Research on Practical Deliberation

The Project

I am interested both in the ways that physical conflict can be avoided by the heated but responsive conflict of words that occurs in practical deliberation, especially when that deliberation is supported by institutional structure and custom, but even when it isn't. And I am interested in the ways in which language is performative; human action includes speaking. The ethical subject is both a thinking thing and an expressive and active body. So we are recalled to Aristotle, who holds consistently, throughout the Nichomachean Ethics, the Rhetoric, and the Politics, that to be virtuous, one can't simply have good intentions—one must also know how to realize those intentions. Goodness worthy of the name is effective. This means that we need to have good character and the wisdom of experience, in order to persuade other people to join us in our endeavors, for there are very few worthwhile projects a human being can carry out alone. In Leibnizian terms, the Principle of Perfection requires not just inner harmony, but outer harmony. The roles we play in society are expressions of who we are; and the self constitutes itself in terms of those roles, just as thought constitutes itself by means of language, signs and images. The world reads us through our roles.

Forme Symbolique Poster

The view that philosophers take of their art and craft changes when they remember that philosophy is not merely descriptive but is also performative. To use Austin's vocabulary, this change occurs when philosophers admit that their writings have illocutionary and perlocutionary, as well as locutionary, import. Any proposition is at once a judgment made by a thinking person, and an expressive utterance presented to an audience; any argument is rational persuasion (even when it is quoted in a logic textbook). To speak with Cavell and Wittgenstein, from their caravansaries along the trade route between Harvard and Cambridge, the change occurs when philosophers admit that their writings always take place within language games and ‘forms of life,' so that the search for criteria in framing concepts and for evidence in framing arguments is also a claim to community. Aristotle, more than two thousand years ago, urged similar insights and questions on philosophers when he wrote about rhetoric as an extension of both logic and ethics. Filtered through the editorial work of Richard McKeon at the University of Chicago, the Aristotelian tradition there produced books about practical deliberation that to my mind deserve at least as much attention as those of Cavell and Austin, works by Wayne Booth, Edward Levi, David Luban, Paul Kahn, and Eugene Garver. Notably, their texts deal with works of literature on the one hand, and law on the other, discursive realms in which narratives of human action are central and irreducible, however much they may be subject to philosophical analysis.

Simone de Beauvoir's work, for example, exhibits a methodological trajectory as she sees more and more clearly that philosophical writing is performative as well as descriptive, and that the enterprise she has undertaken is a form of rational persuasion rather than the construction of a ‘correct' theory about people. This trajectory begins with Pyrrhus et Cinéas (1944), and then Pour une morale de l'ambiguité (1947), and continues through Le Deuxième Sexe (1949), followed by her works on old age that have a distinctly practical cast. It culminates in her active engagement with those who criticized French colonialism as the Algerian war broke out, as well as with proponents of the feminist movement in France, which crystallized around the issue of reproductive rights in the 1970s. And the trajectory is also traced in the multiplicity of genres she employs: philosophical tract, novel, journalism, and memoir.

Over the years, teaching philosophy courses dealing with racism and sexism, I have been struck by the importance of first person narratives. We read (for example) the memoirs of W. E. B. Du Bois beside his more systematic writings, and we read the memoirs of Beauvoir alongside The Second Sex. The testimony of those singular figures (like the testimony of Augustine or Rousseau), recording the specific details of their life, their personal quest for freedom and equality and the many ways in which they tried to share their quest, is essential. (And their fiction particularizes and dramatizes the insights they consider philosophically and scientifically elsewhere.) For Du Bois's writings to be effective, he had to speak out of his situation (to borrow a term from the Existentialists) as a Black man in early twentieth century America; and Beauvoir had to speak out of her situation as a woman in mid-twentieth century France. Then, their more philosophical writings took up the task of generalization, and so do the books and editorials of those who, inspired by their thought, carry it forward.

This project was supported more as pedagogy than as research, thus generating lots of discussion that helped me develop my thoughts about discussion. One source was the Schreyer Honors College Distinguished Honors Faculty Program, which provided $8500 between 2012 and 2014. I also shared with Christine Clark-Evans and thanks to the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at Penn State, an NEH Challenge Grant, Team Teaching Across the Humanities ($9500) for a lecture series and course on African American philosophy during Spring Semester 2008.


This research has resulted in the following publications:

  1. Forme symbolique et parole efficace (in French). Under review.
  2. The Legacy of Simone de Beauvoir. Edited. Oxford University Press, 2004 / 2006. A collection of essays inspired by the 50th anniversary of The Second Sex. Essays by Susan James, Catherine Wilson, Claude Imbert, Toril Moi, Michèle Le Doeuff, Nancy Bauer, Anne Stevenson, and myself, as well as my Introduction and my translations of the Imbert and Le Doeuff essays.
  3. W. E. B. Du Bois on Race and Culture: Philosophy, Politics, Poetics. Co-edited with J. Stewart and B. Bell. The central third of the Editors' Introduction is mine, and my essay "Nature and Culture in Du Bois's Quest of the Silver Fleece" is included. Routledge, 1997.
  4. "Two English Translations of Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex," in The Blackwell Companion to Simone de Beauvoir, eds. Nancy Bauer and Laura Hengehold. Wiley-Blackwell Publishers, forthcoming.
  5. "Personages and the Claim of the Heart in Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov," Hudson Review, Vol. LXVII, No. 1 (Spring 2014), pp. 83-96.
  6. "Reflections on Voice and Character," in Les Plis de la Voix, ed. M. de Gaudemar, Lambert-Lucas (2013), pp. 81-90.
  7. "The Hudson Review, Women, and Poetry," in the Sewanee Review, Vol. CXIX, No. 1 (Winter 2011), pp. 150-161.
  8. “The Isolated Protagonist: Three Novels by Orhan Pamuk, Jenny McPhee, and Laura Stevenson,” review essay of Orhan Pamuk, The Museum of Innocence (Knopf, 2009), Jenny McPhee, A Man of No Moon (Counterpoint, 2009), and Laura Stevenson, Return in Kind (Separate Star, 2010), Hudson Review, Vol. LXIII, No. 3 (Autumn 2010), pp. 521-27.
  9. "Aristotle, Shakespeare, and the Problem of Character," Special Issue on Philosophy and Poetry, Midwest Studies in Philosophy, Vol. XXXIII (2009), E. Lepore, P. A. French, and H. Wettstein, eds., pp. 198-208.
  10. "Simone de Beauvoir and Practical Deliberation," PMLA, Vol. 124, No. 1 (January 2009), pp. 199-205.
  11. "Nouvelles Lectures de Simone de Beauvoir aux Etats-Unis," (tr. E. Dauzat), Le Magazine Littéraire, No. 471 (January 2008), 52-53.
  12. "Poetry and Practical Deliberation," Unrelenting Readers: The New Poet-Critics, P. Hedeen and D. Myers, eds., Story Line Press, 2004, pp. 73-93.
  13. "Theomorphic Expression in Leibniz's Discourse on Metaphysics," Studia Leibnitiana, Thematic Issue: Towards the Discourse on Metaphysics, G. H. R. Parkinson, ed., Band 33, Heft 1 (2001), pp. 4-18.
  14. "Women, History and Practical Deliberation," Journal of Speculative Philosophy, Vol. 1, No. 3, 1987, pp. 218-26. Reprinted in Feminist Thought and the Structure of Knowledge, Mary Gergen, ed., New York University Press, 1988. pp. 173-181.
  15. Review essay of From Eve to Evolution: Darwin, Science, and Women's Rights in Gilded Age America by Kimberley A. Hamlin (University of Chicago Press, 2014), Women's Review of Books, Vol. 32 / 1 (January / February 2015), pp. 3-4.
  16. Review essay of Sandra Harding, Sciences from Below: Feminisms, Postcolonialities, and Modernities
  17. (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2008), and Emily Monosson, ed. Motherhood, the Elephant in the Laboratory, (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press / ILR Press, 2008). The Women's Review of Books, Summer 2009.
  18. Review essay of Matthew L. Jones, The Good Life in the Scientific Revolution: Descartes, Pascal, Leibniz and the Cultivation of Virtue, University of Chicago Press, 2006, Early Science and Medicine, Vol. 12, No. 4 (2007), pp. 453-456.
  19. Review essay of Patricia Hill Collins, Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and the New Racism, Routledge, 2005, Hypatia, Vol. 22, No. 4 (2007), pp. 209-212.


And I have given the following presentations on these topics:

  1. "Persons and Personages in Leibniz's Political Philosphy," Conference in honor of Martine de Gaudemar, Paris Nanterre, November 2013.
  2. "Personages and the Claim of the Heart in Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov," Conference on La Voix des Personnages by Martine de Gaudemar, La Sorbonne and University of Paris Nanterre, May 2013.
  3. "Simone de Beauvoir and The Second Sex," Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas, March 2013.
  4. A twelve hour lecture series, in French, on "Forme symbolique et parole efficace: Beauvoir et Colette, Rilke, Yves Bonnefoy, Anne Stevenson," University of Paris Nanterre – Paris 10, May 2010.
  5. "The Reception of The Second Sex in the United States," Colloquium on The Second Sex, Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris, May 2010.
  6. "Simone de Beauvoir and Practical Deliberation," Conference on The Legacies of Simone de Beauvoir, Northumbria University, Newcastle, U.K., June 2008.
  7. "Reflections on Voice and Character: Marlowe's Doctor Faustus and Shakespeare's Othello," Conference ‘Autour de Stanley Cavell,' University of Paris X (Nanterre), November 2007.
  8. "Women, Poetry and The Hudson Review," Conference on The Hudson Review, Princeton University, November 2007.
  9. "The Problem of Character in Shakespeare's Tempest and The Winter's Tale," University of Paris X (Nanterre), May 2007.
  10. "The Legacy of Simone de Beauvoir," Colorado College, October 2003; roundtable discussion with Catharine Stimpson, Carol Gilligan, Nancy Bauer, and myself, Maison Française, NYU, April 2004; roundtable discussion with Claude Imbert, Nancy Bauer, Anne Stevenson, Catherine Wilson, Susan James, and myself, Institut Français, London, October 2004.
  11. "The Souls of Black Folk," with James Stewart, Gettysburg College, April 2003.
  12. "The House We Never Leave: Childhood, Shelter, and Freedom in the Writings of Beauvoir and Colette," Blanchard Means Lecture, Trinity College (Hartford), February 2002.