He speaks six languages. He teaches, lectures, and publishes on two continents. At Chicago, Arnold Davidson’s many academic titles reflect his wide-ranging intellectual interests: he is the Robert O. Anderson distinguished service professor in philosophy, comparative literature, the Committee on the Conceptual and Historical Studies of Science, and the Divinity School—as well as the executive editor of Critical Inquiry and a director of the France-Chicago Center.
Known for his scholarship on contemporary European philosophy, Davidson has also explored the history of moral and political philosophy, the history of science, and the history and philosophy of religion. He spoke recently with Tableau editor Elizabeth Station about his latest projects, which include editing Michel Foucault, learning from Primo Levi, and listening to free jazz. Here are excerpts from that hour-long interview and links to recommended reading.
What are you working on now? You’ve mentioned three very different projects.
I continue to be very actively involved, both here and in France, with the history of contemporary French philosophy. I'm the editor-in-chief of what will eventually be 13 volumes of Michel Foucault's courses at the Collège de France, which cover a very wide range of material and historical periods. Five of the volumes have appeared in English, and hopefully, before I die, the rest of them will actually come out. Michel Foucault turns out to be publishing more after his death than most people publish in their lifetime, since these courses are coming out slowly—one every year or two.
When you say you're editing 13 volumes of courses, what is the raw material that goes in, and what comes out?
When he started teaching at the Collège de France, Foucault was already sufficiently famous that there was more than one complete recording of each of his courses. We have, with the exception of the first two courses, complete tape recordings of all of his courses until his death. In some cases, we have manuscript notes and dossiers he made with quotations and outlines. So the idea is to make something that is as faithful to the spoken lecture format as one can, with the critical apparatus necessary to explain the background to the lectures. What I do is take that French material and then produce an English-language version with an introduction that explains both the context of the course and how it relates to both his published work and other work in French philosophy at that time.
Michel Foucault turns out to be publishing more after his death than most people publish in their lifetime.
That's a huge task.
Yes. I think I remember very clearly when, initially, I was approached about taking on this project. The editor in the United States had been given my name through Michel Foucault's family as someone who might be in a position to actually undertake it. He had never met me, this editor, and his first question was, "Will you still be alive in 25 years?" I think he was trying to ask about my age, and I told him that I actually didn't know the answer—that I planned not to be dead from old age, but that was all I could say.
You’ve also been immersed in the work of Primo Levi, the Italian writer and Holocaust survivor. Why?
I've edited one text in Italian and then a much larger anthology of Primo Levi's writings in Spanish that came out in January 2010. One of the things that interests me about Primo Levi's work is the way his specific recounting of his experience in Auschwitz allows one to think of the notion of spiritual exercises in a very particular way. In his first book, called If This is a Man in Italian (translated in English as Survival in Auschwitz), many people have noticed that he takes an almost detached, dispassionate tone, very distant from what you might naturally expect to be the first-person emotional recounting of those experiences. I think there's actually an exercise of self-transformation going on, where the very distance and objectivity Levi tries to give is in the service of wanting to allow the reader to transform him- or herself when they read his account. In adopting this dispassionate tone, he leaves the moral judgment to the reader—and he interestingly recounts his own experiences in a way which shows his obstinate attempt to preserve for himself, through kinds of exercises, his humanity, in the face of an experience which was aimed to divest him of any possible humanity.
The third topic you’re investigating has to do with improvisation and jazz. How does it relate to the rest of your work?
This is really quite closely connected, however distant it may seem at first. I got interested in improvisation, especially that form of improvisation which is sometimes called free jazz, in which there's not a melody, there's not a set series of parameters and so on. You freely improvise as a form of self-transformation and as a form of the creation of new forms of intelligibility. One of the questions I have is how does the necessity to improvise with others also force you to transform yourself? I'm interested in moments in the history of improvisatory music, especially that come out of jazz, that allow us to see the interaction between self-transformation and new models of social intelligibility.
So what would be an example of one of those moments?
One of the moments that's most important is an album recorded in 1962 by the extraordinary pianist Cecil Taylor with two other musicians—a saxophonist named Jimmy Lyons and a drummer named Sunny Murray—in which, through emulating Cecil Taylor's own forms of self-transformation, a group comes about which creates a form of freedom which had never existed in the history of music before. How does the necessity to improvise with others also force you to transform yourself? That form of freedom required both practices on one's self and the willingness to enter into unforeseen modes of collaboration with others. For me, philosophical texts by Pierre Hadot or Michel Foucault, Primo Levi's literary texts, and Cecil Taylor's album all have a kind of equal status. It's not that I think philosophy comes first and then you just impose it on literary genres or musical experiences; I think that Primo Levi's texts and Cecil Taylor's music can teach us something about philosophical practices. That's one of the reasons I'm excited about the fact that next fall, in the Center for Disciplinary Innovation at the University’s Franke Institute for the Humanities, I'm going to co-teach a course on philosophy and improvisation with one of the great musicians, composers, and scholars of this music, George Lewis. He grew up on the South Side of Chicago and teaches at Columbia University. George Lewis is also one of the most extraordinary musicians in free improvisation today. He's going to come here as a visiting professor at Chicago, and we're going to teach a graduate seminar in which we try to think about the relationship between philosophical practices like self-transformation and musical practices of improvisation, and see how those two disciplines can play off one another to enrich one another.
When you think about how your career and scholarship have evolved, what would you hope your contribution would be to the field of philosophy and to scholarship more broadly?
One of the things I hope will be a contribution is to think of philosophy not only as a set of arguments, theories, and concepts but also as a set of practices—something one does which transforms one's self and the world. I'd like to convey the sense that philosophy, more than a discipline, is a certain attitude. It's a certain mode of orientation—and that attitude and orientation can be expressed by engaging with a lot of different kinds of disciplinary materials. I have a rather strange career path. I have no undergraduate degree. And when I was asked at the age of 18-and-a-half what discipline in graduate school I wanted to study, I immediately said philosophy. For me, philosophy represented whatever I found interesting. Philosophy was, rather than a way of narrowing a disciplinary boundary, a way of making it as wide as humanly possible.
How do you approach the task of mentoring graduate students?
What I like to do is to get students who may not be quite so certain of what they want to do, and who can make the process of finding out for themselves what they're really interested in part of the experience of philosophy itself. But it's a very delicate balance: I'd like to convey the sense that philosophy, more than a discipline, is a certain attitude. training students in all the things they need to know to be successful on the job market, and never being quite happy with that as an end in itself. Balancing those two things is a constant struggle for me, and something I want to continue struggling with, because I want students who study with me to have expertise in the history of European philosophy, for example, but to also want to and feel it's necessary to do other things as well, and to go outside of those boundaries to read literary texts, or read texts in religion, or read texts that have to do with the arts.
You don’t use a computer. Do you think that has had an impact on your intellectual activity, and by that I mean thinking, writing, reading, and communicating?
It certainly has. For one thing, I write by hand, and that means that the ways of composing are very different. I tend to write only two drafts: a penultimate draft, and then I copy it over by hand, and that's the ultimate draft. I don't make lots of changes. I have a very good memory; it's my one natural talent. That allows me to compose without having to worry about keeping constant notes. Not using a computer means that I have a very affectively charged relation to books. Although I've never downloaded anything, I do have an iPod with hundreds of CDs on it. But I'm told that I am partially responsible for the continued existence not only of the Seminary Co-op Bookstore but the Jazz Record Mart and one of the best CD jazz stores in Italy—in Florence, where I live—called Twisted. Evidently, my continued existence is crucial to their continued existence. I had no principle that forced me to reject the computer; it's just that having only had the use of one hand since I was a teenager, I was never able to type anything, and sitting in front of a keyboard always seemed to be a very strange experience. But how long I will be able to withstand the pressures that come with the organizational life around computers is very unclear to me. There’s been some price to pay, but on the other hand, it protects me from certain things, and it means that the way I work is different. When I buy a book, I actually often feel compelled to read it, as opposed to just sort of looking at certain things on the screen and deleting them.
Perhaps your approach gives you an advantage.
But it's increasingly difficult to survive, even in an academic environment, without being attached to a computer. A lot of my colleagues used to joke that if the Internet goes down, I'm going to be the only person who survives. The problem is that most of the time, the Internet is up, and I don't survive all that well, but that's what I do.
POSTSCRIPT: Arnold Davidson: Recommended Reading and Listening
“I’ve learned something about philosophical practices from listening to music or reading literature that I don’t think I would have learned if I had only read philosophical texts,” says Arnold Davidson. In his interview with Tableau, the Chicago philosophy professor talked about his engagement with these and other works.
Lectures at the Collège de France. Michel Foucault (Palgrave MacMillan/Picador, 2003–). Davidson is the English series editor for this collection of lectures given by the French philosopher in the 1970s and 80s. “Interestingly enough,” says Davidson, reading Foucault’s oral corpus “often changes one’s perspective on his work, because he sometimes approached themes and topics that one only finds traces of in his published work.”
The Present Alone is Our Happiness. Pierre Hadot (Stanford, 2009). Davidson co-authored these conversations with Hadot, whose reading of ancient philosophy inspired the Chicago professor to explore “the idea of philosophy as a set of practices of self-transformation and … also, as a way of life.”
Vivir para contar: Escribir tras Auschwitz. Primo Levi (Alpha Decay, 2010). Davidson edited and wrote the introduction for this Spanish-language anthology of Levi’s work, which includes previously unknown material. “You can read these texts as Primo Levi’s attempt not just to state in some dogmatic form the truth, but also to get the reader to assent to this truth,” says Davidson “It’s really reading as a form of spiritual exercise.”
Jazz Advance. Cecil Taylor (Blue Note, 1956). Taylor’s first album provides an introduction to the early history of free jazz and may be more accessible for novices than the pianist’s later recordings. “For me, it’s really important to listen to music that I don’t initially understand and to ask myself why I don’t understand it,” says Davidson. “That’s the beginning of the philosophical problem.”
Streaming. George Lewis, Roscoe Mitchell, and Muhal Richard Abrams (Pi Recordings, 2006). This CD by three remarkable members of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) “gives a great idea of what free improvisation is,” says Davidson. Jazz scholar and musician George Lewis plays laptop as well as trombone.