Simone Weil – some brief notes

The most recent book to be discussed by the Philosophy of Education Reading Network was Simone Weil: An Anthology compiled by Siân Miles. The session was introduced by Dr Susan Notess of Durham University, who introduced us to the life and work of Simone Weil, a French philosopher, mystic and political activist, in 15 short minutes.

As she said, Simone Weil was an ‘interesting’ character, who had a different way of approaching the world. Elsewhere I have seen Weil described as eccentric, which, from what I have read, is putting it mildly, although Albert Camus described her as ‘The only great spirit of our time’. From a very early age it was clear that Simone Weil was gifted, although she lived in the shadow of her gifted, older brother, André, who was considered a mathematical genius. Weil could speak several languages and was reading Plato in Ancient Greek at the age of 12. Later she also taught herself Sanskrit, so that she could read the Bhagavad Gita in the original. Her teacher, Émile Chartier, more commonly known as Alain, nicknamed her ‘The Martian’ to draw attention to her intellect and ‘very large brain’. Weil was an intellectual being, but also a woman struggling to compete in a man’s world. She managed this by adopting an asexual identity, wearing masculine-style clothes, and shunning intimate relationships and all forms of physical intimacy (although physical intimacy had appalled her from a very early age, and even as a child, she didn’t like to be touched or kissed for fear of germs). Another nickname for her was The Red Virgin, red referring to her left-wing political activism.

From a very young age, Weil empathised acutely with the suffering of others, to the detriment of her own health and well-being. At the age of six, she stopped eating sugar, because soldiers at the front in the first world war couldn’t have sugar. Later in life she tried to stay true to her belief in empathising with the suffering of others, and practise what she preached, by living very simply with minimum comforts and eating very little. She wanted to match the living conditions of people around her. She died young at the age of 34 in 1943 from tuberculosis, aggravated by malnutrition. Some believe that she may have been anorexic, but there is no evidence for this.

Weil came from an affluent non-practising Jewish family. Her father was a doctor, so she came from a privileged background and went to a fine school. She did brilliantly at University, being one of the first 5 women ever to attend the École Normale Supérieure, in Paris, outshining Simone de Beauvoir by finishing first in the exam for the certificate of ‘General Philosophy and Logic’. de Beauvoir finished second.

On leaving University Weil became a teacher of philosophy and political activist, and ultimately became influential in religious and spiritual matters, but given that this book was chosen for discussion by a philosophy of education reading network, it is on education that I would like to focus. This film (1 hour 24 mins) gives a more complete introduction to Simone Weil than I have done here.

I must admit to only having dipped into the anthology being discussed in this session. I found several introductions to Weil’s life and work online, which were interesting – she definitely is an interesting character, but her political and social activism, mysticism and leaning towards religious and spiritual matters did not draw me in. Perhaps it was, for me, the wrong time to be trying to read this book. I do find a book a month, by these difficult authors, quite a challenge, and I was still thinking about Nel Noddings (see previous posts) when I came to Weil’s book. Despite only having dipped into Weil’s work, I can see the connections between her and Noddings, and to some extent between her and Hannah Arendt. Iris Murdoch was also influenced by Weil.

From the little I know of Weil’s approach to education and pedagogy, she was unorthodox. She tried to teach people wherever she went, sharing her philosophical and political ideas with workers in factories and publishing in workers’ journals. But she soon realised that labouring workers (in the car factories that she herself worked in to try and align herself with workers’ suffering) were too oppressed by their impoverished lives to have the energy or will to discuss philosophy. As a teacher she wanted to humanise education. In teaching sixth form philosophy, she realised that her students had no knowledge of the connections between philosophy and science, so she created a special curriculum. In doing this, she didn’t follow the curriculum or the rules of the school in which she worked, to the extent that her students didn’t pass the exams, and ultimately, she lost her job as a teacher. Nevertheless, there is some evidence that the students benefited from her teaching, claiming that she gave them ‘something else’. It’s interesting to think about this in the relation to the purpose of education.

For Weil the central purpose of education is to cultivate and develop the capacity for attention. She doesn’t mean by this that we should furrow our brows and strain to attend. Attention does not depend on the will. She writes (1986, p.233) ‘Attention is bound up with desire. Not with will, but with desire – or more exactly, consent’. For Weil attention is being receptive, open, patient and selfless. ‘I’ has to disappear. ‘Attention alone – that attention, which is so full that the ‘I’ disappears – is required of me. I have to deprive all that I call ‘I’ of the light of my attention and turn it on to that which cannot be conceived.’ The mind is ‘detached, empty and ready’ to receive truth from the world (Weill, 2009, p.111).

She goes on to write (1986, p.234) ‘The authentic and pure values – truth, beauty and goodness – in the activity of a human being are the result of one and the same act, a certain application of the full attention to the object. Teaching should have no aim but to prepare, by training the attention, for the possibility of such an act.’ This is where we see the influence of Weil on Noddings, who wrote about the need for the one-caring to be engrossed in and fully committed to the cared-for, in the act of caring for the other. For Weil and Noddings alike, teachers must be attentive to their students and students must be attentive to their studies.

But for Weil, the ultimate aim of education is the orientation of all attention to the love of God, although she acknowledges in her essay ‘Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God’ (Weil, 2009) that this is the highest form of attention, whereas schools only develop a lower form of attention. ‘Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love. Absolute unmixed attention is prayer.’ (1986, p.232). She expands on this in her essay on the right use of school studies as follows:

Students must therefore work without any wish to gain good marks, to pass examinations, to win school successes; without any reference to their natural abilities and tastes; applying themselves equally to all their tasks, with the idea that each one will help to form in them the habit of that attention which is the substance of prayer. When we set out to do a piece of work, it is necessary to wish to do it correctly, because such a wish is indispensable in any true effort. Underlying this immediate objective, however, our deep purpose should aim solely at increasing the power of attention with a view to prayer; as, when we write, we draw the shape of the letter on paper, not with a view to the shape, but with a view to the idea we want to express. To make this the sole and exclusive purpose of our studies is the first condition to be observed if we are to put them to the right use. (2009, p.108)

Weil stresses the importance of failure in learning (learning from failure) and humility, but also joy. ‘The joy of learning is as indispensable in study as breathing is in running’. (2009, p.110). Whilst Weil believed that cultivating attention would help students to reach God through prayer, she also thought that a capacity for attention would help students generally in their academic studies and particularly in their ability to attend to others.

A full discussion of Weil’s work, as it relates to education, is beyond the scope of this post. In addition, I think it is probably not possible to fully appreciate and understand Weil’s ideas on education, without having some knowledge and understanding of her wider work relating to politics, mysticism and religion. At this point, from my own limited reading and understanding of her work, I think her ideas are possibly too radical and too imbued with religious overtones, to be widely adopted in education. Having said that, most teachers would probably agree on the importance of cultivating attention, but they may have a different understanding of attention to Weil, i.e., thinking of attention as being muscle straining hard work, rather than the open receptivity advocated by Weil.

Finally, Susan Notess, who introduced this Philosophy of Education Reading Network session, posed some really thought-provoking questions for us to consider. I will finish this post by sharing them here. Three great questions to get you (and me) thinking.

Question 1:

What do you make of Weil’s zealous belief that ideology was not enough; that she had to live the experience of the causes she cared about? Does genuine activism require that we commit to abstract objectivity and remove, or to participation ‘in the trenches’, or both? Consider this: suppose you are a passionate proponent of revolution in some sphere, desiring to see an oppressed class revolt and find freedom, although you yourself tend towards pacifism and would prefer a nonviolent revolution. A genie who reads Simone Weil appears, and tells you they will ensure the revolution and its success, on the condition that you agree to participate and carry arms. How would you respond to the genie? Is it a mistake to think that our theoretical commitments require us to be committed to involvement also? Was Weil going too far by joining the Spanish Civil War, or was she setting a daunting precedent that we ought to follow?

Question 2:

To what extent can, or should, Weil’s notion of attention function to disrupt our philosophical praxis? In pedagogy broadly construed, what role can this ungrabbing, unboxed attention play? In philosophical pedagogy, how do we strike a balance between the need to equip students for technical knowledge/skill, and the need to teach people to find the open attunement of apophatic attention?

Question 3:

Take for granted Weil’s notion of roots and the human need for rootedness. How do the possibilities for rootedness change or modulate in the context of the following: immigration in a globalised age (uprooting and replanting); the internet, as a field in which communities of belonging can be established, an alternative or queered space of rootedness, a source of affordances for the displaced, the dispossessed, the divergent, and the estranged; cross-cultural living, and those who live with a dual identity, rooted in two places.

Evidently Simone Weil was ‘intensely displeased’ by the attention paid to her life rather than her works, so I expect she wouldn’t have liked this post very much!


Weil, S. Attention and Will in Simone Weil: An Anthology compiled by Siân Miles, 2005, Penguin Books. First published by Virago Press in 1986.  

Simone Weil, “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God,” in Simone Weil, Waiting for God, 2009, Harper Collins

6 thoughts on “Simone Weil – some brief notes

  1. x28 June 17, 2021 / 3:00 pm

    This is a very interesting post, thank you! As far as I understand her idea of attention, it is without intentionality and aboutness, and it is very similar to one of McGilchrist’s ‘ways of attending’ — although he himself does not suggest that.

  2. jennymackness June 17, 2021 / 6:35 pm

    Thanks Matthias for your comment. Yes, I also recognised the similarities to McGilchrist’s ‘ways of attending’, particularly in the idea of attention equating to openness and receptivity, and, in McGilchrist’s terms, seeing the broader picture. I looked to see whether McGilchrist makes any reference to Weil in his book, but he doesn’t, although he does write about empathising with the ‘other’.

  3. Lisa M Lane June 18, 2021 / 1:45 am

    Fascinating. Her idea of attention seems more like meditation, and although I can see that as a helpful attitude to learning in general, I am having trouble reconciling it with the focus required for serious reading of a particular subject.

    I do think that if she was so intent on living out her philosophy, she shouldn’t have been upset at the focus on her life, but maybe I’m misunderstanding.

  4. jennymackness June 18, 2021 / 5:03 pm

    Hi Lisa. I think Weil’s notion of attention being the same thing as prayer aligns with your idea about meditation.

    Interesting that you should mention reading. Simone Weil did write an ‘Essay on the Notion of Reading’. I haven’t read this yet, but I suspect she interprets reading differently. I must read that essay 🙂 So much to read – never enough time!

    She was intent on living out her philosophy, but she did write an enormous amount and I have heard her described as a polymath, so she wrote on a wide variety of subjects. But she definitely didn’t fit the mould of society at the time.

  5. richardbategmxcom June 20, 2021 / 4:20 pm

    Interesting. Weil sounds great

    Sent using the mobile mail app

  6. jennymackness June 20, 2021 / 5:18 pm

    Thanks Rick. We must discuss when we see you in August 🙂

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