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Feminist Interpretations of Jean-Paul Sartre - Julien S. Murphy, Preface by Nancy Tuana
ISBN: 0271018852
Format: Paperback, 488pp
Pub. Date: July 1999
Publisher: Pennsylvania State University Press

Reviewed by Tina Chanter
University of Memphis

Dedicated to examining Sartre’s relationship to feminism, this volume in Penn State’s Rereading the Canon series appears at a time when a major reassessment of Beauvoir’s relation to Sartre is ongoing. Karen Green’s essay, which is one of the strongest in the collection, addresses this reassessment most directly. It is well known that Beauvoir saw herself as playing second fiddle to Sartre philosophically. Not only does she explicitly identify herself with "existentialist ethics," but she also casts Sartre as the true philosopher while she herself is a mere handmaiden, incapable of philosophical originality. The tendency of even feminist scholarship to acquiesce to Beauvoir’s, perhaps misplaced, habit of positioning herself as Sartre’s faithful disciple has been challenged recently. The most extreme versions of this challenge take shape as the claim that Beauvoir contributed a great deal to Sartre’s philosophy without being given her proper due. For example, Kate and Edward Fulbrook, who have a somewhat anecdotal essay in this volume, have argued elsewhere that Sartre owes his account of others in Being and Nothingness to Beauvoir; while Margaret Simons has sifted through Beauvoir’s early, and as yet unpublished, diaries to find evidence that Beauvoir formulated the concept of bad faith prior to Sartre (Fulbrook and Fulbrook 1993; Sartre 1943; Simons 2000).

Beauvoir, we are now exhorted to believe, is the philosophical powerhouse of this intellectual duo, and Sartre ripped off her ideas without giving her credit for them. But the danger is of an overzealous reassessment of Beauvoir in relation to Sartre that risks merely reversing the stakes; and if the stakes were unfairly biased in the first place, then they will be unfairly biased again, albeit in favor of Beauvoir rather than Sartre.

So what is to be done? Are we to rewrite history a second time, applauding the unacknowledged brilliance and creativity of Beauvoir, while denigrating Sartre for stealing the limelight? Or are we to risk being branded phallocentric for salvaging at least some of Sartre, and being willing to criticize Beauvoir when criticism is called for? As usual, the appropriate strategies probably lie somewhere in between the two, which is why I am sympathetic to Green when she suggests that the "pendulum may have swung too far" when it comes to judging "Beauvoir’s humility" as "unwarranted." At the same time, Green also says, "It is inconceivable that the long intellectual collaboration between Sartre and Beauvoir was not a two-way street." The task at hand is to correct the record so that credit is given where credit is due, without overstating it in Beauvoir’s favor. The difficulty of this is compounded by a long tradition which has obscured women’s contributions, and which might yet have an impact on us, despite our best intentions. As for the concerns about who was the most original philosopher, are we sure that our standards for judging originality are entirely free of male bias, given the paucity of major female philosophers? In any case, to quote Green again, "If total originality were a prerequisite for being a philosopher, nobody would pass muster."

I like Green’s article because it is careful, it covers a lot of ground, and in doing so, it functions as a lens that puts into perspective many of the themes that other contributors of the volume explore. For example, in her intelligent treatment of the Sartrean look, Green addresses a question that dovetails neatly with Sarah Lucia Hoagland’s critical reception of what she identifies as Sartre’s attitude toward the "dominant script." Hoagland, correctly in my view, takes exception to Sartre’s assumption that "the behavior of we who are caught in dominant invention makes sense only within the confines of the script that invented us; that there is only one world of sense." Hoagland is concerned to explain how it is that the parameters Sartre imposes on his discussion of inauthenticity and bad faith blinds him to the sexism of his analysis, as when he accuses the woman in the cafe who fails to respond to a man who offers her his hand as if it were a sexual overture. That the woman doesn’t want to be reduced to a sexual object for good reasons, that she takes herself to be more than that, not out of bad faith, but because she has very different expectations than the man about the possibilities of their rendezvous (an intelligent conversation perchance?), is not a possibility that Sartre seems able to consider. Perhaps the woman acts as she does, not because she is a coquette, but simply because she is not interested in a sexual encounter with this man. Green is concerned with the same kind of symptomatic blindness on Sartre’s part when she says "There is only a passing recognition that certain social positions might fix individuals in the position of being-looked-at or being-a-look." This is part of Green’s more general argument that both Sartre (at least in Being and Nothingness[1943]) and Beauvoir (although she is perhaps less at fault than Sartre) fail to adequately theorize oppression in their early work, although Sartre does a better job of it in his Anti-Semite and Jew (1946).

Anti-Semite and Jew (1946) is mentioned by a number of the contributors, which is unsurprising, given the importance of the model it provided for Beauvoir in thinking about women as the second sex. One interesting intersection of discussion is between Green’s comments and Linda Bell’s detailed discussion of that text. Bell is worried about a dual claim Sartre makes about Jews. On the one hand, they are constrained to be Jews by anti-Semites, and if they are inauthentic, their inauthenticity implies no moral blame. On the other hand, Jews (and, analogously, other oppressed minorities) cannot afford the metaphysical angst that is the linchpin of existentialism, insofar as it provides the ground for questioning one’s choices and, ultimately, one’s choice to act freely and authentically. In an interesting argument which has affinities with arguments about the way in which some groups are abjected by others, Bell suggests that it is the "placelessness" of Jews that sets them apart from other abjected groups. Green could profit from using Bell’s analysis here. Green says, "Authenticity involves accepting that one is a Jew, but how can one be a Jew if being a Jew is being what the anti-Semite says the Jew is? Either the analysis is not correct, and the Jew does exist independently of the anti-Semite, or authenticity looks in danger of collapsing into the attitude in which one identifies the self with the object one is for the Other." But there is another possibility that Green overlooks, namely, that the Jew (or the woman) can rework her identity in ways that are not constrained by anti-Semitism (or patriarchy). Surely this difficult but necessary work of forging an identity that is not given in advance is exactly the kind of work that Sartre had in mind when he insisted that existence precedes essence, that nothing is predetermined, and that we can make of ourselves what we will.

This brings us back to the weakness of Sartre’s and Beauvoir’s attempts to theorize oppression, which Green is right to focus on, but which I think she oversimplifies. Green maintains that "Beauvoir’s claim that the origin of woman’s oppression resides in the fact that men have set her up as Other exactly mirrors Sartre’s assertion that it is the anti-Semite who creates the Jew." So far, so good; but things are much more complicated than this. One reason they are more complicated is because Beauvoir, as I have argued elsewhere in a chapter on Beauvoir and Irigaray (Chanter 1995), has a number of different answers to the question of where to locate the origin of women’s oppression, which touches on some of the issues raised by the final essay by Stuart Charm on theology. While Green recognizes that "Beauvoir sometimes accuses women of bad faith"—and this is one of her answers, she does not pay attention to the other answer Beauvoir gives, which concerns the lack of concrete resources women have, which in turn prohibits the solidarity that other oppressed groups, such as the working-class, can develop. Debra Bergoffen (1983) has an excellent discussion of this, but Green doesn’t cite it.

Green organizes her essays as a response to Sonia Kruks’ essay, which focuses on identity politics, and which shares some common ground with Iris Marion Young’s essay (Kruks 1991; see also Kruks 1990, 83-112). In an article that takes a less textual approach than most of the essays, and in a style typical of her politically inflected arbitrations between various representative positions, Young argues that Sartre’s notion of seriality can break through the dilemma set up for gender theorists whereby either we retain the usefulness of the term ‘woman,’ and downplay differences among women, or we jettison the supposed unity and coherence of the notion of ‘woman,’ and abandon with it all hope of solidarity.

There are some "reluctant" feminists featured here, among whom I would include Hazel Barnes. In a measured article, Barnes is invested in responding to feminist attacks on Sartre; but one cannot help but notice that her overall attitude to feminism is grudging, despite the fact that I suspect she has learned from it, and profited from it, a great deal more than she might be willing to admit.

Guillermine de Lacoste has an intriguing, if idiosyncratic, essay in which she argues, influenced by Cixous’s reading of the gift, that Sartre had abandonment issues with his mother which inform his intellectual trajectory. The piece provides a fresh voice amongst an Anglo-American dominated collection, embedding itself firmly within a French, psychoanalytic tradition of reading.

Overall, the collection provides a diverse variety of styles and views, but I would have preferred to see a bit more theorizing about what feminist theory is, and a better representation of the French reception of and reaction to Beauvoir. Julien Murphy’s introduction is typical of the collection in that it reflects an approach largely untouched by some of the more recent sophisticated poststructuralist feminist theories. Nonetheless, the collection succeeds in presenting a wide range of perspectives, and will be of interest to Sartre and Beauvoir scholars and feminists theorists.

Works Cited

Bergoffen, Debra. 1997. The Philosophy of Simone de Beauvoir: Gendered Phenomenologies, Erotic Generosities. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Chanter, Tina. 1995. Ethics of Eros: Irigaray’s Rewriting of the Philosophers. New York: Routledge.

Fulbrook, Kate and Edward Fulbrook. 1993. Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre: The Remaking of a Twentieth-Century Legend. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf.

Kruks, Sonia. 1990. Situation and Human Existence: Freedom, Subjectivity, and Society. London: Unwin Hyman, pp. 83-112.

___________. 1991. "Simone de Beavuoir: Teaching Sartre About Freedom," In Sartre Alive, ed. R. Aronsen and A. van den Hoven . Detroit: Wayne State University Press, pp. 285-300.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. 1943. L’Etre et le néant: Essai d’ontologie phnomnologuque. Paris: Gallimard. Translated by Hazel Barnes as Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. New York: Philosophical Library, 1956.

___________. 1946. Réflexions sur la question juive, Paris: Gallimard. Translated by George T. Becker as Anti-Semite and Jew. New York: Schocken Books, 1948.

Simons, Margaret. 2000. Unpublished manuscript

  Jean Paul Sartre. A french philosopher of the 20th century.
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