Winch’s book follows the development of Simone Weil’s thought as a philosopher over the course of her life. This is not an idiosyncratic approach: Weil was trained as an academic philosopher and supported herself in part by teaching philosophy throughout her adult life. But the carefulness of thought and logical precision philosophy calls for don’t always square easily with the felt reality of the divine; and much of Simone Weil’s enduring interest comes from the religious insight of her later years. Winch is very sensitive to this tension between ‘philosophy’ and ‘religion’ and indeed one of his central goals in the book is to explore that tension as he tries to elucidate Weil’s thought.
Chapter Two deals with her student dissertation and other early writings on Descartes. Winch presents Weil as here starting along the path of a far-reaching critique of Descartes’ thought, partly conducted as a “meditation” in the Cartesian style. These are some key points of the view Weil comes to in her early transformative retracing of Descartes’ introspective journey:
- Instead of Je pense, donc je suis she affirms Je puis, donc je suis – “I can, therefore I am.” It is in the capability for action that we discover our own existence.
- Thought itself is best understood as a form of action: “Existing, thinking, knowing are merely aspects of a single reality: pouvoir.” Thought for her in this early work is something like the purest and freest ability to act that we have – as opposed to action to the body, which is subject to the contingencies of the body’s cooperation. So her formula is in one way a reaffirmation of Descartes’ famous slogan, but one which understands thought itself as a form of action, rather than as something like the faculty of representation, or as the subjective component of our experiences.
- Activity in general and thought as particular are always (discovered to be?) internally ordered. Winch notes: “[I]n her “Reply to a Letter from Alain,” written in 1935, [Weil] wrote that Descartes, between writing…the [Rules for the Direction of the Mind] and the Discourse on Method, somehow went off the rails. He failed to prevent the order he had discovered from becoming “a thing instead of an idea”; which is what happens, she continued, when one tries to express a series by means of a sign and thus represents it as a reality distinct from the terms that compose it.” Weil thought, or was expressing thoughts moving in the direction of the thought, that the conception of method expressed in the Rules for the Direction of the Mind, which “is concerned with establishing a proper order between elements that are in some sense already given,” but that the hypostatization or reification of such an order (“the” method, the universal framework of thinking prior to the activity of thinking), is a mistake. Winch thinks that this is partly what Weil had in mind when she wrote in an early notebook that Descartes was “much too ambitious.”
There are two things in Winch’s assessment of this view that interest me here. The first is his critique of the second point above, a critique which he thinks Simone Weil herself started to undertake shortly after the early work here under discussion. Thinking of thought as free action and bodily action as subject to contingency (hasard) is not really an adequate description of either. On the one hand, ordinary activity is not ordinarily experienced or undertaken as subject to contingency at all. When we flip a light switch or pound a nail, the possibility that the wires might short-circuit or the hammer break isn’t normally taken into account: we just do the activity assuming that the world will cooperate with our will. While it may be true that we know in some sense that these things can happen, still it is most often the case that they play no role in our activity at all: we act in a way that in some sense takes the world’s cooperation for granted, and in fact normally receives it. So our supposed boundedness by contingency only becomes a practical matter when we need to be especially careful for some reason or when the wires or hammer-handle do in fact break down in the course of our work. On the other hand, thought itself is actually much more subject to contingency than either Descartes’ or Weil’s early view of it assumes: we fail to remember things, fail to draw obvious conclusions, miscalculate, get distracted, are blinded by our prejudices, and so forth all the time, in just the same way that hammers break and wires short-circuit. So thought is perfectly free when nothing goes wrong, but then so can be bodily actions of types we have mastered; and thought can fail and be subject to hasard just as bodily action can.
The second is that Winch connects Weil even at this early stage with a broad philosophical orientation one can find in Winch’s own work, in the later Wittgenstein, and in Dewey, Kierkegaard, Marx, and Collingwood as well. This is an orientation which looks at thinking itself as an activity – something we do – and at ‘theory’ (perhaps even ‘logic’) as something which in some sense emerges out of our thinking practices, perhaps gradually restructuring them through our continued development of our thought along theoretical lines, but neither replacing them wholesale nor providing any sort of a priori framework into which our thoughts can be as it were fit prior to actually thinking them.
In her early notebooks Weil wrote: “There is no way of opening broad vistas which the mind can observe without entering them. One must enter the subject before one can see anything. This is true of speculation, even in its purest form: im Anfang war die Tat.”
In terms of Winch’s discussion of Weil’s early views the road to this position runs as follows. If thinking itself is fundamentally understood as a type of activity, and if the structure of activities is conceived as in some sense internal to – emergent from? – acting, then there is a sense in which we only learn what it is to think by being initiated and guided in various already extant forms of thought. Of course we can innovate; but we get into a position to innovate only by first learning what the existing territory is like and then either forging new paths or opening up new vistas within this ‘space.’ Since the order of thought is internal to our thinking activity, yet also emergent from actually engaging our capability to think – that is, from thinking – there is no universal method or logic in the broad sense which organizes our thoughts in advance of our thinking them. Serious thought about any subject does not and can not proceed ex nihilo.
Winch defends something like this view in chapter two of The Just Balance:
Descartes’ over-ambition lay in supposing he had a method for discovering the truth of a kind which could replace, wholesale, existing methods of discovery already in use, and which would legitimate wholesale skepticism concerning the results of those existing methods. By contrast, “criticism” has to be applied to existing methods and results…We cannot reflect discriminatingly on existing given results while at the same time rejecting wholesale the existing methods of inquiry which have produced those results…because… the significance of the results can only be understood by someone with a grasp of the kind of inquiry from which they spring. Philosophy is no “pure intellectual inquiry” of the type Descartes envisaged; and there is no such thing. There are only particular inquiries the forms of which are historically shaped. Philosophers can and should reflect on the adequacy of such particular historical forms; but if they try to dispense with them all, they will necessarily lose their grip on the concept of “adequacy” in this context.
This is a very interesting passage. One way of glossing what is being said would run like this: to engage in philosophy of history, say, it’s not sufficient to reflect in some abstracted way on the subject. (“As time goes on, various events occur; these events leave physical traces; the job of the historian is to reconstruct the events that occurred using the physical traces they left.”) Rather, you need to have done at least some history, and having done this, you may be drawn to notice certain patterns of historical reasoning, certain commonalities in the sorts of things that count to historians as evidence, certain recurring types of historical narrative, and so on. If you can articulate those features in a way which illuminates the subject then you can be a good philosopher of history. And it shouldn’t really be surprising if some indifferent historians are quite good at the philosophy of history, just as some excellent historians are probably not so good at the philosophy of history. Doing something well, even something which is fundamentally a type of thinking, does not make one good at reflecting on the structure of what one is doing; and likewise some people are quite good at grasping what is going on in an activity in a general way without being particularly good at it themselves, like great batting coaches in baseball who were indifferent hitters.
This strikes me as a fair enough characterization of the “philosophy of x” subfields; but what about epistemology, ethics, and aesthetics? This question immediately brings the question of whether there is/are some ‘distinctive subject matter(s) for philosophy’ or ‘specifically philosophical domain(s) of inquiry’ in its train; and also the question of the status of the various “historically shaped particular inquiries” internal to the subject of philosophy itself.
Winch himself, like Wittgenstein, tended towards negative assessments in connection with these questions; I am not sure that is true of Weil. But in spite of that I do think that Winch does well to highlight this tendency in Weil’s thought so early on in the book. It remains one central thread of her thinking all the way through, and by tracing it Winch manages to produce, through a careful reading of Weil’s work, an extremely interesting way of thinking about the epistemology of religion, in which our points of contact with supernatural justice (and thus the love of God and our neighbor) are indicated as certain kinds of moments in and interruptions of the ‘natural’ course of our dealings with our fellow human beings. Hopefully we will be able to bring this out more clearly as we move through the book.