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.