A Secular Mysticism? Simone Weil, Iris Murdoch and the Idea of Attention

In M. del Carmen Paredes (ed.), Filosofía, arte y mística. Salamanca, Spain: Salamanca University Press (2017)
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Abstract
In this paper I consider Simone Weil’s notion of attention as the fundamental and necessary condition for mystical experience, and investigate Iris Murdoch’s secular adaptation of attention as a moral attitude. After exploring the concept of attention in Weil and its relation to the mystical, I turn to Murdoch to address the following question: how does Murdoch manage to maintain Weil’s idea of attention, even keeping the importance of mysticism, without Weil’s religious metaphysical background? Simone Weil returns to the importance of attention throughout her writing. To attend, for Weil, means to empty oneself of all that is personal, primarily one’s will, which Weil sees as the essence of the human individual. This act imitates God’s act of creation, considered as a withdrawal in order to let something other than himself exist. Since such withdrawal represents God’s supreme act of love, salvation for human beings lies in the attempt to do likewise. By giving up one’s will, while desiring God with all of one’s soul, one creates the conditions for God to descend into the soul. This ‘passive activity’ is attention. Weil’s writings had a deep impact on Iris Murdoch’s moral philosophy. In particular, Weil’s concept of attention is carried into Murdoch’s thought almost unchanged, with one striking exception: the absence of God in Murdoch’s system. Just as surprisingly, Murdoch at the same time maintains that mysticism and spirituality are crucial for morality, nor does she wish to sever the connection between attention and mysticism. Is Murdoch being inconsistent? I believe not. But the idea of attention as a mystical concept, within a metaphysics which has no room for God, requires further examination. For Murdoch, attention is the central capacity of the morally good person. Attention is, like in Weil, connected with an emptying of the self (for Murdoch the Ego) and a renunciation of will, in order to let something external make an impression in the subject. However, in Murdoch’s philosophy such external impression is not given by God, but by reality itself. Thus far, it appears, the notion of mysticism would be unnecessary. Yet for Murdoch reality is not something that we passively perceive, but something that requires a moral faculty – attention – made up of selflessness and desire for the good, in order to be apprehended. Two elements of mysticism then begin to surface: firstly, apprehension of reality requires a faculty that is not purely intellectual, but that involves the whole of the individual, including intuitions that one may be unable to explain (which Murdoch is happy to call ‘the soul’); secondly, the reality thus apprehended is considered as transcendent, insofar as its truth, infinitely distant, transcends the individual’s complete grasp. Thus the mystic, in Murdoch’s system, is regarded as an ideal moral person, not because s/he is guided by God, but because of his/her selfless ability to attend to the world beyond oneself and intuit its moral and metaphysical truth.
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