The philosophical concept of the “Other” has served as a foundational basis for self-identity and social identity throughout the breadth of human thought and consciousness; “Otherness” refers to those and that which are separate and distinct from the “Real” or “Absolute.” Recognition and acknowledgment of another’s “Otherness” allows one to define themselves through a duality of qualities; for whatever qualities or characteristics they possess, the “Other” is set up to possess the distinct opposite. The subject can only posit itself through an opposition, asserting itself as an essential while setting up the “Other” as an inessential; an “object,” as Hegel puts it. In this introduction, Simon de Beauvoir explored the concept of the “Other,” extending it beyond conventional examples and applying it to the position and status of women in relation to their male counterparts.
To define the concept of the “Other,” Beauvoir utilizes a number of examples which demonstrate this duality of qualities. Alterity is a fundamental character of human thought, she says, as demonstrated by the conceptualization of Day-Night, Good-Evil, Sun-Moon, and God-Devil. Anti-Semites find an “Other” in the Jews, who likewise find an “Other” in the Gentiles. Poor whites can find solace in their otherwise destitute conditions by creating an “Other” out of, as Beauvoir puts it, “filthy niggers.” The bourgeoisie feel threatened by the rising status of the “Other” that is the proletariat. Then there is the case of women, who are made into an “Other” by men without reciprocity. The man, as conceptualized in philosophical thought tracing back to the foundations of the West, is “Absolute;” the man represents the positive and neutral of innate humanity, the man is right by virtue of being a man. The woman, however, is a negative, a “peculiarity” as Beauvoir describes it; a female is, like Aristotle argued, a female by virtue of a certain lack of qualities. Beauvoir points out this conceptual trend throughout works of Western thought: in the Genesis story, Eve the woman is not innately human, but rather created out of the bone of the man. Michelet writes of woman as the “relative being.” Saint Thomas decreed that woman was an “incomplete man, an ‘incidental’ being.”
What is particularly striking about this exploration of female “Otherness” is how it details its distinct nature from the “Otherness” of other groups. The Jew or the Black understand their groups to be “we,” and create an “Other” out of the Gentile or White; they are in position to, Beauvoir posits, turn all of Humanity Jewish or Black, thereby eliminating any “Otherness.” Women, however, do not think of themselves as “we;” rather, they think of themselves as “women.” From the biological necessity to cohabitate and cooperate with men in a world developed by men, women have not only been subjected to “Otherness,” they have been co-opted into believing they are indeed an “Other.” A man, Beauvoir points out, may think himself without woman, yet the woman does and cannot think herself without man. Such is, perhaps, why the woman, despite constituting half the human population, despite being intricately interconnected with the man, despite the man relying upon her for livelihood and reproduction, is still, as Beauvoir puts it, a “vassal,” who, in all things being equal, will still receive less pay, less respect, and less opportunities.