Excerpt from Introduction: Simone de Beauvior - Who’s she?

Some philosophers think it is irrelevant to read the lives of great thinkers because their ideas can be found in the pages of their work. However interesting or boring the life in question, it belongs in a separate compartment to the philosophy. By contrast, others believe that a person’s work cannot be understood without the life, and that learning about a philosopher’s life is necessary to understand the true meaning of the work. The first, compartmentalizing, approach has the potential pitfall that its ahistoricity can lead to misunderstandings: for example, this way of reading philosophy has led to the misunderstanding that Sartre developed existentialist ethics (even though Beauvior’s work on this subject was written and published first, and Sartre never published his during his lifetime).

The second approach has the potential pitfall that it can result in reducing human beings to effects of external causes. ‘Reductivist’ biographies are frequently guided by a particular agenda that reads into a person’s life rather than letting that life speak for itself. These approaches can be very illuminating, but they can also overshadow the agency of their subjects, portraying them as products of their childhood or class rather than selves they have decided to become.