Simone Weil’s Radical Conception of Attention
Robert Zaretsky on the Philosophy of Negative Effort
“Everyone knows what attention is,” William James famously declared in his Principles of Psychology. For those who are not “everyone,” James goes on to explain that attention is the “taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. Focalization, concentration, of consciousness is of its essence. It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others.”
Though she agrees with James’s insistence that attention both engages the mind and entails a kind of withdrawal, Weil would have taken issue with the claim that attention requires the mind’s concentration—tensing, really—on a specific issue. For Weil, this kind of mental tautness is, in fact, inimical to true attention. In Weil’s role as a teacher, we catch glimpses of what she understood by attention. For example, Anne Reynaud, one of her students at Roanne in 1933, recalled that Weil would take the class outdoors and gather them under a tall cedar tree where they would together “seek problems in geometry.” The phrase is telling: rather than “finding the answer,” the students instead looked for problems. Reflecting upon a problem, rather than resolving it, was Weil’s goal. No less telling is Reynaud’s recollection that Weil never dictated to the students during her lectures, just as she always refused to give them grades. These habits were bred not from indifference, but instead from a radically different conception of attention.
While waiting with her parents in Marseille for their visas to the United States, Weil presented her ideas about the teaching of attention to Joseph-Marie Perrin. In the late spring of 1941, Weil had contacted this nearly blind Dominican priest in order to discuss the possibility of converting to Catholicism. Perrin readily agreed to a meeting, which took place on June 7, 1941, at the Dominican convent in Marseille. Between then and the following May, when she left with her parents for New York, Weil met several more times with Perrin, mostly discussing the theological and dogmatic issues that, for Weil, stood in the way of her conversion. (They almost certainly never discussed their respective participation in Resistance activities.
Under Perrin’s guidance, the convent became a safe house for Resistance fighters and French and foreign Jews, while at the same time he oversaw the dissemination of the clandestine journal Les Cahiers du témoignage chrétien.) The conversations between these two friends also unfolded, in sporadic fashion, through the exchange of letters before and after Weil’s departure. In the opening lines of her first letter, Weil set the tone: “I am tired of talking to you about myself, for it is a wretched subject, but I am obliged to do so by the interest you take in me as a result of your charity.”
Shortly before leaving Marseille, Weil sent Perrin an essay titled “Réflexions sur le bon usage des études scolaires en vue de l’amour de Dieu” (“Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God”). By “view,” Weil means attention—the one skill all schools should cultivate in their students. But we need to attend to her understanding of the term. Normally, when we pay attention to someone or something, we undertake what Weil calls a “muscular effort”: our eyes lock on another’s eyes, our expressions reflect the proper response, and our bodies shift in relation to the object to which we are paying attention. This kind of attention flourishes in therapists’ offices, business schools, and funeral homes. It is a performative rather than reflective act, one that displays rather than truly pays attention. This sort of attention is usually accompanied by a kind of frowning application—the very same sort, as Weil notes, that leads us to a self-congratulatory “I have worked well!”
For Weil, attention is a “negative effort,” one that requires that we stand still rather than lean in. The object of this kind of attention could be mathematical or textual, a matter of grasping a puzzle posed by Euclid or one posed by Racine. Whether we do solve the problem, argues Weil, is secondary. The going is as important as the getting there, if not even more so. “It does not even matter much whether we succeed in finding the solution or understanding the proof, although it is important to try really hard to do so. Never in any case whatever is a genuine effort of the attention wasted.” Scorning practices like memorization and dictation that impose the “right answers” upon students, she acknowledges that the practices she wished to instill in students were alien to schools in her own day (and they remain alien to most schools in our own day). “Although people seem to be unaware of it today,” she declares, “the development of the faculty of attention forms the real object and almost the sole interest of studies… All tasks that call upon the power of attention are interesting for the same reasons and to an almost equal degree.”
Is it really as simple, though, as saying that it is the going, and not the getting there, that counts? For Weil this could be deeply misleading. First, she gives this notion a particular twist: by embracing the going and not the getting there, we will ultimately get to somewhere more important than the original destination. Even should we fail to solve a geometry problem at the end of an hour, we will nevertheless have penetrated into what Weil calls “another more mysterious dimension.” This dimension is moral: it is the space where, by our act of attention, we grasp what has always been the real mystery—the lives of our fellow human beings.
Weil argues that this activity has little to do with the sort of effort most of us make when we think we are paying attention. Rather than the contracting of our muscles, attention involves the canceling of our desires; by turning toward another, we turn away from our blinding and bulimic self. The suspension of our thought, Weil declares, leaves us “detached, empty, and ready to be penetrated by the object.” To attend means not to seek, but to wait; not to concentrate, but instead to dilate our minds. We do not gain insights, Weil claims, by going in search of them, but instead by waiting for them: “In every school exercise there is a special way of waiting upon truth, setting our hearts upon it, yet not allowing ourselves to go out in search of it… There is a way of waiting, when we are writing, for the right word to come of itself at the end of our pen, while we merely reject all inadequate words.”
This is a supremely difficult stance to grasp. As Weil notes, “the capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle. Nearly all those who think they have this capacity do not possess it.” I, for one, know I do not possess it, not only because it collides with the way I think about thought, but also because it collides with the fact that I can rarely, if ever, think about anything or anyone else without also thinking about myself. To attend to a fellow human being entails far more than thinking about or even feeling for that person. Pity, like cognition, involves reaching toward another by acknowledging her suffering. In this respect, my faculty of sympathy fixes on someone else just as my faculty of thought does. And once it does, it most often compartmentalizes and forgets that person. As Weil notes, pity is unlike compassion in that “it consists in helping someone in misfortune so as not to be obliged to think about him anymore, or for the pleasure of feeling the distance between him and oneself.”
Compassion, in contrast, means that I identify with the afflicted individual so fully that I feed him for the same reason I feed myself: because we are both hungry. In other words, I have paid him attention. It is a faculty that does not latch onto the other, but instead remains still and open. We do not fully understand a hammer, Martin Heidegger observed, simply by staring at it. Instead, understanding comes when we pick it up and use it. Weil gives this observation an unusual wrinkle: we do not fully understand a fellow human being by staring, thinking, or even commiserating with her. Instead, understanding comes only when we let go of our self and allow the other to grab our full attention. In order for the reality of the other’s self to fully invest us, we must first divest ourselves of our own selves.
It is tempting to see this faculty as thinking about thinking, or what psychologists call metacognition. This approach, at first glance, bears a resemblance to the meditation and mindfulness courses that are now multiplying at colleges and universities. One institution of higher learning, Lesley University, now offers a master’s degree in mindfulness studies, while academics can join professional organizations like the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, which seeks “to transform higher education by supporting and encouraging the use of contemplative/ introspective practices and perspectives.” These programs seek to develop what the psychologist Tobin Hart describes as “knowing through silence, looking inward, pondering deeply, beholding, witnessing the contents of our consciousness.”
At first glance, this seems to be what Weil meant. Citing Descartes, she told Anne Reynaud and her fellow students that it “is one thing to be conscious, quite another to be conscious that one is.” But the resemblance ends here. Weil’s philosophical stance does not call upon her students to look inward and consider the contents of their consciousness. To the contrary, Weil urges them to look outward and away from the contents of their consciousness. Being conscious of our consciousness is a starting point, not an end point, meta- or otherwise. “Complete attention,” Weil declared, “is like unconsciousness.” As such, it is a state that does not entail a particular action or stance, but instead suggests a form of reception, open and nonjudgmental, of the world. In a beautifully evocative phrase, Weil writes that when we translate a text from a foreign language into our own, we rightly do not seek to add anything to it. Ideally, this is how the student must approach the world. She must see and write about it as if she is translating “a text that is not written down.” In an age where students cannot escape their social media shadows, this is less a Zen riddle than a pedagogical urgency.
Such a state is difficult to reach, much less to grade. Reynaud would not have been surprised to learn of her former teacher’s exhortation, made several years later, that students must “work without any wish to gain good marks, to pass examinations, to win school successes; without any reference to their natural abilities and tastes; applying themselves equally to all their tasks, with the idea that each one will help to form in them the habit of attention.” One might as well flunk a new student of basketball who, though absorbed by the exercise, fails to hit the rim with his shots. “Every time that a human being succeeds in making an effort of attention with the sole idea of increasing his grasp of truth, he acquires a greater aptitude for grasping it, even if his effort produces no visible fruit.”
Weil’s portrayal of attention has been said to resemble the vita contemplative traditionally associated with ancient thinkers from Plato to Augustine. But the resemblance is potentially misleading, if only because we usually assume the contemplative life is the same as a passive life—a life in which the highest good seems to entail the abandonment of practical engagement in the world. But Weilian attention leads its practitioner precisely back into the thick of the world. Paying attention to others means that I must acknowledge and respect their reality. As we belong to the same world and are equally vulnerable to the crushing reality of force, I reorient my attention to them and away from myself. Peter Winch memorably captured this condition: “I cannot understand the other’s affliction from the point of view of my own privileged position; I have rather to understand myself from the standpoint of the other’s affliction, to understand that my privileged position is not part of my essential nature, but an accident of fate.”
Reprinted with permission from The Subversive Simone Weil: A Life in Five Ideas by Robert Zaretsky, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2021 by Robert Zaretsky. All rights reserved.