Weil, Simone (1909–43)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DD070-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved February 20, 2019, from

1. Being in the world

Born in Paris in 1909, Weil studied at the Lycée Henri IV and the École Normale Supérieure. Her career as a schoolteacher was interrupted by a year of manual work in a factory and a brief and disastrous spell as a volunteer in the Spanish Civil War. Ill-health obliged her to resign from full-time work, and, after living with her parents for a time (and working on the land in Southern France after the German occupation), she joined them in emigrating to New York in 1942. By the end of that year, however, she was in London, working for the Free French. Overwork, a lung infection and the refusal to eat more than the current level of rationing in France led to a collapse in the spring of 1943. In hospital, she refused food and resisted medical help, and, because of this, her death in August 1943 was recorded as suicide. Some of the most significant of her notebooks are from the period in the South of France (1940–2) and the months in New York and London: they show very clearly the effects upon her thinking of a profound experience of religious conversion in 1938, but continue to develop themes that she had begun to explore almost a decade earlier.

Her earliest published work, from her time at the École Normale, was much influenced by her lycée teacher Alain (Émile Chartier), an eccentric and charismatic thinker who stressed the radical freedom of the will and the intimate connection of will and intelligence: mental action is an indivisible whole, a moral self-location in response to the experience of the body’s life in the world. Weil’s early work applies this perspective to the question of labour: work is the antithesis to the immediacy of thought, because it demands that we engage in actions we do not want to perform in order to realize the goal we do want. Such actions have no intrinsic relation to the mind’s movement towards its goal; but the pure freedom of thought and will has to be activated in the concrete world by mediation and indirectness. Work is thus a paradigm of all she would later designate as necessity – that which imposes itself on mind. Yet without the primitive mental act meeting frustration in this way, there would be no conceptuality of the world as extended in time and space, no way of talking about objects or about duration (what intervenes between desire and realization).

We form concepts as we form ‘strategies’ for getting what we want. Our concepts are neither Platonic givens nor abstractions from sensation, but more like compact sets of instructions for negotiating obstacles. They are – as Weil’s early Lectures on Philosophy put it – the product of ‘a sort of dance’, the body learning its way around in a world where realization is not contemporary with desire. And what we call ‘reality’ is thus neither purely given nor self-constructed but, as she says in a late fragment, ‘a certain relationship to what is given’. This relationship is charged with ambiguity. At the simplest level, the body learns to interpret situations in a way that is more or less instantaneous: it ‘reads’ what has to be done (as promptly as we interpret marks on paper as words). But reading becomes more complex as we reflect on it, and the imagination intrudes – a faculty which for Weil is always morally shady. Imagination pulls apart the direct relationship of embodied thought to the surrounding obstacles, denying the character of these obstacles, seeking to avoid the suffering of real work, offering ersatz gratifications for our desires. This is specially acute in our relations to other subjects: slavery is the imposition of my (imaginative) reading of another person upon their reality (their actual relation to me). So being in the world as a moral subject, wanting the truth, wanting to live in appropriate relation to the given, requires a fierce assault on the imagination, so that we may be returned to a direct confrontation with necessity.

Citing this article:
Williams, Rowan. Being in the world. Weil, Simone (1909–43), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DD070-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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