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The word “authentic” is perhaps overused in contemporary discourse, the term ill-defined, and all too often wielded to essentialize people or groups. In How to Be Authentic: Simone de Beauvoir and the Quest for Fulfillment (St Martin’s Essentials, 2022), writer and philosophy professor Skye C. Cleary reclaims the word, digging into the writing, life, and existentialist philosophy of Simone de Beauvoir to argue that true authenticity is a creative process of self-invention. New School Assistant Professor of Writing Luis Jaramillo talks with Cleary about writing autobiographically, the moral element of authenticity, and about what Beauvoir would say about the erosion of women’s rights to abortion and birth control. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Luis Jaramillo [LRJ]: The epigraph of How to Be Authentic is a quote from de Beauvoir’s Diary of a Philosophy Student: “My philosophy must be from life.” This thought seems like an organizing principle not only for Beauvoir’s philosophy, but for the book. Can you talk about this idea of philosophy coming from life?
Skye Cleary [SC]: Beauvoir had a sense from very early on in her life that there was something in philosophy that could be relevant to everyday life. Beauvoir went to Sorbonne University and studied Hegel and Kant, who were abstract, armchair philosophers. She didn’t want to philosophize like them. This quote is also interesting because, as you say, it comes from her student diary, which was written before she ever met her partner, Jean-Paul Sartre. Some people have argued that it was really Sartre who was the main philosopher, and she got her ideas from him. But the diary shows that no, she was already thinking philosophically, and about important ideas that became central to existential thinking, long before him. She was inspired by the phenomenologists, who were looking closely at everyday life, thinking about the truth we can experience there. She wrote novels and published her letters and diaries because she was looking for personal, nuanced, complex experiences that some of the more abstract, world-building philosophical systems can miss. Beauvoir claimed she was not a philosopher. She said she liked philosophy but didn’t want to be a philosopher. At the time, philosophy was, and it still is, in some ways, an ivory tower genre obsessed with trying to explain everything in the world. Beauvoir was more interested in living attitudes.
I’ve applied this philosophy-from-life method in my book, too. It’s why I include personal examples from my life, from Beauvoir’s life, and other people’s lives. In philosophy, we get taught that it’s an ad hominem argument to look at how people lived. But for philosophers like Nietzsche—who said that all philosophy is autobiography and, “In the philosopher . . . there is nothing whatever impersonal”—as well as Beauvoir, it’s important to look at the philosopher’s context, what problems they were trying to solve, what their intentions and questions were, and which perspective they were coming from.
LJ: How did you decide when and how to make use of autobiographical details?
SC: I was very much inspired by other philosophers who have written in this way: certainly Beauvoir herself, but also philosophers such as Massimo Pigliucci, John Kaag, and Gordon Marino. I focused on stories that illuminated Beauvoir’s philosophy, examples that I learned something from, situations that I came to better understand when I thought about them through Beauvoir’s lens, and anecdotes that I thought would show how Beauvoir’s philosophy applies to everyday life.
LJ: You share some pretty personal details about your marriage and about motherhood.
SC: Yeah, and that was terrifying. When I wrote my PhD, and when I published a book based on my PhD called Existentialism and Romantic Love, I very much suppressed any discussion of personal experience. I focused heavily on the theory and touched only briefly on philosophers’ biographical details. So writing How to Be Authentic was quite a big shift for me. It’s really hard to be vulnerable. But Beauvoir inspired me. She shared so much of herself in her writing. And philosophically, vulnerability can be an important way of connecting with other people, of developing intersubjective relationships based on mutual respect. Someone has to make the first move to extend the hand of friendship. You might fail, some people might not respond well to it. But sharing personal experiences can help us feel more connected and less alone. That’s what I’ve felt when reading philosophy written in this way. And it was my goal too.
LJ: You clearly did a lot of research for the book. What did this research entail?
SC: I started noticing a lot of people talking about authenticity, but splashing it around in such superficial ways. I would occasionally ask people what they meant by it and often they’d say it’s about “being yourself” or “being honest.” These didn’t seem like solid answers to me. I wanted to get to the bottom of it. I had already read a lot of Beauvoir’s work for my other research and I knew authenticity was a theme in her writing, even though she didn’t write a specific book about it. I went back and searched through her work, especially The Second Sex, but also her essays, memoirs, and novels, looking at where she used the word authenticity explicitly, or where she seemed to be talking about authenticity even if she didn’t specifically use the word. I also looked at criticisms of her work, especially Black scholars such as Kathryn Sophia Belle.
LJ: Were there places the research led that you eventually decided not to include in the book?
SC: Work was a theme that I was thinking about. I explored it a little, but it didn’t seem core to this project. I’m still thinking about it though.
LJ: I am very interested in two ideas in the book, one, that there’s a moral dimension to authenticity, and two, that if you’re oppressed, it’s impossible to live an authentic life. What does it mean that there’s a moral dimension to authenticity, and what does this have to do with oppression?
SC: Finding your “authentic self” is often taken to mean: “Let’s turn inward and look for the blueprint that’s going to tell us what decisions we should make and that will make us happy.” But Beauvoir argued that we’re humans who are always growing, always changing. An idea central to existentialism is that existence precedes essence: we’re thrown into the world, we find ourselves existing without having chosen it, and then it’s up to us to create our essence. But we’re not creating ourselves in a vacuum. We’re creating our essence in a world where other people exist, and we need to figure out how to get along with them. This is something she talks about, most specifically, in The Ethics of Ambiguity, which she wrote a couple of years before The Second Sex. Her argument is that if Nietzsche was right and God is dead, and there is no framework for our values and to guide our actions, then yes, it must be up to us to create those values and morals ourselves. But it doesn’t mean we can do whatever we like, because we coexist with others and in an environment and they matter too.
Beauvoir writes about being-for-ourselves and being-for-others. Authenticity is often discussed in terms of being for ourselves: “What is it that I want?” But other people are an important dimension of our existence. We create who we are with other people and through our relationships. Other people challenge us. They reveal aspects of our existence that we wouldn’t know without them. So being-for-others is just as important as being-for-ourselves. But being only for others is problematic because that’s submissiveness. And Beauvoir was very concerned about how women tend to annihilate being-for-themselves. They’ve had to be for others, be subordinate to men and children and others, in order to survive in society. There’s no strict formula for how to find that balance between being-for-yourself and being-for-others, but Beauvoir thought it’s important to try to find a balance and come to a harmonious being-with-others.
For the second part of your question about authenticity within oppression: Beauvoir wanted to abolish all suppression so that we can all project ourselves towards self-chosen goals in an open future. In The Second Sex, she talks about how women have been structurally oppressed, and although they might be able to make some authentic choices, those are small choices in the grand scheme of their lives. If you’re free, and other people aren’t, then oppression is the context of your freedom. If we value freedom for ourselves, then we have to value it for other people, otherwise, we’re being hypocritical.
LJ: Near the beginning of the book, you include something Beauvoir said in 1939, “History took hold of me, and never let go thereafter.” What did she mean by that?
SC: There’s a story about Simone de Beauvoir and Simone Weil. They were at the Sorbonne together. Beauvoir learned that Weil had sobbed when hearing about people starving during a famine in China. Beauvoir wrote, “I envied her for having a heart that could beat right across the world.” Beauvoir asked Weil about it. And Weil told her that the world needed a revolution so no one would go hungry. Beauvoir’s line was people needed reasons to live. Weil said, “It’s easy to see you’ve never gone hungry,” implying that Beauvoir was a bourgeois person who had never really experienced any hardship in her life. At that time, Beauvoir was more interested in the individual and in finding meaning in life.
It was only when World War II hit that she realized, oh, okay, no, we’re interconnected. What’s going on politically matters. And so then Beauvoir started to become much more politically engaged. It’s one of the reasons why she didn’t really call herself a feminist to begin with, because she thought a socialist system would solve gender problems and class problems. Then she traveled to socialist countries and realized that sexism existed there, as in capitalist countries. She realized her philosophy was abstracted from what was going on, like Nazi invasion. She realized that becoming authentic involves shaping the conditions of our lives.
LJ: What surprised you while researching and writing the book?
SC: One of the things that surprised me most was Beauvoir’s writing on old age. I knew she’d written a book about it, but I hadn’t paid much attention to it. At the time, not many people had written about old age and age discrimination. I was surprised by how much her writing resonated with me. Beauvoir talks about how we feel young on the inside, but our external appearances are shifting in ways that we can’t control. Beauvoir framed this as a social issue. In ageist societies where people are reduced to their profitability, the older they grow, the less useful they’re presumed to be, and they’re overlooked. It’s a travesty. It’s hard to push back against issues such as ageism individually. There can be high prices to pay for standing up against any form of discrimination. But Beauvoir was optimistic that situations can improve if we form solidarities, and push back against ageism together.
LJ: Beauvoir wrote about abortion and advocated for abortion rights. Considering what’s going on in the United States, what would Beauvoir’s approach be?
SC: In The Second Sex, Beauvoir has a chapter on the mother. The first ten pages of that chapter are dedicated to abortion and birth control. Beauvoir thought that it’s absurd to take on the responsibility of being a parent if you didn’t choose it. We have the medical technology to free women from being so heavily tied to their bodily functions. We should be using it so people can actively choose children, or not. Forced motherhood creates so much misery for everyone—unwanted children in families that can’t or don’t want to support them, or that burden foster care systems. Beauvoir rightly pointed out that people who defend the rights of fetuses don’t do anything to defend children once they’re born. And abortion is going to happen, whether it’s legal or not. Making it illegal relegates it to a class crime because only the most privileged and wealthiest women in society will be able to access it.
Beauvoir would be mortified with what’s happening now. We’re going backwards in terms of women’s rights and control over their own bodies. Beauvoir once wrote, “If you live long enough, you’ll see that every victory turns into a defeat.” She wasn’t talking about birth control and abortion specifically, but unfortunately she was right in this instance. But defeats can be turned back into victories. We have to keep fighting for our right to control our own bodies. Birth control and abortion frees men too. It frees men from their traditional roles. So that’s what we should do: get back out there and protest like Beauvoir did, engage however you can to push back against these oppressive structures and support freedom for people.
Skye C. Cleary PhD is a philosopher and author of How to Be Authentic: Simone de Beauvoir and the Quest for Fulfillment (St Martin’s Press 2022).
Luis Jaramillo is an Assistant Professor of Writing at The New school and the author of The Doctor’s Wife.