Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Feminine Devotion and Self-Abandonment: Simone De Beauvoir and Soren Kierkegaard: On the Woman in Love

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Feminine Devotion and Self-Abandonment: Simone De Beauvoir and Soren Kierkegaard: On the Woman in Love

Article excerpt

In spite of the fact that Kierkegaard, more than any other philosopher of the modern age, addressed questions of gender, sexual differences, self-identity, and sexual relations between men and women in his writings, he is rarely mentioned in Simone de Beauvoir's classic study of woman, The Second Sex, and on the few occasions when he is referred to in this work, it is generally unfavorably.' Yet Beauvoir's phenomenological description and critique of feminine devotion and self-abandonment in this text, especially in the chapter on "The Woman in Love," bear a close affinity with Kierkegaard's treatment of these qualities in two of his most important writings, The Sickness unto Death and Works of Love.2 Three points of similarity in particular will be explored in the present essay, together with some significant differences that serve to distinguish their individual approaches to the topic.

1. The first similarity to be noticed between Kierkegaard and Beauvoir is that both philosophers see love as signifying something different for woman than for man. According to Beauvoir, woman understands love as involving not only devotion but also total self-abandonment to the other, whereas man remains a sovereign subject who never abdicates himself completely in love (SS, 642). Instead of squandering his existence entirely on woman, as she does on him, man seeks to integrate woman into his existence as one value among others and thus as a being of only relative worth to him (SS, 642). By contrast, man represents for woman the absolute, the essential, for whom she is willing to relinquish everything in order to obtain a master (SS, 642). Denied the opportunity to establish herself as a sovereign subject through freely chosen, self-transcending projects as man is privileged to do, woman is confined to the realm of immanence or the given conditions of existence as determined by one's biological function and social situation (SS, xxxv). Thus she has no other way out, it would seem, than complicitly to accept her enslavement, resigning herself to live vicariously through man's self-transcendence and self-realization in projects and acts (SS, 643-44). In this way she hopes to share in his masculinity and male superiority and to recover the experience of childhood security under adult protection and authority, thereby preventing the feeling of existential abandonment in the world and avoiding the agonizing task of assuming responsibility for her own life (SS, 64445).

Kierkegaard also finds devotedness (Hengivenhed) and giving of oneself (Hengivelse) to the other to be characteristic of woman in contrast to man, who gives as well but unlike her gains and retains his self apart from giving to others (SUD, SOn). As Kierkegaard sees it, devotedness constitutes woman's nature; it is "the one unique quality" woman possesses and thus is fundamental to establishing her substantive identity as a woman (SUD, 50n). Woman becomes herself through a metamorphosis of boundless youthful coyness into feminine devotedness, paradoxically gaining herself by losing herself (tabt sig selv) or abandoning herself in (styrter sig i) the object of her devotion (SUD, SOn). In contrast to Beauvoir, who rejects the notion of "the eternal feminine" or a female essence viewing feminine devotion and self-abandonment as a consequence of woman's situation, or the existential conditions imposed on her by society (SS, xx; 6433), Kierkegaard clearly holds an essentialist conception of woman's being. Yet, in consonance with Beauvoir, he recognizes that social experience and development play an important role in shaping the life of woman and the possibility of realizing or not realizing herself authentically as a woman and as a self or fully actualized human being.3

2. Both Beauvoir and Kierkegaard are critical of feminine devotion and self-abandonment insofar as the social cultivation of these qualities in woman results in idol worship, loss of self, and masochism, in Beauvoir's account, or becomes a mode of despair, self-love, and false devotion, as analyzed by Kierkegaard. …

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