The Just Balance, Chapter Two

Winch’s book follows the development of Simone Weil’s thought as a philosopher over the course of her life. This is not an idiosyncratic approach: Weil was trained as an academic philosopher and supported herself in part by teaching philosophy throughout her adult life. But the carefulness of thought and logical precision philosophy calls for don’t always square easily with the felt reality of the divine; and much of Simone Weil’s enduring interest comes from the religious insight of her later years. Winch is very sensitive to this tension between ‘philosophy’ and ‘religion’ and indeed one of his central goals in the book is to explore that tension as he tries to elucidate Weil’s thought.

Chapter Two deals with her student dissertation and other early writings on Descartes. Winch presents Weil as here starting along the path of a far-reaching critique of Descartes’ thought, partly conducted as a “meditation” in the Cartesian style. These are some key points of the view Weil comes to in her early transformative retracing of Descartes’ introspective journey:

  1. Instead of Je pense, donc je suis she affirms Je puis, donc je suis – “I can, therefore I am.” It is in the capability for action that we discover our own existence.
  2. Thought itself is best understood as a form of action: “Existing, thinking, knowing are merely aspects of a single reality: pouvoir.” Thought for her in this early work is something like the purest and freest ability to act that we have – as opposed to action to the body, which is subject to the contingencies of the body’s cooperation. So her formula is in one way a reaffirmation of Descartes’ famous slogan, but one which understands thought itself as a form of action, rather than as something like the faculty of representation, or as the subjective component of our experiences.
  3. Activity in general and thought as particular are always (discovered to be?) internally ordered. Winch notes: “[I]n her “Reply to a Letter from Alain,” written in 1935, [Weil] wrote that Descartes, between writing…the [Rules for the Direction of the Mind] and the Discourse on Method, somehow went off the rails. He failed to prevent the order he had discovered from becoming “a thing instead of an idea”; which is what happens, she continued, when one tries to express a series by means of a sign and thus represents it as a reality distinct from the terms that compose it.” Weil thought, or was expressing thoughts moving in the direction of the thought, that the conception of method expressed in the Rules for the Direction of the Mind, which “is concerned with establishing a proper order between elements that are in some sense already given,” but that the hypostatization or reification of such an order (“the” method, the universal framework of thinking prior to the activity of thinking), is a mistake. Winch thinks that this is partly what Weil had in mind when she wrote in an early notebook that Descartes was “much too ambitious.”

There are two things in Winch’s assessment of this view that interest me here. The first is his critique of the second point above, a critique which he thinks Simone Weil herself started to undertake shortly after the early work here under discussion. Thinking of thought as free action and bodily action as subject to contingency (hasard) is not really an adequate description of either. On the one hand, ordinary activity is not ordinarily experienced or undertaken as subject to contingency at all. When we flip a light switch or pound a nail, the possibility that the wires might short-circuit or the hammer break isn’t normally taken into account: we just do the activity assuming that the world will cooperate with our will. While it may be true that we know in some sense that these things can happen, still it is most often the case that they play no role in our activity at all: we act in a way that in some sense takes the world’s cooperation for granted, and in fact normally receives it. So our supposed boundedness by contingency only becomes a practical matter when we need to be especially careful for some reason or when the wires or hammer-handle do in fact break down in the course of our work. On the other hand, thought itself is actually much more subject to contingency than either Descartes’ or Weil’s early view of it assumes: we fail to remember things, fail to draw obvious conclusions, miscalculate, get distracted, are blinded by our prejudices, and so forth all the time, in just the same way that hammers break and wires short-circuit. So thought is perfectly free when nothing goes wrong, but then so can be bodily actions of types we have mastered; and thought can fail and be subject to hasard just as bodily action can.

The second is that Winch connects Weil even at this early stage with a broad philosophical orientation one can find in Winch’s own work, in the later Wittgenstein, and in Dewey, Kierkegaard, Marx, and Collingwood as well. This is an orientation which looks at thinking itself as an activity – something we do – and at ‘theory’ (perhaps even ‘logic’) as something which in some sense emerges out of our thinking practices, perhaps gradually restructuring them through our continued development of our thought along theoretical lines, but neither replacing them wholesale nor providing any sort of a priori framework into which our thoughts can be as it were fit prior to actually thinking them.

In her early notebooks Weil wrote: “There is no way of opening broad vistas which the mind can observe without entering them. One must enter the subject before one can see anything. This is true of speculation, even in its purest form: im Anfang war die Tat.

In terms of Winch’s discussion of Weil’s early views the road to this position runs as follows. If thinking itself is fundamentally understood as a type of activity, and if the structure of activities is conceived as in some sense internal to – emergent from? – acting, then there is a sense in which we only learn what it is to think by being initiated and guided in various already extant forms of thought. Of course we can innovate; but we get into a position to innovate only by first learning what the existing territory is like and then either forging new paths or opening up new vistas within this ‘space.’ Since the order of thought is internal to our thinking activity, yet also emergent from actually engaging our capability to think – that is, from thinking – there is no universal method or logic in the broad sense which organizes our thoughts in advance of our thinking them. Serious thought about any subject does not and can not proceed ex nihilo.

Winch defends something like this view in chapter two of The Just Balance:

Descartes’ over-ambition lay in supposing he had a method for discovering the truth of a kind which could replace, wholesale, existing methods of discovery already in use, and which would legitimate wholesale skepticism concerning the results of those existing methods. By contrast, “criticism” has to be applied to existing methods and results…We cannot reflect discriminatingly on existing given results while at the same time rejecting wholesale the existing methods of inquiry which have produced those results…because… the significance of the results can only be understood by someone with a grasp of the kind of inquiry from which they spring. Philosophy is no “pure intellectual inquiry” of the type Descartes envisaged; and there is no such thing. There are only particular inquiries the forms of which are historically shaped. Philosophers can and should reflect on the adequacy of such particular historical forms; but if they try to dispense with them all, they will necessarily lose their grip on the concept of “adequacy” in this context.

This is a very interesting passage. One way of glossing what is being said would run like this: to engage in philosophy of history, say, it’s not sufficient to reflect in some abstracted way on the subject. (“As time goes on, various events occur; these events leave physical traces; the job of the historian is to reconstruct the events that occurred using the physical traces they left.”) Rather, you need to have done at least some history, and having done this, you may be drawn to notice certain patterns of historical reasoning, certain commonalities in the sorts of things that count to historians as evidence, certain recurring types of historical narrative, and so on. If you can articulate those features in a way which illuminates the subject then you can be a good philosopher of history. And it shouldn’t really be surprising if some indifferent historians are quite good at the philosophy of history, just as some excellent historians are probably not so good at the philosophy of history. Doing something well, even something which is fundamentally a type of thinking, does not make one good at reflecting on the structure of what one is doing; and likewise some people are quite good at grasping what is going on in an activity in a general way without being particularly good at it themselves, like great batting coaches in baseball who were indifferent hitters.

This strikes me as a fair enough characterization of the “philosophy of x” subfields; but what about epistemology, ethics, and aesthetics? This question immediately brings the question of whether there is/are some ‘distinctive subject matter(s) for philosophy’ or ‘specifically philosophical domain(s) of inquiry’ in its train; and also the question of the status of the various “historically shaped particular inquiries” internal to the subject of philosophy itself.

Winch himself, like Wittgenstein, tended towards negative assessments in connection with these questions; I am not sure that is true of Weil. But in spite of that I do think that Winch does well to highlight this tendency in Weil’s thought so early on in the book. It remains one central thread of her thinking all the way through, and by tracing it Winch manages to produce, through a careful reading of Weil’s work, an extremely interesting way of thinking about the epistemology of religion, in which our points of contact with supernatural justice (and thus the love of God and our neighbor) are indicated as certain kinds of moments in and interruptions of the ‘natural’ course of our dealings with our fellow human beings. Hopefully we will be able to bring this out more clearly as we move through the book.

The Just Balance, Chapter One

Peter Winch’s Simone Weil: The Just Balance was one of the important books of graduate school for me. I am now reading it with a student who has done some work on Wittgenstein and who is independently interested in Simone Weil’s thought. I am going to try to write a post on each chapter for the blog; we will see how that goes.

I read this book with Winch for a Philosophy of Religion class. I wrote a fairly good if overly personal paper on it, the philosophy mixed up with an extended interpretation of Luke 10:25-42 (the connections Simone Weil draws between affliction, attention, and charity receiving light from and perhaps shedding light upon the juxtaposition of the story of the Good Samaritan with that of Mary and Martha) and the entirety of Isaac Peretz’ story “If Not Higher” appended to the conclusion as a kind of example of “earthly things [as] the criterion of spiritual things” (just go read it if you haven’t, it’s better than anything you’ll find on this blog).

There is a lot going on in The Just Balance. If I had to briefly characterize its overall thrust, I would say that it is an extended essay in the epistemology of religion. Winch traces the development of several important lines of Simone Weil’s thought from her early, more obviously philosophical work as it extends first into social theory and then into religious writing. He writes: “Often her religious observations are continuous with, or developments of, ways of thinking which earlier had not had this religious dimension, at least not obviously or to the same degree.”

Winch takes a very cautious approach to Weil’s thought in this book. This leads to a portrayal which is in certain respects one-sided, although Winch is very clear about that one-sidedness throughout the book.

There is a way, for example, in which one can gain a pretty fair perspective on at least some strands of Weil’s religious and social writing by representing her as a kind of anti-Nietzsche. On this view we might characterize her as essentially agreeing with Nietzsche (and Augustine and the Reformers, perhaps) that the will to power (gravity, force that turns people into things, etc.) is the governing mechanism of the human world, but standing as she does with the afflicted rather than ‘life-affirmation,’ interprets what Nietzsche sees as weakness and corruption as the point of entry for supernatural grace, divine love, and higher justice into human relations. Like Nietzsche she develops this metaphysic and her corresponding value judgments into some interesting essays on social theory, a ‘Christian’ counterpoint to Arendt, Habermas, Foucault, etc. that is seriously in dialogue with (and was in fact part of) their tradition.

That is not Winch’s way with her at all; in fact at many points in the book he critically engages the tendency towards this sort of “metaphysicalizing” (maybe it’s lazy to use that word here? I don’t have a better one offhand) tendency in Weil to try to recover what he sees as the genuine philosophical insights that underlie these occasional adventures into (what I think he saw as) overstatement.

The tension of this approach makes itself especially felt in the later chapters, in the following way: if these uses of language were only “metaphysical,” Winch would I think simply try to have taken them apart to try to find the interesting philosophy (as he saw it) underneath – or just tried to show them to be wind eggs. But the “metaphysical” turns of phrase in question are also, I think, used to communicate religious ideas and feelings for which Winch has considerably more sympathy. So much later in the book, in Chapter 14, we find him writing:

I have throughout [this book] emphasized a particular philosophical theme concerning what I have called concept formation. And at more than one point I have treated ideas which quite obviously have a strong religious significance for her in a determinedly “secular” way. This has been, in a way, all the more absurd in that the frequently striking and beautiful character of these ideas is entirely due to the intensely religious attitude to the world which they express.

I freely admit the perversity of this procedure. It is justified only to the extent that I have succeeded in drawing attention to a series of links between different aspects of Simone Weil’s thinking that are not usually noticed; and to the extent to which these links are interesting in themselves.

As I recall I felt that he did succeed in this task, and hopefully we’ll be able to bring some of that out as we read through the book.

But I am also having a certain kind of trouble returning to this text. At the time I was working with Winch I often felt that I was stumbling lost and blind through a kind of spiritual wasteland. In that context The Just Balance gave me a rare opportunity to connect religious ideas to my own experiences and activity – a hand up for a drowning man. But this meant that the book was also serving a function for me that was not strictly philosophical at all – I was using Winch and Weil to refine my own sense of what might be called the sacred dimension of human existence.

When Winch wrote, therefore, that

My own procedure…has been to try for as long as possible to display these late thoughts in “secular” philosophical terms. This is not because I regard such terms as in any way more acceptable than the religious language which she increasingly speaks. It is in part, I expect, because I feel much more at home operating with such terms. But, more important, it is also because I have wanted to see how far one could go in terms acceptable to philosophers who do not wish to, or find themselves unable to, use the language of religion.

I was when I first read the book very much in the audience this targets, a person of some spiritual sensitivity and religious yearning, often sad when reflecting on this charnel house of a planet we inhabit, the son and grandson of atheistic men of science, a student of philosophy. And from that point of view I felt that the book was a great help.

But it would nonetheless be almost two decades after this work that I finally heard the call.

For me at least, from this side of the water the relationship to certain forms of language is very different. So I now find myself sometimes impatient with Peter’s carefulness; sometimes regarding the important dimensions of Weil’s thought as theological rather than philosophical and so being tempted to regard his precision as punctilio; sometimes even regarding the distinction between secular and sacred itself as entirely false, a relic of the ‘enlightenment’ aimed at putting off our encounter with truth, which entirely undermines the rhetorical space The Just Balance tries to occupy.

So we’ll see how it goes. I still feel very grateful for the time I spent with this book and I’m glad to be able to share that with my students.

New Directions – Fall Reading Group

The scope of the blog is going to broaden a bit now. If you’re just joining us, I think the most interesting philosophical post so far is “Ein Zeichen sind wir” and that the most interesting interpretive post so far is “The First Rule of Wittgenstein Club.” Both of these deal with the Tractatus rather than the Investigations. I do hope to come back to the Investigations in more detail at some point in the future.

However, this term I am supervising a directed reading of Simone Weil and Peter Winch’s book on her, “The Just Balance.” So you can expect substantial discussion of both over the next few months.

P.S. If, like me, you sometimes wander the internet in search of humorous diversion, the funniest post is the one immediately prior.

An Excerpt from Plato’s “Philosopher”

A papyrus manuscript, purported to contain a fragment of Plato’s long-lost Philosopher, the sequel to Sophist and Statesman, was recently discovered quite by accident in the library of an old Ribchester manor. A Bag of Raisins has obtained access to a translation and offers it for your edification and amusement:

Eleatic Stranger [? – identity of speaker here inferred from context]: …not even the student of nature in general, for this one is not the philosopher either, but rather again the natural scientist, in the broadest sense of that name.

Young Socrates: That is true.

Eleatic Stranger: Where then shall we seek the philosopher’s art, if the philosopher is neither a type of mathematician nor a type of scientist, and among the scientists, neither a student of nature nor a student of mind?

Young Socrates: It seems that there is nothing left for the philosopher’s art to be. For, having agreed that philosophy was a form of knowing or believing, we examined all the disciplines which could fairly be said to be forms of knowledge or belief, dividing them carefully so as to leave nothing out. Yet the more carefully they were divided, the farther they seemed from the ideal of the true philosopher; but even the broadest categories were concerned with something other than the subject of wisdom itself.

Eleatic Stranger: So it does seem. And yet…

Young Socrates: You have spied another approach?

Eleatic Stranger: Consider this. We have examined all the forms of knowledge that concern themselves with that which is. Perhaps the philosopher’s art is concerned rather with that which is not?

Young Socrates: This is a strange suggestion. Surely, if philosophical knowledge is the highest form of knowledge, it must be concerned with the highest sort of being, and not with nothing.

Eleatic Stranger: This was what we assumed from the outset, and it still seems a noble saying. Yet when all the forms of knowledge concerning that which is are found to be something other than wisdom, the only possibility remaining is that it is a knowing of that which is not, if indeed such a form of knowledge can be said to be at all.

Young Socrates: I am at a loss to know how to proceed. It seems that the head of Protagoras has risen to lecture us once more.

Eleatic Stranger: Then we must be sure to avoid his counsel! But listen, young Socrates. We know that those who maintain beliefs concerning that which is maintain them in the form of sayings, do they not?

Young Socrates: They do.

Eleatic Stranger: In what form then does one maintain a belief concerning that which is not?

Young Socrates: I cannot say.

Eleatic Stranger: How can one maintain a belief in the form of a saying which is not a saying?

Young Socrates (laughs): One cannot…save only in this one way, which your own clever saying shows, o Stranger. One must maintain one’s belief in the form of a contradiction, which says and does not say at the same time.

Eleatic Stranger: Just so. And this, I believe, is the only place left to us to seek the form of knowledge peculiar to the philosopher, in the art of maintaining contradictions.

Young Socrates: Say on.

Eleatic Stranger. So let us consider once again, young Socrates. In what ways might we justly divide the art of maintaining contradictions?

Young Socrates: Are not all contradictions identical in what they say? What divisions are possible here?

Eleatic Stranger: Those concerning, not the content of the contradiction, but the way in which it is maintained. and the purposes to which it is put.

Young Socrates: I see.

Eleatic Stranger: The division of the art of maintaining contradictions is thus fourfold. We must determine, first, with respect to the manner in which the contradiction is maintained, whether seriously or in jest; and second, with respect to the purposes of its maintenance, whether the contradiction is maintained for theoretical or practical purposes, that is, as an adjunct to our understanding of the world, or as aimed at altering our life in that world.

Young Socrates: I understand.

Eleatic Stranger: And now, at last, we are in sight of our quarry.

Young Socrates: Say on.

Eleatic Stranger: The one who maintains contradictions in jest for practical purposes is perhaps the easiest to identify; is he not the joke-teller, the comedian?

Young Socrates: So he is.

Eleatic Stranger: Then who is the one who maintains contradictions in jest for theoretical purposes?

Young Socrates: I am not sure who would do such a thing. Assuming contradictions had any value for the understanding, why would one not maintain them seriously? In truth, I am confused as to how one can ‘maintain contradictions for theoretical purposes’ at all.

Eleatic Stranger: Do you not remember our old friend Gorgias, who argued that “nothing is, and if anything were, one could not think of it, and if anyone could think of anything, they could not speak of it to another”? And who from those beliefs as a foundation claimed authority to teach about all things, and did in fact teach his students how to think and speak about them?

Young Socrates: I do.

Eleatic Stranger: And when pressed, who did not deny that his beliefs were contradictory, but contented himself with confuting us, sometimes with our own arguments turned about, sometimes with skepticism about our premises? And yet this state of utter deprivation in relation to the truth seemed to him satisfactory; indeed he pitied us for our thought that any of these questions might be resolved and for our refusal to simply enjoy the free play of language, and to apply a kind of tactical mastery of that play to debate in the law courts or the seduction of innocents, as it suited us.

Young Socrates: I see now what you are getting at; and this is yet another guise in which we have encountered the Sophist. For it is he, the rhetorician, who maintains contradictions in jest for theoretical purposes.

Eleatic Stranger: So it is. But now I ask you to consider the serious maintainers of contradictions.

Young Socrates: A strange lot indeed, who maintain seriously something which cannot be true.

Eleatic Stranger: So they are. And yet, many of the most profound minds of humanity, men who have not succumbed to frivolity and who persist in their belief that something higher binds and guides us, reside in these groups.

Young Socrates: Let us discover then who they are.

Eleatic Stranger: Those who maintain contradictions seriously for practical purposes are generally religious men of sincere belief. They will say, for instance, that there are beings utterly beyond the world who act in the world, or that beings with an origin in divine goodness can create evil, and things of this sort. When confronted with the puzzles these ways of talking engender, such men will argue with you for a time; but eventually when driven into a corner they will not give up their belief, simply claiming that such things are mysteries that must be believed, that we will perhaps understand when our souls enter into the truth after death, but which are in a way beyond us to fully comprehend in this world.

Young Socrates: Some of our circle make fun of such men, for their poor arguments and unwillingness to be led past a certain point by reason.

Eleatic Stranger: I know those of whom you speak. For myself, I consider it ignoble to mock anyone of sincere commitment, especially since the more intelligent of these men are perfectly well aware where reason leaves off and mystery begins, so to speak. But tell me, is not mystic a suitable name for this type, he who maintains a contradiction seriously for practical purposes?

Young Socrates: It is suitable enough, although in truth many religious men of ordinary temperament would also fit the description, were they not overcome by shame at the apparent difficulties which pertain to their way of speech.

Eleatic Stranger: So indeed. At last, then, we reach our quarry, the philosopher. If the comedian is he who maintains contradictions in jest for practical purposes, and the sophist he who maintains them in jest for theoretical purposes, and the mystic he who maintains them seriously for practical purposes, that leaves just one quadrant open.

Young Socrates: And is this where we find our philosopher?

Eleatic Stranger: So it is: the philosopher is he who maintains contradictions seriously for theoretical purposes.

Young Socrates: This has the ring of truth; and yet it is a hard saying to understand.

Theaetetus: More than hard! For what serious theoretical purpose can maintaining a contradiction serve? One can understand the viewpoint of the rhetoricians, who seek only local advantage in contests of words, and view the contradiction now as a useful tool, now as a dangerous trap to be avoided, yet never one to be taken seriously with respect to its content. Yet surely the philosopher, the one possessed of wisdom, will not maintain a saying which says nothing, for the purposes of understanding. Perhaps you yourself are one of these rhetoricians, o Stranger of Elea, if you lead us down this path in jest.

Eleatic Stranger: No jest, young Theaetetus. But consider your master Socrates here. He is well known for bringing out the contradictory beliefs of those who come to him for wisdom, and for showing them that contrary to what they thought they are saying nothing at all. Yet in order to do this he must maintain their contradictions seriously long enough to make it clear to those who maintain them that they are contradictions – that they may see their opposed ideas as the ‘wind eggs’ they are.

Theaetetus: That much is true.

Eleatic Stranger: So here is the serious theoretical purpose to which maintaining a contradiction can be put: to show someone else who maintains that contradiction that there is actually no content to their own belief, and that the sayings they maintain say nothing at all.

Socrates: You are wise, Eleatic Stranger: but in this, I think, your wisdom seems peculiarly one-sided.

Eleatic Stranger: How so?

Socrates: You have indeed divined part of my art, and if you wish to call it the philosopher’s art, I will for the time being not object. And yet the way you characterize it cannot be correct.

Eleatic Stranger: Why not?

Socrates: You say that, as a philosopher, what I do is to draw out people’s contradictory beliefs, and maintain them in a way that shows them contradictory, so that the one who believes those things might realize them to be empty, and leave off believing them?

Eleatic Stranger: So I do.

Socrates: What then do you say about my own state of mind as I do this?

Eleatic Stranger: What do I need to say, beyond what I have already said? I have described your purposes, your manner, and the content of what you maintain all three.

Socrates: I think that you will not escape Theaetetus’ objection so easily as he was willing to let you off. For consider this. You say that I ‘maintain contradictions seriously for theoretical purposes.’ Yet if I know they are contradictions, how can I maintain them seriously at all? In this case, although my aim differs from what Protagoras, Gorgias, and their ilk are doing, nonetheless I do not maintain the contradiction seriously in my employment of it for theoretical purposes. No, in this case I am a kind of a rhetorician of the good, maintaining contradictions in jest for the benefit, I imagine, of those who speak with me.

Eleatic Stranger: I suppose it is so.

Socrates: Then further consider this. Let us say that this supposition is wrong, and that in spite of the oddity of maintaining a belief I know to be false, I somehow do so. You have granted that one practicing the philosopher’s art as you characterize it does not seek to impart this belief, but rather aims at a change in the character of his interlocutor, namely, to bring them from ignorance of their ignorance to knowledge of their ignorance, or something to that effect. Is this not so?

Eleatic Stranger: It is.

Socrates: And is the effecting of a change in someone’s character a theoretical or a practical purpose?

Eleatic Stranger: We would have to say practical.

Socrates: So in this case again the speaker you imagine, whether myself or someone else, does not fall into the category of philosopher, but that of mystic.

Eleatic Stranger: So it would seem.

Socrates: I think you will find, o Stranger, that if we follow your proposed divisions anyone who appears to be practicing the philosophical art must turn out to be either rhetorician or mystic. Nor does it seem likely that we will find one who is an exception to this rule; for one who genuinely believed a contradiction and sought to maintain it seriously for theoretical purposes would want to convince others of its truth, which would mean that he did not know it to be a contradiction at all, but rather thought it plainly true; and in so thinking presumably thought himself some sort of mathematician or scientist, all of which types you quite ably proved to be something other than practitioners of the philosophical art.

Eleatic Stranger: For the time being I can muster no response.

Socrates: It was inevitable that we should wind up here, having assigned the knowledge of the good to a subsection of the sciences of mind. For only with some prior accounting of the good could we distinguish between the philosopher’s art and the rhetorician’s. Let us therefore reconsider the path we took….