Student at Work: Intellectual History

Occasionally here at the Future Feminist Librarian-Activist I try to give folks a sense of what kind of work I do in my academic and pre-professional life as opposed to my moonlighting life as a blogger and my leisure time. All semester long in my Intellectual History class, we have been writing reading responses to our weeks' readings. This was my final response of the semester, which I enjoyed writing and thought I would share with you. I hints at some of the themes I'm currently developing in my final paper on holistic education, humanistic psychology during the 1960s and 1970s (more soon).

“The ‘I’ becomes part of a ‘we’ that, rather than erasing the sense of self, 
calls it fully into existence”: 
New Beings, New Ethics in a Postwar World [1]

Meditating on “the situation of history” in his 1950 essay of the same name, Fernand Braudel begins his analysis by referencing not only the most recent world war, but in broader terms the “events of the past forty years,” during which “experiences have been particularly harsh for all of us; they have thrown us violently back into our deepest selves, and thence into a consideration of the whole destiny of mankind.” [2] This relationship between the individual’s “deepest self” and “the whole destiny of mankind,” seems to be a common thread that preoccupies the authors we read for this week, though they are tackling such diverse problems as the future of historical study, the condition of women as a social class, and the ethics of existential philosophy. Each author – Braudel, Simone de Beauvoir, and Jean-Paul Sartre – begins with the specific and ends with the conclusion that the specific can only be understood in reference to the universal. Braudel’s vision of history in the longue durĂ©e is one in which true understanding can only come when one respects “the unity of history which is also the unity of life.” [3] Event-based history, or what he terms the “short time span” view of history, is too narrow a view: instead, “history is the total of all possible histories—an assemblage of professions and points of view, from yesterday, today, and tomorrow,” each individual point coming together as a whole, amorphous, possibly ungraspable vision of all time: past, present, and future.[4]

Similarly, Simone de Beauvoir, in her now-canonical work in feminist theory, The Second Sex (1949), begins with the singular: “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.’”[5] She is something specific: a woman. Yet her struggle with this situation comes from the fact that her singularity (her woman-ness) in some sense isolates her from identifying as part of the human species: Man, she writes, as the neutral sex, “thinks of his body as a direct and normal connection with the world, which he believes he apprehends objectively, whereas he regards the body of a woman as a hindrance, a prison, weighed down by everything peculiar to it.”[6] To de Beauvoir, her body – and the social narrative surrounding that body, the social narrative of “Other” as opposed to “human” – created a conflict between what she knows about herself, that she is “a free and autonomous being like all human creatures” and the way she is treated in society as not-human.[7] Opposed-to-human. “How can a human being in a woman’s situation attain fulfillment?” she asks.[8]

Finally, Jean-Paul Sarte, in Existentialism and Human Emotions, responds to the charge that existentialism is a despairing and hedonistic philosophy by arguing that in actuality, the recognition of human beings’ ultimate responsibility for their own (and collective) actions. Rather than an ethics of passive fatalism (as critics charged), existentialism, Sartre argues, is “an ethics of action and involvement” in life.[9] Although he argues against “human nature,” per se, Sartre affirms the essential commonality of the human condition: “the necessity for [man] to exist in the world, to be at work there, to be there in the midst of other people, and to be mortal there.”[10] Therefore, as human beings search for ethical responses to this human condition, they necessarily find that their lives are interconnected to the lives of others. “In wanting freedom,” Sartre writes, “we discover that it depends entirely on the freedom of others, and that the freedom of others depends on ours.”[11]

All of these narratives of the singular – whether it is a singular even in history or a singular being, or a singular class of being – affirm the existence of the individual event or person, but defy us to accurately understand it in the absence of the collective or the universal; in the absence of Braudel’s “total of all possible histories,” or Sartre’s image of an utterly self-responsible human being who nonetheless finds that her existence as an “I” depends entirely on the existence of “we” – on the existence of others. This vision of the individual in relation to society is radically different from the Enlightenment philosophers’ notion of the individual as the foundation of existence. Sartre criticizes the philosophy of Kant’s “I think therefore I am,” notion of human consciousness in isolation from any other “I,” suggesting instead that “we reach our own self in the presence of others, and the others are just as real to us as our own self.”[12] De Beauvoir’s analysis of gender as a social duality, something so fundamental that “the two sexes have never shared the world in equality,” places human relationships at the very root not just of Rousseau’s social contract (something into which fully-formed individuals enter), but at the root of being itself: man (de Beauvoir suggests) cannot understand himself to be without woman: “Otherness,” she writes, “is a fundamental category of human thought . . . no group ever sets itself up without at once setting up the Other over against itself.” Thus, human beings, as individuals, no longer enter into society as a matter of choice, of convenience, out of some sort of ulterior motive for individual gain. Rather, individuals require human relationships not to thrive, but to exist.

I am struck by the way historical period out of which these narratives of “I” and “we” emerged. Not only out of the extreme violence and chaos of two world wars, European imperialism and decolonization, the Great Depression, and bloody revolutions – but also out of the cultural and intellectual ferment of psychoanalysis and modernity, which we have been discussing over the past two weeks: the “Schorske decades”[14] and the years surrounding World War One, during which those who had believed in the liberal progressivism of Enlightenment political thought were beginning to question the efficacy of their method and the realistic nature of their utopian optimism. Last week, we discussed Freud’s essay “The Disillusionment of War,” in which he argues that “Peoples are more or less represented by the states which they form, and those states by the governments which rule them.”[15] I see echoes of this observation in all of the readings for today, particularly in de Beauvoir and Sartre, as they struggle to come to terms with a humanity far more complex and interconnected than Kant’s enlightened man. As we posed in class, it is possible to read Freud’s statement in two ways: first, that human beings are accurately represented by their governments, and second, that, regardless of accuracy, our governments (that is, the social organization in which we are embedded) become, in some measure, a representation of who we are – a “we” that may or may or may not, to borrow Carol Gilligan’s poetic phrase, “call [the I] fully into existence.” Sartre, arguing for human beings’ ultimate self-responsibility perhaps errs toward the first interpretation; de Beauvoir, wrestling with the limitations imposed upon her agency by the fact of her sex and gender identity, errs toward the latter. Braudel, with his ideal historian’s gaze, would likely say that the truth lies somewhere in a narrative which encompasses them both – and every other point between and beyond. “The total of all possible histories.”[16]

* * *Endnotes* * *

[1] Carol Gilligan,
The Birth of Pleasure (New York: Knopf, 2002), 173.
[2] Fernand Braudel,
On History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 6.
[3] Braudel,
On History, 16.
[4] Braudel,
On History, 34.
[5] Simone de Beauvoir, in
Women, the Family, and Freedom: The Debate in Documents, edited by Susan Bell and Karen Offen (Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press, 1983), 421.
[6] de Beauvoir,
Women, the Family, and Freedom, 422.
[7] de Beauvoir,
Women, the Family, and Freedom, 427.
[8] de Beauvoir,
Women, the Family, and Freedom, 427.
[9] Jean-Paul Sartre,
Existentialism and Human Emotions (New York: Philosophical Library, 1967), 36.
[10] Sartre,
Existentialism and Human Emotions, 38.
[11] Sartre,
Existentialism and Human Emotions, 46.
[12] Sartre,
Existentialism and Human Emotions, 37.
[13] de Beauvoir,
Women, the Family, and Freedom, 423.
[14] Carl E. Schorske,
Fin-de-Siecle Vienna: Politics and Culture (New York: Vintage, 1980).
[15] Sigmund Freud, “The Disillusionment of War,” 279.
[16] Braudel,
On History, 34.

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