Distinctions That Define and Divide   /   Summer 2021   /    Book Reviews

Principled to a Fault

And the violent originality Simone Weil.

Becca Rothfeld

Simone Weil’s pass during the time she worked for the Resistance, Photo 12/Alamy Stock Photo; background: facsimile page from The Notebooks of Simone Weil.

One of contemporary analytic philosophy’s most persistent pathologies is its mania for “domestication”—that is, for the translation of Continental effusions into a cooler, cleaner vocabulary. Sometimes, domestication is merely a matter of untangling the terminological knots that make thinkers like Heidegger and Hegel so daunting to Anglophone audiences. Often, however, the practice involves the taming of ideas themselves, as if they were so many unruly animals. The domesticator offers up such morsels as a secularized Kierkegaard, or a Pascal who is more of a protoexistentialist than a Jansenist. What is lost in verve, domesticators claim, is gained in newfound plausibility, at least when the relevant arbiters are the atheistic liberals who preside over present-day academia.

On the face of it, Simone Weil is a remarkably poor candidate for domestication. Implausible and impractical to a fault, arguably more of a mystic than a philosopher, Weil is unlikely to appeal to sober rationalists, even in her most neutered guises. Her life and her work alike were rent by sharp contradictions. She was ethnically Jewish yet frequently anti-Semitic. She was a fervent pacifist for much of her life, but she worked alongside anarchist forces to fight fascists on the ground in Spain. (Admittedly, her efforts were ineffectual: She tripped into a pot of hot cooking oil and singed her leg before she saw any combat.) Although she trained as a philosopher at the famed École Normale Supérieure, she eschewed the measured tones of a scholar, opting instead for the oracular prose of a visionary or poet. She was bourgeois by birth, yet her desperation to display solidarity with the working classes drove her to the factories and the fields.

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