Simone Weil for the Twenty-First Century presents a comprehensive analysis of Weil’s interdisciplinary thought, focusing especially on the depth of its challenge to contemporary philosophical and religious studies. In a world where little is seen to have real meaning, Eric O. Springsted presents a critique of the unfocused nature of postmodern philosophy and argues that Weil’s thought is more significant than ever in showing how the world in which we live is, in fact, a world of mysteries.
From Chapter One: A Thoughtful Life
When I first encountered Simone Weil some forty plus years ago, the public and scholarly recognition and reception of her was very different than it is now. For one thing, there was not a lot of secondary literature on her. What there was chiefly centered on her extraordinary life. People knew of her year of working in a factory, her participation in workers’ and social causes and also her death. Some thought it heroic, others saw it as madness. Everybody had an opinion about whether she was a saint, or a seriously disturbed young woman, or a Manichaean, or a terrible example for feminists, or a self-hating Jew. There wasn’t really a lot that looked deeply at her thought, though. What there was tended to look for confirmation of already held suspicions, positive and negative, about her life. She would have been disturbed by this. She herself wrote that she hoped that people would not ignore her thought because of the inadequate vessel in which it was carried.
At the time I largely concurred. Work needed to be done on what she thought. It was profound and coherent. The life of a philosopher shouldn’t overshadow her thought as was happening with her. So, with respect to her thinking, I more or less tended to hold to Heidegger’s oft quoted lack of interest in philosophical biographies. Notably, he opened a lecture series on Aristotle with this as the sum total of Aristotle’s biography: “he was born at such and such a time, he worked, and he died.” I am of a somewhat different mind now. Why I am certainly has something to do with being suspicious about Heidegger’s biography, even though I think it is a mistake to see it as nothing but a full and direct reflection of his colossal self-absorption or his acceptance of National Socialism. You can find both in what he wrote, but that isn’t really the biggest problem that has bothered me about him. What concerns me is how his failure to be interested in biography, or character and moral responsibility to be more precise, says something about what and how he thought philosophically and hence how he lived. It is in such a way that I think it is worth looking at Weil’s thought and its connection with life once again and saying something about that connection in the beginning of a book on her thought. She may have not wanted to have people look at her life instead of her thought, but her thought had a lot to do with thinking about value and character. Even if she felt herself inadequate, in a phrase borrowed from the American philosopher Stanley Cavell, she saw a need to write better than she was. It is worth asking what kind of thinker is like this and what she has to offer.
There are situational reasons for asking this now, too. Intellectual work on Weil’s thought has progressed. In the seventy five plus years since her death, she has remained a constant fixture in the constellation of eminent Twentieth century thinkers. No chair in any university is dedicated to her (perhaps to her credit), yet she is regularly cited, usually favorably and with admiration within scholarly and intellectual circles. She is admired by thinkers of depth. Her ideas over the course of nearly eighty years since her death have provoked the sort of thinking that she thought needs to be provoked. For younger thinkers, there are not now many like her to look to. But at the same time, I sometimes wonder if her thought has somehow become disembodied along the way. This is a reversal of early scholarly writing on her. If this has happened, I want to suggest that it has happened in a couple of ways. One, is that there may be a certain failure any longer to be struck with her life, or to understand it at the same time that one is using her thought. People like Weil have become increasingly rare, and how to deal with them has become more and more baffling. Perhaps more to the point are her often absolute claims, and her willingness to stake her life on them.