Written Commentaries

Action and Contemplation: A Commentary on Vance Morgan’s Weaving the World: Simone Weil on Science, Mathematics, and Love

Soto Tsuruta

Among her many pursuits, Simone Weil devoted a considerable part of her life to reflections on science and mathematics. Between the age of 20 and her early death at age 34, she expressed her thoughts on these subjects in her essays, letters, and notebooks almost without interruption.

Vance G. Morgan’s Weaving the World: Simone Weil on Science, Mathematics, and Love (2005) presents a comprehensive exposition of this aspect of Weil’s thought. In his book, Morgan emphasizes what Czeslaw Milosz, a Nobel Prize winning poet, described as “the perfect continuity of [Weil’s] thought” (1). Indeed, Weil’s lifelong interest in science and mathematics seems to demonstrate the integrity of her thought. However, when her writings are closely observed, there also appear to be some incongruities. In this commentary, while pointing out these incongruities—or contradictions—in Weil’s thought, I will argue that Weil’s life and thought are a living example of their potential unity, and that it is important to gaze at these contradictions, rather than to turn our eyes away from them.

The Crisis of Science

Soto Tsuruta

What follows is a summary of and commentary on Professor Morgan’s arguments. According to Morgan, Weil wrote her reflections on science as a response to the “crisis of science” of her time. What kind of crisis was it to which Weil was referring? As Morgan examines in Chapter 2, the crisis was brought to science (especially physics) in the early 20thcentury with the advent of quantum theory and the theory of relativity. These physical theories depict a world that is incomprehensible based on our everyday experiences. “Relativity, for instance, introduces bizarre notions such as curved space, a velocity (light) that is at once infinite and measurable, and time considered as a fourth dimension. Quantum mechanics, which seems so definitive and clear-cut in its practical applications, is actually based on uncertainties, probabilities, and philosophically peculiar ideas” (48).

What concerned Weil, however, was not so much these pictures of the world that are unrepresentable to our minds, but rather the fact that they were not introduced via theoretical reasoning, but simply because a formula was found that ‘worked.’ Thus, utility became the new standard of truth. Weil believed that this stemmed from the hegemony of algebraic methods in modern physics established by Descartes. In algebra, whether or not each symbol corresponds to some reality does not really matter. Quantum mechanics was born from a mathematical formula that contained some symbols without meanings, and a ‘theory’ was developed around its interpretation by a group of scientists. Thus, science seemed to have lost its “spirit of truth,” while becoming an increasingly important part of society. In other words, the crisis was not only about science but also about people’s moral and political lives that are largely affected by science. Therefore, to borrow Weil’s words, “the entire world [was] at stake” (65).

However, Weil was not the only one who recognized this crisis. Several other philosophers also made historical and philosophical reflections on the crisis of European science and civilization. Alfred N. Whitehead and Edmund Husserl, for example, criticized modern science for its abstraction and mathematization that resulted in its lack of concrete meanings for people’s lives. What made Weil unique, however, was that she sought a solution to this crisis not in new ideas like the “philosophy of organism” or “transcendental phenomenology,” but in the ancient Greek view of mathematics, an ancient wisdom that dated far back in time.

Morgan closely examines this solution by Weil in Chapters 3 to 6. According to him, Weil believed that ancient Greek science—from Thales to Archimedes—contained in germ form all the achievements of modern science, but was conducted for a totally different purpose—a ‘religious’ purpose. Religion, in this case, meant the Pythagoreanmathematical philosophy, which Weil discovered through careful readings of Plato’s texts. Pythagoreanism was the guiding principle that illuminated the whole of ancient Greek science, and Weil believed that it even had something within it that foreshadowed Christianity. (In analyzing Weil’s religious interpretation of Pythagoreanism, Morgan owes greatly to Eric O. Springsted’s Christus Mediator (1983).)

What was Pythagoreanism? In a nutshell, it was an intellectual movement to view the universe as a kosmos, that is, orderand beauty. Pythagoreans sought to understand the world in terms of mathematical proportions, which bring together and put in order many things that could not otherwise be related. For example, Thales, the founder of Greek mathematics, calculated the height of a pyramid by proportion, that is, by discovering a fixed relationship between the height of an object and the length of its shadow. Similarly, the ancient Greeks thought that by some kind of proportion—through a proper mediation or a mean proportional—they could relate humans even to God. This mediation, which the Greeks called metaxu, is what Weil saw as preparing the way for the later conception of Christ (i.e., human: Christ = Christ: God). For ancient Greeks, mathematics (or geometry) was the search for metaxu, the bridge between the human and the divine.

Thus, in ancient Greece, science was regarded only as an intermediary or means to achieve something greater. According to Weil, it was in this way that ancient Greeks were able to prevent science from becoming an end in itself and getting out of control. Therefore, Weil believed that “we must give back to science its true destiny as a bridge leading toward God” (NB, 453). Morgan concludes his book by describing Weil’s ideals for reorienting science, whereby religion and science are unified. According to Weil, it is only when our science is reunified with religion that the “spirit of truth” will dwell in it again (193).

Action and Contemplation

Morgan’s arguments are clear and compelling. However, they are not entirely free of pitfalls: Morgan overemphasizes the consistency and completeness of Weil’s scientific thought. It is true that Weil’s interest and attitude toward science remained consistent all through her life. Since she wrote her first thesis on Descartes at the age of 20, Weil had always been critical toward modern and contemporary science. However, it seems that Weil’s scientific thought—or her ideal of science—was not necessarily consistent from her early years up to her later studies on Pythagoreanism. In fact, they may even contain some contradictions.

Hannah Arendt

As Hannah Arendt—who was also a reader of Weil—put it, the greatest difference between the modern world and the ancient world lies in the reversed evaluation of vita contemplativa (contemplative life) and vita activa (active life) (Arendt, 289). At the time of Plato and Aristotle, the contemplative life of philosophers was considered superior to any other ways of life in which people produced their necessities. The truth was only to be found in a quiet contemplation. However, with the dawn of modernity—which Arendt attributed to Galileo’s contribution to physics and the generalization of its consequences by Descartes—this hierarchy was reversed. Since Galileo’s telescope and Descartes’ skepticism, people have come to believe that only by action—that is, in science, experimentation—can any knowledge be attained (Arendt, 278). Therefore, in modern times, the highest priority is given to the active life.

Weil was not insensitive to this difference between the modern and ancient times. In The Need for Roots she stated that the only thing that the modern times invented and added to the ancient times was the concept of “work” (NR, 92). As Morgan argues in Chapters 1 and 2, the starting point of Weil’s scientific inquiry was the exploration of this concept in Descartes’ texts. Weil saw this concept as something that characterized modern science, and as something that even laid the foundation of modern science by bridging mathematics and physics. She believed that physics until the 19th century was based on the concept of energy derived from the concept of work, and that modern science was meaningful to humans only because it was a science of work. In other words, modern science, for Weil, was nothing but a search for “wisdom in action.”

Pythagoras

Then again, in discussing Pythagoreanism Weil never refers to the concept of work. As we have seen, for the ancient Greeks, the discovery of the order and beauty of the universe (kosmos) was the purpose of their scientific inquiries, and it was thought to be attained through careful observation and contemplation. It was this “wisdom in contemplation” that the Pythagoreans sought for, and their ‘science’ was more mathematical than physical in nature. Thus, Weil was talking about two different kinds of science with two different concerns, without delving into the question of whether or not their integration was possible.

Of course, the author of Weaving the World is not unaware of such a disconnection in Weil’s argument. He is well aware that between Weil’s ideals and ours, there lies this divide that needs to be overcome. He emphasizes that in order to understand Weil’s scientific thought properly, we need to unlearn our modern prejudices (see his “Reality Check,” 80–89). However, even if we fully understand her ideal of science, it probably will not change our science—and will not save it from its crisis either. If this is the case, were Weil’s reflections on science and mathematics (and Morgan’s call for attention to them) merely a nostalgic escape from the modern age of action to a past that valued contemplation?

A Promised Convergence?

I do not think that they were. It is true that Weil’s statements about Greek science do not mesh with her thoughts about modern science. In this respect, Weil’s thoughts on the two sciences show discontinuity rather than a “perfect continuity.” However, as Morgan states, there are elements in Weil’s investigation of science that remain consistent. We should not try to deny the inconsistency, nor should we dismiss Weil’s thought because of its contradictions; rather, we should contemplate these contradictions. Weil wrote that “not much would be required (yet a lot in a certain sense) to bring us back from contemporary science to an equivalent of Greek science” (NB, 69). Then, it is our task as readers of Weil to find out what this “not much yet a lot” would be.

One might wonder, however, if the two—the modern and ancient ideals of science—can possibly intersect as they seem to traverse parallelly. I find hope, however, in the fact that Weil lived and thought with all the abovementioned contradictions. We can imagine that even if they do not intersect now, they could potentially intersect at infinity. Like many of her other writings, Weil’s scientific thought is not valuable because it provides a complete answer, but because it promises the possibility of completion beyond that. In that sense, Weil’s scientific thought, as well as Morgan’s book that discusses it, is nothing but an intermediary (metaxu) to reach that point at infinity.

Weil’s quest is not yet over. We are left with the task of contemplating the contradictions of her thoughts and trying to imagine how they might converge. Weil’s life and legacy seem to promise that such a convergence is possible.

Sources

  • Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958 [Arendt]
  • Vance G. Morgan, Weaving the World: Simone Weil on Science, Mathematics, and Love, Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005 
  • Simone Weil, The Notebooks of Simone Weil, 2 vols, trans. Arthur Wills, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1956 [NB]
  • Simone Weil, The Need for Roots, trans. Arthur Wills, London: Routledge, 2002 [NR]

Soto Tsuruta is a doctoral student at the University of Tokyo, Department of History and Philosophy of Science. He is also a research fellow at the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science. He received his M.A. from the University of Tokyo in 2021 with an outstanding graduate student award for his master’s thesis on Simone Weil’s scientific thought.

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