Wishful thinking

For more than a decade much of the anglophone literature on Simone de Beauvoir has been preoccupied with the question of her intellectual status, attacking the still prevailing presumptions that her work is not philosophical or that it is philosophically wholly indebted to Sartre. The publication of this volume – the first in the Beauvoir Series, a huge project with an exhaustive aim – is clearly intended to trounce those foes once and for all. From the inside of a discipline which (in the UK at least) still shows little sign of caring much about its predominantly masculine face, there is, at first glance, something triumphant about the very existence of this book. This one will have to be shelved in the philosophy section – the title and the publisherʼs classification are unequivocal.

Yet this is more than a matter of correct classification. The volume ʻaims at nothing less than the transformation of Simone de Beauvoirʼs place in the [philosophical] canonʼ; which is to say, it aims to forge her a place there for the first time. It is a heavy burden for one volume to bear. In this regard, the editor, Margaret A. Simons, has been astute enough to recognize that academic reception is not a pure reflection of intellectual merit but a cultural-political phenomenon, and that the scholarly apparatus and commentary on a primary text are performatively constitutive of its emergence as canonical. Each of the twelve works included here is introduced by one or other of some of Beauvoirʼs most prominent commentators, including Kristina Arp, Nancy Bauer, Debra Bergoffen, Sara Heinämaa, Eleanore Holveck, Sonia Kruks and Karen Vintges, all authors of well-received books on Beauvoir in the last ten years. A commonality of purpose in each introduction presents a united front of formidable supporters. The editing of the volume is strong and coherent.

In her general Introduction, Simons, who has perhaps done more than anyone else in Beauvoirʼs defence, identifies three reasons why ʻBeauvoirʼs philosophy remains relatively unanalyzed and widely misunderstoodʼ, a deficiency which this book is obviously designed to put right. One is that much of it has either not been translated (especially the early work) or has been only partially or poorly translated. Another – and this, unlike the first point, applies to the francophone world too – is that Beauvoirʼs work has been obscured by Sartreʼs long shadow, not just because of the recognition he received but because of the sexist presumption that a woman (and especially a male philosopherʼs female lover) could only conceivably be an acolyte or disciple. Finally, Beauvoirʼs ʻhighly original philosophical methodologyʼ has not been recognized, to the extent that her philosophy has not been recognized at all as such. That the volume provides an important (if necessarily incomplete) solution to the first two problems is clear. Ultimately, however, it is in making good the third point – the identification of an original philosophical oeuvre – that attention must be focused. With sexist presumptions and blindnesses derided and put aside, the serious work of scrutiny and criticism must begin.

Unfortunately, this volume contains some of Beauvoirʼs very worst work and some which does not appear to justify inclusion in a volume of philosophical writings at all. On the basis of the unexceptional claim that an understanding of Beauvoirʼs philosophical work requires knowledge of her philosophical influences, and a principle of inclusivity, the first piece is a translation of one of her schoolgirl essays, a review of Claude Bernardʼs Introduction à lʼétude de la medicine expérimentale, written in 1924, for her senior level philosophy class, when she was sixteen. It is, as Simons and Hélène N. Peters say in their introduction to the piece, an elementary-level summary exposition. No doubt it is possible to identify in this essay themes (for example, the valuing of philosophical doubt, rejection of scholasticism and system-building) that appear in Beauvoirʼs later work, but the claim that it illuminates Bernardian elements (ʻa search for truthʼ, ʻan effort at lucidityʼ, avoidance of ʻdogmatic absolutesʼ) in The Second Sex is entirely unconvincing, since they can be found in almost any philosopher that Beauvoir read.

At the other end of the period represented in this volume, Beauvoirʼs 1947 ʻAn Existentialist Looks at Americansʼ, written for the New York Times Magazine, must be one of the lowest points in her writings, philo


Wishful thinkingSimone de Beauvoir, Philosophical Writings, edited by Margaret A. Simons with Marybeth Timmerman and Mary Beth Mader, University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago, 2004. xii + 351 pp., £13.95 hb., 0 252 02982 8 hb.sophical or otherwise. Beauvoirʼs early work often displays a tendency towards pat generalization. Here she gives the tendency free rein. It dovetails with the tone of smug European superiority also characteristic of the early work: the lack of ʻauthentic ambitionʼ in American youth (ʻ[t]he sort of ambition one finds in the young Frenchman as incarnated by Stendhal in Julien Sorelʼ) is ʻparticularly disturbing to a Europeanʼ. The 1945 sketch ʻJean-Paul Sartreʼ, written for Harperʼs Bazaar, is similarly superficial, even when the original manuscript replaces the published version (ʻJean-Paul Sartre: Strictly Personalʼ) edited to suit the magazine. It would be pointless to criticize these journalistic pieces for being journalistic, but one can still be disappointed in them. It would be absurd to approach them critically as one might approach a philosophical work. It is painfully sad that they are here made to represent Beauvoirʼs philosophical writings.

The justification for the inclusion of these pieces is what Simons calls Beauvoirʼs ʻown unique philosophical methodologyʼ. This remains regrettably vague, but seems to include Beauvoirʼs attempts to think philosophically in non-traditional philosophical forms, not just the novel (for there would be nothing ʻuniqueʼ about that) but also, precisely, journalism. The sketch of Sartre, treating his life and thought as inseparable, is supposedly illustrative of Beauvoirʼs ʻlater concept of philosophy as a way of lifeʼ and her ʻmethodological focus on the exploration of concrete, lived experienceʼ (although, again, this is by no means unique). If this is enough to warrant their inclusion as philosophical writings – and I doubt that it is – we would still be forced to conclude that they are very poor philosophical writings.

Of the more traditional philosophical essays translated in this volume, ʻPyrrhus and Cineasʼ (1944) is the longest. In her introduction, Bergoffen suggests that its ʻoriginality and freshnessʼ can only be captured if it is read according to the political-existential and intellectual-existential horizons of its time, rather than as an immature text or precursor to Beauvoirʼs magnum opus, The Second Sex. Along with ʻMoral Idealism and Political Realismʼ and ʻExistentialism and Popular Wisdomʼ (both 1945) it represents the early stage of what Beauvoir called her – brief – ʻmoral periodʼ.

Taking these works seriously means reconstructing their arguments and subjecting them to the cold eye of criticism. In ʻPyrrhus and Cineasʼ a cluster of questions, which concede certain existentialist dicta, animate the argument. If human life is finite, is it not absurd? If human action is not necessitated by any cause or transcendent purpose, what justification can it ever have? If each subjectivity is wholly responsible for itself, why should I feel responsibility towards anyone else? For the most part, the answers to these questions are orthodoxly existentialist. Finitude is a feature of every project and, as definitional of the specificity of the human, desired rather than endured; human action finds its justification within itself. However, what Beauvoirʼs commentators often identify as her original contribution to existential philosophy is the emphasis on the role of the Other, an emphasis which here functions both as the basis of her ethics and as a justification of existentialism in the face of repeated accusations that it is a philosophy of despair. According to Beauvoir, ʻ[t]he Otherʼs freedom alone is capable of necessitating my being. . We need others in order for our existence to become founded and necessaryʼ because ʻonce I have surpassed my own goals, my actions will fall back upon themselves, inert and useless, if they have not been carried off toward a new future by new projects.ʼ The only thing I cannot surpass is that which is constantly surpassing itself: the pure freedom of another. However, a freedom that exhausts itself in struggling against ʻsickness, ignorance, and miseryʼ cannot perform this function. Thus, in the name of the justification of my own existence ʻI must . . strive to create for men situations such that they can accompany and surpass my transcendence. I need their freedom to be available to use and conserve me in surpassing me.ʼ

In ʻPyrrhus and Cineasʼ Beauvoir dwells only briefly on what has been identified as one of the recurrent themes of these early essays: we must act in uncertainty and assume the risk of failure; violence is inevitable. In ʻMoral Idealism and Political Realismʼ these themes are more insistent. The inevitability of violence (in treating some men as ends we must treat others as means) reduces moral idealism (the refuge of the beautiful soul, the adherent of a pure and rigorous Kantian ethic) to a pale excuse for inaction, which is a form of action anyway. On the other hand, the anethical political realism that reduces action to a technical or tactical matter, believing its goal and its necessity to be imposed from the outside, fails to take account of ʻthe very reality that gives all others their meaning and value, namely, human realityʼ. The reconciliation of ethics and politics, according to Beauvoir, entails the recognition of the freedom of subjectivity and the uncertainties of human action.

Taken together, ʻPyrrhus and Cineasʼ and ʻMoral Idealism and Political Realismʼ thus do offer a kind of existentialist ethics, but, as Kruks implies in the introduction to the latter, one that is quite as empty as the Kantian ethics against which Beauvoir positions herself. Her categorical imperative: always so act as to maximize the freedom of the other. How do we know which other to choose, and which (inevitably) to treat as means in this action? Assume ʻthe constituting movement through which values and principles are positedʼ: decide for yourself, just be prepared to answer for your decision. This ethics is based on a kind of extreme existentialism. Despite a distinction between freedom and power, a distinction that Beauvoir believes distances her from ʻthat abstract freedom posited by the Stoicsʼ, the absolute freedom of the subject is affirmed. Despite the thematic emphasis on the Other, the absolute sovereignty of the self-constituting subject is not questioned. As she says in ʻExistentialism and Popular Wisdomʼ (also 1945), ʻman is the unique and sovereign master of his destiny if only he wants to be.ʼ

Several commentators in this volume refer to Beauvoirʼs own assessment of these early essays in her autobiography (Volume II):

An individual, I thought, only receives a human dimension by recognizing the existence of others.

Yet, in my essay [ʻPyrrhus and Cineasʼ], coexistence appears as a sort of accident that each individual should somehow surmount; he should begin by hammering out his project in solitary state, and only then ask the mass of mankind to endorse its validity. In truth, society has been all about me from the day of my birth. . My subjectivism was, inevitably, doubled up with a streak of idealism that deprived my speculations of all, or nearly all, their significance.

In The Ethics of Ambiguity (1948) Beauvoir does depart from early Sartrean orthodoxy, taking the first steps towards the momentous intellectual achievement of The Second Sex. Some situations, she says in 1948, are such that freedom within them is impossible, or at least meaningless. The full ʻweightʼ of the situation, as Kruks says elsewhere, begins to impose itself. The recognition of the social-political constitution of subjectivity begins to dawn. Even then, however, according to Beauvoirʼs own assessment (in Volume III of her autobiography), the ethics remains abstract, idealist, saturated with ʻthe ideologies of my classʼ:

I went to a great deal of trouble to present inaccurately a problem to which I then offered a solution quite as hollow as the Kantian maxims. My descriptions of [various ʻtypesʼ] are even more arbitrary and abstract than [Hegelʼs], since they are not even linked together by a historical development; the attitudes I examine are explained by historical conditions; I limited myself to isolating their moral significance to such an extent that my portraits are not situated on any level of reality. I was in error when I thought I could define a morality independent of a social context.

Beauvoirʼs commentators in the Philosophical Writings, as elsewhere, usually claim that this Maoist moment of the 1960s is ʻoverly dismissiveʼ, as Kruks says here. But it is an accurate assessment of the writings of the ʻmoral periodʼ. Why is it not possible to give Beauvoir the credit for seeing this? These writings are shot through with banal observations and bourgeois homily: ʻA lucid generosity is what should guide our actions.ʼ Characteristically, they advance the argument with complacent anecdotes, often with a decidedly sexist or self-aggrandizing bent (ʻMany women give up their lovers on the advice of their concierges because the lover is only a man; the concierge is the voice of the public, that mysterious theyʼ). This is not evidence of an ʻoriginal philosophical methodologyʼ, but the ʻpopular wisdomʼ Beauvoir claimed to despise. A serious assessment of her work demands that we acknowledge these things.

Bergoffen suggests that the early work needs to be seen as more than an anticipation of The Second Sex. Even so, many of the introductions in this volume reveal that all eyes are constantly on the later text, justifying the interest of the early pieces in relation to it. Philosophy, we might say, really falls to earth in The Second Sex. No doubt it contains its own banalities and insupportable generalities, and in 1949 Beauvoir is still ʻinsufficiently liberated from the ideologies of [her] classʼ, but it does boast the originality and importance that justifies Beauvoirʼs place in the philosophical canon. In particular, the idealism and subjectivism of the earlier work gives way to a materialist ontology of social being, more or less single-handedly inaugurating the twentieth-century philosophy of sex and gender, explicitly criticizing the irritating abstraction of the ʻmanʼ of the moral period – so evident and insistent in the works collected in this volume.

Two pieces, however, stand out. Beauvoirʼs 1945 review of Merleau-Pontyʼs Phenomenology of Perception should routinely be given to students as a pithy (and very short) introduction. Beauvoir identifies several aspects of the book as particularly important. The pages in which Merleau-Ponty demonstrates that ʻit is impossible to consider our body as an object, even as a privileged objectʼ are, according to Beauvoir, ʻperhaps the most definitive of the entire bookʼ. She seems to approve of Merleau-Pontyʼs description of ʻthe concrete character of the subject that is never, according to him, a pure for-itselfʼ. Among many ʻrich suggestionsʼ she singles out for special distinction those on the questions of sexuality and language. The most important, however, is ʻthe phenomenological elucidation of a lived experienceʼ, the experience of perception. It is striking that these insights, so crucial to The Second Sex, are almost entirely absent from the early philosophical works in the rest of the volume.

The other outstanding piece is the 1946 essay ʻAn Eye for an Eyeʼ, a philosophical response to the trial and subsequent execution of Robert Brasillach, editor of the fascist newspaper Je suis partout, an anti-Semite and collaborationist, who revealed in his columns the pseudonyms and whereabouts of French Jews. In this essay ʻpublic opinionʼ no longer belongs to the inauthentic masses, but to ʻusʼ:

Under the Nazi oppression, faced with traitors who have made us their accomplices, we saw poisonous sentiments bloom within our hearts of which we never before had any presentiment. Before the war we lived without wishing any of our fellow humans any harm. . Since June 1940 we have learned rage and hate. We have wished humiliation and death on our enemies. And today each time a tribunal condemns a war criminal, an informer, a collaborator, we feel responsible for the verdict. Since we have desired this victory, since we have craved these sanctions, it is in our name that they judge, that they punish. Ours is the public opinion that expresses itself through newspapers, posters, meetings, the public opinion that these specialized instruments are designed to satisfy.

Beauvoir refused to sign a petition, circulated among intellectuals, for Brasillachʼs pardon. And yet, she says, on leaving the courtroom, ʻI did not desire his death . . I could not envision without anguish that an affirmation of the principle “one must punish traitors” should lead one gray morning to the flowing of real blood.ʼ It is not a small thing, she remarks, ʻto suddenly find oneself a judge, much more an executionerʼ. How can a revenge so ardently desired leave only the taste of ashes in the mouth? The thirst for revenge, according to Beauvoir, ʻanswers to one of the metaphysical requirements of manʼ. In the event of the abomination of the reduction of a man to an object, the denial of his existence as a man, the demand for the reaffirmation of ʻthe reciprocity of interhuman relations [that] is the basis of the idea of justiceʼ howls out for satisfaction. Revenge strives to destroy ʻevilʼ at its source – the freedom of the ʻevildoerʼ. But revenge itself runs the risk of becoming abomination. Thus society refuses to authorize private acts of revenge (while allowing, without legitimating, them as exceptions) and punishment rests in the hands of the state. It is this idea of punishment itself that is at issue in ʻAn Eye for an Eyeʼ. Beauvoirʼs problem is that revenge is, in fact, not a dish best served cold. Furthermore, all punishment is at least partially a failure – it cannot compel the freedom of the evildoer to recognize the interhuman reciprocity that his act denied.

ʻAn Eye for an Eyeʼ is a powerful piece of writing, free – agonizingly wrenched from – the defects of the other essays from the moral period: idealism, subjectivism, elitism. The references elsewhere to the inevitability of failure and violence, uncertainty and risk (ʻPyrrhus and Cineasʼ), to the ʻtragic ambiguityʼ of human existence (ʻIntroduction to An Ethics of Ambiguityʼ, 1946), take concrete form in the deliberations of ʻAn Eye for an Eyeʼ. The ʻsovereign subjectʼ of Beauvoirʼs extreme existentialism seems to feel itself swayed and buffeted by society and history, and the unpleasant tone of self-assurance and class confidence dissolves into genuine uncertainty. The philosophical issue – the idea of punishment – is all the more strongly posed for being unresolved; Beauvoirʼs point, indeed, is that it is unresolvable.

ʻAn Eye for an Eyeʼ offers a taste of Beauvoir at her best, very far from the doyenne of existentialism who wrote ʻJean-Paul Sartreʼ. Her review of Phenomenology of Perception demonstrates what an astute reader she could be, in contrast to the sloppy references to Heidegger that contribute to making ʻPyrrhus and Cineasʼ such an excruciating read. ʻAn Existentialist Looks at Americansʼ is nothing compared to Beauvoirʼs more considered America Day by Day, an account of the four-month trip to the USA that seemed to open her eyes to the kind of social criticism that spawned The Second Sex – one of the most important books of the twentieth century and so far superior to the empty abstraction of the moral period represented in the Philosophical Writings. It would be a terrible mistake to judge Beauvoirʼs philosophical work on the basis of this volume. To that extent the wisdom of its presentation must surely be in question.

Stella sandford