Book Review: The Ethics of Attention: Engaging the Real with Iris Murdoch and Simone Weil

Cathy Mason read

Excerpt: “‘Attention, Iris Murdoch tells us in ‘The Idea of Perfection’, is “the idea of a just and loving gaze directed upon an individual reality.’ (Murdoch 1999: 327). She takes this to be the characteristic and proper mark of moral agents, a claim that is both descriptive – a claim about what in fact characterises us as agents – and normative – a claim about how we should act, what we need to do more of in order to become better moral agents.

Silvia Caprioglio Panizza follows Murdoch in making both of these claims. Her new book The Ethics of Attention is an extended discussion of the role and importance of attention within our moral lives. Panizza here draws on the work of Murdoch and Simone Weil to explore the nature and moral importance of attention. This commonplace and recognisable activity, she suggests, is both essential for accessing moral truth and also morally significant in and of itself. Moreover, it is ‘fundamental to morality’ (16) in that many of the other things we care about morally (such as moral knowledge and moral motivation) are well-understood as depending on attention.'”

Cathy Mason is an Assistant Professor in Philosophy at Central European University.

Philosophy, out of Bounds: The Method and Mysticism of Simone Weil

Carmen Maria Marcous read

ABSTRACT: The purpose of this study is exposition on the themes of method and mysticism in the work of Simone Weil. Nearly a decade before the onset of her first mystical experience, Weil developed a method to be rigorously applied in daily philosophical reflection. She outlines this method in her dissertation on Descartes (1929-1930). I examine the question of how Weil applied method to philosophical reflection on her mystical experiences (onset 1938-1939). I analyze Weil’s mystical experiences as a type of transformative experience in L. A. Paul’s strict sense of the term. On Paul’s view, an experience is transformative if it is both epistemically and personally transformative. An experience is epistemically transformative if the only way to know what it is like to have it is to have it yourself. An experience is personally transformative if it changes your point of view, including your core preferences (Paul, 2014).

I present a thought experiment and textual evidence to motivate the claim that Weil’s mystical experiences meet Paul’s conditions for transformative experience. I then propose two epistemological facts that can be revealed by philosophical reflection on mystical experience. First, it is possible to read meaning erroneously in the appearances of things. Second, it is possible to come to hold to the certainty of a conviction for reasons that elude the intellect. My findings suggest that Weil’s late views on philosophy accommodate these two epistemological constraints, thereby demonstrating a possible connection between Weil’s mystical experiences and her mature views on the nature, scope, and proper method of philosophy. However, my preliminary findings also suggest that Weil’s early work on method may have anticipated these epistemological obstacles prior to the onset of her first mystical experience. Thus, further exposition of Weil’s method is needed to support or elucidate the claim (Rozelle-Stone and Davis, 2021) that Weil’s epistemology underwent significant changes because of her mystical experiences.

Carmen Maria Marcous a Dissertation submitted to the Department of Philosophy in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Florida State University, College of Arts and Sciences (2022).

Education and the ethics of attention: The work of Simone Weil

Peter Roberts read

This paper argues that the influential French thinker, Simone Weil, has something distinctive and important to offer educational and ethical inquiry. Weil’s ethical theory is considered against the backdrop of her life and work, and in relation to her broader ontological, epistemological and political position. Pivotal concepts in Weil’s philosophy – gravity, decreation, and grace – are discussed, and the educational implications of her ideas are explored. The significance of Weil’s thought for educationists lies in the unique emphasis she places on the development of attention, a notion elaborated here via the key themes of truth, beauty, and love.

British Journal of Educational Studies (Aug. 22, 2022)


A Negative Effort: Simone Weil and the Ethics of Attention in Palliative Care

Aldis H. Petriceks read


“. . . Attention, for Weil, is the beginning of all ethics, because one cannot know how to act toward another person if one has not first understood that person. Yet, according to Weil, we cannot understand others through sheer efforts of attention. She believes that the mind is constantly at work projecting its own imagination and valuations on itself and the world around it, and that these projections inhibit true knowledge. To translate her thoughts into the language of medicine, we could say that a clinician is always at risk of projecting their assumptions and biases, implicit and explicit, onto the patient.

But because the clinician’s mind is the source of these projections, it cannot of its own strength counter them with a truer perception of the patient’s reality. In other words, attention is not something that you create through conscious effort. A squinting of the eyes, a tightening of the muscles, a serious face: all these images of the concentrated individual leave us only more aware of ourselves. The goal is to become aware of the patient, and so we reach a clinical paradox: attention is a core component of our work in palliative care because it allows us to see others more clearly, but this attention cannot be willed in the same way as, say, the movement of one’s arm.

The resolution of this paradox is to say that attention does involve effort, but a special sort of effort. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Weil’s concept of attention is not “a ‘muscular effort’ but a ‘negative effort’ … involving … a growing receptivity of the mind” (Rozelle-Stone and Davis, Reference Rozelle-Stone and Davis 2021). It is not an action but something we position ourselves to receive, “less a moral position or specific practice and more an orientation” (Rozelle-Stone and Davis, Reference Rozelle-Stone and Davis 2021). To say that attention is a negative effort is to claim that our effort is used largely to empty ourselves of internal noise and narratives, and to allow the patient to fill in the gap. We forget about ourselves without forgetting our knowledge or our role as healers, and this new orientation consists “of suspending our thought, leaving it detached … empty … holding in our minds, within the reach of this thought, but on the lower level and not in contact with it, the diverse knowledge we have acquired which we are forced to make use of” (Rozelle-Stone and Davis, Reference Rozelle-Stone and Davis 2021).

When we pay this sort of attention, we undergo something similar to what poets experience in the process of composing a poem. “The poet,” Weil writes, “produces the beautiful by fixing his attention on something real. It is the same with the act of love. To know that this man who is hungry and thirsty really exists as much as I do — that is enough, the rest follows of itself” (Weil, Reference Weil 1997). Not only does attention help me to understand the human being toward whom I want to act ethically; attention is itself an ethical act because it grants dignity and autonomy to a person who exists independent of my own mental constructs. The more I attend to the patient, the more my own mental image of them is replaced by a truer reality, and the more I recognize — “the rest follows of itself” — my professional and moral obligations toward them (Weil, Reference Weil 1997).

An honest perception of the patient in front of me will, therefore, involve an honest recognition of what I feel and think around them; and the constant reorientation toward that patient will remind me to leave those feelings and thoughts to the side, allowing me to be morally and professionally shaped not by my own agenda but by the needs of the patient. One writer claims that “only such a move makes it possible to recognize the fundamental equality and identity of all people, which means it is also the only chance for justice” (Rose, Reference Rose 2022). Through Weil’s philosophy, then, we see that compassion, ethics, and justice in medicine “are the result of one and the same act, a certain application of the full attention” to the patient. In that case, educators in palliative care could have few greater aims than “to prepare, by training the attention, for the possibility of such an act” (Weil, Reference Weil 1997). . . .”

Palliative & Supportive Care (April 25, 2022) (published online by Cambridge University Press).

Aldis Petriceks is an MD Candidate at Harvard Medical School.


A Study of Character: Simone Weil’s Psychological and Ethical Attention

Deborah Casewell read

 Abstract: In the later, ethically oriented writings of the philosopher Simone Weil, she develops her concept of attention. This involves using the body to train the mind and thus the soul, into an open, receptive state. This state is the first condition for any ethical action to take place. This article explores how Weil’s account of attention can provide a new perspective in philosophical and theological engagement with psychology, first in terms of moral psychology and virtue ethics, and second in statements on the malleability or plasticity of human nature. As Weil sees that human nature’s stress on activity tends to lead to suffering rather than ethical action, she proposes not ethical action per se, but an ethical attitude of attention instead. Habit-formation and character development can thus be approached differently as cultivating a state of openness rather than of particular virtues. This article will therefore explore the relationship of theology and psychology in terms of human nature as irremediably situated but also psychologically receptive for restoration. 

TheoLogica (An International Journal for Philosophy of Religion and Philosophical Theology) (February 07, 2022)

The Author: Deborah Casewell holds a Humboldt Post-Doctoral Research Fellowship in the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Bonn.

Nursing in Wartime: Edith Stein and Simone Weil on Empathic Attention

Ann W. Astell read

Abstract: Edith Stein and Simone Weil both trained as Red Cross nurses for wartime service. For both philosophers, the activity of a nurse demands empathic attention to the afflicted. Stein envisions herself as an attendant nurse in her memoirs; Weil similarly casts herself in a nurse’s role in her proposal for an elite, sacrificial nurses’ corps. This essay examines the practice of wartime nursing as a school for, and an expression of, their complementary philosophies of human beings seen in their physical, epistemological, and spiritual interrelatedness.

Journal of Continental Philosophy (Feb. 23, 2022)

Ann W. Astell is a professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame.