A Review of Simone Weil: Attention to the Real


Mark Shiffman reviews Robert Chenavier's Simone Weil: Attention to the Real, in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews:

Robert Chenavier's comprehensive and judicious précis of Simone Weil's thought is the fruit of years as a student and editor of Weil's oeuvre, as president of the French Weil Society and editor of the journal devoted entirely to her thought. A testimony to the very loving attention that is its theme, Attention to the Real is, by the same token, an almost entirely uncritical intellectual and spiritual hagiography — but one that is sufficiently lucid to provide the critical reader with the outlines of Weil's thought required for fruitful engagement.

The introduction identifies and situates Weil's central philosophical objective: “to reduce the opposition between a Plato whose theory of knowledge would have integrated the domain of work and a Marx who would have developed the most precious elements of his materialism by preserving the reality of the supernatural.” For Weil, work, as an engagement of the body and soul with the necessities and limits of matter, plays a crucial role in bringing us to a truthful encounter with the real. It is one dimension of an orientation toward encountering the real on all its levels, including that which surpasses our grasp while it draws us to itself: the supernatural. This sketch provides the itinerary for the subsequent chapters: (1) an overview of Weil's life, emphasizing her engagements with reality on its different levels; (2) an examination of her early philosophical studies and efforts to assess the real possibilities for labor reform; (3) the terms of Weil's attempt to surpass Marxist thought “from within”; (4) Weil's religious awakening and its consequences for her understanding of the ultimate reality that must be the reference point of a genuine humanism; (5) the various paths by which we must open our lives to this ultimate reality.

Weil's early engagement with the labor movement and socialist groups impels her in 1932 (at the age of 23) to travel to Germany to see for herself what the realities on the ground presage for the dreams of a workers' revolution. The vitriolic reaction of French socialists to her sober and pessimistic assessment, and subsequently to her honest, lucid critique of the Soviet government, reveals how determined the leaders of the labor movement are to remain wrapped in illusion. To gain the clarity they lack about the real challenges to reform, she goes to work in a factory, where she learns that the very character of the labor demanded is dehumanizing and deadening.