Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Response to Margaret Simons

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Response to Margaret Simons

Article excerpt

It was I myself who suggested Margaret Simons as a person I should be glad to have as a member of our panel. I know that we have always respected one another's work, and I was sure that we would find opportunity for debate regarding the issue she has raised. I will first respond to the specific points that she has made in her paper; then I will comment on my present view on those sentences I wrote forty years ago and speak more generally concerning the question of the Beauvoir-Sartre influence.

In my opinion, Beauvoir did not lie in disclaiming her role as a philosopher. I believe she underestimated the importance of her own philosophical essays; she may have been wrong in thinking that what she did in The Second Sex and in her novels should not be considered philosophy. She was not trying to deceive. The fact that in 1927 she intended to "do philosophy" does not mean that late in her life she believed she had carried through on that resolve. As a high school student, I wrote poetry. It was very bad, but I took it seriously. And I firmly believed that I would become a writer of fiction. Need I say more?

The significant question is whether Beauvoir in 1927 did, in fact, as Simons claims, "define the major themes. . . of Sartre's Being and Nothingness."' I hold that she did not. I think that Simons has been misled by purely verbal resonances and ideas much too vague to have the significance she ascribes to them. Let us take up the points one by one.

First, we have Beauvoir's search for an Absolute to replace the God she had lost, for something which might give her life direction and value. So far she is expressing only what millions of others were feeling in the wake of "God is dead." She goes on to express the wish that she could find some way to be of use or to serve (servir a). Now, Sartre, in Being and Nothingness, does point out that human beings are not created for anything in the way that a man-made object such as a hammer is. A person is not born utile. But to find in Beauvoir's wish to discover some absolute justification for her life the germ of Sartre's proclamation that man is a useless passion (une passion inutile) because he cannot fulfill his desire to be God is going too far.

To be sure, Beauvoir, in this same section, speaks of feeling herself face to face with Nothingness. But is this even remotely like Sartre's concept of Nothingness? Hardly. Beauvoir exclaims, "Ah, Void, Nothingness, Vanity." Nothingness is what she finds when she looks for an absolute answer, a guarantee. Sartre would have shared this feeling. He called it "anguish." He had already met it in Nietzsche, whose influence over him is obvious, especially in his youthful works in the 1920s. In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche wrote of the absurdity and meaninglessness of the contingent world and, incidentally, linked our realization of it with "nausea."2 I am not claiming that this passage is the origin either of Sartre's novel Nausea or of Being and Nothingness, only that Sartre did not have to wait for Simone de Beauvoir in order to grasp the idea that the human search for an Absolute ended in nothing. Mostly, of course, Sartre's discussion of Nothingness is unrelated to the question of our disappointed expectations. More important, Beauvoir's Nothingness is external. The Void (vide) in no way corresponds with the manque, the lack of being, in being-for-itself.

Simons takes up next the concept of bad faith. Beauvoir speaks of her resolve not to let her longing for certitude lure her to abandon lucidity for the sake of the contentment she sees in people who live secure in their unexamined convictions. Simons writes, "This yearning to flee the exigencies of existence, the uncertainty of contingency and nothingness, by hiding in an illusory absolute, is the origin of bad faith." In fact, this temptation is, at most, one example of bad faith as Sartre describes it. It is not the origin of bad faith. Bad faith involves a person's vacillation between one's transcendence and one's facticity, an illegitimate exploitation of one's ontological status of not being what one is and being what one is not. …

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