Book Review: Emancipatory Thinking: Simone de Beauvoir and Contemporary Political Thought by Elaine Stavro

Date01 October 2020
Published date01 October 2020
Subject MatterBook Reviews
Book Reviews 653
Emancipatory Thinking: Simone de Beauvoir and Contemporary Political Thought, by
Elaine Stavro. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2018, 392 pp.
Reviewed by: Laura Hengehold, Professor, Philosophy, Case Western Reserve
University, Cleveland, OH, USA
DOI: 10.1177/0090591719896033
In Emancipatory Thinking, Elaine Stavro reads Simone de Beauvoir as a
critical humanist intellectual, which means that she calls the meaning of
humanism into question even while affirming its importance. Beauvoir, she
argues, was also a thoroughgoing socialist feminist whose experiments
remain current, given today’s popular frustration with capitalism and the
degree to which this frustration is manifesting itself in right-wing thought as
well as a new openness to socialist ideas.
This is one of several recent books (including others by Sonia Kruks, Ann
Murphy, Karen Vintges, Lori Marso, and most recently Nathalie Nya) on
Beauvoir and political philosophy.1 But Stavro’s unique goal is to show the
reading public, particularly students in politics and the social sciences, how
“active engagement in historical events informs shifts in theory” (17).
Specifically, she wants to identify “antinomies” or seemingly intractable the-
oretical oppositions that the reader may encounter in studying political theory
(in which Simone de Beauvoir is often invoked as an example for one side or
the other) and to show how these oppositions soften when approached
through Beauvoir’s philosophy of ambiguity.
The most important dichotomy Beauvoir addressed in Ethics of Ambiguity
(1947) pits liberalism (with its subject-centered voluntarism) against dialecti-
cal materialism (with its economic determinism). Beauvoir’s later essays
foregrounded the conflict between rights-based deontology and utilitarian or
instrumental political reasoning. But Stavro also asks creatively how Beauvoir
might tackle theoretical oppositions that arose only during her later life or
after her death, such as the debate between humanism and Althusserian or
poststructuralist antihumanism. How would she have judged opposing femi-
nist movements with psychoanalytic roots; the school of deliberative demo-
cratic theory associated with Habermas; or so-called postmodernists, running
the gamut from Foucault to Chantal Mouffe? How would she have responded
to the opposition between biological materialism and discursive idealism
(associated with Judith Butler) that was partly fought in her name during the
1990s, and what about even more recent developments such as new material-
ism, affect theory, or contemporary liberal humanism of the sort espoused by
Martha Nussbaum?

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