Benjamin P. Davis is a postdoctoral fellow in African American Studies at Saint Louis University. His recent book, Simone Weil’s Political Philosophy: Field Notes from the Margins, presents Weil as a political philosopher, placing her work in conversation with feminist philosophy, decolonial philosophy, and Marxism. In this Recently Published Book Spotlight, Davis discusses Weil’s practical approach to philosophy, the role of colonialism, questioning, and witnessing in her work, and what it means to write as a philosopher today.
What is this book about?
This book is about the French philosopher, teacher, mystic, and activist Simone Weil. Weil received a traditional and elite education. She attended the prestigious École normale supérieure in Paris, where she was the only woman in her class. But she ended up practicing philosophy in a very non-traditional, non-elite way. She found that to answer Plato’s big questions—What is good? What is true? What is beautiful?—she not only had to read across philosophical traditions, but she also had to give up a comfortable life so as to live alongside and learn from those her own society degraded and dehumanized. That meant building electrical equipment in factories. That meant picking grapes in vineyards. That meant going to the trials of immigrants. In our country today, it would be like getting a Ph.D. from Harvard, securing a good teaching position, and then deciding to become an Uber driver, because you know that living securely would prevent you from reading the true reality of our gig-economy present.
This book is about what Weil found when she practiced philosophy in extraordinary places. It is about what philosophy becomes when it starts from the margins of its society. What it becomes, I suggest, is political—meaning that it still begins in wonder, it is still interested in how we can become more virtuous people, but it also investigates the social arrangements that allow some people leisure time while condemning others to penury, prison, and exile. Weil asked those who were suffering, “What are you going through?” And she asked those who contributed to the suffering, “Why are we allowing this to happen?”
The book tries to learn from Weil by suggesting that we owe it to ourselves and to others to follow our deepest ethical, political, and theological questions—and to live out the fragments of answers that we glean along the way.
Why did you feel the need to write this book?
A few weeks ago, I was visiting New York City to return to the archive of the post-colonial theorist Edward Said. Taking a break from reading Said’s correspondence, I was walking down Broadway with my partner. We had just walked by a woman who was using a walker as a cart for her groceries and other things, and then we heard the unmistakable sound of the woman falling. With a few other pedestrians, we stopped to see how the woman was doing. Someone asked, “Are you okay?” She said, “No.”
I keep thinking back to that moment. In our culture, when someone asks you how you are doing, you are supposed to smile your white-strips smile and say, “Good!” This expected answer is related to how “resilience” has become such a watchword in our time. No matter whether oil companies are poisoning our water, or whether pharmaceutical companies are hiding needed vaccines under intellectual property laws, or whether we can afford our medications, we are supposed to say we are doing well.
I loved that this woman had the courage to tell a group of strangers that she was not okay. Maybe she was sick of how sidewalks are not truly walkable for people with different abilities. Maybe she felt it was only to strangers that, for once, she could honestly recognize that she has been struggling. I don’t know. But I think today, in our context where social and environmental crises intersect and yet the predominant ethics remains one of “inclusion” into this dying paradigm and “resilience” to keep this paradigm going, it is so important to tell one another that we are not okay. That watching shooters go into schools is not okay. That building pipelines in violation of treaties is not okay. That apartheid is not okay. That we do not accept this version of the world.
Weil refused to accept such everyday violence, and because of that many people said she was crazy. But also because of that, there is a depth to her thinking that we need to re-engage, as Frieda Ekotto reminded me when I wasn’t sure that my book had much value. Ultimately, I felt I needed to write this book in order to bring to the fore one example of a person who said, “I am not okay,” and to frame that response not as one that resulted from being insane, but as one that resulted from an engagement with the world, as based in a love for justice and for others—in other words, that emerged from living a philosophical life.
What has influenced this work the most?
I know the usual answer to this question has to do with reading: reading Plato’s Republic, reading Weil’s Notebooks, reading the paintings in Mark Rothko’s chapel, reading the reality I found myself in, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis—and all of those things did influence this book tremendously. But because your question says “most,” I’ll give you the real answer, which is philosophical friendship.
Thinking about her mystical tendencies, Weil’s friends remarked that the only thing that suggested she was connected to this world was her habit of smoking cigarettes. Philosophical friendship—and cigarettes, mostly alongside Scott Ritner in Philadelphia—shaped this work and led me to a deeper reading of Weil’s friends’ remark: what connected her to the world was not just her smoking, but her relationships. What kept me tied to this book was conversations with friends. I dedicated the book to them.
Many of us today remain moved by Weil’s letters to her companions collected in Waiting for God. She was critical of Aristotle, yet there’s an active sense of virtue friendship in her work. Rebecca Rozelle-Stone and I used to have many conversations about these ideas. In so many ways, those dialogues got me started.
What effect do you hope your work will have?
I say at the end of my introduction that I hope the book will both, in a narrow sense, bring Weil scholars of my generation to her earlier political writings, and in a wider sense, continue a tradition of thinking about what ethics and politics ought to look like when we’re living amidst capitalism and empire, as Jeanne Morefield’s work has so strikingly asked us to keep top of mind. But I also hope my book contributes to shifting how we understand “philosophy” in the United States.
Because I write about Caribbean philosophy as well as women philosophers, and because I am now in a Black Studies Department, I am often asked how what I do is philosophy. I mean, really often. Usually, the question is just racist or sexist—no one ever asks scholars of Aristotle or Kant how what they do is philosophy. But I never say that in response. What I say is: in Plato’s Apology, Socrates offers an example of a person asking questions about who he is, about justice, and about his relationship to the political community in which he lives. In Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, we learn that ethics involves not just habits of self-transformation, but the praxis of those habits in relation to others with whom we are pursuing a shared good. So, in unimpeachable sources in the canon of Western philosophy, we already have a sense both that philosophy is ultimately a practice of dialogue with ourselves and with others and that such a dialogue occurs within a political context we did not choose and whose terms we ought to interrogate.
I actually think this is a radical sense of philosophy. This is the sense of philosophy as a way of life, or as a set of spiritual exercises, to borrow Pierre Hadot’s phrase. This is the kind of philosophy Weil practiced, and that I think is still so needed today.
What topics do you discuss in your book and why do you discuss them?
I try to give away my approach in the subtitle as well as in my preface: we can read Weil’s work as “field notes.” But what are field notes? And what was her “field”? Perhaps my subtitle is misleading, because I do end up distinguishing the writings Weil intended to publish, my focus in this book, from her notebooks and letters to friends. What I have in mind is something more abstract or conceptual. As one of the first people of European descent to call into question her county’s colonialism, her work can be read as a preliminary analysis of what we’re only beginning to gain a consciousness of today, namely, that our daily actions have repercussions for people all over the world. This was an insight she gained from working alongside, and bearing witness to the lives of, immigrants, exiles, workers, and minorities—those forced onto the margins of her society, as she herself was for being Jewish. Those are the topics I discuss primarily: colonialism, questioning, and witnessing, all through an examination of Weil’s “field notes”—not her notebooks, but her essays about the world.
Beyond a sense of initial analysis, when anthropologists talk about field notes, they often remark that through drafting the notes they learned something about themselves. Many people have read Weil as intensely self-critical. I prefer to start from the reading that she had a profound ability to situate herself in her society—that she wrote essays toward a reflexive philosophy, we could say, thinking with Pierre Bourdieu. This also has a way of bringing philosophy back to earth. Philosophy is found in your daily journals, records, and sketches. What makes it political, perhaps, is when you make a claim on a public, when you ask a group of people to think of a question differently, or to think of a question at all.
For instance, does France’s (colonial) claim to Morocco challenge the image that French people have of themselves, namely, that they are defenders of liberty? In my own country, we could ask, does the (illegal) U.S. invasion of Iraq challenge our understanding of ourselves as defenders of law and order?
What is the relevance of this book to contemporary philosophy?
Because some of my students will read this interview, and because I’ve already talked a bit about the topics the book addresses, I want here to say something about what it means to write in the present, and especially what it means to write a book without the security of a tenure-track job, or of stable employment, or even of a secured visa status.
I’ll admit that I always dreamed that I would write a book from a hotel suite overlooking water, wearing a shirt and tie each day. It has never been that way for me. Mostly in jeans and t-shirts, I examined Weil’s work and took notes for this book from a series of rather small apartments in St. Louis, Minneapolis, Houston, and Toronto, as well as on buses and planes as I traveled. This context reflects less a chosen asceticism and more the precarity of the present for so many of us, especially the present during a pandemic.
I do also want to share an anecdote, again for my students: once I was visiting my friend (the pianist) Sarah Cahill at her home in Berkeley, and she told me she practices piano for a few hours every day. That was really helpful for me. I’ve started to write that way, like how a concert pianist practices the piano. As I’m always telling my students, it’s not glamorous.
This is the point I’m getting at: isn’t it precisely from these situations, from the interstices of our too-busy and worn-down days, that we need to maintain our practice of philosophy? Hasn’t philosophy always—as Lucian Stone would often tell me, thinking of Plato—emerged from crisis?
What else would you like to do with your research, if you could do anything?
I have a book coming out this fall on the Caribbean philosopher Édouard Glissant’s contribution to human rights discourse. I am sort of shepherding that along right now. With my brilliant co-editor Kris Sealey, I am also finalizing a volume called Creolizing Critical Theory. Finishing those projects is my priority.
But what I really want to do is write more about land, water, and air—what I have started to think about as the “elements” of ethics. When I was living in Toronto, the province subsidized the medicine and treatment I need for my chronic illness. Suddenly, even though I wasn’t making much money, I had a few extra hundred dollars each month, and I decided finally to find a hobby. (In graduate school I was too poor for hobbies.) I chose tennis, and I started playing with the philosopher Nikolas Kompridis, who very generously helped me get proper equipment and taught me the game. I had read his book Critique and Disclosure, and it made a real impact on me. In most of my work, I have been thinking about critique at the expense of disclosure—at the expense of how the world opens up to us, and how ethics needs to include not just a critical stance, but also a sense of being receptive to the world, in all its mystery, complication, beauty, and power. My research is turning in that direction, to what it means to be receptive to the elements we live amidst, and that give life to us.