Simone de Beauvoir and the Politics of Ambiguity

Simone de Beauvoir and the Politics of Ambiguity

Simone de Beauvoir and the Politics of Ambiguity

Simone de Beauvoir and the Politics of Ambiguity


Simone de Beauvoir and the Politics of Ambiguityis the first full-length study of Beauvoir's political thinking. Best known as the author of The Second Sex, Beauvoir also wrote an array of other political and philosophical texts that together, constitute an original contribution to political theory and philosophy. Sonia Kruks here locates Beauvoir in her own intellectual and political context and demonstrates her continuing significance. Beauvoir still speaks, in a unique voice, to many pressing questions concerning politics: the values and dangers of liberal humanism; how oppressed groups become complicit in their own oppression; how social identities are perpetuated; the limits to rationalism; and the place of emotions, such as the desire for revenge, in politics. In discussing such matters Kruks puts Beauvoir's ideas into conversation with those of many contemporary thinkers, including feminist and race theorists, as well as with historical figures in the liberal, Hegelian, and Marxist traditions.

Beauvoir's political thinking emerges from her fundamental insights into the ambiguity of human existence. Combining phenomenological descriptions with structural analyses, she focuses on the tensions of human action as both free and constrained. To be human is to be a paradoxical being, at once capable of free choice and yet, because embodied, vulnerable to injury from others. Politics is thus a domain of complexly interwoven, multiple, human interactions that is rife with ambiguity, and where freedom and violence too often closely intertwine. Beauvoir accordingly argues that failure is a necessary part of political action. However, she also insists that, while acknowledging this, we should assume responsibility for the outcomes of what we do.


Simone de Beauvoir’s political thinking has not received the attention it deserves. Best know as the author of The Second Sex, outside feminist circles she has too often been identified merely as Sartre’s life companion and, in intellectual matters, as his disciple. Although the last two decades have witnessed a major “renaissance” of scholarship on Beauvoir, most of this work remains encapsulated within relatively small areas of feminist and continental philosophy and does not address her wider contributions to political theory and philosophy. Indeed, very few Anglophone scholars are even aware of the extent of Beauvoir’s writings on politics, and most are ignorant of her theoretical contributions. Thus my project is, in part, simply to explain what was profoundly original and significant in Beauvoir’s wide-ranging thinking about politics. However, beyond that, it is also to demonstrate how her ideas continue to have a remarkable degree of currency. Her work still speaks to many questions that exercise not only academic political theorists and philosophers but also social critics and political activists.

It is particularly timely, in addition, to consider Beauvoir’s thinking in the present politico-intellectual conjuncture. For some decades an impasse has existed in political theory and philosophy. Liberal rationalists, who conceive of the self as an autonomous rational agent and characterize politics as a realm of debate among such reasonable individuals, and poststructuralists, who espouse discourse-constructionist theories of the self and question both the notion of the self as an autonomous agent and

1. There is not, in my view, a sharp distinction to be made between political
theory and political philosophy, and I use either or both terms as appropriate. I
also quite often refer simply to Beauvoir’s “political thinking” as a way of encom
passing both her more speculative and her more immediately engaged treatments
of matters political.

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