Written Reviews

Reply and Rejoinder: Levy and Springsted 

David Levy & Eric Springsted

Our thanks to Eric Springsted for the generous welcome he gave our Simone Weil: Basic Writings in his review  (page references below are to our book). I am grateful for his considered reflection on my introduction, especially the interesting question of the extent to which Weil’s thinking should be deemed mystical. A proper consideration of the question is impossible here because so much turns on the definition of mysticism. I have no doubt that Christian mystical tradition is commodious enough to find a place for Weil because there is indeed in it considerable overlap with philosophy. If that is so, then my claim that Weil’s thought is essentially philosophical is perforce a modest one. Too many people, in my opinion, who read that Weil is a Christian mystic infer that direct mystical experience is foundational in her thinking, like a latter-day Julian of Norwich. Weil’s writings and the whole of her intellectual attitude, with her emphasis on truth rather than authority, speak against affiliating her to this familiar understanding of mysticism.

Two notes of response

#1. Springsted raises two points to which I will respond. He advises readers to consult other translations of “Is the human person sacred?” He takes issue with translating Weil’s use of the word ‘personne’ always as person and not sometimes as personality. Knowing that Weil was criticizing Jacques Maritain’s personalism, he contends this is what Weil meant. This is, I suggest, a misreading of Weil. When she meant ‘personality’ she used ‘personnalité’, the near French homonym, rather than ‘personne’ (see 227 of the essay, using the pagination of the Œuvres completes, whose page numbers are present in the margins of our book). The first published translation, by Russell Young in 1952, does not translate ‘personne’ as personality. It was Richard Rees who discarded the published French title (“La personne et le sacré”) in favor of his own, “Human personality”.

Rees sought perhaps to avoid the sense of ‘person’ related to someone’s legal person. If so, using ‘personality’ was a false step because it was indeed person as a societal entity that Weil warned was not sacred (compare Robert Chenavier’s introduction to the essay, Œuvres complètes V:1, 208). It is, for example, one’s legal person that is bolstered by granting it more rights. The mistaken thought that personalist vocabulary engenders is that rights recognize and bolster something already sacred, rather than their creating something and elevating that as a false idol.

A legal person is not identical with a human being. This is why Weil is careful, in one and the same sentence, to distinguish ‘person’ from ‘human person’, e.g. “It is neither his person nor the human person in him which is sacred to me.” (212–3). Substituting ‘personality’ for ‘person’ is impossible there. Personalism bolsters the personal in a sense closer to that of an individual, rather than of personality. Personalists asserted that the ‘human person’ is sacred, adding ‘human’ to ‘person’ to create a neologistic compound, viz. ‘human person’, to distinguish it from ‘person’ as a societal entity.

Proposing that Maritain or Weil used ‘human person’ to mean ‘personality’ is also incoherent. In the passages Springsted quotes from, Weil declares that blinding someone would not touch their human person at all, because all those things that make him an individual human being remain, giving as examples his long arms, his mediocre thoughts, and his social rank (213) or, later, those achievements in life that may make a name “live for thousands of years” (216). However, none of those elements of his human person—arm length, thought contents, social rank, personal achievements—are elements in what we call someone’s personality. Personality is indeed another individual quality of a human person, e.g., whether someone is shy.  However, personality is evidently not identical with the human person, since arms, legs et al are also parts of a human person. Therefore translating ‘human person’ as ‘personality’ mistakenly implies they are synonymous or identical.

Rees was probably unaware of the philosophical significance of ‘person’, especially Kant’s use for marking the difference between things and persons (‘Personen’, cf. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, 4:438). Another reason to retain ‘person’ is allowing the reader to consider this connection.

#2. Springsted also worries that the essay, “Théorie des sacraments,” is mistranslated as “Theory of sacraments” because there is no definite article. In “Forms of the implicit love of God” the section titled “Amour des pratiques religieuses” is translated by Emma Craufurd and us without a definite article as “Love of religious practices”. The point is not solely grammatical, because Weil does not mean specific religious practices there; nor specifically Christian sacraments in “Theory of sacraments”. (N.B. ‘sacrament’ is ambiguous between a religious practice and a material element within a religious practice.)

“Theory of Sacraments” returns to the same ideas in “Implicit Love” a year before, something evident in the discussion of ‘convention’ in almost identical terms. In the earlier essay’s section “Religious Practices”, Weil is at pains to indicate that any worldly, religious practice—e.g., Buddhist—can succeed in developing that indirect love of God that may become the direct love of God. Thus, she explains how the world of necessity and matter here below can provide a route to the love of God, who is “above the sky”. The power to reach God is not inherent in the practices, places of worship, or particular sacraments employed: “The church might be ugly, the singing off-key, the priest corrupt […] this is of no importance. (318)” Insofar as both essays explicate convention, then the earlier, religiously pluralistic conclusions about sacraments seem equally intended in the later essay. Indeed, the generality with which sacraments are discussed in the later essay (see 343ff) undermines the claim that her theory of sacraments pertains solely to the Catholic sacraments (or any other specific sacraments designated by a definite article).

Importantly, in the earlier essay, Weil compares the irrelevance of the material forms of religious practices and sacraments to the irrelevance of using “crooked” lines and “elongated” circles to “demonstrate a correct proof” in geometry (318). This helps illuminate the best sense to give ‘convention’ when explaining the success of religious practices involving sacraments, and geometric proofs involving figures in the revelation of divine or necessary truths. Geometric proofs do not succeed because of a convention or covenant between men regarding geometric figures and their use. The geometric figures employed succeed in and as proofs just in case the necessities inherent in the reality of space are in accord with what the proofs present. After all, one cannot prove what is not so, even when subsequent discoveries or proofs extend or restructure the knowledge that was previously proved. If God created space, then the potential for using figures that happen to arise by convention in geometric proofs was created, latent, in that creation. This latent potential does not seem to depend on anyone knowing of it, just as Abraham need not have known of the covenant God concluded with him while he slept (Genesis 15). The proofs of geometry work through the intelligence—as Weil would put it—even if they are images of necessary or divine truths.  There are other, analogous routes to this truth, such as religious practices or the contemplation of great works of art. These call on other human faculties or capacities. Endowed with faculties for consent, attention, and love, there would seem then to be latent within the material conditions of existence myriad possible aids for directing those capacities toward the love of God or anything equivalent. 

David Levy is Lecturer in the School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences at the University of Edinburgh. His areas of interest are Moral Philosophy, Plato, Wittgenstein, and Simone Weil. 

Two Points

#1: The first and most substantial has to do with the essay “Is the Human Person Sacred?” Levy finds himself at odds with my suggestions about translating personne as “personality.” While we both raise questions about what personne might mean, my point in raising the issue at all was that in making a literal translation where a word would always be translated the same way, Levy and Barabas should have confronted the very difficult issues over this term. I did not suggest they should have translated it as “personality.” Given their commitment to being as literal as possible, I understand that they were not about to do this.

My point was that I wished that, as in the case of the essay “Theory of Sacraments” (sic), where they provided a very helpful footnote about the semi-false cognate convention, they could have done something similar to help the reader with the word personne. My explanation was not meant to quibble about whether they should have translated it differently – there was no reason they would have given their stated principles of translation.  Rather, they might have explained to the reader why some elucidation of the term would have been helpful. More about the term can be discussed in the future. In the interest, though, of accuracy, let me respectfully resist one of Levy’s arguments. I do not think that translating ‘human person’ as ‘personality’ means that the two terms are “inter-substitutable or identical” as he claims. Using “personality” can simply be a matter of metonymy, of using an attribute of the whole. For a translator who is trying to get something across to a non-French reader, that is an option, especially when nobody really got Weil’s point for many years until we figured out the connection to Jacques Maritain. For Maritain, the person is a metaphysical center, which expresses itself in personality. I would argue, in a world of personal expressivity and its connections to our high valuing of the person, that what most people consider what a person is they have in mind its expression, i.e. the personality, or various socially markable and significant attributes. But this is to be further discussed.

#2: My second point has to do with a very small criticism of the choice of title of “Theory of Sacraments.” I thank Levy for pointing out what he had in mind, namely, that he was taking Weil’s use of “sacraments” here as basically akin to her term “religious practices” in the essay “Forms of the Implicit Love of God.” Reading through the essay with that in mind after seeing his reply, I find the suggestion enlightening. There is a lot in the essay that can be taken quite generally, and that is important philosophically with respect to how a soul with an infinite desire for the Good can have that love mediated, and made actual, in the world in which we live. I will keep that in mind in the future. Living sacramentally is not necessarily confined to the Christian sacraments, even for Christians. However, given that the Eucharist is the only example of a sacrament she gives in this essay – that she returns to it regularly in the essay, and that the biblical citations she uses at the end are Eucharistic-related texts, and that she does not cite examples from other religions as she does in “Forms of the Implicit Love of God” – I think that the obvious reading of what her essay is about is that she has the Christian sacraments in mind. Well: one sacrament in particular. While it is certainly enlightening to suggest that the essay has wider appeal, I am reminded of a comment that George Lindbeck, the late American theologian who taught at Yale, made. He noted that often misreadings are powerful readings. That said, I thank Levy and Barabas for a very powerful reading. And all this over the word “the.” 

Eric O. Springsted is the co-founder of the American Weil Society; he was its president for thirty-three years. He is the author, editor, and translator of thirteen books, including several on Simone Weil. Most recently, he is the co-editor (with Ronald Collins) of A Declaration of Duties toward Humankind: A Critical Companion to Simone Weil’s The Need for Roots (Carolina Academic Press, 2024). Springsted is on Attention’s Advisory Board and is currently working on a book titled Having an Inner Life

Share on Facebook