Philosophy Simone Weil
by
David Levy
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0230

Introduction

Simone Weil (b. 1909) was a French writer, thinker, and activist who left a corpus of disparate writings that collectively present a sophisticated challenge to contemporary politics and philosophy. She died, aged thirty-four, in 1943. She was born into an affluent life in Paris. As a schoolgirl, she declared her solidarity with the Communist Left. Weil was high-achieving while receiving the best education France could offer in languages, classics, and philosophy. She taught philosophy in French secondary schools for a few years while also active in labor movements and political events, such as the Spanish Civil War. She left France in 1942 after the German occupation. Weil was known in some intellectual circles through essays she published in magazines. When notes on Christian spirituality written toward the end of her life were posthumously published, her profile rose. Her writings influenced those within the church, e.g., Pope Paul VI, and those outside the church, such as T. S. Eliot and Albert Camus. Interest in her spiritual writings has remained constant. Weil trained as a philosopher and her thinking never fails to betray a philosopher’s pursuit of clarity. Her philosophical writing elicited a modest but steady interest among intellectuals and philosophers, notably Iris Murdoch. Weil’s thinking, once distinguished from her biography, is powerful because it is at odds with prevailing culture—academic, political, and mainstream—and offers original concepts to organize human nature. Weil is a Platonist about the intellect, the good, and metaphysics. Weil was not a Marxist, but she valued the unique insights into social materialism she attributed to Marx in relation to social materialism. She was against the elevation of rights as ultimate recognitions of human dignity or an ethical emphasis on the unique individuality of each person. Weil is notable for offering philosophies of work, suffering, and love. Her philosophical elaboration of the ideas of attention, affliction, gravity (as opposed to grace), force, and “decreation” are novel and disruptive of existing accounts of human nature and action. Weil’s philosophical work is deceptively systematic because Weil integrates three levels: the individual human thinker; the social and political context; and a higher level beyond the natural. Her later work is distinctive for combining abstract philosophical analysis with practical consideration of the political and social orders required to support the best expressions of human nature. The unity in Weil’s thinking is obscured by the disorder in the large, written output from her short life.

Introductory Texts and Biography

Weil’s work is disparate, consisting mainly of articles, manuscripts, and notebooks. This makes it difficult to grasp the larger picture of her thinking, so using an introduction can be helpful. Most introductory books include a significant amount of biography, such as Yourgrau 2011, McLellan 1990, and von der Ruhr 2006. Some focus more narrowly on a few topics in Weil’s thought, such as Chenavier 2012, Little 1988, and Hellman 1982, while Rozelle-Stone and Davis 2018 is broad and synoptic. Pétrement 1989 is the best biography by Weil’s friend and contemporary, though Perrin and Thibon 2003 and Nevin 1991 offer interesting contrastive biographical perspectives.

  • Chenavier, Robert. Simone Weil: Attention to the Real. Translated by Bernard E. Doering. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2012

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    Chenavier is unusually expert in all of Weil’s writings and gives particular emphasis to the role she gave to the idea of work. This is short but penetrating.

  • Hellman, John. Simone Weil: An Introduction to Her Thought. Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1982.

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    This book is unusual in addressing the political dimension of Weil’s thought by comparison with Weil’s historical and religious interests.

  • Little, J. P. Simone Weil: Waiting on Truth. Oxford: Berg, 1988.

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    This short book by Little is informed by exceptional familiarity with Weil’s writing, which is synthesized into a few chapters each of which addresses a key aspect of Weil’s work while indicating the unity of her work.

  • McLellan, David. Utopian Pessimist: The Life and Thought of Simone Weil. New York: Poseidon Press, 1990.

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    McLellan’s book brings out the political dimension in Weil’s life and thought with a critical sympathy. He highlights the importance of her late essay on human personality.

  • Nevin, Thomas R. Simone Weil: Portrait of a Self-Exiled Jew. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.

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    The question of the place of Weil’s Jewish background is recurrent and this is a serious attempt to answer that question, even though aspects of it have been superseded by subsequent authors.

  • Perrin, J. M., and G. Thibon. Simone Weil as We Knew Her. New York: Routledge, 2003.

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    There is a hagiographic aspect to these reports of the authors’ friendships with Weil, but their perspectives on a critical period in her life and the development of her thought are invaluable.

  • Pétrement, Simone. Simone Weil: A Life. Translated by Raymond Rosenthal. New York: Schocken Books, 1989.

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    There are other biographies, but this is the best informed and least judgmental.

  • Rozelle-Stone, A. Rebecca, and Benjamin P. Davis. “Simone Weil.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2018.

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    This entry has the virtue of presenting Weil’s work through the philosophical concepts she developed, thus making comparisons with other, academic formulations of philosophy more straightforward.

  • Von der Ruhr, Mario. Simone Weil: An Apprenticeship in Attention. London: Continuum, 2006.

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    Von der Ruhr’s biographical treatment aims to be comprehensive, though it gives special attention to the centrality of Weil’s idea of attention.

  • Yourgrau, Palle. Simone Weil. London: Reaktion, 2011.

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    This is dense with detail on her ideas and their development, thereby offering a thorough return on time spent.

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