Weil’s problem of particularity

January 2, 2014


La Canapele by Anca Rosca

Is a particular human being valuable in her particularity?

A recurring difficulty in Simone Weil’s work is the way particularity is (seemingly) rejected, falsified, and made unreal. This is especially true of the peculiar qualities that differentiate one person from another. In the comments to a previous post, I expressed the problem this way:

The universal sacred in each individual is his or her desire for good (to fill the void of God’s absence). If the sacred in each person is universal, and absolutely identical in all, then there is nothing peculiar about the individual that makes her special or valuable, such as personality traits or certain talents. Thus, even if the individual is not erased, the peculiar is seemingly erased. As such, this philosophy becomes another form of tyranny, even though Weil develops it as the only antidote against tyranny/oppression/idolatry. In Weil’s philosophy, I value you because of this universal capacity within you (the universal sacred in all), not because of anything peculiar about you. All “discrimination,” even if seemingly benevolent, is wrong. Nothing peculiar about you is real (in the eternal, Platonist sense).

I am using “discrimination” here in a broad sense, of valuing someone for certain unique qualities which she may possess. For Weil, this is to value something “accidental” about the person, finite and transient, not the universal within the person. The universal is identical in all, thus no individual person is “special” except insofar as she possesses this universal. (On a side note, this would make first dates enormously difficult to navigate — you can only compliment your date’s universal essence!)

Yet, as I noted in the same previous post, the universal for Weil — goodness, beauty, truth — is:

“an unfathomable marvel” that is too often desecrated at the hands of novelists and artists who render it cliché and portray evil as sensational and mysterious. We “envelop [the truth of the Good] in a fog in which, as in all fiction, values are reversed, so that evil is attractive and good is tedious,” when in fact, “nothing is so beautiful and wonderful, nothing is so continually fresh and surprising, so full of sweet and perpetual ecstasy, as the good.”

Nothing is so “continually fresh and surprising” as the universal goodness and beauty. Unfortunately, Weil does not elaborate upon this theme, at least not in the writings that I’ve read (and I’ve read most of her English translated works). This may in fact be a way for Weil to account for the particular manifestations of the universal essence in every person, instead of reducing everyone to something common or shared by all. In other words, it may be a way to account for variety, in joyful wonder no less!

But as it stands, Weil’s thought shares many of the characteristics associated with Gnosticism, and her own enthusiasm for the Cathars tends to confirm this association. However, Weil is genuinely trying to overcome the dualism of Gnosticism, between the finite and the infinite. The created world is capable of participating in the infinite and conveying the truth of the universals. But the struggle, in my reading of Weil, is whether the created as such is valuable — or is it only valuable insofar as it points toward or conveys the universal. Likewise for our problem with particularity among humans: can the distinguishing peculiarities be valuable (the finite) or only the universal essence (the eternal)?

This is a difficulty, of course, that is common to most philosophical systems, the ones worth studying. This includes the Platonist tradition from which Weil learned and practiced, long before her conversion to Christ in her late twenties. It is significant that Weil’s christology is entirely formulated in terms of the cross, not the resurrection. Christ mediated the eternal within creation through his perfect self-abnegation, culminating at the cross. That is the entire truth of the incarnation. As she once wrote: “… if the Gospel omitted all mention of Christ’s Resurrection, faith would be easier for me. The Cross by itself suffices me.” Yet, can the dualism described above be overcome without the resurrection? If we trust Chesterton or Balthasar or any number of Catholic figures (they seem to grasp this better than most Protestants), the resurrection is integral to the incarnation’s gospel — the good news of finitude’s redemption. Creation is assumed (taken up) forever into the eternal life of God, through the ascension of Christ’s body. In some way, the peculiar is now made holy.

Unfortunately, Weil died when she was 34 years old from tuberculosis, aggravated by her rigorously minimal food intake. If she had lived longer, she may have eventually discovered the Catholic (Christian) synthesis, just as it took Augustine years to overcome his own philosophical dualism.

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7 Responses to “Weil’s problem of particularity”

  1. Are the terms ‘universal’ and ‘particular’ being used in the standard philosphical sense, or does Weil use them in her own technical sense?

    • Kevin Davis said

      I would say it is typical of Platonist usage. Here are some examples: “In prayer we must not have in view any particular thing, unless by supernatural inspiration, for God is the universal being” (Gravity and Grace, p. 47). “Absolute purity, present here below to our earthly senses, as a particular thing, such can only be a convention…” (Waiting for God, p. 121). She will also use “relative” and “absolute.” The relative and absolute can be united, not as a movement from below, but as a movement from above (God). Yet, the stress is on the incapacity from below — which is all very Barthian — and I am trying to figure how this either establishes or erases certain distinguishing features of the “relative” or “particular.” Speaking of Barth, my concerns are similar to those expressed by Balthasar, especially his reading of Barth’s early material (Romerbrief) before he made the Incarnation his starting point.

      As for whether this usage of terms is precisely the same in, say, Thomism or German Idealism, I will leave it for others to say. Though it seems that everything after Plato is still dealing with Plato, either correcting (Aristotle, Hegel) or emulating (Kant, Schleiermacher). That is surely too simplistic, I know.

      Also bear in mind, I am trying to put this into my own words, which may or may not be faithful to Weil — such is the nature of interpretation.

  2. Robert F said

    ““… if the Gospel omitted all mention of Christ’s Resurrection, faith would be easier for me. The Cross by itself suffices me.” ”

    Sometimes Lutheran theology of the Cross sounds very much like this, however much Lutherans may deny it. In that case, the universal of the Cross becomes what is seen as redemptive, rather than the particularity of Jesus Christ’s cross.

    • Kevin Davis said

      Yes, the “universal of the Cross” is a good way to put it. That does seem to characterize the existential strand of dialectical theology (Bultmann, Tillich, and some “apocalyptic exegesis” stuff today), all of which was inspired by a recovery of Luther’s theology of the cross.

      Needless to say, there is some good stuff in this approach, but I increasingly find it severely limiting. It is potentially subversive of Nicaea as well, but I can save those thoughts for another time (until I have a better grasp of patristics).

      • Robert F said

        There also seems to be a connection between the radical death of God theology of Altizer, along with some of his colleagues, and the theology of the Cross. I’ve felt for some time as if the Lutheran idea that the infinite can be contained in the finite feeds into this tendency, as seen in the Lutheran idea that God, or the divine nature of Jesus Christ, died along with his human nature. This seems to me to directly contradict patristic theology, as well as logic. And perhaps Weil’s idea that what is valuable in the particular is the universal is also related to the idea that the finite can contain the infinite.

      • It’s definitely a departure from partistic theology. I’m running out the door to work so I can’t offer much more than that atm, but I know Torrance goes into detail in his ‘Atonement’ into the Lutheran ideas.

      • Kevin Davis said

        Interesting, I hadn’t considered it from that angle. Dialectics has both tendencies of either stressing the separation of creation and God or stressing their identification. Hegel and Moltmann and probably Jenson — all Lutherans too — stress the latter, while others (following Kant and Kierkegaard more) stress the former, like Bultmann. There’s some ambiguity on “contain” and “capacity.” It seems that everyone is reacting and counter-reacting to each other.

        As for Weil, my concern about the universal in the particular is that it erases the particular. In Lutheranism, I suppose there is a similar problem that the communicatio idiomatum (as convertible predicates of each nature) may erase the distinction between the divine and human.

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