A Feminist History of Philosophy Mystery

Literary (or philosophical) historical research always seems adventurous in novels. The researcher finds a mysterious manuscript in some beautiful old library, then has to travel to exotic places to discover more, falls in love, experiences danger, then comes out the other end having cracked a central mystery in the history of humanity.

In real life, it’s also exciting and sometimes (when one is not confined to one’s desk by, say, a pandemic lockdown) involves travelling to exciting and glamourous old libraries in France or Italy. But even downloading facsimile after facsimile of old texts from the internet and reading through them to search for clues as to why one author may have written a particular sentence is exciting. It’s not the stuff novels are made of, but I guess that the feeling of excitement experienced by ploughing through old texts on a computer screen is part of what novelists transcribe in their stories. 

So here I am, sitting at my computer (which I recently upgraded to a large screen one, for greater ease in reading old texts) deep into a very exciting mystery in the feminist history of philosophy. 

As part of my attempt to educate myself about Africana women philosophers, I read, last year, A Voice from the South by Anna Julia Cooper. Cooper is a particular favourite of mine as she travelled to Paris to research and write a doctoral thesis about the French Revolution’s attitude to Abolitionism, something I’ve spent time researching myself, see here and here

On the second page of A Voice from the South, I found a quote from Germaine de Stael: 

Happiness consists not in perfections attained, but in a sense of progress, the result of our own endeavor under conspiring circumstances towards a goal which continually advances and broadens and deepens till it is swallowed up in the Infinite.

There is no reference – A Voice from the South was written in 1892 and aimed at a general audience: footnotes were not required.

So I went about searching for the source of the quote. 

Here is what I have done so far:

Read any articles, books or book chapters I could find on Cooper that mention the quote; search through pdfs of Stael’s major texts in the original; wrote to Oberlin library (where Cooper studied between 1881-1887) in the hope they might still have old catalogues, and maybe a translation of Stael’s texts; posted inquiries on Facebook and Twitter (yes, these are major research tools!) and written to scholars on Stael.

Even though I did not locate the quote (I am hopeful that somebody will give me a tip that will help me find it, eventually), I have learned that it does probably reflect Stael’s philosophy. My initial readings lead me to suspect that Stael was a perfectionist, who often equated happiness with virtue, and who thought that the happiness of the whole trumped that of the individual. If this is correct, or even if it corresponds to what Cooper understood from Stael, then this is another clue to understanding Cooper’s project of educating without stifling the voices of the oppressed — ex-slaves, women, the poor, Native Americans — so that they may live their best lives and contribute to the growth of America. 

Needless to say: any clues about the whereabouts of that Stael quote are extremely welcome!

This entry was posted in Africana Women Philosophers, recovery. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to A Feminist History of Philosophy Mystery

  1. Carol Bensick says:

    Hi Sandrine, I wonder if Cooper misremembered the quote or attributed it to the wrong speaker?

  2. Sandrine Berges says:

    I’m pretty sure that the quote is from Stael, and have checked with Stael experts who think so too. The translation could be the issue, and I’m looking at the readers that were available while she was a masters student at Oberlin. But then again, she wrote a PhD dissertation in French about the French Revolution, so we have to be cautious about blaming bad translations!

  3. Pingback: A mystery solved? | Feminist History of Philosophy

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