Jacques Derrida: Geschlecht III: Sex, Race, Nation

Geschlecht III: Sex, Race, Nation, Humanity Book Cover Geschlecht III: Sex, Race, Nation, Humanity
Jacques Derrida. Edited by Geoffrey Bennington, Katie Chenoweth, and Rodrigo Therezo. Translated by Katie Chenoweth and Rodrigo Therezo
University of Chicago Press
Cloth $27.50

Reviewed by: Harrison Lechley (University of Brighton)


For someone so enthralled by ghosts, it seems fitting that a ‘long-lost’ manuscript should appear within Jacques Derrida’s oeuvre posthumously. Geschlecht III: Sex, Race, Nation, Humanity (University of Chicago Press), a text produced from the ghosts of Derrida’s archive, constitutes the third instalment of Derrida’s four essays on Geschlecht – a word which has no equal translation in English nor French but refers to sex, nation, race, generation, humanity, lineage in ambivalent measure. This posthumous reconstruction is based on: Derrida’s 1984-1985 seminar on philosophical nationalism (Ghost of the Other) at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS); and an ‘incomplete’ version of its seminars 7-8 distributed to participants at Loyola University, Chicago in March 1985 where Derrida had intended to present this manuscript (titled Geschlecht III) but instead presented Heidegger’s Hand (Geschlecht II). As such this volume comprises two parts: the first being the ‘unfinished and incomplete’ Geschlecht III manuscript; the second, Sessions 9-13 of Ghost of the Other.

Despite the impossible task at hand, the volume is perhaps as ‘faithful’ a reconstruction as Derrida scholars could hope for. The editors have gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure as much of Derrida’s original material has been kept intact: where necessary Derrida’s own French translation is kept alongside Heidegger’s German, the original French translation and now their English translation; and ambiguous or illegible words (much has been transcribed from Derrida’s hand-written notes) remain and are marked out. As far as possible attempts have been made to ensure this reconstruction preserves the polysemy of the text and ensure no interpretation is foreclosed through editorial procedure.

That the lost should re-appear is a fitting place to start. It would be tempting to classify the publication of this text as a missing puzzle piece that completes the Geschlecht-series jigsaw and answers long-standing questions. David Krell (2007; 2012) has become a leading authority on this lost piece and poses the following: (a) ‘what sense are we to make…[of this] tranquil childhood’ (p. 178, 2007) or peaceful division of Geschlecht that Heidegger demands?; (b) the importance of animality (and its refusal) in the fundamental ontology of Dasein and Geschlecht; and (c) that ‘gathering is always a privileged signifier for Heidegger’ which ‘protects the unborne’ (p. 180; p. 189, 2007). It would be a mistake to argue that Geschlecht III: Sex, Race, Nation, Humanity reveals hidden answers that remained entirely elusive until now. The idea of a singular location which resolves disparate issues is precisely the problem Derrida targets here. This volume does provide crucial answers – but these answers are not entirely absent from Derrida’s other works. Nevertheless this is crucial reading for those interested in Derrida’s thought on the dangers of gathering as a privileged signifier; the ways in which polysemy remains distinct from dissemination for Derrida; and, finally, the problems of demarcating any characteristics as proper to the human. In sum, Geschlecht III: Sex, Race, Nation, Humanity threads these together in order to demonstrate a nascent political thought propelling Derrida’s earlier works which remain more radical than his later ‘political’ writings such as Rogues (2005).

Geschlecht III

Derrida opens Geschlecht III by drawing the audience’s attention to Heidegger’s interpretation of the German poet George Trakl in order to determine to whether a ‘Heideggerian reading’ succeeds in destroying or ‘extend[ing] beyond’ the ‘metaphyisco-aesthetic representation’ (p. 4), or whether it walls up to and becomes entangled and caught within its snare. In short, the entire volume centres around this singular question – how can Heidegger’s position be understood through his Trakl interpretation? – and Derrida’s dismay at this position. This should come as no surprise to those who have read Krell (2007; 2012): he suggested as much of Geschlecht III.

To begin Derrida analyses two pairs of literary criticism terms that Heidegger employs when interpreting Trakl’s poetry: Gedicht (poetic style or essence, oeuvre) and dichtendes Sagen (poetic speech, poetic expressions, poems); Erläuterung (elucidation, clarification) and Erörterung (situation but also contextualisation, discussion, debate) – rooted in the German Ort (place; location). Heidegger names Zwiesprache (dialogue) as the relation between Gedicht and dichtendes Sagen: ‘a two-way speech, exchanged here between Denken [thought] and Dichten [writing]’ (p. 23). It is thus a case of translation. Writing is exchanged for thought. For Derrida, this institutes a propriety to speech. To delimit Zwiesprache as the ‘most appropriate’ form of speech – that which defines the ‘Greatness’ of the Great Poet – is to situate (situation; Erörterung) thought as the Ort (place) where Greatness resides: Gedicht.

For Heidegger, the wandering path of Fremd (the root of stranger (Fremder) and the strange (das Fremde)) is a symbol in Trakl’s poems for accessing Gedicht. Following the Stranger leads to difference but not conflict. This is the Greatness of humanity that Heidegger envisions: peaceful difference. This path distinguishes the ‘thinking animal’ from bestiality for him. It marks the ‘tranquil childhood’ Krell (2007) implored us to make sense of. For Heidegger, humanity (Geschlecht) must follow this path, but designation or inauguration of a new Geschlecht (humanity, generation) is a two-step process: ‘there are…two blows, two strikes [Schlag], two stamps’ (p. 46) of Geschlecht. The first mark (Schlag) is discord or difference and the second is the inscription of that discord in grapheme as conflict or decomposition. The former attempts to mark the neutrality of Dasein without effacing the differences that comes with being-in-the-world.  The Stranger is a return to this first step and enables peaceful difference as humanity’s salvation.

This wandering path and its facilitation of difference evokes an erratic drifting which refuses the propriety of any direct path. Derrida argues this is an illusion: ‘the wandering of [this] Stranger we won’t call “nomadic”: he is not “countryless” or “destinationless”’ (p. 29). This gathering of heterogeneous elements can always be traced back to a singular Ort (place): the first step of Geschlecht. The desire to return to the origin, to find ‘the true’ (wahre) and safeguard (verwahren) it, is troubling for Derrida: it is an attempt to gather ‘our primitive language and we are not far from Fichte here’ (p. 17). Obliquely, Derrida infers the political implications of such a philosophical position: the expansionist logic of the nation and the exceptionalism that propels it. These themes of Ort, nationhood (Geschlecht) and gathering are, as the rest of the volume illustrates, caught within a politics of propriety.

Session 9

Geschlecht III thus seems to provide an overview of Geschlecht III: Sex, Race, Nation, Humanity with Sessions 9 to 13 each further elucidating an aspect of this overture. Session 9 focuses on: the role of Platonic-Christian metaphysics in Heidegger; the role of the untranslatable idiom and the importance of place (Ort); and finally, the difference between polysemy and dissemination. It is this last part which most demonstrates the difference Derrida wishes to institute between his own work and Heidegger’s. I would argue that it is this distinction which marks the difference between a politics of propriety and a politics which attempts to displace propriety and the violence it authorises.

First, Derrida proposes that Heidegger’s emphasis on the unicity of place (Ort) fails to be reducible to Platonic-Christian metaphysics, and yet also remains unable to think beyond it. Krell (2007) argues that Heidegger thinks of himself as offering a ‘reversal and overcoming of, or coming to terms with, Platonism’ (p. 184). Here we see Derrida dismiss the idea of any ‘reversal’ and argue instead that Heidegger’s emphasis on the unicity of Ort reveals a foregrounding to Plantonic-Christianity: a ‘more-originary’ place which is non-temporally ‘before’ or ‘prior to’ the Platonic-Christian ontological oppositions. Gedicht is not a spiritual place but a place of the material world, a place in-the-world. It is only the poems written (dichtendes Sagen) which enables the possibility of accessing the unspeakable Gedicht. Despite this, Gedicht gathers these ‘material’ polysemic poems into a singular and univocal, that is a proper, understanding. In sum, Derrida argues that Heidegger destrukts (not deconstructs) the metaphysical opposition of spiritual-material and reanimates it to think it differently. Yet, he merely tethers them to another singular site of origin (Geschlecht, Being or Dasein).

Second, Derrida focuses on the role of the untranslatable idiom in the ‘second step’ or second blow/mark (Schlag) which institutes division and, as Krell (2012) argues, ‘magnetises’ Derrida. Here, Elis, a young boy in Trakl’s An den Knaben Elis (‘To The Boy Elis’), is introduced alongside the Stranger which, for Heidegger, also promises salvation and the new Geschlecht. Both enable the possibility of resisting the conflict of the ‘second blow’ by returning to this ‘pre-originary’ first step: peaceful difference. Derrida argues this ‘pre-originary’ foundation is not neutral. The figures of Elis and Stranger can only be understood through the ‘Old and High, secret, idiomatico-poetic’ German (p. xxix) – not everyday German. Elis and Stranger are not universal nor ahistorical conceptions but deeply historical ones: they are impossible to translate, and only a deep, rich understanding of this history and its linguistic connotations allows for the possibility of their comprehension. Consequently, Derrida is concerned that Geschlecht, this new humanity, is delimited by the propriety of Old and High German as the proper thought of any ‘thinking animal’. Contingent characteristics are here made proper, neutral and universal. The Geschlecht that can salvage humanity must properly apprehend and understand this idiomatic and untranslatable history and be part of it.

This brings us to the third part of Session 9 and to the heart of Geschlecht III: Sex, Race, Nation, Humanity as a project (perhaps even the entire Geschlecht series itself): the gathering and untranslatability of Ort as ‘a difference between polysemy and dissemination’ (p. 52). Polysemy is not a word Heidegger himself uses. It is Derrida’s own translation of mehrdeutig (ambiguous) which aims to: a) capture the multiplication of difference that Being inaugurates; and b) to differentiate from his own conception of dissemination which, unlike Heidegger’s mehrdeutig (ambiguous) or polysemy, does not gather these differences into a singular unicity. For Heidegger, difference is coterminous with singularity but the former must converge or gather in a singular place: for instance, poems and Gedicht do not efface or annul one another, but the former are possible because of the singular Gedicht. For Derrida, this is highly problematic. It privileges this singular, idiomatic place above all others as the necessary starting point for humanity’s salvation from decomposition. Dissemination then is difference tout court; perpetual deferral and displacement. Any attempt to gather or locate is always a violent imposition. As Noah Martin (2015) wryly comments: ‘the kind of dissemination [polysemy] that is not in opposition to gathering is a watered-down dissemination’ (p. 3). A polysemic conception of difference continues to institute a proper place amongst perpetual difference. It is a violent and always unjust imposition which installs boundaries of propriety: moving from the metaphysical origin to the ‘pre-originary’ Being. What is proper to humanity’s salvation then is a thinking animal contingent on the boundaries of Old and High German: others can exist but the future begins here.

Session 10

If Session 9 is critical of Heidegger’s polysemic gathering, which privileges a contingent historical Ort (place) as proper to humanity, then Session 10 explores the violent implications of this boundary demarcation. Derrida argues that this privileging of historical place (Ort) enables a quasi-nationalism, one tied to myths of a discreet language, land and history, to overwhelm Heidegger’s account of the new Geschlecht.

Session 10 opens with a clarification: Gedicht is not something other than the Dichtung (poetry). Gedicht is rather the fundamental tone (Grundton) of the Dichtung; it is a silence that marks what is really being said when we speak. Grundton is not elsewhere with regard to the poems of Dichtung; it is the unspokenness of these poems. Gedicht is the unspoken, ‘true’ meaning of these poems. Heidegger finds this unspoken meaning by metonymically linking of words and phrases from everyday German to Old and High German. Gedicht, like Being, is always an essence of becoming: made through poems but not existing outside them. This negotiation means that the supposed neutrality of Gedicht and Being is then always marked by a discreet linguistic history: Old and High German. Derrida here summarises the fear that has stalked his reading of Heidegger thus far: it is not merely a form of nationalism, but a propriety of Being dependent upon these contingent, historical conditions and something far more delimiting in its scope. Session 10 argues then that just when Heidegger is at his most radical, he stutters, redoubles back on himself and imposes a quasi ‘philosophical nationalism’. This ‘proper thought’ of Erörterung, the thinking animal and Geschlecht act as necessary pre-conditions for humanity – reaffirming the propriety of those who can have access to it and can enter subjectivity. Anything less is bestiality or non-human. In this singular move, some humans then become sub-human and this marks the ultimate danger of any politics or philosophy of propriety.

Session 11

If Session 10 outlines the violent implications of delineating Geschlecht as a proprietary foundation for humanity’s salvation, then Session 11 hammers these home. First, Derrida situates the Stranger and Elis between and against two concepts of modernity and German Idealism: cosmopolitanism and humanism. Second, Derrida argues that Heidegger’s conception of the Occident (Europe, the West) is integral to this positioning. Moreover, Derrida argues that a Geschlecht which retains the Occident as its home is a dangerous form of proprietary violence which radically excludes.

The Stranger and Elis, unlike humanism or cosmopolitanism, refuse the human being as the foundation for the human experience: ‘what throws [the throwing, das Werfende] in such projection is not the human being but being itself, which sends [schickt, which destines] the human being into the ek-sistence of Da-sein that is his essence’ (p. 97; my italics). Heidegger turns to Holderlin’s Heimkunft (‘Homecoming’) to designate Heimat (homeland) as this thrownness [das Werfende] of Da-sein. Yet this homeland, Derrida argues, must be thought, not nationalistically nor patriotically, but rather ‘in term of the history of being’ (p. 98). Moreover, for Heidegger this history, this Heimat, must be understood as Abendland – a phrase Trakl uses in his oeuvre to denote the Occident and which literally translates as Land of the Evening. Heidegger eulogises that the evening prepares and clears the way for the morning and the new to come, just as Being is a site (Ort) which prepares and clears the way for the unborne Geschlecht to come. For Derrida then, Heidegger’s assimilation of Holderin’s Heimat and Trakl’s Abendland announce the limits of the new configurations that can emerge from Being (that pre-originary place) and which can resist the decomposition of the second step, the bad Geschlecht. The Heimat’s “countrymen” are not the citizens of the German nation; countrymen refers to those who inherit the history of being. In other words, it is those who retain ‘a belongingness to the destiny of the West’ (p. 98) – those who understand this history and inherit through Old and High German. Consequently, Derrida argues this move to steer clear of nationalism only violently reaffirms the propriety of ‘the West’ as the origin of Being thus destined (Geschickt) as the future of humanity’s salvation.

Session 12

Session 12 sees Derrida, in knowingly provocative fashion, name this discourse a ‘revolutionary promise’. The new Geschlecht, inheritors of Old and High German and descendents of Abendland, and thus destined (Geschickt) by virtue of this unique place (Ort) they hold in history, is this singular subjectivity – it may spawn others but this is where it all begins. Derrida further argues that Heidegger’s emphasis on the “Ein” (one) in Ein Geschlecht promises the possibility of a ‘completely other experience’ (p. 128): peaceful difference. Yet he concludes that it is this very demand for the Ein, for the singular and the securing of it, which ‘guarantees the ultimate foundation of every nationalism’ (p. 132) and thus reanimates the possibility of exclusion, dispossession and violence that Ein Geschlecht promises to release us from.

The new Geschlecht appear through Schlag – a mark or strike which clears the decomposition and inaugurates the unborne Geschlecht of Abendland. Two things remain important for Derrida. First, this mark (Schlag) is not only a singular mark. It announces the singularity of Being and the differences of all beings which might emerge from this singular Geschlecht. There is both Einfalt (oneness) and Zwiefalt (two-fold). Singularity does not efface difference; differences are maintained alongside the singular place (Ort) even as they are gathered into it. Second, Schlag, as strike or mark, does not merely mean destruction but operates as ‘an opening and a path-breaking’ (p. 130). This makes sense given singularity does not efface difference for Heidegger and it is the Schlag which clears decomposition for a new Geschlecht to break forth. It is for this reason that Derrida argues Schlag is untranslatable from German because any translation fails to carry over Schlag’s inextricable relationship to Weg (path). The mark of the singular (ein Geschlecht) is thus a pathway to multiplicity wherein all the new, unborne Geschlechter of the future gestate.

Schrijvers (2017) proposes that Derrida hopes for a unisexuality, a singular Geschlecht which ‘resists (even his) deconstruction’ (p. 2). However, Session 12 demonstrates that even this polysemic, path-breaking (Weg) Schlag, which promises difference alongside singularity (Ein) and a future of possibility over closure, ‘remains a path of return’ (p. 131).  Derrida argues, the pathway (Weg) of the Schlag (the mark) and the Ein (the one) ‘gives way to the more ancient, the more matutinal of the night before’ (p. 131). That which is closest to the most Ancient civilisation (this ‘first’ civilisation) – Ancient Greece, the West, Abendland –  structures Geschlecht (humanity, species, races, sexualities) and can be considered proper to the future to come of humanity and its true descendants. Proximity to Heimat determines Ein Geschlecht. Thus, this account of Being, for Derrida, remains an act of enclosure within the field of difference. Schrijvers misses what Derrida always targets: enclosure, the demarcation of boundaries and propriety. His hope, if one can exist, is to resist unjustified enclosure.

For Derrida, Heimkunft (homecoming) organises Heidegger’s thought on the proper and commands and enables all possible forms of nationalism and nationalist claims. The polysemic differences of Geschlecht are organised through the singularity of Heimkunft. Derrida understands Heimkunft as a ‘return to the source [which] can be a withdrawal or preparation for a new morning or new leap…this nationalist circle’ (p. 132). The homecoming is then a ‘path-breaking step’ which clears the way forward for national and colonial exploitation to operate. It is a harkening back to the ‘most original’ in order to justify venturing forth and appropriating all that is ahead. It is not simply then that those improper differences outside the singular propriety of Heimkunft (i.e. those other, non-Western Geschlecht or ‘races’, nations, ‘species’) are eviscerated – they are eviscerated through their interpolation into this ‘most original’ logic of Being. The Other is only understood through the terms of the self – ‘neutralising’ any sense of Other-ness. This propriety of self therefore eviscerates the Other by appropriating it into the self and this ‘most original’ logic.

Session 13

Geschlecht III: Sex, Race, Nation, Humanity’s final session, Session 13, provides the clearest indication yet of what decomposition means for Heidegger: modernity. It is against this backdrop Derrida argues, that the new Geschlecht of the Stranger and Elis must be understood as an arche-origin. Derrida claims that Heidegger’s differentiation between Historie (history as representation), Geschichte (history as that which happens but also tale or narrative) and Geschick (destiny) demonstrates how he constructs a certain history of Old and High German, descended from Abendland, as the arche-origin of humanity (Geschlecht). In naming the new Geschlecht as an arche-origin Derrida forcefully shows what has been latently pointed to throughout the book: this new Geschlecht as Stranger and Elis are proprietary claims, which replay in dissimulated fashion the metaphysical trap it seeks to escape.

In Die Sprache im Gedicht (1953) Heidegger rallies against those who argue that Trakl’s work is ahistorical because it does not contain ‘historiographical objects’ (p. 149). For Heidegger, there is no need for these when dealing with history of the ‘highest sense’ (p. 150). Failure to understand this is a ‘modern and metaphysical objection [which] stems from this objectivism and this philosophy of representation that is the mark of post-Cartesian philosophy’ (p. 149).  The distinction between Historie, Geschichte and Geschick is then Heidegger’s attempts to return to the past and articulate a different account of history altogether – one that Trakl apparently pronounces perfectly: ‘his poem is Geschichtlich [historical] in the highest sense’ (p. 149-150). Geschichte literally translates to history, story, tale, narrative, saga. Trakl’s poetry may not name historical objects, but it does mark Stranger and Elis; symbols of the new Geschlecht, the bearer of history and the future, and the destiny (schickt/Geschick) of the history of ‘the West’. Like the path-breaking Schlag (mark), these symbols carry history forth – continue its story – by returning to the ‘most original’ mark of humanity (Geschlecht) and making way for the future.

For Derrida, reanimating history cannot mean a return to an origin. This ‘movement toward the future is a return toward the arche-origin’ (p. 153). There is no undecidability nor uncertainty regarding this future. It is rather determined by the false construction of an originary moment which then legitimises ensuing violence. Here the ‘arche-origin’ legitimates Ein Geschlecht as both (a) the historical and proper subject of Abendland and ‘the West’, which has always existed; and (b) the one which is also its future and can act as its salvation. Derrida argues that Heidegger’s circular account of history only serves to ‘save what is proper to man’ (p. 152). It designates and delimits a Geschick (destiny), Ein Geschlecht, to ‘give humanity its proper stamp and make it come into itself, into its essence, saving it from what it is not or must not be’ (p. 152). This may be an essence of becoming: the future Geschlecht enables the fulfilment of this promise of history. Nevertheless, this future and this promise are always premised upon a return that is not ‘accidental or supplementary predicate of dwelling or the homeland [Heimat], it is the essential movement that originarily constitutes the homeland or country as a promise of dwelling. The country begins with the promise of return’ (p. 153). As such even an ‘arche-origin’ of becoming such as the Heimat of Ein Geschlecht (like all arche-origins) is an act of ownership over the future, which denotes what can appear within it by demarcating a past and a future (Abendland, ‘the West’ and the Occident) which do not exist. This demarcation and delimitation of the future thus marks its proper bounds. It institutes what does and does not count.


After reading Geschlecht III: Sex, Race, Nation, Humanity some might be tempted to argue that if gathering, even in the polysemic fashion Heidegger suggests, is so problematic, it must be avoided at all costs such that nothing is ever united. As responses to Spectres of Marx (1994) demonstrated, some will affirm then that deconstructive politics is no politics at all. Others would lament the lack of overt references to sex and sexuality, which Krell (2007; 2012) promised were the ‘proper subjects’ of Geschlecht III. Both responses would be short-sighted. In refusing the propriety of gathering and affirming dissemination as a form of anti-proprietary politics, Derrida argues we cannot rely upon the histories and systems we inherit. Gathering is possible; it happens all the time. But, in ‘protecting the unborne’, it will necessarily exclude, and failure to acknowledge any ‘arche-origin’ as contingent is fundamentally dangerous. Reading sex and sexuality through this lens disavows the imposition of boundaries that binary logics of sex designate. Male and female must be understood as limits which govern the propriety of bodies, determine our political horizons and authorises violence (be it the absence of appropriate and socialised healthcare or vigilante attacks) against those who defy these limits. These borders always overlap and coalesce with those of the human, race, nation, lineage to institute forms of propriety. This is the reason, it seems, that Derrida is so intrigued by Geschlecht – a phrase which points to these intersecting forms of properness and cannot be reduced to any single one.

Derrida’s concern throughout Geschlecht III: Sex, Race, Nation, Humanity is that Heidegger replays a metaphysical trick. A ‘Heideggerian reading’, Ein Geschlecht, Elis, Abendland cannot be reduced to the metaphysical, but neither do they entirely escape that metaphysical inclination for propriety: a proper way to write, a proper way to read the poem, a proper path to follow and more significantly a proper locale of Being – a properness to humanity. It is this propriety which threads each of the sessions in Geschlecht III: Sex, Race, Nation, Humanity as Derrida elucidates the violence which is authorised by any stalwart defence of propriety to humanity:  be it thought (over animality), a race, a sex, a sexuality, a nation, a lineage and so forth. Dissemination is positioned as the perpetual displacement of any attempt at gathering or enclosure and, as such, the perpetual disavowal of any propriety. It is therefore the possibility of resisting rather than replaying the violences of racism, colonialism and sexism (but also heteropatriarchy) (and so forth), which attempt to designate the kinds of bodies that are proper and improper. What is most interesting then is not necessarily what this volume  says about Heidegger (nor Derrida’s reading of him) but the dormant political force which  Geschlecht III: Sex, Race, Nation, Humanity and other earlier works (1978; 1982; 1992) reveal – that most radical energy which becomes more cautious in texts such as Rogues (2005). It is that energy that Geschlecht III: Sex, Race, Nation, Humanity provides today and it is this Derrida we cannot forget and must inherit.


Derrida, Jacques. 1978. Writing and Difference. Great Britain: Routledge.

Derrida, Jacques. 1982. Margins of Philosophy. Brighton: Harvester Press Limited.

Derrida, Jacques. 1992. “Force of Law: The ‘Mystical Foundation of Authority.’” In Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice, edited by Drucilla Cornell, Michael Rosenfeld and David Gray Carlson, 3-67. New York: Routledge.

Derrida, Jacques. 1994. Spectres of Marx. New York: Routledge.

Derrida, Jacques. 2005. Rogues: Two Essays on Reason. California: Stanford University Press.

Heidegger, Martin. 1953. “Die Sprache im Gedicht.” In Unterwegs zur Sprache (On the way to Language). 1982. Harper Collins.

Krell, David Farrell. 2007. “Marginalia to Geschlecht III: Derrida on Heidegger on Trakl.” The New Centennial Review 7, no 2 (Fall): 175-199.

Krell, David Farrell. 2012. Phantoms of the Other. Albany: Suny Press.

Martin, Noah Gabriel. 2015. “Review of ‘Phantoms of the Other: Four Generation of Derrida’s Geschlecht.’” Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews.

Schrijvers, Joeri. 2017. “Review of ‘Phantoms of the Other.’” Phenomenological Reviews.

[i] My thanks to Viktoria Huegel for help with editing and proofreading, and for being kind to my butchering of the German language.

Lorenzo C. Simpson: Hermeneutics as Critique, Columbia University Press, 2021

Hermeneutics as Critique: Science, Politics, Race, and Culture Book Cover Hermeneutics as Critique: Science, Politics, Race, and Culture
New Directions in Critical Theory
Lorenzo C. Simpson
Columbia University Press
Paperback $35.00 £30.00

Frank Chouraqui: The Body and Embodiment: A Philosophical Guide, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2021

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Paperback $31.95

Darian Meacham, Nicolas De Warren (Eds.): The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy and Europe, Routledge, 2021

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Darian Meacham, Nicolas De Warren (Eds.)
Hardback £190.00

Jacques Derrida: Geschlecht III: Sex, Race, Nation, Humanity, University of Chicago Press, 2020

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University of Chicago Press
Cloth $27.50

Laura Hengehold, Nancy Bauer (Eds.): A Companion to Simone de Beauvoir

A Companion to Simone de Beauvoir Book Cover A Companion to Simone de Beauvoir
Laura Hengehold, Nancy Bauer (Eds.)
Hardcover $195.00

Reviewed by: Rose Trappes (Department of Philosophy, Bielefeld University)

On the back cover of Margaret Simons’ 1995 edited collection Feminist Interpretations of Simone de Beauvoir, you can find a story about Beauvoir scholarship at the time:

For almost twenty years, feminist readings of Simone de Beauvoir’s feminist classic The Second Sex have been dominated by dismissive interpretation of Beauvoir’s philosophy as Sartrean and phallocentric. […] It was not until Beauvoir’s death in 1986 that this interpretive impasse would be broken. […] Some of the most exciting new interpretations of Beauvoir’s philosophy that have resulted are brought together here for the first time.

Beauvoir scholarship has travelled a long way since that impasse was broken. The idea that Beauvoir is a philosopher is no longer quite so revolutionary, and following Simons’ breakthrough volume, a number of collections of Beauvoir scholarship have been published.[1]

Yet it has now been over ten years since a major companion to Beauvoir has been released. The intervening years have seen a new and improved publication of The Second Sex (Beauvoir 2009) and a great number of original publications concerning various aspects of Beauvoir’s thought in ethics, metaphysics, phenomenology, and social and political philosophy. A Companion to Simone de Beauvoir is thus a timely and necessary update of Beauvoir scholarship. With forty articles spread across four parts, the book combines overviews of Beauvoir’s social and intellectual context, her philosophical influences and the reception of her work, with discussions of major conceptual and methodological questions. Many of these essays respond to the new translation and build on the last twenty to thirty years of burgeoning work on Beauvoir, making the collection an important publication for taking stock of Beauvoir’s position and relevance for contemporary feminism.

The volume attests to Beauvoir’s interdisciplinary and far reaching influence, exhibited by her entire œuvre as intellectual, writer, and autobiographer. The essays together develop several themes in contemporary feminist readings of Beauvoir’s work, including the questions of Beauvoir’s treatment of race and intersectionality, her understanding of biology, childhood and motherhood, the relationship between fiction, life writing and philosophy, and her ethical and political thought. Though The Second Sex features prominently, most authors in the volume also confirm the philosophical and historical importance of Beauvoir’s earlier ethical essays, her life writings and letters, her fiction and travel writings, and her work on ageing, The Coming of Age. The Companion thus serves to demonstrate Beauvoir’s interdisciplinary reach as well as her philosophical import.

Readers can find contributions from some of the most reputed Beauvoir scholars, but the collection also introduces a number of younger academics. With this combination of voices, the Companion covers old ground as well as demonstrating the changing interests of scholars. Beauvoir’s ethics and politics, her discussion of motherhood, and her intellectual engagements with thinkers like Hegel, Merleau-Ponty and Sartre continuing to feature prominently. On the other hand, there seems to be far greater interest in topics like biology and race than in earlier collections, while conversely less attention for phenomenology, socialisation, and sexuality.

Now, often these kinds of reviews step through essays section by section. Unfortunately, the articles in the Companion are rather indifferently distributed to sections and parts in a way that often obscures rather than draws out main themes and connections and debates between papers. For instance, while analyses of Beauvoir’s account of motherhood are grouped together, discussions on race and on biology are scattered throughout the volume. In addition, the choice to structure the text around The Second Sex belies the way that almost all the authors in the volume cite a variety of Beauvoir’s writings in their articles. Thus, in part one (“Re-reading The Second Sex”) and especially in the “Central Themes” section, one finds discussions of Beauvoir’s ethical writings and life writings, as well as discussions of her intellectual engagements and references to contemporary feminism. On the other hand, some key themes of The Second Sex are developed in other parts and sections, as in Penelope Deutscher’s discussion of intersectionality (appearing in Part III section C) and the two discussions by Shannon Sullivan and Alexander Antonopoulos of the “Data of Biology” chapter of The Second Sex (appearing in Part IV).  Moreover, while Laura Hengehold introduces the volume with a brief overview of each chapter in turn, she neglects to provide an overarching picture or satisfactory discussion of the central themes and connections. For this review I will therefore discuss the contributions by their themes and the debates generated between articles in the collection, rather than according to their place in the Companion.

Beauvoir’s Context

A number of essays in the volume discuss the philosophical context of Beauvoir’s works. Two essays by Kimberly Hutchings and Zeynep Direk debate and ultimately disagree about the way Beauvoir takes up Hegel’s thought. Hutchings contends that Beauvoir encountered Hegel’s thought on her own terms and rejected the absolutism of Hegelianism as a system. In contrast, Direk claims that Beauvoir largely took on the dominant French version of Hegelianism popularised by Alexandre Kojève in the 1930s, and that she consequently accepted the Hegelian Absolute and understood history as a meaningful totality.

Two essays, this time more concordant, cover Beauvoir’s relationship with fellow phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Jennifer McWeeny argues that Beauvoir generated an idea of “flesh,” the ontological ground of the ambiguity between being at once bodily object and bodily subject, before Merleau-Ponty could put a name to it. William Wilkerson, on the other hand, compares the ideas of freedom and authenticity in Beauvoir and Merleau-Ponty, arguing that Beauvoir is ultimately more sensitive to the difficulties subjects face in everyday life in acting freely and authentically.

Much ink has been spilled on the relationship between Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. Yet the topic must be dealt with, and several articles in the Companion do so. Like the essays on Merleau-Ponty, Christine Daigle’s analysis of Beauvoir’s intellectual relationship to Sartre highlights the active contributions Beauvoir made to her philosophical milieu. The article by Margaret Simons (which I also mention below) accords with this view, claiming that Beauvoir originated many of the ideas Sartre later took up in his philosophical works.

A notable feature of the Companion is the inclusion of two essays on Beauvoir’s relation to both Marx’s thought and Marxism in its twentieth century French form, often not a focus in other collections on Beauvoir. Missing, however, is a discussion of many of Beauvoir’s other important influences. For instance, the influence of other phenomenologists like Heidegger and Husserl is not treated, and I am sure that productive discussion could be had concerning Beauvoir’s relationship with other philosophers (for instance, with Descartes’ philosophy).[2]

Somehow, what I found more interesting were the essays on Beauvoir’s social and historical context. Sandra Reineke provides a helpful overview of the state of French feminism prior to The Second Sex, written twenty years before the popular French feminist movements began. The delightfully personal recount of Margaret Simons’ fraught quest to understand Beauvoir’s relationship with philosophy and with Sartre reveals a trail of investigation, from interviews in the 1970s to reading Beauvoir’s diaries and letters, in which Simons attempts to come to terms with Beauvoir’s apparent denial of her own originality. William McBride reads Beauvoir’s travel memoirs America Day by Day and The Long March to discuss Beauvoir’s relation with the political and social situations in America and China respectively, praising her acuity with respect to America’s hypocrisy and fatalism and China’s future-directedness, though he challenges her overly apologetic attitude towards the Chinese communist regime.

Receptions and Translations

Beauvoir has had a varied reception over time in France. Ingrid Galster’s posthumously published chapter covers the scandal and intellectual neglect generated by the original publication of The Second Sex in France. Turning to more recent times, Karen Vintges challenges the way Elisabeth Badinter and other French liberal feminists cite Beauvoir in support of their stance against Islamic veiling. Critiquing Badinter’s interpretation of laicism, Vintges highlights Beauvoir’s belief in the importance of respecting Islamic women’s views of their own lives and their potentially different ways of practicing freedom. On the other side of French feminism, Diane Perpich examines the way young feminists from poor migrant neighbourhoods in France take up Beauvoir’s famous phrase (“One is not born…”) for their own purposes. Perpich’s discussion is enlightening and it would be nice to see more discussion of how Beauvoir’s famous words have travelled through popular feminist movements in other contexts.

The English translation of The Second Sex has been much discussed, and Emily Grosholz’s article is particularly valuable for its overview of the failings of HM Parshley’s original translation as well as a discussion of the merits of the new translation by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier. Though she concludes that the new translation is more philosophically adequate, Grosholz calls for a complete scholarly edition of The Second Sex, complete with full citations and elaborations. Grosholz provides a detailed plan for such a work and I encourage anyone who is interested to contact her to offer their assistance. Kyoo Lee’s contribution adds to the discussion of translation, bringing in Chinese and Korean translations of Beauvoir’s famous phrase “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” (On ne nait pas femme: on le devient) and inviting further discussion of its translation in a wide variety of other languages, certainly a crucial task for the future.

Finally, Beauvoir’s reception in and relationship to contemporary feminist theory receives treatment in a number of essays throughout the volume. With the first chapter Stella Sandford considers Beauvoir’s role as a founder of feminist philosophy and gender theory. Beauvoir’s interdisciplinary research, she argues, introduced the very question of sex and gender as a philosophical and theoretical question. In addition, as I discuss below, a number of the chapters on biology, motherhood, and race and intersectionality contain useful summaries of how Beauvior’s ideas have been received by later feminist theorists.

Biological Body

The topic of biology and its relation to bodily existence is treated in many of the essays. Many of these discussions focus on reading The Second Sex’s chapter “Biological data” (Les données de la biologie), as well as its forceful descriptions of female physiology, in light of contemporary feminist discussions. Ruth Groenhout’s “Beauvoir and the Biological Body” does an excellent job of elaborating Beauvoir’s view that the meaning of biological factors depends on social, cultural, environmental and economic factors. As Groenhout attests, Beauvoir’s understanding of biology is surprisingly similar to that of feminist science scholar Anne Fausto-Sterling and could prove useful for the feminist critique of evolutionary psychology. Emily Anne Parker’s “Becoming Bodies” compares Beauvoir with poststructuralist theories of bodily materialisation, finding that Beauvoir is more sensitive to bodily agency than theorists like Judith Butler. Similarly, Alexander Antonopoulos brings Beauvoir’s understanding of biology into contact with trans studies.

As well as these explicit articles, the theme of biology also returns in contributions on motherhood, childhood, and race. It is thus far more prominent here than in previous collections, indicating that there is a growing interest in this topic. This is perhaps related to the growth of new materialist and feminist science studies discussions of biology in the past twenty years. The contributions in the Companion provide a starting point for an important dialogue about the relevance of Beauvoir for these new fields of research.

Motherhood and Childhood

Three contributions renew discussion of Beauvoir’s relation to maternity, with Alison Stone, Sara Cohen Shabot, and Nancy Bauer all concluding that Beauvoir is not as anti-motherhood as she is often supposed to be. Instead, these three authors highlight the ambiguity of motherhood in The Second Sex as well as in some of her fictional and autobiographical writings. Being a mother involves a specific set of physiological states as well as a special and often fraught kind of relation with other beings, and the authors highlight Beauvoir’s sensitivity to the multiple meanings that can attach to motherhood and the importance of social and economic factors in shaping mothers’ and children’s experiences.

Turning to childhood, Emily Zakin looks at Beauvoir’s understanding of childhood dependency and development in light of psychoanalytic theories, while Mary Beth Mader compares Foucauldian emphasis on institutional discipline with Beauvoir’s focus on the role of the family and intimacy in child development. Both of these essays invite further research into Beauvoir’s conceptual frameworks and how they can be combined with other paradigms to yield new insights on topics like childhood. Also relevant here is Shannon Sullivan’s article on black girlhood (which I also discuss below), where she considers the different roles that physical activity and violence play in child development for white and black girls.

Race and Intersectionality

Beauvoir is often criticised for drawing an analogy between racial and gender-based oppression in a way that excludes multiple oppression and the insights of intersectionality. Here this argument is voiced by Tanella Boni, Katherine Gines, Patricia Hill Collins and Shannon Sullivan, as well as being mentioned in several other papers. Rehearsing the argument, Gines criticises Beauvoir’s analogy and her inattention to Black and Black feminist thought in the 1950s. Although Gines fails here to provide a satisfactory treatment of the method of analogy, this can be found in Collins’ chapter. Collins offers an in-depth exploration of the function of analogy in Beauvoir’s work, arguing that Beauvoir ultimately relies on ideological connections between animal, child, Black person and woman.

Acknowledging these arguments, Sullivan nevertheless finds Beauvoir’s emphasis on the implication between the physical and biological body and social and cultural factors fruitful for a critical theory of race that goes beyond social constructionism. Interestingly, Sullivan echoes Groenhout in referring to Anne Fausto-Sterling, this time to her work on how race comes to exist physiologically.

Providing a counterpoint, Penelope Deutscher argues that Beauvoir’s analysis of old age is sensitive to issues of multiple oppression, especially of class and gender intersecting with age. Deutscher’s paper is surprisingly the only chapter on Beauvoir’s The Coming of Age, a shame given the great importance of this often neglected work. It is also worth noting that Debra Bergoffen contextualises Beauvoir’s analogy between racial and gender-based oppression, arguing that Beauvoir was making a powerful political claim for women by associating them with a group that was more easily recognised as oppressed in mid-twentieth century France.

Ethics and Politics

Beauvoir’s ethical and political philosophies have received considerable recognition in the past twenty years. The Companion adds to this with a number of chapters discussing aspects of Beauvoir’s ethics and politics. Examining Beauvoir’s reflections on love from her teenage diaries to her later life, Tove Petterson discusses the importance of mutual recognition for ethical relationships and thus for authentic love. Kristina Arp provides an excellent essay arguing that Beauvoir’s “Pyrrhus and Cineas” is ideal as an introductory text on existentialist ethics, and she facilitates this with an explanatory text that is suitable for the earliest of undergraduates or even late high school students.

The three contributions from Laura Hengehold, Lori Marso and Debra Bergoffen together provide extensive and informative examination of the place of violence and vulnerability in Beauvoir’s ethics. While Marso and Bergoffen focus on the effects of violence and human vulnerability to violence, Hengehold emphasises Beauvoir’s acknowledgement of our vulnerability to committing violence. Bergoffen’s text, with its discussion of rape, prostitution and race is an especially interesting chapter for its extensive scope and largely sensitive analysis. Hengehold’s is also notable for the way she presents Beauvoir as a counterpoint to the focus on vulnerability in recent feminist and queer ethics such as that of Judith Butler.  It is also worth mentioning that other contributions, such as those from Vintges and Collins, contain thorough discussions of aspects of Beauvoir’s ethical and political theory.


Finally, a number of essays deal with Beauvoir’s approach to writing and her considerable body of fiction and life writing. In an enlightening discussion of literary techniques and the history of the novel, Meryl Altman argues that Beauvoir must be recognised as an important novelist with a specific literary approach designed to convey lived experience, one which she employed even in parts of The Second Sex. Sally Scholz adds to this with her discussion of Beauvoir’s idea of the metaphysical novel as disclosing lived experience rather than delivering a message. Anne van Leeuwen and Shannon Mussett complement these pieces with analyses of Beauvoir’s novels for insights about ethical relationships and the difficulties of achieving authentic subjectivity.

In addition, Ursula Tidd’s contribution provides an excellent discussion of Beauvoir’s extensive collection of many varieties of life writing, arguing that Beauvoir displays a sensitivity to the way histories and events are co-implicated and use to interpret each other, something she calls “ethical witnessing”. Reinforcing Tidd’s point, Michel Kail argues that Beauvoir’s understanding of history as situation is an important alternative to dominant Hegelian and Marxist understandings of history as mechanistic, naturalistic or essentialist. We can also cite here Margaret Simons’ reflection on the way Beauvoir’s life writings sometimes conflict with each other, and William McBride’s recognition of Beauvoir as a sensitive and astute witness of mid-twentieth century cultures.

Concluding Remarks

The essays in the Companion cover a vast swathe of topics in contemporary feminist theory and Beauvoir scholarship. As mentioned earlier, the main drawback of the collection is that the arrangement of chapters sometimes seems arbitrary and often obscures connections and debates occurring between the various contributions. Hopefully this review amends some of this lack. It is also worth noting that there is an extensive index that enables researchers or students looking for particular topics to find their way around the text.

One of the more unique features of the Companion is its inclusion of contributions with diverging views on the same topic. For instance, the chapters discussing Beauvoir’s Hegelianism—including the two by Hutchings and Direk as well as others like Vintges’ and van Leeuwen’s—provide conflicting interpretations of whether Beauvoir took on Kojève’s reading of Hegel. As another example, while Gines, Boni, Collins and Sullivan see Beauvoir as lacking sensitivity to intersectionality (especially concerning the race-gender intersection), Penelope Deutscher qualifies this assessment by arguing that Beauvoir did employ a kind of intersectional analysis with respect to gender, class and age. Such disagreements can be important and productive, and their inclusion in the collection certainly serves to give readers a sense of the lay of the contested fields.

Despite its decidedly wide scope, there are some topics missing from the Companion. It would have been nice to have seen more discussions of ageing, for instance, and of Beauvoir’s phenomenological approach to women’s lived experience. And though the discussion of the reception of Beauvoir in the French context was enlightening, it would have been interesting to have had similar pieces on her reception in other places and times.

The Companion could also have benefited from more chapters that review and respond more directly to the recent literature on certain aspects of Beauvoir’s theory since its rise to prominence in the past thirty years. Some chapters do summarise the past literature: Grosholz surveys the debates about the English translation of The Second Sex, Sullivan gives an excellent review on literature about Beauvoir and race, and the articles on motherhood nicely summarise the field. However, none of the chapters on Beauvoir’s ethics and political philosophy gave a clear overview for the student or researcher wishing to get oriented in the vast amount of literature published on these topics.

That being said, the collection for the most part builds on and extends previous Beauvoir scholarship. Moreover, with its clear documentation of the rising popularity of topics like biology and race, it reinforces Beauvoir’s continuing relevance to current new materialist and intersectional trends in feminist theory and provides new avenues for research employing Beauvoir’s work in relation to current debates. A Companion to Simone de Beauvoir is thus a worthy, indeed essential, addition to any library wishing to stay up to date with Beauvoir scholarship and provides some useful texts for students and researchers alike.


Bauer, Nancy. 2006. Beauvoir’s Heideggerian Ontology. In: Margaret Simons (ed.), The Philosophy of Simone de Beauvoir: Critical Essays, pp. 65-91. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Beauvoir, Simone de. 2009. The Second Sex. Trans. Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier. London: Jonathon Cape (also 2010, New York: Alfred A. Knope).

Card, Claudia (ed.). 2003. The Cambridge Companion to Simone de Beauvoir. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Fallaize, Elizabeth (ed.). 1998. Simone de Beauvoir: A critical reader. London: Routledge.

Gothlin, Eva. 2003. Reading Simone de Beauvoir with Martin Heidegger. In: Claudia Card (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Simone de Beauvoir, pp. 45-65. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Grosholz, Emily (ed.). 2004. The Legacy of Simone de Beauvoir. Oxford : Clarendon Press.

Heinämaa, Sara. 2006. Simone de Beauvoir’s Phenomenology of Sexual Difference. In: Margaret Simons (ed.), The Philosophy of Simone de Beauvoir: Critical Essays, pp. 20-41. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Heinämaa, Sara. 2004. «The Soul-Body Union and Sexual Difference from Descartes to Merleau-Ponty and Beauvoir.» In Feminist reflections on the history of philosophy, pp. 137-151. Dordrecht: Springer.

Simons, Margaret (ed.). 2006. The Philosophy of Simone de Beauvoir: Critical Essays. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Simons, Margaret (ed.). 1995. Feminist interpretations of Simone de Beauvoir. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Vintges, Karen. 1995. The second sex and philosophy. In: Margaret Simons (ed.), Feminist interpretations of Simone de Beauvoir, pp. 45-58. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.

[1] In chronological order: Simone de Beauvoir: A critical reader (Fallaize 1998), The Cambridge Companion to Simone de Beauvoir (Card 2003), The Legacy of Simone de Beauvoir (Grosholz 2004), and The Philosophy of Simone de Beauvoir: Critical Essays (Simons 2006).

[2] Useful discussions of these topic can nevertheless be found in earlier work on Beauvoir. On Beauvoir and Heidegger, two examples are Nancy Bauer’s chapter “Beauvoir’s Heideggerian Ontology” (2006) and Eva Gothlin’s “Reading Simone de Beauvoir with Martin Heidegger” (2003). On Beauvoir and Husserl, see Sara Heinämaa “Simone de Beauvoir’s Phenomenology of Sexual Difference” (2006) or Karen Vintges (1995) “The second sex and philosophy,” amongst many others. On Beauvoir and Descartes, see Heinämaa «The Soul-Body Union and Sexual Difference from Descartes to Merleau-Ponty and Beauvoir» (2004).