On the Meaning of Equality
In the introduction to her seminal 1949 work, The Second Sex, French existentialist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir examines her definition of humanity and how it is tied to the historical oppression of women. Beauvoir is trying to uncover inherent inequalities in a post-enlightenment world that is seemingly “equal in the eyes of the law.” Similarly, German economic philosopher, Karl Marx would explore another side of the same idea about a century earlier in his 1844 manuscripts, specifically “Estranged Labor.” As seen through their two works, Simone de Beauvoir’s ideas on human nature and its relation to the oppression of women are analogous to Marx’s ideas on humanity and its relationship to the plight of the proletariat.
Towards the final paragraphs of the opening of The Second Sex, Simone de Beavoir relates human purpose to women’s place in modern society. She states, “Every subject posits itself as a transcendence concretely through projects; it accomplishes its freedom only by perpetual surpassing toward other freedoms; there is no other justification for present existence than its expansion toward an indefinitely open future.” In this excerpt, de Beauvoir says that the pursuit of one’s continuous transcendence is contingent on the completion of physical tasks that allow one to achieve relative freedom. The context in which she uses the word “transcendence” to describe human purpose can be hard to grasp because “to transcend,” in its simplest definition, can mean “to surpass.” This definition would support de Beauvoir’s argument, but it does not account for the purpose of work beyond just the physical. However, “transcendence” can carry significance in the realm of immateriality, giving purpose to human work beyond just satisfying man’s physical needs. de Beauvoir’s usage of “transcendence” in this sense can be illuminated by Karl Marx’s idea of man as a species-being.
In Marx’s First Manuscript he writes a chapter titled “Estranged Labor” discussing the effects that the new capitalist-industrialist system has on the relation of the proletariat laborer and his work. To develop his argument on this relationship, he establishes his view on human nature by stating that man is species-being. This idea proposes that man is a combination of both species and being. Marx states that a man’s species is his animal function: “The animal is immediately on with its life activity. It does not distinguish itself from it. It is its life activity.” In turn all living creatures have the species. However, a man’s being sets him apart from the rest of nature: “Man makes his life activity itself with the object of his will and of his consciousness. He has conscious life activity… Conscious life activity distinguishes man immediately from animal life activity. It is just because of this that he is a species-being.” Marx’s discernment between the animal and the human makes up his argument for man as a species-being. A man has species, which consists of his animal functions, but the addition of conscious thought about his work adds being, making him a species-being. This idea can shed light upon de Beauvoir’s confusing terminology. In her writing, the physical labor man occupies himself with is his species, but the drive to do work that consistently transcends himself gives man his being. Therefore the use of the word “transcendence” describes man’s being; his search for meaning in his work beyond just the physical realm. Through these arguments, both de Beauvoir and Marx lay the groundwork for the rest of their passages, where they use their definitions of human nature to explain the oppression certain people.
Not only are de Beauvoir and Marx analogous in their analysis of human nature, they also share complementary arguments on human nature’s relationship to the oppression of certain groups of people. Marx and de Beauvoir even use similar devices when discussing the limitations set on certain people’s nature. de Beauvoir describes these limits in terms of man’s transcendence of his own freedom. The way she uses role-reversals to make this point that oppression is derived from the denial of human nature is comparable to Marx’s writing when he states, “It is only because he is a species-being that he is a conscious being, i.e., that his own life is an object for him. Only because of that is his activity free activity. Estranged labor reverses the relationship, so that it is just because man is a conscious being that he makes his life activity, his essential being, a mere means to his existence.” Both Marx and de Beauvoir use the role-reversals to argue that the freedom to transcend oneself through work has been denied to certain groups. For de Beauvoir this group is women, for Marx, it is the proletariat. de Beauvoir argues that women are frozen in their current state; they are made to assume roles without their consent; she explains, “What singularly defines the situation of woman is that being, like all humans, an autonomous freedom, she discovers and chooses herself in a world where men force her to assume as Other: an attempt is made to freeze her as an object and doom her to immanence.” The subjection of women to immanence is parallel to Marx’s description of estranged labor. He describes how the new capitalist-industrialist society takes workers away from the product of their labor, therefore taking man’s being away from his species. In de Beauvoir’s mind his description would be subjugating the worker to a life of rigidity and materiality; denying him transcendence by making his work satisfy his physical needs. Both de Beauvoir and Marx’s conclusions follow each other in their analyses of human nature’s relationship to oppression.
Simone de Beauvoir’s confusing language in her interpretation of human nature can be explained by Karl Marx’s analogous ideas regarding man as a species-being. These interpretations are important in relation to both authors’ arguments on the oppression of certain groups of people. To de Beauvoir, transcendence is denied to women, to Marx it is denied to the working class. These arguments are important because they examine one facet of equality that is not often considered in neoliberal societies. In post-enlightenment societies, equality ends at the law. However in de Beauvoir and Marx’s eyes, equality must go beyond the eyes of the law; it must account for the ability for one to achieve transcendence and purpose. To them, one must not be denied the opportunity to find metaphysical meaning in their work.
This shift away from the neoliberal definition of equality was revolutionary for thinkers in the 19th and 20th centuries since most Western governments were modeled after the ideas of the enlightenment. These new ideas stem from enlightenment thinking but take the meaning of equality to a new level in which it can be examined through the lens of purpose and achievement.
de Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex. Translated by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany
Chevallier. New York: Vintage, 2011.
Marx, Karl. “Estranged Labor.” Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. First Manuscript.
“Transcend.” Merriam-Webster. Accessed October 4th, 2019.
On Systems of Knowledge
A paradigm shift is a revolutionary change in the system of thought about the world that is brought upon by new discoveries and changes the way humans view what is true. The 2016 film, Arrival, directed by Denis Villinueve and starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forest Whitaker, gives a good example of a paradigm shift. The film shows how language expert Louise Banks has to attempt radical translation with a group of aliens that descend to Earth across the world. The process of radical translation takes painstakingly long time because it would require one translate a language from scratch, which makes Banks’s accomplishment even more impressive. What is so interesting about Arrival is how the translation serves to introduce the science fiction aspect of the film in which the thematic significance is derived from. The way that Dr. Banks’s translation of the alien language rewires her brain to think about time non-linearly makes some profound statements about the way we live our lives and whether we really appreciate our present moment, regardless of how it relates to what has happened in the past or what will happen in the future.
Her new way of thinking is of course a science-fictional example of a paradigm shift, but it harkens back to the Scientific Revolution of the Early Modern Period. The introduction of the idea of the circular nature of time is very similar to the revolutionary ideas about the nature of the universe and Earth’s place in it put forth by Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, and many others during the Scientific Revolution. The fictional paradigm shift in Arrival works with the narrative to deliver a smart and very emotional science fiction film.
On Literary Criticism
Toni Morrison’s argument about American Literature in her essay “Black Matters” is particularly interesting because the African influence on early America and American culture is largely underrepresented. In her essay she argues that early American authors who are considered important in the classic American Canon used black struggle and black identity as a backdrop for their moral and ideological contradictions. The characters, stories, and themes of early American literature use the moral contradiction of the original principal America was built on juxtaposed with a race-based system of slavery and oppression to further their complexity, whether the authors do it intetionally or not. She uses metaphors and imagery to develop her point, rhetorical strategies that make her writing all the more interesting to read. One metaphor that is particularly interesting is her comparison of the knowledge of the writing process as a fishbowl. She states that before writing, she could not see past what was inside the fishbowl, but after she had a career in writing, she began to see the fishbowl itself. In her words, she began to see why a writer writes what they write, instead of seeing just the writing itself. Her newfound insight helped her to see the imprint of Africanism on early American writings. In her poetic words, “Pouring rhetorical acid on the fingers of a black hand may indeed destroy the prints, but not the hand.” Morrison’s essay is a beautifully written, refreshing perspective on the Canon of American Literature.