Gender/Domination © Chiara Bottici
Gender/Domination © Chiara Bottici

This post is part of the Gender and Domination Course in OOPS.

In the chapter of The Second Sex entitled “The Psychoanalytic Point of View,” Simone De Beauvoir ends her exploration of the way in which traditional psychoanalysis treats ideas of womanhood and femininity with a critique of the discipline as a whole. I find this critique interesting in a number of ways, and I wish to take some time to explore it.

The first point that she makes against the discipline is that it operates with restricted notions of freedom and choice on the part of agential subjects, and that it understands the human being as nothing more than “a battlefield of drives and prohibitions equally devoid of meaning and contingent.” [1] For Beauvoir, psychanalysis only deals with subjects on the level of their psychic conflicts and disturbances, ignoring the deeper phenomenological structures of consciousness that produce and sustain them. Because the phenomenological life of a subject is, arguably, the very mode of being through which the subject expresses itself and its freedom, it follows that psychanalysis cannot adequately explain the latter if it cannot explain the former. Beauvoir is an existentialist, and the politics of the text are largely grounded in an appeal to women to slough off oppressive norms and facets of their identity that society has imposed on them and to instead live authentically by taking responsibility for their own freedom. In light of this, the fact that psychoanalysis cannot account for freedom is noteworthy, for it not only suggests a form of determinism that might be disagreeable in its own right, but also effectively undermines what is, for Beauvoir at least, the very condition for the possibility of a genuinely feminist politics.

For Beauvior, psychoanalysis’ lack of depth manifests in another way as well. Its focus on the surface features of psychical life, alongside its failure to account for freedom, tends to foster in its practitioners an unfortunate tendency towards the reduction of all of consciousness to a few arguably contingent facets thereof. Beauvoir uses the example of sexuality to illustrate this. While she wants to remain aligned with thinkers like Merleau-Ponty in suggesting that sexuality is a valence of our embodied existence that is always potentially at play in any particular experience or situation, she takes issue with the way psychoanalysis reduces subjectivity as such to sexuality. For her, this amounts to a confusion between causes and effects, such that the structures of consciousness that are imbued with a sexual character in certain contexts are taken as the results of, rather than the causes for, that sexual character. This confusion is significant for Beauvoir not just because she sees it as a philosophical mistake, but also because she sees it as a mistake that might cause one to understand certain aspects of sexuality (particularly, those aspects that are conceived of as “feminine”) as psychic or even biological necessities that cannot be changed, when in fact they are, regardless of their metaphysical status, quite mutable.

Personally, I find the first of these critiques to be somewhat lacking. If we think that a strong idea of subjective freedom is necessary for political choice, then Beauvoir’s concerns are valid. However, enough theoretical work has been done by political thinkers who reject robust notions of freedom, or even of subjectivity itself, to demonstrate that this concept is not truly necessary for such an end. The second critique, however, is far more compelling to me. The basis upon which Beauvoir appears to make it is a commitment to anti-essentialism. She wants to reject the idea that there are any specific facts about women that make them women in a foundational manner, arguing instead for a radical freedom on the part of the women, and of all other subjects, as well, to determine their own way of being. Once again, there are undoubtedly many thinkers who would adhere to this kind of anti-essentialism without taking the step that Beauvoir takes towards a strong theory of free subjectivity. It suffices to say, then, that the second of Beauvoir’s two critiques need not rely on the first, thus freeing it from the dangers to which the first succumbs. For this reason, I’m inclined to think that the latter critique stands as a fair critique of psychoanalysis, or at least of psychanalysis in its traditional form.

[1] Simone De Beauvoir. The Second Sex, trans. Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier (Vintage, New York, 2009), 79.