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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.

Attending: An Ethical Art

Warren Heiti, editor read

Attending – patient contemplation focused on a particular being – is a central ethical activity that has not been recognized by any of the main moral systems in the European philosophical tradition. That tradition has imagined that the moral agent is primarily a problem solver and world changer when what might be needed most is a witness.

Moral theory has been agonized by dualism – motivation is analyzed into beliefs and desires, descriptions of facts and dissatisfactions with them, while action is represented as an effort to lessen dissatisfaction by altering the empirical world. In Attending Warren Heiti traces an alternative genealogy of ethics, drawing from the Platonism recovered by Simone Weil and developed in the work of Iris Murdoch, John McDowell, and Jan Zwicky. According to Weil, virtue is knowledge, knowledge is embodied, and the knower is nested in an ecosystem of relationships. Instead of analyzing and solving theoretical problems, Heiti aims to clarify the terrain by setting up objects of attention from more than one discipline, including not only philosophy but also literature, psychology, film, and visual art.

The traditional picture captures one important type of ethical activity: faced with a moral problem, one looks to a general rule to furnish the solution. But not all problems conform to this model. Heiti offers an alternative: to see what is needed, one attends to the particular being.

Warren Heiti is a Professor of philosophy and liberal studies at Vancouver Island University.

McGill-Queen’s University Press, July 15, 2021

A Just and Loving Gaze

Deborah Casewell read

Excerpt: “Weil took no prisoners in any debate. Although Leon Trotsky had recently excoriated her critique of Marxism, Weil arranged for the Marxist revolutionary to stay in her parents’ apartment in December 1933 and host an illicit political gathering. This did, however, come at the expense of a night-long, intense discussion with Weil. While she always argued softly and clearly, that did not prevent the discussion from being punctuated by violent shouts.

That heart that beat across the world is perhaps why she always remained outside contemporary philosophical trends, and certainly outside of the academic and elite conversations in philosophy at the time. Weil’s philosophical commitments, while constant, often pale in comparison with her dramatic life and her political engagement. She enacted her philosophy with her commitment to causes, and finally with her body. This began with her declaration of Bolshevism at the age of 10, through to her university involvement in Marxism, trade unionism and pacificism. The first commitment declined as she found in Marxism itself plenty to criticise, though this did not prevent her from joining the republicans in the Spanish Civil War, albeit rather ineffectively. Yet, through all of this, two elements of her character remained constant: her self-denial for the sake of others, and the strength of her will. . . .”

Deborah Casewell is a Humboldt Research Fellow in philosophy at the University of Bonn and co-director of the UK-based Simone Weil Network. Her most recent book is Eberhard Jüngel and Existence: Being Before the Cross(2021).

Aeon, July 9, 2021

Peter Winch: Unity: Presupposition or Demand?

Peter Winch (Steven Burns trans.) read

This is a translation of a paper which the late Peter Winch wrote in German for a 1987 conference. He deals with fundamental issues in ethics, especially with the Wittgensteinian idea that “primitive reactions” play a crucial role in the formation of moral concepts. It also responds to an important objection, namely that primitive reactions can be as much immoral as moral. Ranging as it does over Winch’s interests in Wittgenstein, Simone Weil, and Plato, the paper can serve as a concise introduction to Winch’s work.

Philosophical Investigations, vol. 44, no. 2, July 9, 2021

A just and loving gaze

Deborah Casewell read

Simone Weil: mystic, philosopher, activist. Her ethics demand that we look beyond the personal and find the universal.

Excerpt:” . . . Weil’s ethics can be reconstructed from three key texts written in 1943, the last year of her life. These are the essay ‘La Personne et le sacré’ (1957), the manifesto ‘Draft for a Statement of Human Obligations’, and her book The Need for Roots (1949). Written while she was working in London for the Free French forces, these texts explore several key concepts in Weil’s ethical thought – that ethical action is grounded in our obligation to something impersonal and universal in the other, not in rights; that this obligation is expressed best in the attitude of attention, or reading, towards the other person; and that this obligation is grounded not in the world but outside it. This latter aspect draws both from her philosophical love of Plato and her own religious convictions, stemming from a series of mystical experiences and practices, which brought her to, but kept her at the door of, the Catholic Church. She remained as fiercely singular in this respect as in all others, though her outlook was broadly Christian.

These concepts are evocatively drawn out in the essay ‘La Personne et le sacré’, translated variously as ‘Human Personality’ or ‘What Is Sacred in Every Human Being?’ Here, she uses two examples to illustrate her ethical vision and challenge our immediate idea of why and how we should act towards others. She begins by focusing on what appears to be a rather common-sense approach to the question of how we should relate to other people – we should look at each of them as a person, with a personality, a certain je ne sais quoi, which we respond and relate to. This is a form of personalism. . . .”  {full text in link}

Deborah Casewell is a Humboldt Research Fellow in philosophy at the University of Bonn and co-director of the UK-based Simone Weil Network. Her most recent book is Eberhard Jüngel and Existence: Being Before the Cross (2021).

Aeon (2022)

The ethical implications of Simone Weil’s Notion of reading

Olwyn Stewart read

In this thesis I develop the ethical implications inherent in a short paper written by Simone Weil, entitled ‘Essay on the Notion of Reading,’ with a view to exploring possible ways in which we are able to incorporate the unconditional value of each and every human being into our everyday apprehension of the world. Mindful of the fact that conceptions of unconditional value tend to be associated with religious belief, I make a distinction between religious theory and practical religious engagement, privileging the latter, in order to show the common ground between theistic and nontheistic ways of understanding unconditional value. My focus is on practical ethics, and the relationship between our direct and immediate ethical responses and their conceptualization plays an important part in my thesis, in tandem with an important distinction between absolute and relative forms of evaluation. The emphasis I place on the relationship between direct responses and their conceptualization is developed in the light of Wittgensteinian philosophical insights, both of Wittgenstein’s own and those of certain other philosophers who employ versions of his method. I also draw on both Platonist and Aristotelian conceptions of virtue, with particular attention to the relationship between our natural ethical responses and the terminology in which they find expression.

The University of Auckland, Ph.D. dissertation (2012).