Simone de Beauvoir was one of the twentieth century’s most trenchant and innovative philosophical thinkers – yet compilers of philosophical canons have tended to position her writings as merely a feminist (or, worse, feminine) appendage to the work of Jean-Paul Sartre. As Edward Fullbrook notes in a recent edition of her collected works, “Beauvoir the philosopher has been erased from existence.” How did this happen?
There is nothing obvious about de Beauvoir’s erasure from the philosophical canon – nothing, of course, apart from gender. Several recent readings – the monumental new edition of de Beauvoir’s works, Kate Kirkpatrick’s Becoming Beauvoir, and Manon Garcia’s We Are Not Born Submissive, as well as earlier work of Toril Moi – recount how this happened. But unless we take into account the role that social and political elements play in the nature of recognition (or mis-recognition) and circulation of intellectual work, we risk attributing recognition or erasure “simply” to factors such as gender or race.
In my recent paper, “Epistemic injustice and epistemic positioning”, I use the latter term to describe how knowledge claims associated with certain kinds of knowers – for instance, women and ethnic minorities – get read in intellectual contexts in ways that contribute to their devaluation and, sometimes, outright erasure. Rather than attributing this erasure to identity-based prejudice simpliciter, I show how the processes of creation, circulation, and reproduction of value in knowledge production both build on and generate inequalities.
My reading does not go against the view that sexism (and possibly ethnocentrism) is involved in de Beauvoir’s exclusion from the Anglo-American academia. However, in my reading, dynamics of intellectual recognition have to do with the relationship between the author/the epistemic subject and their topic/the epistemic object. In other words, it is not simply who is speaking, but how who is speaking shapes and is shaped by what they can be heard as speaking about.
Drawing on the work of Mary Warnock, Fullbrook describes the methodology of existentialism –which falls within the broader phenomenological tradition – as a deliberate use of the “concrete” (that is, of particular things and their individual experiences) as a way of approaching the abstract and general. Primacy is given to lived experience. This shapes how existential philosophy is practiced: focusing on description, the expositional style of existentialism is very close to (and, in cases such as Sartre’s, De Beauvoir’s, and Camus’, indiscernible from) the novel. Of course, the emphasis in existentialist novels is not so much on events, dialogues, or characters themselves, as on their ability to reflect or represent something about “the human condition” as a whole. In this sense, attention to “lived experience” is the preferred method by which the phenomenologist connects the concrete to the abstract.
Fullbrook attributes the failure to recognize de Beauvoir as a philosopher to methodological differences between the analytic and continental traditions. There are, of course, multiple reasons to dispute the distinction itself, but what matters here are the ways of “philosophizing” associated with each. Continental philosophers are usually system-builders: they develop concepts, vocabularies, and explanatory terms, often aspiring to tackle nothing less than Reality itself (or at least ways of thinking about it). Their work is designed to encompass solutions to problems in different philosophical domains (e.g. metaphysics, ethics, etc.). Analytic philosophers, by contrast, are primarily problem-solvers: they start from a concrete or conceptual problem and work towards a solution. Their method, characterised by Bertrand Russell, is to “divide and conquer”, to break puzzles into their constituent parts and solve them independently of each other.
By these lights, Sartre is a typical system-builder (along with Kant, Nietzsche and Arendt, for instance). De Beauvoir, on the other hand, is what Fullbrook refers to as “problem oriented” in her approach to philosophy. But it wasn’t just the mismatch between her style of philosophizing (analytic) and her provenance (continental) that contributed to her erasure. Much more important, in my reading, was the nature of “the problem” de Beauvoir became associated with.
De Beauvoir’s work is often read as offering an answer to “the woman question”. The “woman question”, of course, became newly relevant in the aftermath of World War II not only because of the substantial contribution of women to the war – which made it obvious that they were quite capable of performing work normally entrusted to men – but also because of increased access to education (including higher education) and to contraception. De Beauvoir’s engagement with “the woman question” wasn’t so much about promoting the equality of women as asking what, under these increasingly formally equal conditions, was preventing women from attaining it.
Rather than universalize the experience of women, de Beauvoir’s method took the partiality and fractionality of epistemic perspectives as the starting point. She did not claim to have a superior epistemic position, but rather highlighted how “flesh-and-blood” lived experience had to be counted as part of the epistemic perspective. For the majority of (if not all) women, this meant existing in a world where men overwhelmingly decided the norms and guidelines. As such, she emphasized how women’s agency – not only their intellectual achievements – had to be considered from within the lived reality in which their existence was always pre-emptively circumscribed.
De Beauvoir’s refusal to be seen as writing about “women” is evident on the very first page of the Second Sex, where she describes her resistance to writing about a subject “so irritating, especially to women”. But immediately she emphasized the impossibility of not writing from a specific subject position:
A man would never get the notion of writing a book on the peculiar situation of the human male. But if I wish to define myself, I must first of all say: “I am a woman”; on this truth must be based all further discussion. In the midst of an abstract discussion it is vexing to hear a man say: “You think thus and so because you are a woman”; but I know that my only defence is to reply: “I think thus and so because it is true,” thereby removing my subjective self from the argument. It would be out of the question to reply: “And you think the contrary because you are a man”, for it is understood that the fact of being a man is no peculiarity.
For de Beauvoir, speaking from a subject position was a precondition of speaking at all; as human beings, we do not exist apart from being already inserted or “thrown” into a world that precedes us. This world, as de Beauvoir highlights, is not gender-neutral.
What de Beauvoir set out to do, in other words, was to “fix” a system of philosophy – in this case, Existentialism – that seemed not to have taken into account what she felt was a fundamental difference in human beings’ capacity to act: gender. For de Beauvoir the question of freedom was meaningless without a subject who is (or can be rendered) free; and this subject only came into being in a social, political and historical context – one that, at least until that point, had been characterized by a profound inequality between the sexes. In this sense, de Beauvoir was not interested in “the woman question”; rather, she was interested in improving the ontological and ethical system of Existentialism or, at least, ridding it of one obvious error – the fact it had, up until that point, excluded more than half of humanity.
From this perspective, it is clear that de Beauvoir should have been considered as a philosopher in the same vein and of the same rank as Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, or Heidegger. This was recognized even in the agrégation, the notoriously difficult national philosophy exam. De Beauvoir and Sartre took the exam together in 1929 – a resit for him, a first for her, and hardly a fair competition given that women were previously excluded from officially taking courses at the Ecole Normale Supérieure. He ended up first; she, second.
The committee unequivocally agreed that de Beauvoir embodied philosophy. Their verdict famously said “La philosophie, c’est elle”, which could be translated as “She [de Beauvoir] is philosophy herself”, or, perhaps better, “philosophy in the flesh”. Implied in the committee’s decision to nonetheless award the first place to Sartre, then, appears to be something like: embodying philosophy is important, but being embodied as a woman is more so.
Women are now the majority of higher education graduates in most countries in the world, and the proportion of women employed in higher education is slowly rising, even among professors. But it is important not to underestimate the persistence of gendered, raced, and other forms of exclusion in intellectual life. To consider how these play out today, I turn to the work of Sara Ahmed, in particular On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life (2012) and Living a Feminist Life (2017).
Sara Ahmed’s style of inquiry is also phenomenological, and thus centres lived experience. On Being Included describes Ahmed’s experience as a “diversity practitioner”, a guide to thinking about racism in academia, and about how institutional policies – including those specifically aimed towards the marginalised – can prevent precisely the kind of change they claim to want to bring about. Living a Feminist Life revisits some of these arguments and experiences in order to engage with them from the perspective of a woman, a feminist, and an academic who has left academia after her institution (Goldsmiths, University of London) repeatedly failed to address charges of sexual harassment brought against one of their senior (white, male) academics.
Ahmed has continued to publish since leaving the academia. Her most recent book, Complaint!, details the process of navigating institutional structures in the context of complaints against violence, sexual harassment, etc. However, despite the very warm reception of her writing, especially among women and minority academics, Ahmed is still overwhelmingly treated as a feminist theorist or as writing about “race and racism”, rather than as a theorist of power, ignorance, and institutional reproduction.
Like de Beauvoir, Ahmed herself highlights this form of exclusion:
Within the academy, the word theory has a lot of capital. I have always been interested in how the word theory itself is distributed; how some materials are understood as theory and not others. This interest can partly be explained by my own trajectory: I went from a PhD in critical theory to being a lecturer in women’s studies. As a student of theory, I learned that theory is used to refer to a rather narrow body of work. Some work becomes theory because it refers to other work that is known as theory. A citational chain is created around theory: you become a theorist by citing other theorists that cite other theorists. Some of this work did interest me; but I kept finding that I wanted to challenge the selection of materials as well as how they were read (...) I was concerned with how statements made by the teacher, like “This is not about women,” were used to bypass any questions about how the figure of woman is exercised within a male intellectual tradition. When the essay was returned to me, the grader had scrawled in very large letters, “This is not theory! This is politics!”
Ahmed is clearly describing her own experience here, but in a way that speaks to a broader theoretical point: what is allowed to reside as “theory”, and what gets positioned as “politics”, “women’s studies”, or even “feminist theory” reflects other social inequalities, including in knowledge production. This is not only about keeping people out of institutions. It is also about how their work gets positioned once they are “in”. Philosophy written by men gets positioned as philosophy; philosophy written by women gets positioned as feminist philosophy.
Deriving epistemic authority from “lived experience” can thus lead to a paradoxical “lock-in” between the knower (epistemic subject) and the object of her knowledge (epistemic object): to speak as a possessor of a certain kind of “experience” is thus to risk having your knowledge claim reduced to being about that experience.
This is a form of epistemic positioning I refer to as domaining: associating knowers with specific fields or domains on the basis of the knower’s (stated or inferred) social identity. This is not automatically to discredit these knowers (as in the context of epistemic injustice or credibility deficits, described by Miranda Fricker, José Medina, and others), but it is to limit the value of their claims. This has consequences not only for how their work is read, but also for financial and other kinds of support. As Lewis Gordon argues in Freedom, Justice, and Decolonization:
Consider the example of race. An often unsaid assumption is that those who are designated white think and research and those who are designated brown and black must be “taught” or rely on “experience”. It is a position that is historically applied to the categories “man” and “woman” as well (...) This is mapped onto institutions and the resources they receive.
Standpoint epistemology considers identity or experience to be sources of epistemic virtue, however, rather than vice. In this sense, as a woman, I have an insight into questions of gender unavailable to men; similarly, non-binary people and trans men and women will have a perspective on gender that is unavailable to those comfortable with gender assigned at birth (assuming anyone ever is). But there is a major difference between using experience as a source of epistemic advantage and having one’s knowledge reduced to that experience. The first is a frequent, and often justified, form of epistemic deference – for instance, we are (usually) right to trust an experienced doctor more than a less experienced one. But to claim that this means the doctor could not possibly know anything about football would be plain wrong. What makes domaining problematic, therefore, is not the association between identity and knowledge per se; it is the use of this association to devalue someone’s epistemic claim. Domaining, in this sense, reverses standpoint epistemology’s ameliorative project.
How do we move forward? If knowledge production inevitably entails having to index one’s lived experience in relation to the dominant epistemic frameworks, this becomes part of lived experience itself. This double bind can produce brilliant insights – as we see with de Beauvoir and Ahmed – but it is an enormous drain on cognitive and affective resources.
To recognize the added labour that institutional existence requires from some people – and to recognize that this added labour has nothing to do with capacity, quality, or “talent” – is to start thinking about distributive justice in knowledge production, and the inherent tendency for racist institutions to produce racism, for sexist institutions to produce sexism, and so on. In this context, the “imperative of integration” (to use Elizabeth Anderson’s phrase) – the work needed to counter the tendency to “ghettoize” certain kinds of knowledge – can become a counter-performative requirement for women, people of colour, and minorities to ceaselessly demonstrate equal worth.
Intersectionality provides an alternative avenue. Like standpoint epistemology, intersectional epistemology considers knowledge to be both conditional and partial. However, the intersectional epistemologist does not aspire towards a more “objective” picture, borne from a multiplicity of viewpoints. The intersectional epistemologist takes the inevitable partiality of “lived experience” – the fact that someone’s lived experience is by definition not another’s – as a point of departure, rather than a limitation. In other words, their argument is ontological, not epistemological. Intersectionality emphasises the failure to represent the universal as the foundation of all social life.
Valorizing our perspectival limits also encourages us to appreciate the ways women, people of colour, and “others” were (and are) taught to recognize these limits through forms of “pedagogy” that often went hand-in-hand with epistemic violence. Rather than rejecting or discounting someone’s knowledge claim as speaking “only” about their experience, or trying to assimilate and thereby transform that experience, we could use this experience to guide projects of epistemic humility. What I mean by epistemic humility is something other than meek disavowals (or denouncements) of privilege. That would be insufficient, and in many cases counter-productive (as Ahmed has shown in relation to “white confessions”). Instead, epistemic humility would involve the recognition of our perspectival limits, and the ways “lived experience” of institutional power shapes them. Centring this work – by which I mean recognizing this work as central to what knowledge production is – would take us further down the line of making knowledge production a more collective, communal effort.
Jana Bacevic is assistant professor at Durham University, UK, and member of the editorial board of The Philosopher. Her work is in social theory, philosophy of science, and political economy of knowledge production, with particular emphasis on the relationship between epistemological, moral, and political elements.
From The Philosopher, vol. 110, no. 1 ("The New Basics: Planet").