From existential alterity to ethical reciprocity

Beauvoir's alternative to Levinas

Ellie Anderson

pp. 171-189

While Simone de Beauvoir's theory of alterity has been the topic of much discussion within Beauvoir scholarship, feminist theory, and social and political philosophy, it has not commonly been a reference point for those working within ethics. However, Beauvoir develops a novel view that those concerned with the ethical import of respect for others should consider seriously, especially those working within the Levinasian tradition. I claim that Beauvoir distinguishes between two forms of otherness: namely, existential alterity and sociopolitical alterity. While sociopolitical alterity is a contingent and surmountable form of otherness that results from oppression of individuals and groups, existential alterity is a necessary feature of the human condition that discloses the foreignness of the other as a freedom. Out of this view of existential alterity, I argue, Beauvoir develops an ethic of asymmetrical reciprocity. In contrast with Levinas, who dismisses reciprocity as a symmetrical or reversible model of relation that minimizes difference, Beauvoir promulgates a view of reciprocity that does not fall into the problems that Levinas diagnoses. Moreover, asymmetrical reciprocity more successfully figures the ethical relation to the other than the absolute asymmetry one finds in Levinas, which becomes evident through revisiting Levinas's account of eros and contrasting it with that of Beauvoir.

Publication details

DOI: 10.1007/s11007-018-9459-3

Full citation:

Anderson, E. (2019). From existential alterity to ethical reciprocity: Beauvoir's alternative to Levinas. Continental Philosophy Review 52 (2), pp. 171-189.

This document is unfortunately not available for download at the moment.