Wolfram Eilenberger (Berlin) und Martina Bengert (denʞkollektiv): Eine Denkerin der radikalen Hoffnung

Wolfram

Wolfram

Wolfram is a writer and philosopher. He is the founding editor of Philosophie Magazin and moderator of the TV programme Sternstunde der Philosophie. In his most recent book, Feuer der Freiheit, he explores the lives and studies of four women writers/philosophers of the 20th century: Hannah Arendt, Ayn Rand, Simone de Beauvoir and Simone Weil.

Martina

Martina

Martina is a Junior Professor of Literature, Religion, and Gender Studies (Institute of Romance Studies) at Humboldt University Berlin. She is also one of the founding members of the Simone Weil denʞkollektiv.

Overview

Am 31. Januar 2021 diskutierten Martina Bengert und Wolfram Eilenberger in dem von Simone Miller moderierten Podcast “Philosophin Simone Weil. Eine Denkerin der radikalen Hoffnung” der Reihe Sein & Streit des Deutschlandfunk Kultur über die Aktualität Weils für unsere heutige Zeit.

 

On the 31st of January 2021, Simone Miller welcomed Martina Bengert und Wolfram Eilenberger to the Deutschlandfunk Kultur podcast Sein & Streit. They discussed the ways in which Simone Weil and her concept of radical hope are still relevant today. (Title of the episode: “Philosophin Simone Weil. Eine Denkerin der radikalen Hoffnung”)

New contributions:

Wolfram Eilenberger (Berlin) und Martina Bengert (denʞkollektiv): Eine Denkerin der radikalen Hoffnung

Overview Am 31. Januar 2021 diskutierten Martina Bengert und Wolfram Eilenberger in dem von Simone Miller moderierten Podcast “Philosophin Simone Weil. Eine Denkerin der radikalen Hoffnung” der Reihe Sein & Streit des Deutschlandfunk Kultur über die Aktualität Weils für unsere heutige Zeit. On the 31st of January 2021, Simone Miller welcomed Martina Bengert und Wolfram

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Luca Pellarin (Erfurt) & Thomas Sojer (denʞkollektiv): Reading Pierre-Joseph Proudhon – Franz C. Overbeck and Simone Weil in catalogical notes.

Luca

Luca

is a research assistant and PhD candidate at the University of Erfurt’s Max Weber Centre for Advanced Cultural and Social Studies as well as at the University of Graz. Born in Friuli, he studied philosophy in Turin and Milan, specialising in the thought of Erik Peterson. Dealing in particular with the philosophy of religion and the contemporary history of Christianity, he is currently working on Franz C. Overbeck.

Thomas

Thomas

is one of the founding members of the Simone Weil denʞkollektiv.

The French political theorist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865), the German theologian Franz C. Overbeck (1837-1905), and the French philosopher Simone Weil (1909-1943) share an interest in rethinking socialism against the backdrop of a sharp criticism of Christianity. Proudhon lays the foundation of this philosophy, leaving Overbeck and Weil to carry on his heritage, albeit in opposed directions. All three figures mark an often ignored but essential juncture between the 1840s and the 1940s in the history of ideas concerning the relationship between socialism and Christianity.

 

In what follows, we introduce our three thinkers and areas of their overlapping interest, all through catalogical notes to map a very short history of ideas often overlooked in academia.

Proudhon, Weil, and Overbeck at a Glance

 

o Pierre-Joseph Proudhon was a political thinker often associated with the concept of anarchy. He dealt, in particular, with two problems bequeathed by the Enlightenment: social inequality and the failed development of the individual. When combined, these two problems reveal an even greater one to which Proudhon almost linked his name: property. According to him, property ratifies the supremacy of the victors in the struggle for power. Herein lies Simone Weil’s interest in Proudhon: both theorize that property and sovereignty are legitimised by history and transcendence, or, to put it differently, that the law of force and power in the double articulation of war and religion are the cornerstone of the political community.

 

o In Proudhon’s eyes, the post-war process of institutionalisation shows that the political community uses power to legitimise the relations established during war; the winners change the name to the law of force by improperly matching it with the law of nature. Property is nothing but the final result of this corrupt process.

Yet, Proudhon does not want to abolish property, as property is the expression of individual autonomy. And as Franz C. Overbeck [1] observes, Proudhon assigns property a crucial role and regards it as one of the hallmarks of social progress. Despite this, he aims for a social equilibrium between the individual, social justice, and reason – the outcome of which is the so-called “libertarian socialism”.

Reason must manifest itself as a collective reason, namely as the embodiment of a system of relations to be pursued through public debate. Thus Proudhon does not advocate revolution itself, but rather a social science able to engender a critical attitude.

Proudhon

Franz C. Overbeck on Proudhon

 

Despite the size of the Overbeckian bequest in the “Franz C. Overbeck” archive at the University of Basel, the following reconstruction of Overbeck’s reading of Proudhon is based exclusively on other published material, primarily from the Kirchenlexicon. Since Overbeck took unrelated “notes” throughout various periods of his life –often while working on entirely diverse topics– without ever organizing them, I attempted some semblance of order by resorting to a list format, as follows.

 

o Overbeck knows Proudhon through reading Of Justice in the Revolution and the Church (De la justice dans la révolution et dans l’Église, 1858) and Jesus and the Origins of Christianity (Jésus et les origines du christianisme, posthumous), and É. Faguet’s Politicians and Moralists of the 19th Century (Politiques et moralistes du XIXe siècle, 1891).


o Of the first of these texts, he reproduces in his Kirchenlexicon two extracts:

“Without being afraid of the accusation of atheism, I cannot, however, allow it to degenerate into defamation and ostracism. Ever since my birth, I have been thinking about God, and I recognise no one more than myself the right to talk about him”.[2]

“Religion is the mystical lover of the Spirit, the companion of its young and free loves. Similar to Homer’s warriors, the Spirit does not dwell alone in its tent: this Cupid must have a lover, a Psyché. Jesus, who forgave the Magdalene, taught us to be lenient towards the wooers. But the day comes when the Spirit, tired of its own vitality, thinks of joining, through an indissoluble marriage, Science, the severe matron, that the Gnostics, those socialists of the second century, called Sophia, wisdom. There, for a few moments, the Spirit seems to be divided in itself; there are ineffable reminiscences and tender reproaches. More than once, the two lovers thought they had been reconciled: ‘I will be a Sophia for you’, says Religion; ‘I will also become wise, as you are, and always be more and more beautiful’. Vain hope! Inexorable fate! The nature of ideas, no more than that of things, cannot be modified in this way. Like the nymph abandoned by Narcissus, who from languishing ends up fading away in the thin air, Religion gradually turns into an impalpable phantom: it is only a sound, a remembrance, which rests in the deepest of the Spirit, and never entirely leaves the heart of man”.[3]

o Overbeck particularly appreciates Proudhon for his critique of religion, which, in his opinion, is in many ways similar to Nietzsche’s. He sees Proudhon and Nietzsche as emblematic and passionate representatives of individualism in contemporary culture. From Overbeck’s standpoint, as long as individualists want to place themselves at the centre of their own thoughts and actions in a coherent way, they will have to be able to dispense with the supernatural support of, and continuous recourse to, God. This is what, according to Overbeck, Proudhon achieves in his book Of Justice in the Revolution and the Church: emancipating morality from religion. He cuts the umbilical cord between man and God, who, until then, has always been considered indispensable by human beings. In this respect, Proudhon defines religion as expensive and superfluous to the state that human culture has reached.


o Overbeck does not characterise Nietzsche’s individualism as irreligious, although Overbeck does say that individualism and atheism go hand in hand. He deems Proudhon as the most dedicated connoisseur of atheism in the world and continually sets him next to Nietzsche. However, he notices a difference between the two, which he illustrates through parallelism with J.-J. Rousseau: just as Proudhon could not stand Rousseau’s idealism and attitude of posing as an artist, Overbeck cannot tolerate the same features in Nietzsche.


o Besides being a passionate individualist and fervent moralist, Overbeck’s Proudhon is fiercely anti-idealist, considering idealism the instrument of all seductions and the source of all the mystifications and abominations on earth. Building on these assumptions, Proudhon criticises Rousseau’s and E. Renan’s depictions of Jesus, in whom he sees a saviour. Overbeck alludes to Renan, portrayed as an idealiser of anarchism, to better outline Proudhon’s profile. Whereas Renan came to socialism from Christianity, Proudhon walks the opposite path, coming to Christianity by way of socialism.


o Concerning the relationships between socialism and Christianity (possible connections which Overbeck finds highly problematic), I quote a metaphor Overbeck adopts to describe them:

“In the dispute of our modern society and socialism on Christianity, there will be as much left of it [Christianity], as of the bone that two wild beasts bite around. Both of them want to incorporate it so that it will be consumed: this is the only sure result of the biting. Therefore, who presumes to label one of the two fighting beasts as the “defender” of the bone [of Christianity] can only make himself ridiculous”.[4]

o Although Overbeck makes no particular reference to Proudhon when comparing socialism with anarchism, it is useful to add that the German theologian prefers anarchism over socialism. Compared to the latter, anarchism appears more coherent, as long as it is concerned only with the individual and not, I say, idealistically, with society (which Proudhon sees as the outcome of the connection of individuals). Additionally, anarchism is more honest than socialism, if only through its indifference to the social democrats’ main principle of human equality, a principle in which Overbeck does not believe. In addition to equality, he depicts anarchism as indifferent to justice – and I assume that Overbeck was more sensitive to this point.


o Despite preferring anarchism to socialism, Overbeck is in no way an anarchist: he harshly attacks anarchism, claiming that in the name of freedom it destroys society without knowing that it will replace it with something very similar.

Simone Weil’s reception of Proudhon

 

o Simone Weil’s political thought is marked by her early love for the revolutionary syndicalism, her alienation from it, starting in 1934, and its lasting impact until her death. Long after its golden age from 1900 to 1910, revolutionary syndicalism hardly had any political influence when the young student Simone Weil first countered the movement. This situation of political ruin allowed Weil to dismantle the previous unity of political and ethical traditions within the movement and to develop a critical position towards Marxism. In the light of the ethical tradition (anti-authoritarian individualism and proletarian community), Simone Weil criticises the political tradition (the question of revolution and the role of unions within society). Her separation between ethics and politics reflects Weil’s distinction between a “source of inspiration” and a “doctrine” in her unfinished essay Sur les contradictions du marxisme in 1937. Here, she writes:

 

“I don’t believe that the labour movement will become alive again in our country as long as it doesn’t seek, I’m not saying doctrines, but a source of inspiration against what Marx and the Marxists combated and foolishly disdained: in Proudhon, in the unions of 1948, in the syndicalist tradition, in the anarchist spirit. Concerning a doctrine, the future alone, in the best of all cases, could perhaps provide an inspiration; not the past.”[5]

o It is Proudhon’s passion for the autonomy of the individual, the rethinking of property, and a proletarian particularism that inspires Weil when reading his texts. For her, Proudhon personifies an ethics which she sees as the initial inspiration for the labour movement of the previous century. As with Proudhon, Simone Weil does not want to abolish property as it constitutes individual autonomy.

 

o It is important to consider that Weil understands the term ‘ethics’ not as a simple reflection of moral behaviour but rather, in the sense of Charles Péguy’s Notre Jeunesse, as ‘mystique’; as the experience of an elementary internal intuition towards a society of free individuals characterised by dignity. [6]

 

o In Proudhon’s spirit, Weil envisions the future as the self-determination of the working class and as a form of anti-intellectualism in resistance to the authority of intellectuals over the laboring class. Weil demands an autonomous and independent culture of the working class and outlines in her 1943 L’Enracinement the founding of small co-operative self-determined workplaces in which neither foreman nor boss exist.

Proudhon’s thoughts on anti-authoritarian individualism and a proletarian community, which in terms of Weil is to be understood as ‘mystical ethics’ in Péguy’s sense, stands as canvas against which Simone Weil’s confrontation with Christianity takes shape. Weil’s fierce criticism of the Church as a collective within the political tradition and and her own deviant marginal traditions of individual mystical testimonies can be read in the context of this mystical-ethical framework of Proudhon’s critique of Christianity. Following in the footsteps of Proudhon, Weil also walks to Christianity via socialism, sharing his critique of all forms of religious authority over individuals.

 

o In Marseille, Weil rediscovers similar ideas in the JOC, Jeunesse ouvrière chrétienne, a group seeking to improve the welfare of the working-class youth independent of politics and even unconstrained by religion and the collective rage often entwined with both constructs. Weil’s experience with the JOC led her to reflect on the foundation of an alternative structure similar to religious orders but characterised by source d’inspiration of the anti-authoritarian individualism and the proletarian community, one could say, in the spirit of Proudhon.

[1] Franz C. Overbeck (1837-1905) was a protestant theologian and professor of New Testament and Early Church History at the University of Basel, where he taught from 1870 to 1897. He has been little studied and hardly known by scholars, if not for being Nietzsche’s roommate in Basel. Between 1870 and 1875, the two lived in two contiguous floors of the same building and later, in 1889, after the outbreak of Nietzsche’s madness, Overbeck travelled to Turin to pick up his friend and eventually prevented at least some of Nietzsche’s writings from being instrumentalised by Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche. Overbeck’s most famous work is How Christian is our Present-Day Theology? (Über die Christlichkeit unserer heutigen Theologie, 1873, 1903). Important to recall, however, is the Kirchenlexicon, an extensive collection of Overbeck’s reflections gathered for the purpose of writing his never accomplished project of a profane history of the Church. Overbeck worked on it from 1856 until his death. What made Overbeck “known” in the twentieth century to thinkers such as Thomas Mann, Karl Barth, Martin Heidegger, Walter Benjamin and Karl Löwith, was a philologically inaccurate and small compendium of about 300 pages (Christentum und Kultur), edited in 1919 by Overbeck’s pupil Carl Albrecht Bernoulli. Among the prominent authors who read Overbeck, one can also count Jacob Taubes. [2] transl. by the author cf. Overbeck 1995: Werke und Nachlaß. Band 4. Kirchenlexicon.. Ausgewählte Artikel A-I, Stuttgart/Weimar: Metzler (Atheismus [Moderner] Beispiele. oder Proben 1, II, 1870-1897): 32 [“Sans que je m’effraie beaucoup de l’inculpation d’athéisme, je ne puis permettre cependant qu’elle dégénère en calomnie et proscription. Je pense à Dieu depuis que j’existe, et ne reconnais à personne plus qu’à moi le droit d’en parler”]. Overbeck reproduced the excerpt directly in French. See Proudhon 1858: “Prologue”, in: idem: Nouveaux principes de philosophie pratique, Paris: Garnier Frères, 46. [3] transl. by the author cf. Overbeck 1995: Werke und Nachlaß. Band 5. Kirchenlexicon. Texte. Ausgewählte Artikel J-Z, Metzler, Stuttgart/Weimar, 1995 (Religion [Ende] 1, II, 1870-1897): 281 [“Die Relig. ist die mysti. Geliebte des Geistes, die Genossin seiner jungen und freien Liebesabenteuer. Den Homerischen Kriegern vergleichbar, wohnt der Geist nicht allein in seinem Zelte: dieser Cupido muss eine Geliebte, eine Psyche haben. Jesus, welcher der Magdalena verzieh, hat uns die Nachsicht gegen die Buhlerinnen gelehrt. Aber es kommt der Tag da der Geist, von seiner eigenen Ausschweifung müde, daran denkt sich durch eine unlösliche Ehe mit der Wissenschaft zu verbinden, der strengen Matrone, welche die Gnostiker, diese Socialisten des 2. Jahrh’s, Sophia, die Weisht nannten. Da erscheint der Geist, während einiger Augenblicke, wie mit sich selbst entzweit; da giebt es unaussprechli. Rückblicke und zärtliche Vorwürfe. Mehr als ein Mal hielten sich die Geliebten für versöhnt: Ich werde für dich eine Sophia sein, sagt die Religion; ich werde mich ebenso gelehrt machen, und ich werde immer schöner sein. Eitle Hoffnung! unerbittli. Schicksal. Die Natur der Ideen kann sich, ebensowenig als die der Dinge, | so nicht fälschen. Wie die vom Narcissus verlassene Nymphe, welche vor schmachtender Sehnsucht schliesslich in den Lüften dahinschwindet, verwandelt sich die Religion allmälich in ein untastbares Fantom: es ist nur noch ein Laut, eine Erinnerung, welche im tiefsten Innern des Geistes bleibt, und niemals im Herzen des Menschen ganz zu Grunde geht”]. The symbol | stands for “paging in the manuscript”. Overbeck reproduced the excerpt in German. See Proudhon 1858: “De la justice dans la révolution et dans l’Église.” Tome 1. in: idem: Nouveaux principes de philosophie pratique, Paris: Garnier Frères 1858, 94 (Première étude) [“La Religion est l’amante mystique de l’Esprit, la compagne de ses jeunes et libres amours. Semblable aux guerriers d’Homère, l’Esprit n’habite pas seul sous sa tente: il faut une amoureuse, une Psyché, à ce Cupidon. Jésus, qui pardonna à la Madeleine, nous a enseigné l’indulgence envers les courtisanes. Mais vient le jour où l’Esprit, fatigué de sa propre exubérance, songe à s’unir, par un mariage indissoluble, à la Science, la sévère matrone, celle que les gnostiques, ces socialistes du deuxième siècle, appelaient Sophia, la sagesse. Alors, pendant quelques instants, l’Esprit semble divisé d’avec lui-même; il y a d’ineffables retours et de tendres reproches. Plus d’une fois les deux amants se sont crus réconciliés: Je serai pour toi une Sophia, dit la Religion; je me ferai aussi savante, et je serai toujours plus belle. Vain espoir! Inexorable destin! La nature des idées, pas plus que celle des choses, ne peut ainsi s’adultérer. Comme la nymphe abandonnée de Narcisse, qui à force de langueur finit par s’évanouir dans les airs, la Religion se change peu à peu en un impalpable fantôme: ce n’est plus qu’un son, un souvenir, qui reste au plus profond de l’Esprit, et ne périt jamais tout à fait au cœur de l’homme”]. [4] transl. by the author cf. Overbeck 1995: Werke und Nachlaß. Band 4. Kirchenlexicon. Texte. Ausgewählte Artikel A-I, Metzler, Stuttgart/Weimar, 1995 (Christenthum u. Socialismus Allgemeines 1, III, Mai 1899-1905): 251 [“Im Streit unserer modernen Gesellschaft und des Socialism. um das Christenthum wird von diesem so viel übrig bleiben, wie vom Knochen, um den sich zwei wilde Bestien herumbeissen. Jede will ihn sich einverleiben, er wird also aufgezehrt, und das ist das einzig sichere Resultat der Beisserei, so dass sich nur lächerlich machen kann, wer die eine der beiden Streitenden Bestien mit dem Titel eines ‘Vertheidigers’ des Knochen auszeichnen zu können meint”]. [5] transl. by the author cf. Weil 1991: Œuvres complètes, Tome II/2, 135-136 [“Je ne crois pas que le mouvement ouvrier redevienne dans notre pays quelque chose de vivant tant qu’il ne cherchera pas, je ne dis pas des doctrines, mais une source d’inspiration dans ce que Marx et les marxistes ont combattu et bien follement méprisé : dans Proudhon, dans les groupements ouvriers de 1948, dans la tradition syndicale¬, dans l’esprit anarchiste. Quant à une doctrine, l’avenir seul, au meilleur des cas, pourra peut-être en fournir une ; non passé.”] [6] Cf. Patrice Rolland 1998: “Simone Weil et le Syndicalisme Révolutionnaire” in: Charles Jacquier ed.: Simone Weil, l’expérience de la vie et le travail de la pensée, Arles: Edition Sulliver, 69-106; 80.

New contributions:

Wolfram Eilenberger (Berlin) und Martina Bengert (denʞkollektiv): Eine Denkerin der radikalen Hoffnung

Overview Am 31. Januar 2021 diskutierten Martina Bengert und Wolfram Eilenberger in dem von Simone Miller moderierten Podcast “Philosophin Simone Weil. Eine Denkerin der radikalen Hoffnung” der Reihe Sein & Streit des Deutschlandfunk Kultur über die Aktualität Weils für unsere heutige Zeit. On the 31st of January 2021, Simone Miller welcomed Martina Bengert und Wolfram

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Book Launch of ‘Effort and Grace’ by Simone Kotva

For activity to be passive, it must receive something from beyond itself; it must be in excess of itself. By the spiritual I mean this fact of experience in excess of voluntary effort, of which exercise is a part. This distinction, it seems to me, is crucial. To a large part, the confusion which surrounds spiritual exercise today emerges from a failure to relate the involuntary to the voluntary when it comes to the effort involved in practices such as meditation, attention or prayer. Confusion is exacerbated when exercise is removed from a context originally metaphysical or ‘religious’. .... Neither a religious nor a secular context saves exercise from becoming, through misuse, utile to regimes of power. Nonetheless, exercise without spirit risks staking its claims wholly on effort; in a word, on power. By contrast, what is conveyed in concepts such as tranquillity, repose and grace are metaphors by means of which the absolute elevations of effort that underwrite every misuse of power might be resisted. Where philosophy, by presenting itself simply as effort, continues to affirm the very category it attempts to avoid, it may be hazardous to reject a spiritual turn that is also cognisant of the ‘metaphysical’.

Simone Kotva, Effort and Grace, pp. 21-22
This podcast presents the book launch of Simone Kotva’s new monograph, “Effort and Grace: On the Spiritual Exercise of Philosophy,” available from Bloomsbury. The launch took place online on September, 2nd, 2020. Simone is joined by Catherine PickstockJacob Sherman, and John Milbank. Catherine Pickstock and John Milbank have co-founded the Radical Orthodoxy movement and rank currently as leading theologians worldwide. Jacob Sherman is professor of theology and philosophy at the California Institute of Integral Studies and is a specialist on spirituality and ecology.
					
Effort and Grace

The Book

Philosophy and theology have long harboured contradictory views on spiritual practice. While philosophy advocates the therapeutic benefits of daily meditation, the theology of grace promotes an ideal of happiness bestowed with little effort. As such, the historical juxtaposition of effort and grace grounding modern spiritual exercise can be seen as the essential tension between the secular and sacred. In Effort and Grace, Simone Kotva explores an exciting new theory of spiritual endeavour from the tradition of French spiritualist philosophy. Spiritual exercise has largely been studied in relation to ancient philosophy and the Ignatian tradition, yet Kotva’s new engagement with its more recent forms has alerted her to an understanding of contemplative practice as rife with critical potential Here, she offers an interdisciplinary text tracing the narrative of spiritual exertion through the work of seminal French thinkers such as Maine de Biran, Félix Ravaisson, Henri Bergson, Alain (Émile Chartier), Simone Weil and Gilles Deleuze. Her findings allow both secular philosophers and theologians to understand how the spiritual life can participate in the contemporary philosophical conversation.

The Author

Simone Kotva is a research fellow at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where she teaches philosophical theology. She has published articles on French spiritualism, the philosophy of attention, and metaphysics. Effort and Grace is her first book.

THE Interview

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 

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Abstract

Each contribution takes a cue from Chris Kraus’s book Aliens and Anorexia (2000). Kraus’s text deals with the making of her film, Gravity and Grace, and the inspiration she found in Simone Weil’s life and writings.

le manège des textes

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