Simone de Beauvoir was one of the most influential French philosophers of the 20th century. Classified alongside existentialists such as her romantic partner, Jean Paul Sartre, de Beauvoir wrote extensively on subjects ranging from feminism to ethics to literary criticism. De Beauvoir was an accomplished novelist as well, earning a Prix Goncourt award for her novel The Mandarins. Let’s embrace our radical freedom to learn about this intellectual titan.
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THE SECOND SEX—FACTS AND MYTHS
De Beauvoir achieved an intellectual breakthrough with The Second Sex, a monumental work of philosophy examining the nature of womanhood from a feminist perspective. The key thesis of The Second Sex is that woman is constantly rendered an “Other” by man. The first section of The Second Sex, Facts and Myths, explores how myths and various analytical methods (such as biology, psychoanalysis, and history) contribute to the impossible ideal of the Eternal Feminine.
THE SECOND SEX—LIVED EXPERIENCE
The second section of the book begins with de Beauvoir’s famous line that: “One is not born, but rather becomes a woman.” The second section is called Lived Experience and explores how the identity of a woman is constructed by societal demands and expectations.
THE ETHICS OF AMBIGUITY—CONTRA DOSTOYEVSKY
De Beauvoir’s second best-known work is her study of existentialist ethics, The Ethics of Ambiguity. In The Ethics de Beauvoir explores the ambiguity between our predetermined past and the future, which we create through our choices. As part of this ethical project, de Beauvoir rejects Dostoevsky’s famous charge against secularism: “If God is dead, everything is permitted.” In The Ethics de Beauvoir proposes a system in which the collective could regulate itself without recourse to religion.
THE ETHICS OF AMBIGUITY—PERSONAL FREEDOM AND OTHERS
Personal Freedom and Others is the second section of The Ethics of Ambiguity, and it recounts the ways in which we reject the radical freedom of choice suggested by existentialism. De Beauvoir proposes different types of people who deny their freedom to varying degrees. There is the sub-man, who wholesale denies that his freedom exists. There is also the serious man, who surrenders his freedom for the sake of an abstract idea or principle. At the extreme there are nihilists, who simply try to do nothing at all with their freedom. Genuine freedom, for de Beauvoir, marries a passion to pursue goals with genuine concern for others.
THE COMING OF AGE
The Coming of Age, published in 1970, is a study of the ways in which we perceive elders. De Beauvoir looks at various cultures over hundreds of years, coming to the conclusion that the elderly are another oppressed Other.
Quizbowl is about learning, not rote memorization, so we encourage you to use this as a springboard for further reading rather than as an endpoint. Here are a few things to check out:
Read this article for a more thorough analysis of The Ethics of Ambiguity.
De Beauvoir’s philosophy wasn’t pure abstraction; she was intimately involved in intense issues of her day.
De Beauvoir embodied the radical freedom of existentialism in every aspect of her life, including her romantic relationships.
Watch this video to hear de Beauvoir expand on her famous quote that: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”
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