h2. The Categorical Imperative in Skirts—Or, The Red Virgin
* Old LJ Post
* http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simone_Weil
h2. Overview
Simone Weil (1909-1943), French philosopher, political activist, and mystic, ranks as probably the strongest influence on me—not the thinker I most resemble (or, rather, of whom I could most easily be regarded as an imitation), that being William James, but the thinker who exerts the most force upon my thought. I am not troubled when I disagree with James, though I am often amused and occasionally surprised. But though there is much in Weil’s work with which I do not agree (and there is hardly anything in me of which she would approve), these differences weigh on me quite heavily indeed. Since I gave off thinking of myself as a Deweyan, she is perhaps the only thinker who functions canonically for me.
Weil’s thinking should be be divided (though the division is a soft one) between her secular thinking and her spiritual thinking. This is a soft division because, of course, the world is the stage both for spirituality and for politics, but it must still be recognized, because Weil’s spiritual drive is an essentially personal one, committed to “healing essential rifts in the self” (to borrow West’s description of James”), while her public philosophy emphasizes relationships between group and individual, and is interested in healing social rifts and providing for physical and psychological needs of the mass of humanity. In a sense, half her thought is thus Deweyan and half Jamesian.
And there are strong elements of Dewey and James in her thought, for all that she is primarily a neo-Platonist neo-Marcionite (to borrow a characterization by McLellan of Weil’s Christianity) idealist and mystic; in fact, I would go so far as to characterize her as essentially a religious pragmatist, slightly to the religiouser side of James.
h2. Weil’s critique of secular metaphysics in Lectures on Philosophy
In Lectures on Philosophy (hereafter LP), Weil attempts among other things to set forth for her lycee students a coherent version of the materialist philosophical project. It is sometimes difficult to discern what methods are operating, and particularly what her truth- or validity-criteria are, and whence she derived authority for her varied claims. This is, in fact, a concern throughout her work.
Her implicit method sometimes seems to be something like James’s, in that she describes not so much what must be logically or scientifically but psychologically or phenomenologically-what she believes to be the conditions necessary for an experience to emerge for the human subject, or for an object, concept, etc. to emerge within human experience. She expresses this not psychologically, however, but introspectively. She does not argue, as does James the psychologist, for a general theory of human truth-production justified by recourse to empirical observation; for her, the problem of truth is always a deeply personal one. She is caught between her own yearning for traditional, idealist philosophy and her (semi)mature understanding of the limits of foundationalism. Thus we find statements like:

Any proof of the syllogism would be absurd. The syllogism is, to put it briefly, nothing but a rule of language to avoid contradiction: at bottom the principle of non-contradiction is a principle of grammar.—LP, p. 78


We are forced to accept the postulates and axioms precisely because we are unable to give an account of them. What one can do is try to explain why the seem obvious to us.

alongside the most strident and unforgiving proclamations of this or that truth. When pressed, her final appeals would take forms like, “It’s based on what is beautiful, and if it’s beautiful, it must be true.” (McLellan, p. 151) This is not a child’s naive clinging to fancy or an absurdist extension of the Keatsian axiom, though it is kin to both; it is (I believe) an utmost expression of Weil’s understanding of the essential personal character of truth and her deeply personal esthetic sense. Weil counted as true not that which she could prove but that upon which she dependend, that without which she could not do. (See Understanding) In LP she tells us:

One can never really give a proof of the reality of anything; reality is not something open to proof, it is something established. It is established just because proof is not enough. It is this characteristic of language, at once indispensable and inadequate, which shows the reality of the external world. (Cf. Brin in The Uplift War: {Fill: Athaclena on surprise and solipsism}
Most people hardly ever realize this, because it is rare that the very same man thinks and puts his thought into action…—LP, 72-3

Weil is pointing here to the disjunction between planning and execution which is brought about by the division of labor between designer (architect, for example) and worker (bricklayer, for example), a division which holds the place almost of original sin (or, rather, of original error) for both Weil and Dewey, and is one of the hallmarks of socio-economically oriented pragmatism.
The connection becomes even stronger when we read,

When one hurls oneself against a stone, one feels one is in the middle of a nightmare; but a dream has nothing in common with an action that is governed by an ordered language. But, in what we are now saying in speaking of a stone, etc?There is nothing real there is nothing unforeseen. In science, in reasoning, one sees in the problems one is dealing with only what one has put there oneself (hypotheses). If in actions there was nothing except what we ourselves suppose them to contain, nothing would ever get done, since there would be no snags. All sorts of accidents can occur between the time when I have seen what the problem is and the time when I have acted. Reality is defined by that. It is what is not contained in the problem as such; reality is what method does not allow us to foresee.
Why is it that reality can only appear like this, in a negative sort of way? What marks off the ?self? is method; it has no other source than ourselves: it is when we really employ method that we really begin to exist. As long as one employs method only on symbols one remains within the limits of a sort of game. In action that has method about it, we ourselves act, since it is we ourselves who found the method; we really act because what is unforeseen presents itself to us.—LP, p. 72-3

In other words, for Weil, both self and world are constituted precisely in and only through informed action upon the world. This closely parallels pragmatic arguments forwarded by Dewey and James about the key role of observation and above all experimentation in creating human knowledge. {Fill: comparisons with Dewey in EN, James in Pragmatism, etc.}
Weil herself seems to have some garbled account of Pragmatism, possibly by way of James’s psychological writings. She says,

One might say, with the pragmatists, that all science reduces itself to a process of action on nature, but it is necessary to add the word methodical.—LP, p. 111

She cannot have been too familiar with the pragmatic writings of James (let alone Dewey) if she feels that the school does not indicate not merely “action on nature” but “methodical action on nature,” for method is at the heart of the kind of quasi-scientific methodology proposed by the advocates of pragmatism. They may not have always achieved methodicity, but they certainly always reached for it.
In the next paragraph, however, Weil cuts straight to the heart of pragmatism’s vulnerability:

Reality comes into view when we see that nature is not only an obstacle which allows us to act in an ordered way but it is also an obstacle which infinitely transcends us.—ibid

This is the kind of Kierkegaardian observation that bespeaks the existential and religious failing of pragmatism—that it is burdened always with an almost Hegelian optimism regarding its own possibilities for the production of knowledge. Corrective religious pragmatisms (such as West’s proposed Prophetic Pragmatism) re-insert this sense of the finitude of the human capacity for knowledge and the infinite character of the dangerous universe in which we are embedded.
West, The American Evasion of Philosophy, p. 201—The result is a form of pragmatism because the claim is that evolving descriptions and ever-changing versions of objects, things, and the world issue forth from various communities as responses to certain problems, as attempts to overcome specific situations, and as means to satisfy particular needs and interests. To put it crudely, ideas, words, and language are not mirrors which copy the “real” or “objective” word but rather tools with which we cope with “our” world.
Weil, Lectures on Philosophy, p. 88—The mind makes a tool of the matter which would crush it. It is in so far as man controls nature, whether he does this really or whether he does it by the use of signs, that he has the notion of necessity.
For there to be necessity there must be encounter, there must be two elements: the world and man (mind). So, materialism destroys itself when it comes up against the notion of necessity.
All human progress consists in changing constraint into an obstacle.
h2. Weil’s mystical theology in Gravity and Grace, etc.
h3. Intro
Weil’s theology is interesting and complex both in itself and in the factors which encouraged its genesis in her psyche. McLellan suggests that she should be regarded as a modern-day Marcionite, due to her virtually wholesale rejection of the Old Testament and her overall distaste for the Judaism which was technically hers by birth; others have identified her as a gnostic for similar reasons, and also for her mystical theologization of geometry, Platonic philosophy, and so forth. However, McLellan also points out that this analysis falls apart when it comes to the creation of the world, for Weil does not regard the world as a debased creation of a demiurge, but as a direct expression of God’s love-despite the fact that she also recognizes it as a place of evil, affliction, and the brutal admixture of chance and necessity. This juxtaposition leads her to produce one of the few really convincing examples of (para)Christian theodicy.
It is difficult to speak conclusively of Weil’s theology, since it exists only in the form of scattered aphoristic scribblings in her notebooks and as an influence on her more secular writings that were intended for publication, and also in a few letters. None of these formats provides a very direct path to understanding her beliefs, since the first is only semi-formed, the second only enables us to see the secondary effects, and the third is subject to being skewed according to Weil’s desire to present herself differently to different interlocutors. However, it is possible to make certain generalizations.
h3. Absence
Absence is the key image for her metaphysics, cosmology, cosmogeny, and theodicy. She believed that God created by an act of self-delimitation—in other words, because God is conceived as a kind of utter fulness, a perfect Being (in the metaphysical sense), no creature could exist except where he was not. Thus creation occurred only when God withdrew a part of himself. This is, for Weil, an original kenosis preceding the corrective kenosis of Christ’s incarnation. (One might compare this with Christologies like that of Athanasius, which emphasize the incarnation as a natural extension of creation rather than as a break from the original created order.) We are thus born in a sort of damned position not owing to original sin as such, but because to be created at all we had to be precisely what God is not, i.e., counter-perfect. (Of course, this might not obviate the doctrine that we are “in the image” of God (though that is an Old Testament doctrine, originally), as Weil was fond of paradox.)
This notion of creation is a cornerstone of her theodicy, for if creation is conceived this way (as necessarily containing evil within itself), then there is no problem of the entrance of evil into a perfect world. Nor, it seems to me, does this constitute a delimitation of God’s omnipotence. It is not that God could not create a perfect world, but that the act which we refer towards by saying “create” in its very essence implies the impossibility of perfection. However, this notion of the necessity of evil does not mean that we are simply, originally, and continually fucked; on the contrary, Weil tells us that “Evil is the form which God’s mercy takes in this world.” (GG, p. {FILL}) This is one of those Weilian paradoxes, but it is actually not so hard to understand. I’m told there is saying in a school of Zen to the effect that “A good situation is a bad situation and a bad situation is a good situation,” by which is meant simply that comfort drives us to complacency and pain drives us to change. Similarly, Weil believed that evil, and its consequent, affliction (this term was of the utmost importance to her), served the role of driving us out of ourselves and towards God-“The extreme affliction which overtakes human beings does not create human misery, it merely reveals it.” (GG, p. {FILL} More specifically, affliction drove us to what Weil referred to as “decreation”-which is not death, but rather closer to “extinction” (nirvāṇa) in the Buddhist tradition—the willed dissolution of the subjective ego in attaining realization of the true nature of the universe. (Of course, Weil’s concept of that true nature was a Platonistic or Vedantic one of metaphysical fulness, while the Buddhist concept is one of metaphysical emptiness, but the soteriological strategies and metaphors suffer considerable overlap.)
h3. Affliction
Weil’s concept of affliction goes beyond simple suffering, though it certainly includes it. Only some souls are capable of truly experiencing affliction; these precisely those souls which are least deserving of it-that are most prone or open to spiritual realization. Affliction was a sort of suffering plus, which inclusively transcended both the body and mind; they were physical and mental anguish that went beyond to scourge the very soul. War and oppression were the intensest cases of affliction; to experience it she turned to the life of a factory worker, while to understand it she turned to Homer’s Iliad. Affliction was associated both with necessity and with chance-it was frought with necessity because it was hardwired into existence itself, and thus imposed itself upon the sufferer with the full force of the inescapable, but it was also subject to chance inasmuch as chance, too, was hardwired into existence. (i.e., this theodicy meshes closely with Quantum-adjusted determinism.) The element of chance was essential to the unjust character of affliction; in other words, my affliction should not usually-let alone always-follow from my sin, but should be visited upon me for no special reason. But while it was evil, affliction was not counter-soteriological. On the contrary, as “Evil is the form which God’s mercy takes in this world,”

The man who has known pure joy, if only for a moment…is the only man for whom affliction is something devastating. At the same time he is the only man who has not deserved the punishment. But, after all, for him it is no punishment; it is God holding his hand and pressing rather hard. For, if he remains constant, what he will discover buried deep under the sound of his own lamentations is the pearl of the silence of God. (GG, p. {FILL})

h3. Metaxu: “Every separation is a link.”
Somewhere in either The Human Condition or Between Past and Future, Arendt refers to political power structures as being like a table, in that they both bring us together and hold us apart. They are a form of distance which connects. This idea of connecting distance was of the first importance for Weil; she referred to such things as “metaxu,” ({FILL}: define the greek) connectives between us and God. The world as a whole, along with any of its components, including our physical bodies, are to be regarded as serving the same function for us in relation to God that a blind man’s stick serves for him in relation to the world about him. They do not afford direct insight, but can be used experimentally (see section on LOP) to bring the mind into practical contact with reality. This metaphor allows any absence to be interpreted as a presence, and is a further component in Weil’s theodicy.
h3. Beauty
For Weil, “The beautiful is the experimental proof that the incarnation is possible.” (GG p. {Fill}) (See section on LOP and Weil’s insistence on the truth-beauty identity.) For Weil, the beauty which is inherent in the form of the world (this inherency is proven, for her, in geometry, and expressed in all good art) is the proof that the world points to something beyond itself, it establishes the essentially telic character of all that exists. Somewhere in Bachelard (or possibly Canguilhem), there is a statement to anyone trained deeply in a discipline, the world speaks in the language of that discipline—in other words, that we always experience the world as embued with the deepest meaning of which we are able to conceive. Weil’s concept of beauty, and her ascription to it of both epistemological and theological portent are, I believe owing to a related process.
Beauty also served a soteriological function for Weil: “Beauty captivates the flesh in order to obtain permission to pass right to the soul.” (GG, p. {FILL}) It constitutes, then, another way in which the divine reality behind the world (the divine reality which, while not in the world, is the meaning of the world) invades our lives. Where affliction conquers us with brute force (literally), beauty sneaks in and topples the empire of the self from within.
{FILL: place: “The beautiful is that which we desire without wanting to eat it.”}
For Weil, beauty is intimately related with desire, for which she had a rather nuanced analysis. {FILL}
h3. Christology
“Humility exerts an irresistible power upon God. If God had not been humiliated…he would be inferior to us.”
“Christ likes us to prefer truth to him because, before being Christ, he is truth. If one turns aside from him to go toward the truth, one will not go far before falling into his arms.”
h3. Love
Among human beings, only the existence of those we love is fully recognized
To love purely is to consent to distance.
h3. Weil’s politics in The Need for Roots, etc.
(See also: Weil Quotefile)
h2. Works
* Gravity and Grace * Lectures on Philosophy * The Simone Weil Reader, ed. George A. Panichas
* David McLellan * Utopian Pessimist * Simone Petrement * Simone Weil: A Life
category:writer theory