnership and romance that would shape both of their lives and philosophical beliefs. De Beauvoir published countless works of fiction and nonfiction during her lengthy career—often with existentialist themes.

Her first major published work, the 1943 novel She Came to Stay. It looks at existential ideals and was based on her relationship with Sartre and a student named Olga Kosakiewicz. The next year she published a philosophical essay, Pyrrhus and Cineas, which takes an existentialist view of the human situation and our purpose in life.

In 1949 she published her best known work, The Second Sex. The book was received with great controversy, some even considered it pornography and was it placed on the Vatican’s list of forbidden books. In 1954 she published The Mandarins, a semi-autobiographical novel that won the Prix Goncourt. This was followed by her influential four volume auto-biography which included: Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (1958), The Prime of Life (1960), Force of Circumstance (1963) and All Said and Done (1972).

De Beauvoir traveled widely and supported various political causes including the independence movements in Hungary and Algeria as well as participating in the student protests in France and the United States during the 1960’s. Much of her later work explores issues of aging and death. She died in Paris in 1986 and was buried in Montparnasse Cemetery with Sartre.

Some Key Ideas

Sartre’s work provided de Beauvoir the conceptual foundation for the The Second Sex. Particularly important is his existentialist notion, derived from Hegel, of an opposition between a sovereign subject and an objectified Other.

The Other—The notion that women are defined in opposition to and different from men rather on their own terms. While it is natural to define things in contrast to others, doing this with gender effectively denies women their humanity.

Nature vs. Nurture—Woman’s so-called inferiority is not the result not of natural deficiency but is culturally determined and comes from their upbringing and education. “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”

The Eternal Feminine—This is a myth takes many forms—the sanctity of the mother, the purity of the virgin, the fecundity of the earth and of the womb. In each case the myth serves to deny women their individuality and hold them to impossible and unrealizable ideals.

Immanence and Transcendence—Traditionally, men have “transcendence” and are active, creative, powerful and productive, while women have “immanence” and are passive, introverted and static. But every human should enjoy the interplay of these two ideas in constructing their life and place in society.


The recommended version is the 2011 Vintage edition with the translation by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier which is the first complete and unabridged English version that restores much material edited out of previous translations. It is available on Amazon for under $15

While it would be great to read the entire book—and I would encourage you to do so when you have time—we will focus this time on some of the more influential and better known chapters. This is just over 200 pages but provides many of the key themes and ideas. The chapter titles are from the Borde & Malovany-Chevallier translation but are similar in the other translations.


Biological Data (I: Part 1, Chapter 1)

The Point of View of Historical Materialism (I: Part 1, Chapter 3)

Dreams, Fears, Idols (I: Part 3, Chapter 1)

Myth and Reality (I: Part 3, Chapter 3)

Childhood (II: Part 1, Chapter 1)

The Girl (II: Part 1, Chapter 2)

The Married Woman (II: Part 1, Chapter 5)

Woman’s Situation and Character (II: Part 2, Chapter 10)

The Woman in Love (II: Part 3, Chapter 12)

The Independent Woman (II: Part 4, Chapter 14)




Christina Hoff Sommers dismissed The Second Sex, claiming that its “reputation as a masterpiece, a work of art, or even an inspiring manifesto, depends heavily on no one reading it.” Now that you have read some of it, do you think the book lives up to its reputation? How is the actual content of the book different from your expectations?

How does de Beauvoir’s view of historical materialism differ from other writers that we have read (e.g., Marx, Adorno, Sartre)? How are women similar and how are the different from other oppressed or marginalized groups (e.g., Marx’s proletariat)?

The poet Stevie Smith said of de Beauvoir that “She has written an enormous book about women and it is soon clear that she does not like them, nor does she like being a woman.” Why are her characterizations of women primarily negative? Can she be considered a misogynist?

Simone de Beauvoir was heavily influenced by Sartre. Likewise, Judith Butler was inspired and influenced by de Beauvoir. How are their ideas different? Where might these three agree or disagree with each other?

 B. Radford said that The Second Sexis “primarily a middle-class document, so distorted by autobiographical influences that the individual problems of the writer herself may assume an exaggerated importance in her discussion of femininity.” How widely applicable are the ideas in The Second Sex? Is this a book that is merely about “first world problems”?


Additional Resources

Simone de Beauvoir


1965 Paris Review Interview

1975 Interview (Video in French with English subtitles)


“Philosophy Talk: Simone de Beauvoir” Laura Maguire

“Did Simone de Beauvoir’s open marriage make her happy?” Lisa Appignanesi


“A Brief History: The Three Waves of Feminism” Carolin Dorey-Stein

“Four Waves of Feminism” Marth Rampton

“History of Feminism” Wikipedia

The Future

“Sex and Gender in Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex” Judith Butler

“Beauvoir revisited: Butler and the “gender” question” Maria Luisa Femenias


Reading in 2017

•January 2, 2018 • Leave a Comment

2017 was an interesting year for reading. In looking back there was perhaps only one book that stood out however, there were a few patterns and themes that emerge. More than anything this was a year of revisiting old favorites.

I was finally able to read Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations thoroughly, comprehensively and in its entirety at one time. The book, long a favorite, is too easy to read in pieces or to dwell on particular comments, problems or ideas. However, unlike other writers (one thinks particularly of Hegel), this comprehensive approach did not uncover any profound new insights I might have missed over the years of piecemeal reading.

On the other hand, a more comprehensive approach to Heidegger did yield a better more complete picture. It began with revisiting an old favorite, Being and Time and was followed two books, The Bremen Lectures and Contributions to Philosophy (of the Event). These were new to me but help to provide a framework for understanding the later Heidegger and where he was going after his most famous work. Contributions to Philosophy (of the Event) was particularly interesting. It reads like a dystopian science fiction novel written in the form of a philosophical treatise.

I had the opportunity to reread Dialectic of Enlightenment along with Minima Moralia and a good sampling of Adorno’s writings on art, music and aesthetics. Also had the chance to expand my understanding of Max Weber & Emile Durkheim beyond their most well-known books. For Weber this included the massive and sprawling Economics & Society. For Durkheim it was the lesser known works on education and socialism as well as his work on L’Année Sociologique.

It was also a good year for reading biography. Miles Unger’s Michelangelo: A Life in Six Masterpieces provided a novel approach to understanding the life and times of the great artist. Unger organizes Michelangelo’s lilfe into six periods, each featuring one of his creations that exemplifies his attitude, approach and problems of that era of his life.

I continue to enjoy Rüdiger Safranski, this year reading his biographies of Nietzsche and Heidegger. Gareth Stedman Jones’ new biography Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion helps to set Marx’s large ouvre into its historical context and provides an interesting contrast to Jonathan Spencer’s Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life. Robert Richardson’s William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism was a great supplement to reading and discussing his essays as well as a visit to his house and neighborhood in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Odds and Ends
A few other books merit mention. A trip to San Diego led to some reading about the history and settlement of that area. Helen Hunt Fuller’s novel Romona was perhaps the most noteworthy. In a year of rereading and old favorites I  found my old copy of Buckminster Fuller’s Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. Thinking this would be a great optimistic corrective to the cynicism and despondency of the Trump era I was looking forward to reacquainting myself with this influential book from my youth. Sadly, it has not aged well and Fuller’s genial utopian buoyancy fails to make up for the fuzziness of arguments or his questionable social science. He will always be remembered as hero of my youth, but today’s heroes require a good deal more rigor and detail.

Background to Dialectic of Enlightenment

•December 3, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Philosophy and the world

We often think of philosophy as an activity of the mind, performed by intelligent people in the leisurely and safe environment of a university office or seminar room. Philosophers write books, present papers, go to conferences and sleep comfortably in their own beds. This has not always been the case. And Europe in the 1930’s was a particularly dangerous time to be a philosopher which can be seen by the fragmentary and unfinished state of what would have been the era’s most important works.

Antonio Gramaci’s Prison Notebooks consist of 3000 pages in 30 notebooks written while he was imprisoned from 1926 to 1936. The notebooks were smuggled out of his cell in 1936 but were not published until the 1950’s. They consist of fragments on various themes ranging in length from a few lines to several pages. The conditions of their composition were horrendous. “His teeth fell out, his digestive system collapsed so that he could not eat solid food… he had convulsions when he vomited blood, and suffered headaches so violent that he beat his head against the walls of his cell.” Gramsci died in prison a few months later in 1937. He was 46 years old.

Walter Benjamin, a close associate and some time member of the Frankfurt School worked on his magnum opus during roughly the same years, from 1927 and 1940. Known as the Arcades Project, it would have been one of the great texts of the 20th century. It was never completed and what remains are several boxes of fragments, outlines, sketches, photographs and postcards. Despite its reputation it was not published until 1999. Benjamin eventually took his own life in 1940 while trying to escape from Nazi Europe. He was 48 years old.

Of the three, Georg Lukács’ History and Class Consciousness was the only work to be completed and published intact, probably due to it being completed by 1923. The book was soon condemned in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Lukács was forced to publically repudiate his ideas. In 1930 he was summoned to Moscow and was not permitted to leave until the end of the war. Lukács was one of the few that survived the purges of the Great Terror from 1936-38 which claimed the lives of 80% of all Hungarian émigrés living in the Soviet Union.

The Institute for Social Research

History and Class Consciousness was a major inspiration for the work of the Frankfurt School. What happened to Lukács made it clear that any serious conceptual progress would have to be made independently of the official Communist party and the development of Stalinism in the Soviet Union. Also, as Marxist-associated thinkers with Jewish ancestry, their safety in increasingly National Socialist Germany was extremely problematic. The Institute was moved from Frankfurt to Geneva in 1933 and soon after to New York in 1934.

In fact, the Institute for Social Research was made up of theorists who felt alienated from all the current political trends of the era: communist, fascist and capitalist. They looked for alternative ideas and approaches that would explain the events of the early twentieth century that seemed to defy the path outlined by the first and second generations of Marxist and socialist thought. Even though it was founded by Felix Weil in 1923, the Institute is most closely associated with Max Horkheimer who became the institute’s director in 1930 and recruited it’s most well-known theorists: Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse and  Erich Fromm.

Looking to understand and explain the inadequacies of classical Marxism, the members of the Institute looked to other schools of thought including Weber and Simmel (antipositivist sociology), Freud (psychoanalysis) and, of course, Lukács. They wanted to overcome what they perceived as the limits of sterile positivism of Comte and the materialism of the Marxists by revisiting Hegel’s dialectic and Kant’s notion of critique—viewing opposition and contradiction as important, even essential, aspects of human society. As a result, Horkheimer & Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment is one of the primary texts of the movement. A manifesto of sorts that outlined the future direction and preoccupations of the group that would be expanded upon in Horkheimer’s Eclipse of Reason, and Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man and Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson & Sanford’s The Authoritarian Personality.

Dialectic of Enlightenment

The book explores several themes in contemporary thought and culture that are held together by the notion that there are limits to the modern project of the enlightenment and that a tendency toward paranoia, xenophobia and self-destruction—so apparent in the Nazi and Stalinist terror—are not exceptions but were always undercurrents of the European Enlightenment. They were always part of the dialectic of the civilizing influence of society with the need to dominate nature.


The Stanford University Press is the only English edition of Dialectic of Enlightenment that is widely available and easy to find. I would recommend that one although any of the others are similar and should be acceptable if people want to use them.



Dialectic of Enlightenment
Culture Industry
Frankfurt School / Institute for Social Research











Mind and the World Order

•May 14, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Clarence Irving Lewis is a transitional figure from early century American Pragmatism to mid-century Analytic philosophy. His writings and teaching at Harvard inspired the generation of Analytic philosophy that rose to prominence in the 1940’s and 1950’s.

Influenced by Kant and influencing Quine, his Mind and the World Order (1929) develops Lewis’ views on logic and pragmatism into a unique epistemology “conceptual pragmatism.” Lewis insists that empirical belief and a priori belief are interconnected. In conceptual pragmatism a person brings their interests, motivations, social and psychological background to bear on the act of turning given sense data into empirical knowledge. This background is not the universal and absolute a priori that we see in Kant but constitutes a pragmatic a priori and is in some ways derived from past experiences.

This highly influential and respected work is seldom read or taught today but its unique insights into the theory of knowledge deserve greater attention.

For those who don’t have the time to read the entire book, his short essay “A Pragmatic Conception of the a priori” (1922) is a good introduction to some of the key ideas and approach that he develops in Mind and the World Order:

“A Pragmatic Conception of the a priori” (1922) is in Susan Haack’s Pragmatism: Old and New and it is also available online here:

George Herbert Mead (1863—1931)

•April 30, 2017 • Leave a Comment

James T. Farrell said of George Herbert Mead, “his style was often marked by accuracy and precision. Some of his papers are a pleasure to read not only because of their originality but also because they are models of compact organization.” Mead studied with both Josiah Royce and William James at Harvard in the late 1880’s when James was finishing his Principles of Psychology.

George Herbert Mead (1863—1931) had many original and influential ideas that he presented in lectures, conversations and in the forty-six papers that he published during his life. But he died before he was able to integrate them into systematic book length presentation.

After his death several of his students dug through the extensive lecture notes, the stenographic records of his social psychology course at the University of Chicago, and from his numerous unpublished papers. They edited these notes and lectures into the four posthumously published volumes we typically associate with Mead.

Mind, Self & Society (1934) is the primary presentation of Mead’s concept of social behaviorism. For Mead the mind is neither a transcendent substance nor merely the result of chemical and physiological interactions. The mind emerges from a social act of communication between organisms. In Pragmatism human activity is the criteria for truth and meaning. Mutual activity, particularly communication, creates the mind and our sense of self. Each individual is a product of the society in which they live. The individual develops a sense of self when they become an object to themselves—looking at themselves through the perspective of others.

The Philosophy of the Act, (1938) shows how the ideas of social behaviorism can point out the psychological origin of scientific understanding and a lead to a pragmatically grounded philosophy of science. Individuals want to have control over their immediate environment. The notion of what a physical object is rises out of these particular needs. This creates a kind of “social interaction” with inanimate objects. Science therefore is a continual reconstruction of our idea of the world in response to different situations. It is not fixed but changes over time and with circumstances.

The Philosophy of the Present, (1932) and Movements of Thought in the Nineteenth Century (1936) present Mead’s pragmatist view of the philosophy of history. As with science, historical thought arises in response to changing circumstances that are confronted by the social group. History continually reconstructs the past in an attempt to understand the present. The meaning of past events changes as our present circumstances and the problems we confront change. The truth of history is its ability to make the present sensible through reference to the past. Historical thought is the reinterpretation of the past in terms of the present. Like science, the truth of history is not static but changes with our needs and circumstances.

We only have two short selections from Mead in our anthology both dealing with social behaviorism and the self. If you would like to read more I would encourage you to take a look at his short book, The Philosophy of the Present. It is available free on the internet:

Also available is James Farrell’s review”George Herbert Mead’s Philosophy of the Present.” (1947):

Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914)

•April 16, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914) was a polymath who did original work in logic, language, communication, and semiotics. He wrote extensively on a wide range of subjects including mathematics, logic, physics, astronomy, psychology, anthropology, history, and economics. While he was one of the most brilliant minds of his or any era there are some issues that confront a reader trying to make sense of Peirce’s vast oeuvre.

The most vexing problem is that Peirce, a rigorous and systematic thinker, never created a comprehensive statement of his ideas. What we get is a systematic philosophy without a systematic presentation.

Another issue is that Peirce’s ideas were constantly changing. As his ideas were always developing and evolving, what we see in his writing is the process but never a definitive statement or overall view. What we get are periodic snapshots of parts of the system in the process of development and change.

Also, Peirce wrote short articles for a variety of different publications. Some were written for a general audience, others for academic professionals in a variety of fields. Therefore, he had to fill in the gaps every time he published—providing synopses or summaries of previous articles and the foundational ideas that he was building upon. As a result, when reading Peirce one gets the impression of too much repetition and frequent inconsistency. This is made even worse through bad editing.

The challenge for us then is to read Peirce as a process not a statement. It helps to be aware of chronology and small changes. Peirce’s philosophical work breaks down into phases, each with a complete philosophical system. Keeping track of which system helps to overcome what seems at first to be contradictions and inconsistency.

The first system of his youth was an attempt to develop a Semiotic idealism that combined Kant’s Transcendental Analytic with Platonic idealism.

The second system includes his Subject-Predicate theory of propositions as well as his “New List” of categories. The second system is represented by selection 1 in Susan Haack’s Pragmatism: Old and New with the essay “Some Consequences of Four Incapacities” (1868) from the Journal of Speculative Philosophy: Cognition series (1868-9).

The third system develops his Doubt-Belief theory and influential Pragmatist theory of meaning. In his writing of this period Peirce creates one of the first attempts at outlining a philosophy and methodology of science. Further developments of this philosophy of science would eventually form the basis of Pragmatism and became a basic cornerstone of Peirce’s philosophical system.

The third system is represented by selections 2-3 in Susan Haack’s Pragmatism: Old and New with the essays “The Fixation of Belief” (1877) and “How to Make our Ideas Clear” (1878) from the Popular Science Monthly: Illustrations of the Logic of Science series (1877-1878).

In the fourth system he completes another revision of categories as the basis for his Theory of cognition and reality. Much of his late work further develops and elaborates his theory of Pragmatism. Particularly his 1905 essay “What Pragmatism Is” from his Pragmatism series of articles in The Monist presents one of his best discussions of his view of Pragmatism as philosophy. Also, his description in Baldwin’s Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology is informative. (See selection 4 in Susan Haack’s Pragmatism: Old and New).

The fourth system is represented by selection 4 in Susan Haack’s Pragmatism: Old and New which includes edited pieces from the essay “What Pragmatism Is” (1905) from The Monist: Pragmatism series (1905) as well as excerpts from Baldwin’s Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology and others miscellaneous writings. If you would like to read the original “What Pragmatism Is” it is available here: What Pragmatism Is (1905)

There are additional very short selections in Susan Haack’s Pragmatism: Old and New which can be read to give you some idea of his innovative thinking and range of ideas.

  1. “The Backward State of Metaphysics” (1898/1903)
  2. “The Categories” (Harvard Lectures, 1903)
  3. “On the Strengthened Liar “1869 (On logic)
  4. “On Logic Machines” 30 Dec 1886 (An early idea for computer)
  5. “On the Triadic Logic” MS 339 Logic Notebook 23 Feb 1909 (Peirce’s idea for a triadic logic)

When reading Peirce try to see if you can picture his philosophy as a whole. Is it possible to define the essence of a philosophy that holds together all his diverse interests and ideas? What would that look like?

John Cage’s Number Pieces

•March 13, 2017 • Leave a Comment


John Cage’s final series of works, the Number Pieces, were written in the last years of his life. Most of these pieces were composed with his time bracket technique where short fragments, often just one note, a dynamic marking and a time bracket or range for when they player could start and stop playing the note or fragment.

The name of the composition reflects the number of players so pieces like One and Three have fairly sparse textures with frequent gaps and silence. Pieces like Twenty-Six and Twenty-Eight have much more complex textures and can vary considerably from performance to performance.


This disc from OgreOgress provides a great opportunity to compare these different pieces. Three (1989) for three recorders is spare with much silence. If is quiet and meditative and is reminiscent of some of his early Chance works for piano like Winter Music or Music for Changes.

The larger works, Twenty-Eight, Fifty-Four and Fifty-Seven, while having a seemingly “slow tempo” (a bit of a misnomer for describing the Number Pieces) and soft dynamics have a unexpected amount of tension and drama that arises from the occasional dissonance and overtones. The truly benefit from close and repeated listening and achieve an intensity that is surprising.

It is a good selection of these late and rarely heard works by John Cage performed with skill and subtlety. If you find you like them you should also consider their early release which includes excellent recordings of the later Three (for percussion), Six, Twenty-Three and Twenty-Six.