Paying Attention with Simone Weil.
Well known, at least among those who study Weil (perhaps a few thousand), is her concept of attention. Less well known is the way in which Iris Murdoch, Oxford don and novelist, adapted the term. The idea is a good one, but Weil gets it mixed up with self-denial, her desire to be nothing more than “a certain intersection of nature and God.” (Love of God, pp 462-463)
For Weil, attention (attention) means to suspend thinking, leaving one’s mind detached, empty, ready to be entered by the other. Attention means not always trying to know, not categorizing, but waiting, as though the other could participate in forming the idea we have of it. “Attention is the highest and purest form of generosity.” Attention is the opposite of a thought that has seized upon some idea too hastily, and thinks it knows (Weil, Reflections, pp 48-49). For Weil, attention requires self-emptying. In attention,
the soul empties itself of all its contents in order to receive into itself the being it is looking at, just as he is, in all its truth. (Reflections, p 51)
Weil is mistaken. I have no other way of knowing an other’s suffering (or joy) except by trying to find comparable experiences in myself. It’s the only way we can know: to be open but not empty. I know others not by knowing myself, but by feeling myself resonating with the experiences of others. The more in touch with my feelings, the better I can experience the feelings of others.
The term “attention” was adapted and adopted by Iris Murdoch, who was deeply influenced by Weil, more so than by any other woman.
The enemies of art and of morals, that is the enemies of love, are the same: social convention and neurosis.
With the term neurosis, Murdoch refers to fantasies that “inflate the importance of the self and obscure the reality of others.” Convention refers to the tendency of the individual to become “sunk in a social whole which we allow uncritically to determine our reactions, or because we see each other exclusively as so determined.” (Sublime, p 216)
Both obscure our vision of the particular other, what Murdoch calls “attention,” a term she draws from Weil “to express the idea of a just and loving gaze directed upon an individual reality.” (Sovereignty, p 30)
Love is the perception of individuals. Love is the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real. (Sublime, p 215)
The goal is to see the other person justly, honestly, and compassionately. Doing so means moving away from universality and principles, and toward increasing depth, privacy, and particularity. “The central concept of morality,” says Murdoch, “is `the individual’ thought of as knowable by love” (Sovereignty, p 30). That’s attention.
Is Murdoch just borrowing a term from Weil, or is she borrowing a way of thinking? For Weil, attention is preparation for an encounter with God. For Murdoch, attention is the way we open ourselves to the experiences of other humans. But perhaps these are not so different after all. In the legend of the Holy Grail, the vessel belongs to the seeker who first asks its guardian, a king paralyzed by a painful wound, “What are you going through?” (Weil, Reflections, p 51) That’s paying attention. Attention turns us from ourselves, opening us to the experiences of other people. Attention is love.
But what kind of love? Surely not eros, which loves the other for the pleasure he or she brings. The Latin caritas seems the best way to think about attention as love. Defined as affection, love, or esteem, the term connotes the value of the object loved rather than the intensity of desire.
An attitude of caritas toward the particulars of this world, what Weil and Murdoch call attention, is one that renders this world sacred, holy, not in the sense that it belongs to God, but in the sense that humans become capable of taking their everyday experiences with the things and people of this world and lifting them out of the mundane by an act of attention, or lucid concentration. In doing so, everyday experiences become for a moment numinous, set apart and special, worthy of our wonder and our awe. Paying attention renders the world we live in sacred, holy, ablaze with meaning.
And what about Weil?
And what about Weil? In many respects she is admirable. “There should not be the slightest discrepancy between one’s philosophy and way of life,” she once said, and she tried her hardest, working in factories, fighting in the Spanish Civil War, eating no more than the ration she believed people in occupied France received, refusing to heat her apartment because the workers she taught could not afford to heat theirs. Though she never formally converted to Catholicism, she was in many respects a saint. But like many saints, she seemed more interested in the suffering of others in general, rather than particular people. In other words, she paid more attention to the experience of suffering than the people who suffer, which is really not attention at all.
PS, I started my series of posts on Weil because I admire her. But as I come to the conclusion of each post, I end up thinking she got it wrong. Not completely, but fundamentally. More in the next post about her social theory. There I think she got it right.
Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good. Routledge, 1970.
Iris Murdoch, The sublime and the good, in Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature, 205-220. Edited by Peter Conradi. Penguin Books, 1999.
Simone Weil, Reflections on the right use of school studies with a view to the love of God, in The Simone Weil Reader, 44-52. Edited by George Panichas. Moyer Bell, 1977.
Weil, Simone. The love of God and affliction, in The Simone Weil Reader, 439-468. Edited by George Panichas. Moyer Bell, 1977.