Today is the 113th anniversary of the birth of Simone Weil (03 February 1909 — 24 August 1943), who was born on this date in 1909. Weil lived a short life and died at the age of 34 in 1943.
It is probably the case that the work of any philosopher who did not explicitly write on the philosophy of history could be adapted to treat the problems of philosophy of history, or to maintain a position that is relevant to philosophy of history. An argument could be made for this. Collingwood, for example, wrote that philosophy was concerned with the universal and necessary characteristics of things, while science was concerned with the particular and contingent characteristics of things. As Collingwood put it:
“When we speak of the philosophy of art, the philosophy of religion, the philosophy of history, and so forth, either we are abusing language and confusing our minds, or else we are suggesting that art or religion or history is somehow a universal and necessary characteristic of things, not merely a particular and contingent characteristic of a certain group of things.”
Following Collingwood, we could argue that a philosopher who has something of significance to say about one universal and necessary characteristic of the world, by implication also has something to say about other universal and necessary characteristics of the world, so that a philosophy of art suggests a philosophy of religion, a philosophy of religion suggests a philosophy of history, and so on. In this sense, even if not in any other sense, Weil was a philosopher of history, and certainly elements of her thought are readily adapted to philosophy of history.
Some years ago I wrote a few blog posts about Weil — Experiencing Affliction, A Note on Human Freedom, and Weil and McCandless: Another Parallel — which had been partially inspired by having listened to a biography of Weil, which made me aware of some amusing incidents, such as the following. Simone de Beauvoir met Simone Weil on a single occasion, and described the meeting in her Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter:
“She intrigued me because of her great reputation for intelligence and her bizarre outfits… I managed to get near her one day. I don’t know how the conversation got started. She said in piercing tones that only one thing mattered these days: the revolution that would feed all the starving people on the earth. I retorted, no less adamantly, that the problem was not to make men happy, but to help them find a meaning in their existence. She glared at me and said, ‘It’s clear you’ve never gone hungry.’ Our relations ended right there. I realized she had classified me as a high-minded little bourgeoise, and I was angry.”
Weil was a committed Marxist revolutionary in her youth, and later converted from Judaism to become a committed Christian (though she was not baptized, due to differences with the institutionalized church). She also studied at the renowned École Normale Supérieure, but got a job in a factory doing manual labor, and after went to fight in Spain during the civil war. (Her life was short, but certainly not without event.) Weil’s factory journal makes for interesting reading. She was among the few of this ideological persuasion to not only talk the talk, but also to walk the walk. Here is her description of how exhausted the work left her feeling:
“The effect of exhaustion is to make me forget my real reasons for spending time in the factory, and to make it almost impossible for me to overcome the strongest temptation that this life entails: that of not thinking anymore, which is the one and only way of not suffering from it. It’s only on Saturday afternoon and Sunday that a few memories and shreds of ideas return to me, and I remember that I am also a thinking being. The terror that takes hold of me when I realize how dependent I am on external circumstances: all that would be needed is for circumstances someday to force me to work at a job without a weekly rest — which after all is always possible — and I would become a beast of burden, docile and resigned (at least for me). Only the feeling of brotherhood, and outrage in the face of injustices inflicted on others, remain intact — but how long would all that last? I am almost ready to conclude that the salvation of a worker’s soul depends primarily on his physical constitution. I don’t see how those who are not physically strong can avoid falling into some form of despair, drunkenness, or vagabondage, or crime, or debauchery, or simply (and far more often) brutishness — (and religion ? ).” (Formative Writings, p. 171)
Palle Yourgrau has written an essay on Weil’s conception of history, Against History: A Lesson from Simone Weil, Weil said progress is a myth. Should we listen? in which Yourgrau employs several pointed quotes from Weil to summarize her conception of history:
“‘Everything that is threatened by time,’ wrote the mystical, Christian-Platonist French philosopher Simone Weil in Gravity and Grace, ‘secretes falsehoods in order not to die.’ What, one must ask, is the source of this fetishism of history, and more generally, of the march of time? One source, clearly, is the idea of progress. And where did this idea come from? ‘Christianity,’ said Weil in her Letter to a Priest, ‘was responsible for bringing [us] this notion of progress… and this notion has become the bane of the world.’ Why the bane of the world? Because ‘there is no reason to establish any connection between the degree of perfection and chronological sequence.’ Worse, as she put it in her late book, The Need for Roots, written as she languished in London toward the end of WWII, disgusted by the Free French for whom she agreed to write the book: ‘History is a tissue of base and cruel acts in the midst of which a few drops of purity sparkle at long intervals.’ But as a Christian, didn’t Weil think history forever changed after the ministry of Christ? No. ‘The content of Christianity existed before Christ,’ she said in Letter to a Priest, for ‘if the Redemption … had not been present on earth from the very beginning, it would not be possible to pardon God.’ Indeed ‘since [Christ’s] day there have been no very noticeable changes in men’s behaviour’.”
The critique of the idea of progress has played a role in modernity perhaps second only to the idea of progress itself — like the dialectic between liberty and equality, the dialectic of progress and eternity is a fundamental conflict within the Enlightenment paradigm, but it reaches farther than the dialectic of liberty and equality, because it reaches outside and beyond the Enlightenment paradigm.
Here is a passage from Weil in which she gives her diagnosis of the feeling of crisis in modern European history — a feeling of crisis that was expressed in almost all philosophers of history in the twentieth century:
“Our era is not the first in history in which the dominant feeling is distress, anxiety, a sense of waiting for one knows not what, nor the first in which men feel they have the painful privilege of being a generation destined for an exceptional fate. Since history is past and exists only on paper, it is easy to entertain the illusion that all previous periods were peaceful compared to the one in which we are now living, just as twenty-year-old adolescents always feel they are the first to have ever experienced the anxieties of youth. Nevertheless, one can say with no fear of exaggeration that the part of humanity in our little corner of Europe that has ruled the world for so long is going through a profound and serious crisis. The great hopes inherited from the three preceding centuries, especially from the last — hopes of a progressive spread of enlightenment, of general well-being, of democracy, of peace — are rapidly crumbling. That would not be so serious if it were simply a matter of a disillusionment affecting certain intellectual circles, or certain spheres particularly taken up with political and social problems. But the conditions under which we live are such that the distress touches and taints every aspect of men’s lives, every source of action, hope, and happiness. Private life, in its daily course, is less and less separated from public life, and this is the case in every sphere. There have previously been times in history when great collective outbursts temporarily reduced private life to insignificance; today, however, it is the enduring conditions of our existence that prevent us from finding in daily life any moral resources that are independent of the political and social situation.”
The conception of history represented by this passage is not the complete rejection of history found in the quotes used by Yourgrau, since historical crisis is an historical category, and if this is a meaningful category for human beings, then the human condition is inevitably and unavoidably an historical condition. But it could just as well be argued that the sense of crisis, three centuries into modernity, is a warning to anyone who would invest their faith in modernity.
Bennett Gilbert wrote a paper on “Simone Weil’s Philosophy of History” (this paper was my spur to including Weil in this series of profiles of philosophers of history), in which he further brings out Weil’s rejection of historicity:
“Weil was continuously and passionately concerned with theorizing the state of humankind following the revolutionary changes of the period c. 1790–1820 in Europe, focusing on the adjustment of relations among people consequent to the Industrial Revolution. In this regard she in part attuned herself to understanding what became the consciousness that is the central object of a lot of recent philosophy of history: the relation to ourselves transformed into history by the invention of history. She saw catastrophe rising from this regime of historicity. Having addressed crucial issues in the historical and temporal constitution of the human situation in modernity, she shares a large ground with theorists today who have the added benefit of looking back over modernity from the current stage of its decomposition.”
Weil rejected historicity as decidedly as John Lukacs embraced historicity. In this sense, Weil represents a non-philosophy of history, like Karl Löwith, whose work I earlier characterized as a non-philosophy of history. But while Löwith seems to reject philosophy of history, Weil rejects history itself, constituting a more profound rejection of the world in favor of something that transcends the world.
Gilbert, B. (2019). Simone Weil’s Philosophy of History. Journal of the Philosophy of History, 13(1), 66–85. doi:10.1163/18722636–12341367