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University of Illinois Press
Philosophical Writings / Edition 1

Philosophical Writings / Edition 1

by Simone de Beauvoir, Margaret A. Simons


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Philosophical Writings / Edition 1

Dating from her years as a philosophy student at the Sorbonne, this is the 1926-27 diary of the teenager who would become the famous French philosopher, author, and feminist, Simone de Beauvoir. Written years before her first meeting with Jean-Paul Sartre, these diaries reveal previously unknown details about her life and offer critical insights into her early philosophy and literary works. Presented here for the first time in translation and fully annotated, the diary is completed by essays from Barbara Klaw and Margaret A. Simons that address its philosophical, historical, and literary significance. The volume represents an invaluable resource for tracing the development of Beauvoir’s independent thinking and influence on the world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780252029820
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Publication date: 02/28/2005
Series: Beauvoir Series
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 368
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Barbara Klaw is a professor of French at Northern Kentucky University.  She is the author of Le Paris de Simone de Beauvoir (Syllepse, 1999) and numerous articles in scholarly journals and books.

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Philosophical Writings

By Simone de Beauvoir, Margaret A. Simons, Marybeth Timmermann, Mary Beth Mader


Copyright © 2004 Board of Trustees
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-252-09716-4


Analysis of Claude Bernard's Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine


by Margaret A. Simons and Hélène N. Peters

In December 1924, when Simone de Beauvoir almost certainly wrote her essay analyzing Claude Bernard's Introduction à l'étude de la médecine expérimentale (Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine), part 1 (1865), a classic text in the philosophy of science, she was a sixteen-year-old student in a senior-level philosophy class at the Institut Adeline-Désir, or Cours Désir, a private Catholic girls' school that she had attended since the age of five. The year-long class prepared the students for the philosophy exam, the second stage of the two-year program required to pass the difficult baccalauréat exam, which also offered a mathematics track (called mathématiques élémentaires) for the scientifically minded student.Completion of this exam assured access to the university and entrance to the professions.

Thanks to a French governmental decree in May 1924, courses in Latin and advanced philosophy were offered for the first time that fall to girls in the public secondary schools. The decree, which marked an important turning point for the education of French women, was shaped largely by economic necessity. The economic losses suffered by many bourgeois families, including Beauvoir's, in the aftermath of World War I meant that they would be unable to provide a dowry and arrange a marriage for their daughters, who would have to prepare for a career instead. Private girls' schools, such as the Cours Désir, seeking an advantage in the competition for students, led the curricular reform, offering the necessary courses in Latin and philosophy despite the fears of parents in the Catholic schools that the study of secular philosophy would undermine the religious faith of their daughters.

Beauvoir's philosophy class was taught by an elderly, kindly priest, l'Abbé Trésal. Beauvoir writes in her Mémoires that psychology, logic, ethics, and metaphysics (the four subject areas of the philosophy syllabus) were "disposed of ... at the rate of four hours of classes per week" (Mémoires, 219), half of the standard eight hours of class offered weekly in the boys' lycées. According to Beauvoir, the textbook for the philosophy course, Manuel de philosophie (Philosophy Manual) by Father Charles Lahr, was no more "encumbered with subtleties" than was their instructor: "regarding each problem, the Reverend Father Lahr made a rapid inventory of human errors and taught us the truth according to Saint Thomas" (Mémoires, 219). Despite its weaknesses, Lahr's textbook did introduce Beauvoir to Hegel's theory of the opposition of the self and the nonself, and to Alfred Fouillée's (1838–1912) conclusion: "l'homme ne naît pas libre, il le devient" (man is not born but becomes free), which is surely the model for the famous line from Le deuxième sexe (The Second Sex) (1949): "On ne naît pas femme: on le devient" (One is not born but becomes a woman).

The inadequacies of her philosophy course may have contributed to Beauvoir's poor performance on the philosophy exam the following spring. Having passed the first part of the bac with distinction the previous year, despite having taken exams in both the science and Latin–modern languages tracks, Beauvoir barely passed the philosophy bac in July 1925. Fortunately she once again took the exceptional step of preparing for exams in two tracks: philosophy and elementary math (which included several more hours of examination in physics, chemistry, and math than required on the philosophy track). She was able to make up "in the sciences" the points lost in the philosophy exam.

Given the popular conception of existentialism as antiscience, Simone de Beauvoir's early interest in science, reflected in her baccalauréat successes as well as in her paper on Claude Bernard, may be surprising. But it was quite extensive. Her study of science apparently began in the fall of 1922 when an extra teacher was hired by the Cours Désir to teach math and physics in response to a request by the father of one of Beauvoir's classmates. Beauvoir was charmed by the young and enthusiastic teacher, who wasted no time on "silliness" or "the interminable discussions of morality" found in her other classes (Mémoires, 209). In her autobiographical account of her early "passion" for philosophy, Beauvoir refers to philosophers of science, including Henri Poincaré and his work on relativity, although not to Claude Bernard (Mémoires, 220). Beauvoir's interest in math and science continued after graduation, when, since her mother opposed her plan to study philosophy at the Sorbonne, she decided to pursue a certificate in math, along with certificates in literature and classics.

Beauvoir's essay on Claude Bernard was probably not a regular assignment but an extra paper, since it bears instructor's comments but no numerical grade. Largely expository, it summarizes and paraphrases Bernard's Introduction à l'étude de la médecine expérimentale, part 1, for decades a standard text on the reading list for the philosophy bac. Despite its elementary nature, Beauvoir's essay is important, since it is the only formal essay known to exist from Beauvoir's years as a philosophy student, her graduate thesis on "the concept according to Leibniz" for her diplôme having apparently been lost along with other papers written while she was a philosophy student at the Sorbonne from 1927 to 1929. Beauvoir's essay on Bernard's Introduction might have survived by chance while more important papers were lost. But her enthusiasm for Bernard is both unmistakable and significant. In her autobiography, Beauvoir tells of the way philosophy affected her as a student: "I did not meet [accueillais] it passively; ... if a theory convinced me, it did not remain exterior to me; it changed my relation with the world; it colored my experience." 12 The essay on Claude Bernard provides unique evidence of one of Beauvoir's early philosophical awakenings, while also shedding light, as we shall argue, on the development of her philosophical methodology, subjects that receive a cursory and sometimes misleading treatment in her Mémoires.

Claude Bernard (1813–78), an eminent French physiologist, may be best known for his concept of the milieu intérieur, the internal environment of blood plasma and lymph that provides higher animals with protection, and thus independence, from changes in the external environment. Bernard, who has been credited with founding the science of experimental physiology, wrote his Introduction to argue for the application of the scientific method to medicine. He rejected the reduction of physiology to chemistry and challenged the then dominant theory of vitalism, the view that human life is subject to unpredictable forces that defy natural law and that doctors must rely more on personality than on science. He sought to free medicine from both dogmatism, that is, theorizing without testing or observation, and crude empiricism, that is, observation not directed by a research idea or hypothesis.

We have identified three themes in Beauvoir's essay that reappear in her later work. The theme that Beauvoir calls "the most interesting part of [Bernard's] interesting work" is the valuing of philosophical doubt. In his Introduction, Bernard writes: "The great experimental principle, then, is doubt, that philosophical doubt which leaves to the mind its freedom and initiative" (ISEM, 37). He contrasts the skeptic, who "believes only in himself," with the scientist, who "doubts only himself and his interpretations, but believes in science [and in] the determinism of phenomena, which is as absolute in the phenomena of living bodies as in those of inorganic matter" (ISEM, 52). The result of the scientist's "fertile" doubt is a sense of both mastery and ignorance: "[T]rue experimental science gives [man] power only in showing him his ignorance.... Indeed, our mind is so limited that we can know neither the beginning nor the end of things; but we can grasp the middle, i.e., what surrounds us closely" (ISEM, 50; IEME, 85).

Lahr's Manuel de philosophie discusses philosophical doubt and cites Bernard's essay, but it warns against an "excess" of doubt as eroding religious faith and recommends that one turn to Aquinas, that is, theology and scholasticism, instead of science for its proper use. In such an atmosphere, Bernard's characterization of doubt as a virtue rather than a source of despair must have appealed to Beauvoir, who had earlier lost her faith in God.

A second theme in Beauvoir's essay, one related to the valuing of philosophical doubt, is the rejection of "scholasticism," "immutable truths," and philosophical system-building (ISEM, 42). In his Introduction, Bernard warns that an "exaggerated belief in theories ... enslaves the mind, by taking away its freedom, smothering its originality and infecting it with the taste for systems" (ISEM, 39; IEME, 73). Lahr's Manuel omits Bernard's criticism of the "theological yoke" and defends philosophical system-building: "After having refuted skepticism and relativism, it remains for us to conclude in favor of dogmatism." But Beauvoir, whose later philosophy rejects philosophical system-building, repeats Bernard's criticism of "systematizers" and his praise of experimenters who reject every "philosophical and theological yoke" (ISEM, 43; IEME, 77).

In her later work, Beauvoir often sought to expose the harmful reality hidden by myths and ideals. In America Day by Day, for example, Beauvoir exposes the mystification of race in the American system of racist segregation; in The Second Sex, she lays open the mystification of sexual difference; and in her 1970 study of old age, Beauvoir seeks to expose the sordid treatment of old people hidden behind "myths of expansion and affluence."

A third theme in Beauvoir's essay is the valuing of the discovery of the external world. In Beauvoir's celebration of the "marvelous discoveries" and unp limited "power" of experimental science we see an early expression of an important theme in her philosophy that is often traced to the later influence of phenomenology, that is, the disclosure of the world offered as a positive alternative to mythical thinking. Bernard's account of scientific discovery, where he argues that discoveries are engendered not by reason but by "[a] feeling for the complexity of natural phenomena" (ISEM, 37; IEME, 70), anticipates the phenomenological focus on embodiment and the subjective element in disclosure of the world. Bernard calls upon the scientist to "submit his idea to nature," breaking with the traditional view of science as dominating nature: "It has been said that the experimenter must force nature to disclose herself." "Yes," Bernard writes, the experimenter does "attack nature with all manner of questions." But the experimenter "must never answer for her nor listen partially to her answers by taking, from the results of an experiment, only those which support or confirm his hypothesis" (ISEM, 23; IEME, 53).

Beauvoir's early enthusiasm for scientific discovery and for Bernard's call to "go down into the objective reality of things" is evident in her later works. Even in the mid-1930s, when Beauvoir was working most intensely with Husserlian phenomenology, an idealist metaphysics and subjectivist methodology that arose in opposition to scientific naturalism, there is evidence of her enduring respect for scientific discoveries and the scientific method. Many of Beauvoir's early philosophical novels, including When Things of the Spirit Come First, written during 1935–37, offer the disclosure of the external world as an alternative to the mystifications of bad faith. In her 1946 essay "Literature and Metaphysics," Beauvoir describes her method of writing philosophy in literature as an experiment, analogous to a scientific experiment.

Beauvoir's attempt to integrate science and phenomenology, an attempt assisted by her earlier familiarity with Bernard's account of the subjective elements in scientific discovery, is more evident in her post–World War II writings on racism and feminism. These writings are regarded, somewhat paradoxically in this context, as antinaturalist. The explanation may lie with the definition of naturalism by those who appeal to a narrow biological reductionism in justifying racist and sexist oppression. Beauvoir's naturalism, in the broader sense of a reliance on scientific explanation, is evident in her appeal to science in support of political change.

For example, in America Day by Day, an account of her trip to the United States in 1947, Beauvoir first offers a phenomenological description of her initial encounter with racial segregation in the South, describing her skin as having "become heavy and stifling" with a color that "burns" her. But she follows this phenomenological description of her own "meager" experience with detailed references to an "authoritative" scientific study by Gunnar Myrdal, An American Dilemma, "an experience whose extent, depth, and value are officially recognized in America."

In The Second Sex, Beauvoir strikes several Bernardian chords. She describes her project as a "search for truth" (DS, 1:29), an effort at lucidity (DS, 1:30), and an attempt to get out of the "ruts" of political polemics (DS, 1:28) and dogmatic absolutes. Elsewhere she describes writing the book as the "sudden discovery" of "an aspect of the world that is staring you in the face and that you did not see." Beauvoir asserts, following Bernard, that discoveries can be furthered by one's situation, arguing that "certain women are best placed to elucidate woman's situation," because they "grasp more immediately what the fact of being feminine signifies for a human being" (DS, 1:29). Finally, while Beauvoir, in The Second Sex, rejects a biological determinist account of women's inferior position, she incorporates "physiological givens" into her analysis of femininity as "neither an essence nor a nature: it is a situation created by civilizations from certain physiological givens."


Analysis of Claude Bernard's Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine

Saturday, December 13, [1924]

The "introduction to the study of experimental medicine" is defined by Claude Bernard himself in the beginning of his work. "I deem it useful," he says, "to give a few explanations in this introduction in relation to the theoretic and philosophic side of the method which this book, after all, treats merely on its practical side."

In the first part of this introduction that we are going to study, he proposes considering the difficulties of experimental reasoning, and for that, he tries to study the role played by observation and experiments in experimentation, and then the importance of preconceived ideas and doubt.

Observation and Experiment

Observation and experiments are the only means that man possesses for gaining knowledge of phenomena. The first reveals their existence, and the second uncovers their signification.

Sometimes people seem to confuse the two. Most often, arbitrary distinctions between them have been established. The observer is said to be passive in the production of the phenomena while the experimenter is said to take an active part in it. This is the opinion of Zimmermann and Cuvier. But Claude Bernard shows by examples that this separation, which is so clear in theory, is difficult or impossible in practice. In fact, there are active as well as passive observations since some are made randomly and others are made in order to verify the accuracy of what has been hypothesized. Likewise, certain experiments are passive; the activity of the experimenter does not always intervene.

Another theory claims that observation consists of noting what is normal while experiments imply the idea of a disturbance intentionally brought on by the investigator.

Consequently, like the first one, this theory considers an element as necessary that is not: intentional activity. In addition, if it is really true that "in an experiment one must make a judgment by comparing two facts," nothing indicates that one of these two facts must be abnormal.

These two definitions are false because the meanings of the two words "observation" and "experiment" are too restricted, and they are not recognized as the opposite extremes in experimental reasoning.


Excerpted from Philosophical Writings by Simone de Beauvoir, Margaret A. Simons, Marybeth Timmermann, Mary Beth Mader. Copyright © 2004 Board of Trustees. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
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Table of Contents


Foreword to the Beauvoir Series Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir, ix,
Acknowledgments, xi,
Introduction, 1,
1. Analysis of Claude Bernard's Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine [1924] Introduction by Margaret A. Simons and Hélène N. Peters, 13,
2. Two Unpublished Chapters from She Came to Stay [1938] Introduction by Edward Fullbrook, 31,
3. Pyrrhus and Cineas (1944) Introduction by Debra Bergoffen, 77,
4. A Review of The Phenomenology of Perception by Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1945) Introduction by Sara Heinämaa, 151,
5. Moral Idealism and Political Realism (1945) Introduction by Sonia Kruks, 165,
6. Existentialism and Popular Wisdom (1945) Introduction by Eleanore Holveck, 195,
7. Jean-Paul Sartre [1945] Introduction by Karen Vintges, 221,
8. An Eye for an Eye (1946) Introduction by Kristana Arp, 237,
9. Literature and Metaphysics (1946) Introduction by Margaret A. Simons, 261,
10. Introduction to an Ethics of Ambiguity (1946) Introduction by Gail Weiss, 279,
11. An Existentialist Looks at Americans (1947) Introduction by Shannon M.Mussett, 299,
12. What Is Existentialism? (1947) Introduction by Nancy Bauer, 317,
Contributors, 327,
Index, 331,

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