vol. 1, No. 1, Winter, 1999 




“The Legacies of Simone de Beauvoir”.

Conference of the College of Liberal Arts at the Pennsylvania State University (State College, 19.-21. 11. 1999)


           Taking the 50th anniversary of the publication of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex as its impetus, this conference was attended by academics, businesswomen, and a generation of younger scholars.  The latter were being initiated into Beauvoir’s status as a philosopher and the strands of feminism she inaugurated.  In her set of introductory remarks, Dean of Liberal Arts Susan Welch suggested that The Second Sex ought to be on a reading list for incoming university students, not only because of its still-relevant and powerful message, but also because of the renewed interest in Beauvoir scholarship, the new books currently being published such as the book of letters between Beauvoir and Sartre, and, perhaps especially, the need for dialogue on the increasingly-contested meaning of feminism itself.

These remarks schematized the purposes of the conference: to look closely at the scholarly reception of Beauvoir, both in her own time and in our own; to show how her work has been taken up by contemporary feminist philosophers; and to bring newer, younger voices into these discussions.  The conference was therefore composed of three types of presentations.   First,  Toril Moi of Duke University, Margaret Simons of the Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, and Hazel Barnes of the University of Colorado at Boulder gave presentations on the historical context and reception of Beauvoir’s life and work.  Second, a number of feminist theorists showed their indebtedness to Beauvoir in their own current projects and concerns, offering what the conference website calls a “map of contemporary feminist thought”.  Finally, there were four discussion panels composed of eleven scholars whose papers were available on the Internet prior to the conference.  These larger meetings were supplemented by a number of informal receptions.

Toril Moi opened the conference with a talk entitled “(Mis)reading The Second Sex: Questions of Equality and Difference, Prefaced by Some Reflections on the General Tendency of Debasement of Beauvoir”.  The talk focused largely on the problems with the only available English translation of The Second Sex: the edition translated by H. M. Parshley and published by Random House.  Moi called this translation “deplorable” and insisted that English readers cannot avoid the impression that Beauvoir is a sloppy thinker because it is impossible to see her consistent philosophical project in English.  According to Moi, this is particularly a problem for English-language philosophers who wish to see the connections with Hegel in Beauvoir’s text, many of which Parshley, not trained in philosophy, summarized or even simply excised.  Moi then gave a series of examples in which she illustrated the way in which issues of translation underlay many of the stock criticisms of Beauvoir’s work, including the debate over her portrayal of mothering.  Moi then called for a retranslated scholarly edition of the work, but also informed the audience of the publisher’s refusal to permit such a project, since the book “sells well enough”  in its current version.            

Margaret Simons, following on work presented at a similar conference in Paris in January, pursued the question of the origins of the ideas of existentialism, seeking to give Beauvoir more credit in their genesis.  To do so, Simons turned to Beauvoir’s 1927 diary, a work that according to Simons preceded her acquaintance with Sartre by two years.  Simons read many provocative sections of the diary, asserting that this early text provides the means for critically encountering recent interpretations of the debate on the origins of existential philosophy which place more emphasis on Beauvoir’s role than previous scholarship.  The diary itself contains Beauvoir’s own assessment of her own philosophical development, as well as descriptions of her encounters with  Merleau-Ponty.  Simons’ interpretation raises a number of critical questions: first, why continue to make inquiries into the origins of existentialism that are probably unanswerable?  And second, what is the status of the diary as a philosophical document, and why do Beauvoir’s readers and interpreters have a right to see it as such?  Does not this search for the legitimation of Beauvoir’s philosophical import betray the feeling that the works we have received are somehow not enough, or are inadequate?  Can Beauvoir’s private 19-year old exhortations really add something that was missing from her mature philosophical work?  Why not look for Beauvoir’s philosophical import in the actual theoretical texts and novels she chose to publish?

Hazel Barnes, the keynote speaker, gave a talk entitled “Philosophy and Gender: A First Person View”.  Her talk was a retrospective of her own life and development as a philosopher as a means of capturing the era in which she and Beauvoir matured.  Separated from Beauvoir by only eight years in age, Barnes noted the vast difference between their situation and the current one, reminiscing about her experiences hunting for a job as a new PhD in 1941 and comparing it to the far more positive experience of women seeking jobs in the academy today.  Barnes described the impasse of being unwelcome as a professor at colleges such as Yale, uneasy about the “nun-like existence” led by the faculty of womens’ colleges, and unsupported by an advisor who told her that he “never promise[d] to find jobs for jews or women”.  She also discussed her empowering pragmatist upbringing that perhaps ultimately led her to find a job successfully, and also led her to her lifelong interest in existentialism.  Turning to recent feminist issues, Barnes warned against the feminist ghetto, asking, “Are women philosophers so engaged in immediate feminist problems that they have no time for general questions [such as the meaning of consciousness]?”  But later in the talk she also warned against over-generalization and the danger of the masculine-neuter universal, insisting that “to treat women as though they are men is not only false but also to treat them unequally”, without regard to their specificity.  It is clear from the two statements that Barnes is well aware of the double bind Beauvoir poses in the introduction to The Second Sex: that it remains difficult to speak as a woman and be heard generally, and also that to speak and be treated with regard to one’s sexual specificity has not yet attained the status it perhaps should.  Near the end of her talk, Barnes used the privileges of her age and her expertise to succinctly lay out her position on three questions which mark out the general conceptual terrain of some feminist debates.  Her discussion was qualified by comments on why her choices, as well as her ways of framing the debates, were themselves strategic.  On the question of Equality or Difference, she opts for equality.  On the question of Essentialism or Construction, she opts for construction.  And on the question of Identity Politics or Humanism, she opts for a provisional, qualified humanism. 

The presentations composing the second part of the conference began with a paper by Penelope Deutscher from Australian National University entitled “Corporeal Time, Corporeal Will, and the Ethical Time of Alacrity”, in which Deutscher focused on the problems of freedom in the experience of old age.  Catherine Wilson of the University of British Columbia gave a paper entitled “Simone de Beauvoir and Human Dignity”, organizing her discussion around the sociological division of labor between those who are specialists and those who are generalists, arguing that this is a division that has been too firmly sexed in a way that has been oppressive for all.  Susan James of the University of Cambridge gave a talk on “Unstable Body Boundaries in the History of Philosophy”, focusing on the themes of embodiment and the passions which, she argues, have always played an important role in judgment and reflection, even in Modern philosophers such as Descartes.  

In the afternoon Tina Chanter of the University of Memphis gave a talk entitled “Abjection, False-consciousness, and Misrecognition: Simone de Beauvoir’s legacy”.  Chanter’s talk was a sophisticated reading of the abjections and exclusions which mark Beauvoir’s The Second Sex.  Chanter acknowledged her own debt to Beauvoir, but also paied attention to Beauvoir’s unacknowledged debts and influences, drawing on a quotation from an interview in which Beauvoir repudiated any influences on her writing of the book.  Chanter looked specifically to the effect of Beauvoir’s acquaintance with and reading of Richard Wright, bringing into focus the supernumery discussions of race in The Second Sex which accompany the narrative of woman as Other, like a shadow.  The final paper was given by Claude Imbert of the Ecole Normale Supérieure.  Returning us to the historical themes with which the conference began, Imbert’s talk was called “Simone de Beauvoir: A (Woman) Philosopher in her Generation”.  It situated Beauvoir in the context of her proximity with and differences from her philosophical contemporary Simone Weil.

The third component of the conference was composed of four discussion panels, run concurrently two at a time and interspersed with other conference events.  These panels included work by Claire Katz, Anne Murphy, Sarah Clark Miller, Caren Irr, Ann Cothran, Emily Zakin, Elaine Miller, Nancy Bauer, Anna Alexander, Melissa Clarke, and Sally Scholz.  The conference ended Sunday morning with general discussion sessions which focused largely on the practical issue of making a new translation of  The Second Sex available to its English-speaking audience. The participants discussed strategies for lobbying Random House, the publisher, to permit this project to go forth.  It is the opinion of this reviewer that finding a solution to this pressing practical concern would be the best way to commemorate Beauvoir’s work and make it philosophically accessible in the way it merits.  For if Beauvoir, quite deservedly, is to be the subject of increasing attention as a philosopher, English-speaking readers must have a text which does not distort her thought.    

The conference was organized by Susan Schoenbaum, Shannon Sullivan, and Emily Groszholz, all of the Pennsylvania State University.               


Amy E. Wendling