Revealing Voices: Kristin Gjesdal on Germaine de Staël

Posted on January 30, 2023

This post is part of our Revealing Voices blog series. 


It was, no doubt, the great questions of the post-Kantian tradition that got me hooked on philosophy: How could one read texts such as Kant’s First Critique, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals, or Marx’s Capital and not want more? I definitely wanted more. I started working on Rahel Levin Varnhagen, at the time a fairly unknown figure in romantic philosophy. I wrote my first philosophy article on Hannah Arendt’s reading of Levin Varnhagen. But then I returned to the established canon: there simply was no precedent for studying women in nineteenth-century philosophy. Still, my interest in women philosophers remained. Could it really be the case that the great questions of post-Kantian philosophy were addressed by men only?

Of course, this is not the case. The fact that we have ended up with a canon that is exclusively male does not mean there were no women philosophers in this period. My colleague Dalia Nassar (University of Sydney) and I have just published a volume with translations of, and introductions to, important works by nine women philosophers from the period: Women Philosophers in the Nineteenth Century: The German Tradition (Oxford University Press, 2022). An Oxford Handbook to women philosophers in nineteenth-century German philosophy is forthcoming this year (also co-edited with Dalia Nassar).

The women are not hard to find. They are hiding in plain sight—or, rather, not hiding at all. Many of them wrote philosophical best-sellers, were translated into a number of languages, and contributed to the shaping of romanticism and idealism, mid-century socialism and feminism. The quality and relevance of their works are astounding. It is high time the women philosophers of the nineteenth century get the credit—and the readership!—they deserve.

Among the grand dames of post-Kantian thought, Germaine de Staël holds a special place for me. Maybe it has to do with the way she, despite the bias and hostility she was met with, unapologetically made philosophy hers. Not only did she publish philosophical essays and treatises from early on. She inhabited this world with such confidence that when she needed a babysitter to look after her children, who would come along on her on a tours of Europe and Russia, she settled on August Wilhelm Schlegel. Living through the enormous political upheavals of the French Revolution, she wrote about topics that seem eerily relevant today: racial injustice, injustice towards women, the destructive power of fanaticism, the moral psychology that enables the rise of absolutism, the need for freedom of the press and to read and teach controversial works.

As the daughter of Jacques Necker, France’s Minister of Finance, and the writer and socialite Suzanne Curchod, Staël’s childhood was spent, in part, in her mother’s salon in Paris. Abbé Raynal, Denis Diderot, Comte de Buffon, and Voltaire were part of her mother’s circles. David Hume, Paul-Henri Thiry (Baron d’Holbach), Claude-Adrien Helvétius, and Jean le Ronde d’Alembert also visited her salon. Staël was one of the richest heiresses in Europe. She was known to be clever—and her cleverness channeled into her works in philosophy.

Her first book, published at age 22, was a study of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Mary Wollstonecraft immediately engaged with it, though she was critical of what she saw as Staël’s apology for the philosopher’s view on women. Once the tumults of the French Revolution had calmed down, Staël published a groundbreaking contribution to moral psychology, A Treatise on the Influence of the Human Passions (1796). Passionless individuals, she argued, are dull and wooden. Passionless politics is little more than bureaucracy. Yet overheated passions—addiction, greed, ambition, fanaticism—can ruin the lives of individuals and nations. The goal is a middle way between too much and too little passion. This middle way, she claims, is best cultivated through close bonds (friendships, family relations), but also philosophy, study, and, ultimately, compassion. She read Kant early on but got impatient with his isolation of aesthetics from the larger spheres of society and politics. For her, art—she is interested in art and not in natural beauty—has an inevitable social and political dimension. This is the topic of her magisterial On Literature Considered in its Relations to Social Institutions (1800).

Staël’s interest in literature was not only theoretical. A few years earlier, she had published a triptych of abolitionist novellas, accompanied by a reader’s guide emphasizing how modern literature must be philosophical in its spirit. Philosophy, in turn, should not detach itself from political life and debates. The point is not that this is all that philosophy is, but that philosophy, as well as politics, can benefit from this connection—or, stronger still, sometimes we philosophers simply cannot afford to be apolitical because the apolitical indirectly lends consent to the status quo. In her time, French slave ships were named “Le Jean-Jacques,” “Le Franklin,” “Le Voltaire,” and “Le Contrat social.” Staël, by contrast, has been called the mother of French abolitionism. Both before, during, and after the revolution in Haiti, Staël spoke out. In an 1816 letter to Thomas Jefferson, Staël makes it clear that unless the US abandons slavery in the south, the country will fail its republican ideals and commitments to human reason. She had purchased land in the US and, after Napoleon placed her among his arch enemies, kept the option open of relocating if the persecution got worse. But for Staël, abolitionism was personal in another sense, too. The terms of her marriage—negotiated at the level of international politics—included the transfer of the colonial island of Saint-Barthélemy from France to Sweden. She later draws parallels between the lives of women under patriarchy and the lives of the enslaved (without thereby reducing one to the other). She emphasizes—quite different from, say, a Hegelian analysis of how the oppressed gain self-consciousness through work—that slavery is a reflection of white greed and brutality and needs to be overcome as such. Here she follows the path that would later be worked out in the writings of Anna Julia Cooper, especially her fascinating Sorbonne dissertation, Slavery and the French Revolutionists (1788-1805), defended in 1925, at age 66.

Staël’s novels Delphine (1802) and Corinne (1807) were enormously successful: the latter outsold Walter Scott, and translations were initiated in Boston, Philadelphia, and New York the very same year it came out in French. While Kant, Fichte, Hegel, and others had insisted that women should avoid philosophy and stick to literature, Staël made it clear that modern literature is itself philosophical. It is in her literature—and in her work on literature—that we find some of her most interesting discussions of women’s predicament in a patriarchal society. Intellectual women, she observes, are perceived as pedantic and unwomanly. A woman who neglects her household chores is easily forgiven. A woman turning to philosophy is despised and criticized for her lack of womanly features. Staël also presents an early, sophisticated analysis of internalized bias. She must have had massive personal experience to draw on. Both in France, at her family estate in Switzerland (at times, the guest list at Coppet was a veritable who-is-who of European culture), and during her travels in Germany and beyond, baffled onlookers couldn’t help but comment on the looks of this turban-clad, unconventional woman. What should they make of her? Fichte had had enough after she, having heard him elaborate on the power of the self-positing I, cut him off and commented that this was but a fanciful tale of the kind we encounter in Baron Münchhausen’s travelogues. Jacobi turned into a trusted friend. Ditto for Byron. Goethe translated her work. While in Jena and Weimar, she spent time with both Goethe and Schiller. Wieland, too, was part of her German acquaintances. In Paris, she was a friend of Wilhelm von Humboldt. Pitt, Gibbon, and the abolitionist William Wilberforce were friends in England.

Staël was a woman in a man’s world—or, rather, in the worlds (plural) of men: politics and philosophy. Her marriage to a Swedish diplomat ensured her some level of diplomatic immunity. She pulled strings in the international efforts to defeat Napoleon and was a central player when the map of post-Napoleonic Europe was laid out. She had spent time in England and often discusses English and Scottish philosophy (Hume, Smith, and others). She wrote a great study of German life, culture, and philosophy (Germany, 1810/13). Few works of philosophy have caused a similar commotion: the book provoked Napoleon to such an extent that he had his police storm the publishing house and destroy the 10,000 printed copies of her work. Three years later, the book was printed in French in England. It was quickly translated into English and, like other works of hers, influenced Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Lydia Maria Child, Anna Julia Cooper, and others. Fuller branded herself a Yankee Corinne. Child published a biographical study of Staël. Mary Shelley published another one.

Staël’s late work returns to the topics of her youth: self-formation and politics. A short study of suicide tackles existential fears and agonies, but also the ultimate worth of human life (here she seems to be more of a Kantian). Her great study of the French Revolution was posthumously published, but has, along with her interventions in international politics, been a subject of recent attention in Political Science and International Relations.

When I teach the work of Germaine de Staël, students are easily excited: her texts are direct in style, engaging in their expositions, and draw on resources and examples from across the humanities and social sciences. With the now-growing body of secondary literature—although critical and up-to-date translations of original works are still missing—my students have written high-quality essays on Staël. I am currently working on a short monograph on Staël’s work. This woman, in many ways larger than life (flamboyant, uncompromising, always ready to be where the action was), was also a formidable philosopher.


Kristin Gjesdal is professor of philosophy at Temple University. Her scholarship covers philosophy of interpretation (hermeneutics), phenomenology, philosophy of art, and modern European philosophy. With Dalia Nassar, she is the editor of Women Philosophers in the Long Nineteenth Century: The German Tradition and the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Nineteenth-Century Women Philosophers in the German Tradition. Her monographs include Gadamer and the Legacy of German Idealism (CUP 2009); Herder’s Hermeneutics (CUP 2017/2019) and The Drama of History: Ibsen, Hegel, Nietzsche (OUP 2021). She is currently working on a book-length manuscript on Germaine de Staël (under contract with CUP).