Ruth Jackson Ravenscroft (Sidney Sussex College, University of Cambridge) speaks to Simone Kotva (Emmanuel College, University of Cambridge) about her new book Effort and Grace. The conversation took place over email and revolves around the relationship between theology and philosophy, what the concept of “philosophy as a way of life” is all about, and the significance of French spiritualism, especially the work of Simone Weil.
RJR: Dr Kotva, we are excited to learn about your new book Effort and Grace: On the Spiritual Exercise of Philosophy. Your title juxtaposes the effort entailed in philosophical inquiry, with a theology of grace that demands no such achievement from the believer. Can you tell us more about this tension, what it might tell us about the relationship between philosophy and theology, and how and why you are interested to explore it in your work?
SK: Yes. There is an easiness – an unconsciousness, even – to what we call “truth” or “certainty” that seems to contradict the willpower it takes to sustain conscious mental effort for long periods of time. You concentrate, but the answers you’re looking for arrive quite independently of your effort. When they do arrive you might very well be distracted, talking about something different, caught up in domestic routines, or even sleeping. One does not arrive at truth; it arrives…is flung at you, is given to you. That’s really the only criterion. When philosophers talk about “knowing” something and having “certainty” about it without being able to account for how that knowledge was achieved, they are talking about grace (I think Wittgenstein intuits this in Of Certainty). If you’ve ever had the experience of suddenly understanding something previously obscure to you that is now crystal clear, and etched in your perception with a kind of razor sharp precision, yet impossible to account for and quite beyond the pale of language – that is grace. If you’ve experienced it you will always have a sense for the “theological,” even if you have never studied theology. First of all, I wanted to provide an archaeology of this experience, where philosophy and theology converge and become the same practice. In the 1970s Pierre Hadot popularised the idea that philosophy was like a “spiritual exercise.” He saw a structural homology between the way ancient philosophers trained their students to prepare to receive a vision of celestial ideas, and the way monastics prepared novices to receive the beatific vision of God. But Hadot tended to interpret this experience as a direct outcome, or even as a constituent part, of the preparatory exercises in question (meditation and introspection). I was fascinated by this oddness in Hadot’s interpretation, which seemed to go against all the ancient sources and certainly against the Christian spiritual exercise tradition Hadot supposedly was invoking. It was peculiarly modern, even Kantian (despite Hadot’s critique of what he saw as the aridity of neo-Kantianism), and I decided to see whether I could trace an alternative approach to spiritual exercise – and to philosophy as a “way of life” – that reclaimed the radical anti-individualism that one finds in the spiritual exercise tradition. To me, this was important for two reasons. One was historical: I wanted to get the facts right about what it would mean to practice philosophy as a spiritual exercise, today; I wanted to see if it were possible to think with Hadot without agreeing with his conclusions. The other reason had to do with ethics, with life. If our philosophical practice does not lead us outside of ourselves, does not open us to the outside, then there really is no hope or purpose in what we are doing. Where Michel Foucault discovered, through Hadot’s work, “technologies of the self” that reconstitute the person from within, I discovered in the spiritual exercise tradition also a “technology of ecstasy” (I’m borrowing the phrase from Mircea Eliade) that leads from the self to the outside.
RJR: Who are the major figures and writers that you look at in your book? How did you come to be interested in the French spiritualist philosophical tradition?
SK: My book addresses the work of Pierre Maine de Biran, Félix Ravaisson, Henri Bergson, Alain (Émile Chartier), and Simone Weil; it also touches on the thought of Victor Cousin. I became interested in the French spiritualist tradition when I discovered that it anticipated but also challenged the approach to philosophy popularised by Pierre Hadot. French spiritualism is comparable to German Idealism, especially Schelling’s philosophy, but unlike its German counterpart it draws on early modern Augustinian writers like Fénelon, Bossuet and Pascal – the “spirit” in “spiritualism” refers to mind but also to mysticism. Spiritualism carried on a consciously neo-Augustinian way of thinking about philosophy as a spiritual exercise which developed, in particular, a strong critique of individualism – of the privileging of human effort and of the sort of blind faith in human reason that characterises so much of modern thinking. Spiritualism aims to prepare a person to receive – rather than achieve – knowledge; receive it from “outside,” from the more-than-human, through inner work that leaves the mind vulnerable and open to what it cannot know. It’s a tradition that was hugely influential during the nineteenth century (when it was recognised and promoted as a “national” philosophy) but at the same time it remained, as one would expect of a religious philosophy articulating itself against the backdrop of an increasingly secular intellectual milieu, resolutely minor. Toward the end of the nineteenth century it was feared that spiritualism, with its appeal to mystical ideas like grace, would plunge French philosophy into irrationalism and disrepute. Bergson, for instance, takes a conscious step away from the name and the banner, preferring to call what he does simply “metaphysics.” Gilles Deleuze followed him in this – but the inspiration and founding ideas remain the same. This fascinated me. Today, French spiritualism is being studied again, especially by Anglophone scholars. But the focus is rarely on the Augustinian roots of the movement. I cannot help but wonder how much of the praxis of spiritualism – how much of the technology of ecstasy in question – is lost in this translation.
RJR: You devote a chapter to Simone Weil, who has long been popular with theologians and philosophers of religion. How does your study contribute to our understanding of Weil, and how do you engage with Weil’s concept of attention?
SK: Yes, Simone Weil is a popular figure, but she is also seen as an eccentric thinker and her ideas are often characterised as strange, even a little bit mad. Her concept of “passive attention” is a case in point. It’s popular among religious writers, poets, literary critics…but philosophers tend to ignore it. Iris Murdoch is an exception. At around the same time that Hadot was comparing philosophy to spiritual exercise, and arguing for a return to philosophy as a practice of contemplation, Murdoch was making a similar argument – but she drew on Weil, and Weil’s concept of attention, to illustrate what she meant by “contemplation.” This makes all the difference to her argument: instead of presenting philosophy as an effort to sustain mental activity and remain in communion with truth, Murdoch thinks of it as a letting go of the effort to try to reach for truth – truth, for Murdoch, happens in moments of spontaneous recognition quite independent of willed effort (I’m thinking especially of Murdoch’s argument in The Sovereignty of Good). Murdoch’s approach was an important inspiration for what I do in the book. But while Murdoch points to the importance of Weil she does not say all that much about Weil’s thought, and the way she cites Weil tends rather to reinforce the image of Weil as this kind of oracular figure who speaks ex cathedra with no connection to history. And this is frustrating because it makes it difficult to argue, seriously, for the significance of a concept like “passive attention.” Without the genealogy, without the story of the concept, its logic (however persuasive in itself) can appear rather thin. So I wanted to see if I could change this. It was when researching the context of Weil’s thought that I discovered French spiritualism and the tradition that begins with Maine de Biran, but which stretches back much further, to the French Augustinians and the spiritual exercise tradition. What really excited me was the discovery that spiritualist thinkers not only thought extensively about passivity (grace) as an existential category, but that they also – this is less well known – considered passivity in relation to attention. Biran in particular was attuned to the fact that when we are really paying attention and concentrating our utmost to focus on an object or idea, our awareness of what we are doing disappears. We become unconscious, as it were, and passive in relation to the object of attention. Readers of Weil will be familiar from this image, which is absolutely central to her idea of attention but which begins as the founding insight, the founding paradox, of spiritualism. Biran writes: “The ‘I’ no longer lives, no longer exists for itself: it seems to be one with the ideal, the object of desire which has preceded and brought about this absorption.” Compare that to Simone Weil, in Waiting on God: “Above all our thought should be empty, waiting, not seeking anything, but ready to receive in its naked truth the object that is to penetrate it.” In my book, I read Weil as a very late Biranian thinker. This is my attempt to challenge the interpretation of her as an eccentric thinker disconnected from tradition, from the history of philosophy. In this I have learnt much from scholars in France and Germany, such as Emmanuel Gabellieri and Rolf Kühn, who have argued for Weil’s place in the history of French thought.
RJR: Who do you have in mind as your ideal reader for the book? Is there an ideal reader?
SK: That’s an interesting question: no, I did not have any one reader in mind, and my book has been read by scholars of Weil and French spiritualism as well as by those interested in “philosophy as a way of life” more broadly. That being said, my book is at bottom a critique of the perspective of Hadot, and will have an especial appeal to philosophers of religion. But in the first instance those philosophers of religion were Biran, Ravaisson, Bergson, Alain, Weil, rather than my contemporaries. Of course, in the book I write about historical thinkers in the third person, but this is a rhetorical convention; in truth, I was writing to them. That is why Effort and Grace, although it is driven by a concern to narrate a genealogy (and present that genealogy as the basis for a critique), is not intellectual history, strictly speaking. I describe these thinkers, describe their work; but I do so in order to activate their thought, rather than in order to explain it: to think with Biran, with Weil, rather than think about them.
RJR: Tell us something that readers will be surprised to learn about when they read it!
SK: Effort and Grace ends with an epilogue on ecological thinking – a conclusion that isn’t there in the spiritualist tradition but which I find implicit in the techniques of spiritual exercise at stake. To open oneself to the outside in order to receive what is more-than-human, to be “attentive” to what is not-us…that is a profoundly ecological way of thinking, of acting! It is not, however, an evidently “spiritualist” or even Weilian theme (though there are intimations, certainly, in Weil’s work, of a form of nonhuman understanding – her comparison of grace to solar energy, and of the plant’s comportment to spiritual attentiveness, being the most obvious one). That epilogue was the result of thinking with, rather than about. At the same time, I think there is an intense fidelity to this approach, since one is attempting (as far as is possible) to engage with what has been said by the thinkers one is interpreting, rather than rely on commentators.
This interview was originally published by Divinity Dispatches by the Faculty of Divinity, University of Cambridge