On the Question of Woman: Illuminating De Beauvoir through Kantian Epistemology

By Shabot, Sara Cohen | Philosophy Today, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

On the Question of Woman: Illuminating De Beauvoir through Kantian Epistemology


Shabot, Sara Cohen, Philosophy Today


Simone de Beauvoir did not expressly refer to Kant when dealing with the question of woman in The second Sex. Nevertheless, I believe that there are important similarities between her way of building the concept of woman and the trajectory of Kant's arguments in his synthetic epistemology. In this essay I would like to shed new light on de Beauvoir's concept of woman while making use of Kantian theory of knowledge. I will be dealing here, then, with the possible consequences of the de Beauvoir-Kant analogy for the comprehension of de Beauvoir's conceptualization of what it means to be a woman. I argue that by means of such analogy it is possible to shed light on a specific interpretation of de Beauvoir's perspective on the question of woman, i.e., the interpretation according to which de Beauvois can be considered neither a pure essentialist, or a thinker pointing to essentialism, nor a pure constructivist calling to an absolute nominalist position regarding the concept of "woman." In other words, I argue that the comparison between de Beauvoir's approach to the question of woman and Kant's approach to the question of knowledge calls for an understanding of de Beauvoir as arguing for a synthesis between so-called a priori elements constituting women on one side and the social, cultural, historical, external features which construct them on the other. By way of this analogy I support a particular understanding of de Beauvoir-one that considers her a synthetic thinker-and which stands in opposition to certain well-accepted interpretations of her position regarding the specific question of woman.

De Beauvoir: Constructivist, Essentialist, or Synthetic?

In the following, I shall argue that similarly to Kant regarding the question of knowledge, de Beauvoir can be seen as proposing a synthetic approach to the understanding of the concept of woman. Women's existence, from this point of view, is understood as a product of both a priori, immanent conditions on one side, and external, social, cultural and historical conditions on the other.1 The analogy with Kant may help to illuminate this take on de Beauvoir's approach. (As I will later show, this interpretation has already been defended in different ways by some de Beauvoir scholars.) I will briefly present the two interpretations which are contested by de Beauvoir as synthetic, in order to describe later the synthetic approach which can be supported by the analogy Kant-de Beauvoir.

De Beauvoir as Constructivist

De Beauvoir has been hardly read as pointing toward a pure constructivist approach to the question of woman. One of the few important readings of de Beauvoir which sees her as arguing for the inexistence of women in nature, and their construction only as a product of social and historical conditions, is the reading of Judith Butler, who-using de Beauvoir's famous statement from The second Sex on becoming a woman rather than being born one-relates to de Beauvoir as her predecessor regarding the constructivist theory of woman (Butler 1998). Butler argues:

Indeed, it becomes unclear when one takes Simone de Beauvoir's formulation to its unstated consequences, whether gender need be in any way linked by with sex, or whether this conventional linkage is itself culturally bound. If gender is a way of "existing" one's body, and one's body is a "situation," a field of cultural possibilities both received and reinterpreted, then gender seems to be a thoroughly cultural affair. That one becomes one's gender seems now to imply more than the distinction between sex and gender. Not only is gender no longer dictated by anatomy, but anatomy does not seem to pose any necessary limits to the possibilities of gender. (Butler 1998, 38-39)

Butler's reading of de Beauvoir as conflating sex and gender, and as arguing for an unnecessary relationship between anatomy and gender features-i.e., as constituting an early Butlerian-has been broadly contested.

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