The Birth of American Existentialism: Hazel E. Barnes, a Singular Universal

By Holveck, Eleanore | Philosophy Today, January 1, 1998 | Go to article overview

The Birth of American Existentialism: Hazel E. Barnes, a Singular Universal


Holveck, Eleanore, Philosophy Today


As I began to read Hazel E. Barnes' autobiography, The Story I Tell Myself,1 when it was published recently, my first impression, in addition to the very real pleasure of reading it, was the thought: here is a perfect book for undergraduate women philosophy majors. For I have noticed throughout my many years of teaching that, while I often have bright talented majors of both sexes, women, more often than men, seem to be unsure of their ability; they express doubts about their aptitude in regard to a future career; they take criticisms too seriously. One might, perhaps, sum up their attitude in one sentence: young women take philosophy personally. Now I do not want to deny that young men might have similar tendencies, which they do not express as often, because of cultural expectations of how males ought to act.

In fact, I think that the story Hazel Barnes tells herself, along with other stories she has told throughout her career, has value for all of us because of her unique and interesting philosophical position. In this essay I will outline my conception of several important aspects of Hazel Barnes' philosophy. In my view her central philosophical discussion emphasizes the notion of a singular universal, which she prefers to call "a unique universal" (Story, xii), i.e., a conscious existing pour-soi who makes free choices and is, therefore, self-creating and self-determining in the situation in which she finds herself.

In the first part of my essay I will outline some of Barnes' themes concerning the situation of the singular universal. This is preliminary to my major discussion of her philosophical notion of the free self in part two. In these sections I will refer to a book she wrote in the late nineteen-sixties, An Existentialist Ethics,2 as well as to brief passages in some of her other books, essays, and translations of Sartre. Finally, in my third and last section, I will sum up the major points of Barnes' philosophical position and discuss, at least briefly, her contribution to American philosophy and to feminism.

My last section has implications for some of the strong criticisms of the philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre voiced by many contemporary feminists, including some of those whose primary interest is Simone de Beauvoir's philosophy. I have heard Margaret A. Simons, the dean of Beauvoir scholars in the United States, say that she hates that man, and at times she refuses even to say his name. I think that it is natural that early work on Beauvoir as a philosopher in her own right would take place from a vantage point hostile to Sartre; after all, the energy necessary to pull one philosopher out from under another one,3 with whom she has chosen to be buried, requires vigorous effort if not actual violence. As time goes by, however, I think that we will begin to appreciate a more positive influence from Jean-Paul Sartre.

Much of human existence results from mere chance, but I do not believe that it can be an accident that one of the greatest woman philosophers of the twentieth-century, Simone de Beauvoir, and one of our most important contemporary American woman philosophers, Hazel E. Barnes, could claim the same man as a major influence on their philosophical lives, unless there were some value for women in that man's philosophy. In the end I will suggest that when Beauvoir and Barnes applied the philosophy of Sartre to their own lived experience, each one created an original, unique interpretation of existentialism.

I confess that this is the first time that I have ever written a paper on the philosophy of a living person who can actually reply to my remarks. Like J. Alfred Prufrock, I anticipate that she might say "That is not what I meant at all./ That is not it, at all."4 My terror in this situation is mitigated only by my joy that Hazel Barnes is here with us, and my hope that we will have the pleasure of her philosophical conversation for many years to come. Since Sartre claimed that he never learned anything at all from any critic or commentator, I console myself with the thought that if this paper inspires a similar judgment, at least I will be in company most excellent. …

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