For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

"Simone de Beauvoir and Hannah Arendt on labor"

by Veltman, Andrea (2010)


Comparing the typologies of human activities developed by Beauvoir and Arendt, I argue that these philosophers share the same concept of labor as well as a similar insight that labor cannot provide a justification or evaluative measure for human life. But Beauvoir and Arendt think differently about work (as contrasted with labor), and Arendt alone illuminates the inability of constructive work to provide non-utilitarian value for human existence. Beauvoir, on the other hand, exceeds Arendt in examining the ethical implications of our existential need for a plurality of free peers in a public realm.

Key Passage

The writings of Beauvoir and Arendt provide a key resource for a feminist philosophical shift away from celebrating reproductive labor, for both thinkers develop typologies of human activities that illuminate the inability of reproductive labor to provide an evaluative measure or justification for human life. Whereas Arendt writes that labor cannot express human freedom or reveal the unique living essence of the person, Beauvoir argues similarly that a justification for living requires transcending the maintenance of life through self expressive creative activity or through the production of something durable. Despite working within divergent phenomenological frameworks, both develop the insight that labor is an existential tedium, essential only as a means of living. Without labor, life cannot continue. But laboring to preserve life cannot provide a reason as to why one lives, and labor is therein inessential within a philosophical arena of non-utilitarian value. For both Beauvoir and Arendt, meaning cannot be found in the satisfaction of the material demands of life itself. (p.57)


Arendt, De Beauvoir, Existential, Ethics, Experience


On De Beauvoir, On Arendt

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