French philosopher and activist who took a very pragmatic and grounded yet radical approach to her philosophy.
Attention and epistemology
The way which you direct your attention (i.e. your way of attending to the world) drastically influences how you experience the world. Weil went a step further and believed that your attention dictates which experiences are even possible to experience.
Specifically, Weil called for a sort of ‘negative effort’ toward attention: one which removes the I from the experience and is receptive to all the possible experiences of the world.
“Our thought should be in relation to all particular and already formulated thoughts, as a man on a mountain, who, as he looks forward, sees also below him, without actually looking at them, a great many forests and plains. Above all our thought should be empty, waiting, not seeking anything, but ready to receive in its naked truth the object that is to penetrate it.”
She held an intersubjective epistemology, believing that knowing the truth requires not extending one’s own limited perspective, but suspending or abandoning it such that reality—including the reality of the existence of others—could appear on its own terms.
It is an attitude that is more detached from expectations, more open, more receptive but at the same time, it doesn’t ignore the knowledge that you’ve already gained in a particular area, it just doesn’t makes sure you’re not chained to that knowledge unable to move. In a way, it’s a method of intellectual playfulness that avoids epistemic traps.
Intellectual playfulness, loosely, is the disposition to try out new ideas, perspectives and systems of thought (involves perspective shifting) for the sheer joy of it (autotelic behaviour). It is a disposition to explore ideas for the value of exploration itself.Link to original
To Simone Weil, having this form of neutral attention allows us to have much more lucidity in our thought, something that she saw as one of our most important responsibilities.
“[Lucidity] does away with insatiable desire and vain fears; from this and not from anything else proceed moderation and courage, virtues without which life is nothing but a disgraceful frenzy.”
After finishing her time in school, she had realized that our education systems were at least in part responsible for how students were being taught about how to pay attention around them in a narrow way and became a teacher.
She wanted to teach in a way that didn’t limit the way students oriented themselves towards problems, noting that most education systems fixate students to an agenda where they are always searching for a singular right answer to the problem.
The hardest job of teaching, Simone Weil thought, was to shake people out of this collectivist way of thinking where, they’ve already decided what their positions are, and now it’s not about thinking so much anymore as it is about defending their answer, their viewpoint, again all the obviously wrong answers and perspectives.
“The great human error is to reason in place of finding out”
Will vs Attention
The will is mostly good at performing physical stuff. It’s a great tool to use if your goal in life is that want to increase your max deadlift weight. It’s a great tool if you want to sit in an ice bath or any uncomfortable situation and endure things for as long as you can. If you’re a writer… the will is great at getting you to sit down and put pen to paper and to start doing the work.
But there are certain things that strength of the will can’t get you closer to. For example, if you’re a writer…you can’t will yourself to something like creativity. You can force yourself to move the pencil up and down on the piece of paper but if every word you write is completely uninspired, writing another 2000 words isn’t going to change it. See also: self-effacing ends
Simone Weil thought by the end of her life that instead of cultivating pure willpower, cultivating attention was usually a much better way of transforming yourself.
The will is an amazing tool at doing some stuff, but the point she’s making is that if all you ever worked on when developing yourself in this life was will and discipline and you didn’t practice this cultivation of attention at all, then when you’re in a situation where you need something like inspiration or moral clarity or an openness to the truth what can you do in that spot? Pure willpower is the wrong tool for the job.
What if instead of getting really good at forcing yourself to do things you don’t like, you got super good at reimagining the things you get no joy out of to be things, that you do get joy out of? Your life is driven instead, to Simone Weil, by a true desire, to do the thing. Your life is driven by joy, rather than self-denial.