Tristan Potter

Simone De Beauvoir - a critique of historical Western philosophy

Jul 14th, 2020
Originally published Apr 6th, 2018

As we saw in the posts on the Western history of gender, philosophers largely viewed women as flawed humans, but classified men as practically divine and supremely logical beings operating beyond their mortal coils.

Simone De Beauvoir challenged the ways that primarily-male Western philosophers characterized gender, specifically their restrictive definitions of femininity. In addition to her critiques, one of her many now-mainstream contributions is the differentiation of sex and gender.

In her challenge, Beauvoir criticized the basis for the then-current Western theories of gender:

Man vainly forgets that his anatomy also includes hormones and testicles. He grasps his body as a direct and normal link with the world that he believes he apprehends in all objectivity, whereas he considers woman’s body an obstacle, a prison, burdened by everything that particularizes it.1

(De Beauvoir, The second sex, pp2014)

The receipts

Beauvoir supports her claims by referencing the works of classical philosophers, demonstrating the ways that masculine superiority has impacted large schools of thought:

Beauvoir concludes that ancient philosophers defined men as the default, and women as merely an object in relation to men; not as an individual.

Humanity is male, and man defines woman, not in herself, but in relation to himself; she is not considered an autonomous being.1

(De Beauvoir, The second sex, pp2014)

What is femininity?

Recognizing that femininity has been historically defined as distinctly not masculine is important to understanding our modern ideas of femininity, and gender in general, as an identifying trait.

If our definition for a gender is the lack of another identifier, we run into issues of categorization.

These historical ideas about gender don’t help us to understand people’s experiences.

  1. De Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex. Random House, 2014.  2 3 4