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Transcendence and Immanence
Simone de Beauvoir, in her groundbreaking mid-20th century work The Second Sex, presented the concepts of “transcendence” and “immanence” as integral features of her theoretical analysis of the structures of patriarchal oppression in Western society. This essay will explore these concepts in terms of Beauvoir’s feminist analysis. In this context, it will be argued that these concepts cannot be considered to be “gender biased” if “bias” is understood in terms of a negative or unsubstantiated scholarship. Rather, as will be argued, Beauvoir’s use of these concepts to describe how the lives of women and men in society are distinctly culturally gendered is not only substantiated when considered in its own historical context but also illuminates our understanding of gender roles in Western society in the early 21st century.
In The Second Sex Simone de Beauvoir presents the concepts of “transcendence” and “immanence” in the course of attempting to answer the fundamental question of “what is a woman” (Beauvoir 1949). Beauvoir contends that the view of generic terms such as “masculine” and “feminine” as being symmetrical only applies in the technicalities of legal documents, for in Western society and culture the two are radically distinct (Beauvoir 1949). She contends that the masculine is the normative “default” in Western society, and that the feminine is defined against this:
She is defined and differentiated with reference to man, and not he with reference to her; she is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute – she is the Other.
(Beauvoir 1949, p.5)
Of course, Beauvoir is aware of that the conceptual binary Self/Other is a principle of differentiation that applies to more than simply the relations between men and women. For example, she notes its referents throughout the cultural history of the West, with analogies to myth, as well as its use to support racist attitudes with respect to Blacks and Jews, and its related use to support class-based oppression (Beauvoir 1949). This is a clear strength in her work for, as critics widely acknowledge, Beauvoir was never solely preoccupied with oppression based upon gender, but recognized and struggled against oppression in a variety of forms (Simons 1999).
It is against this context of oppression that Beauvoir defines her concepts of “transcendence” and “immanence”. Beauvoir argues, in The Second Sex and other writings, that related to this conceptualization of Self/Other is another dichotomy that is a basic feature of oppression: the differentiation of the human population into two groups – those who achieve transcendence through creative and dynamic life-enriching activities, and those relegated to lives of immanence concerned simply with the maintenance of life in its basic conditions (Beauvoir 1949).
It is important to recognize that these are not simply theoretical concepts but, rather, are intended by Beauvoir as descriptive of the daily lives of humanity. From this perspective, “transcendence” and “immanence” are defined in terms of the everyday work and actions of human beings. Thus, transcendent work includes writing, exploring, inventing, creating, studying, while immanent work includes such work as cooking, cleaning, bureaucratic paper pushing and even biological actions such as giving birth (Veltman 2004). The key point to grasp in this differentiation is that activities which involve immanence are basically futile in that they consume time and energy, but accomplishes nothing of fundamental significance (Veltman 2004).
Of course, in making this differentiation Beauvoir is not arguing that these activities are not often essential. After all, we all need to provide for ourselves, or have provided for us, cooking, cleaning and other services. Similarly, child birth is a basic fundamental requirement for the continuation of the human species. Moreover, as critics of Beauvoir have noted, it is important to recognize complexities in her understanding of these concepts throughout her various works. For example, Beauvoir acknowledges that immanent work may sometimes be creative, just as activities of transcendence can often involve numbing repetition (Veltman 2004). Good examples of each would be the case of a mother knitting clothes for her children to wear as a creative activity of immanence, while an author painstakingly proof-reading her novel would be an example of repetitive transcendent activity.
Given this complexity, it would be useful to differentiate between the concepts of transcendence and immanence based upon their respective relations to two key qualities: (1) existential justification, and (2) durability across time. As one critic notes of Beauvoir’s depiction of these concepts:
Since activities of immanence merely sustain life and achieve nothing more than its continuation, they also cannot serve to justify life as its raison d’etre. Rather, existential justification can be established only within transcendent activities that move beyond the maintenance of life itself. . . . If a life is to have reason for being rather than persist solely without reason, it must reach outward toward the future through the production of something creative, constructive, enlightening or otherwise durable.
(Veltman 2004, p.124)
Having thus explored and delineated the parameters of Beauvoir’s concepts of transcendence and immanence, the question of whether these concepts are “gender biased” remains to confront us. It is undeniable, for example, that Beauvoir uses the concepts in The Second Sex in order to explore the processes by which women have been oppressed throughout history in general, and in the context of mid-20th century Western society in particular. As Beauvoir argues in The Second Sex:
…the situation of woman is that she – a free and autonomous being like all human creatures – nevertheless finds herself living in a world where men compel her to assume the status of Other. They propose to stabilize her as an object and to doom her to immanence since her transcendence is to be overshadowed . . . .
(Beauvoir 1949, p.20)
Clearly, Beauvoir’s use of the concepts of “transcendence” and “immanence” in her work is situated within a broader context of social and cultural oppression of women by men. Moreover, it is also clear that Beauvoir has a definite “agenda” in her work in that she does not regard this oppression dispassionately. Rather, she repeatedly questions how women can throw off this oppression and achieve transcendence in their daily lives:
How can a human being in woman’s situation attain fulfilment? What roads are open to her? . . . . How can independence be recovered in a state of dependency? What circumstances limit woman’s liberty and how can they be overcome? These are the fundamental questions on which I would . . . throw some light. This means that I am interested in the fortunes of the individual as defined not in terms of happiness but in terms of liberty.
(Beauvoir 1949, p.20)
The above passage is significant in understanding the issue of “gender bias” in Beauvoir’s use of the concepts of “transcendence” and “immanence” in that we can see that she is not unbiased in her objectives. Clearly, Beauvoir makes no effort to obscure or hide the fact that she is biased in favour of promoting women’s liberty and their capacity to transcendent activity. This being said, however, it cannot justly be extrapolated from this conclusion that Beauvoir’s use of these concepts displays a “gender bias” in the sense of a negative or scholarly unsubstantiated argument. Indeed, as has been noted above, Beauvoir grounds her work in carefully delineated arguments that reference a wide range of theoretical and philosophical models in Western civilization. Moreover, it is noteworthy how in her use of the concepts Beauvoir takes extraordinary care in their description and application. For example, as noted above, she is careful to note subtle complexities in the use of the concepts in everyday life with reference to how immanent activities may be creative, while some transcendent activities may be repetitive and boring.
In conclusion, while it may justly be said that Beauvoir is “biased” in her use of the concepts of “transcendence” and “immanence” as descriptive models of the structures that support the oppression of women in everyday life, and in her objectives to subvert this oppression and promote the liberty of women, it cannot be said that her work display “gender bias” in this area. This term implies a level of “prejudice” that potentially undermines the value of a work given the particular interests or agenda of the author. Given the extraordinary care and attention of Beauvoir in her use of these concepts to reinforce her arguments with respect to the oppression of women in Western society, and the fact that these arguments have withstood the text of time and the critique of leading authorities and scholars over the past half-century, Beauvoir’s use of “transcendence” and “immanence” cannot be represented as displaying “gender bias”.
Beauvoir, S. (1949). The second sex. Trans. H.M. Parsley.
Butler, J. (1986). “Sex and gender in Simone de Beauvoir’s “Second Sex””. Yale French Studies, 72: pp.35-49.
Simons, M. (1999). Beauvoir and “The Second Sex”: Feminism, race and the origins of existentialism. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.
Veltman, A. (2004). “The Sisyphean torture of housework: Simone de Beauvoir and inequitable divisions of domestic work in marriage.” Hypatia, 19.3: pp.121-143.
 Here it is important to note the distinction that Beauvoir makes between sex and gender. As Beauvoir declared: “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”. Thus, as Judith Butler observes, it is critical that we recognize the operation of the sex/gender distinction between biological bodies and social constructions in reading Beauvoir’s work (see, Butler 1986).
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