Q&A: Rebecca Rozelle-Stone on French philosopher Simone Weil’s short but eventful life

Though she lived in the mid-20th century, Simone Weil has much to teach the 21st, says Rebecca Rozelle-Stone, philosopher and Weil scholar at UND

French philosopher, mystic and political activist Simone Weil taught that cultivating attention in the classroom can help students become more attentive and more empathetic people, says Rebecca Rozelle-Stone, a UND associate professor who has written extensively on Weil. Web image.

French philosopher and activist Simone Weil (pronounced “Vay”) is a polarizing figure. Philosophy students either find the writings of the 20th-century thinker and author relevant for our time or dismiss them as outdated, said Rebecca Rozelle-Stone, associate professor in Philosophy and Religion at UND.

“Students tend to love her or hate her,” said Rozelle-Stone.

As a graduate student at Southern Illinois University, Rozelle-Stone belonged to the former group. She wrote her dissertation on Weil, who became the subject of her scholarship. Today, Rozelle-Stone is an international authority on Simone Weil, having penned numerous papers, book chapters and books about her and her worldview. She has also served as vice president and later president of the American Weil Society.

Rozelle-Stone is currently writing a layman’s introduction to Weil, which is slated for publication by the Oxford University Press in a couple of years.

UND Today chatted with Rozelle-Stone to learn more about her research on Simone Weil.

The below Q&A has been edited for clarity and length.

What was your first impression of Simone Weil’s works?

At first, when I read her works, I was almost offended by some of her philosophy. I really took issue with the emphasis that she gave on humility and obedience. And even some of the religious aspects of her writings were not in line with my thinking at the time. I still have some issues with those ideas.

But there was something about her writings about education and morality that really caught my attention. And over the course of about a semester, I got to the point where I started loving her work and her writing, especially when I learned about her life as well. It became such a fascination for me that I ended up writing my dissertation on Simone Weil, and ended up focusing most of my research on her since then.

This collection of essays on the continuing relevance of Simone Weil was co-edited by Rebecca Rozelle-Stone, UND associate professor of philosophy and religion. Click on the book to visit the book’s page at Amazon.com.

Who was Simone Weil?

She is a 20th-century philosopher and social activist. She’s often also called a Christian mystic, because she had religious experiences that would be considered mystical in nature.

She was born in 1909 in France and died in 1943. She was only 34 years old when she died, which is a very interesting aspect of her short life. I would say that her whole life was probably characterized by attention, which is one of the concepts in her writings that really fascinated me. When she was very young, even as a child, she was really aware of other people’s suffering. For instance, there were stories of her giving up sugar when she was, I think, 6 years old because the soldiers in World War I were having to live off of rationed sugar and didn’t have any.

When she was older and she had started teaching her own philosophy classes, she actually gave up her teaching post to go and work in a metal parts factory, because she wanted to experience firsthand the nature of oppression and the anxieties that are associated with that kind of work. She ended up regularly splitting her paychecks that she received at the factory amongst the workers with whom she worked.

The reason that she died at 34 was again, I would say, due to a kind of attentiveness. She was aware of the rations that her French country men and women were living off of in World War II. She had sympathized so extensively with them that she wasn’t allowing herself to eat any more than what they were given. She had tuberculosis at that time.

And so, her limiting her diet so strictly complicated her own disease, and she died as a result of that.

What were Weil’s views on education?

I’ll just give a little bit of context to the reason her ideas on education were interesting to me at that time in grad school. This was around 2006-07, when I started working on my dissertation, and at that time, cell phones were becoming really ubiquitous. Everyone started carrying them, including into the classroom. Facebook had just been created a few years prior.

Rebecca Rozelle-Stone

I was starting to see a real rise of distractedness in my own classes that I was beginning to teach as a grad student. Simultaneously, at our university and in others around the country, professors were being told that we needed to teach or cater to this new distracted type of students by including more technologies in our classes beyond even PowerPoint.

When I was reading Simone Weil, what struck me was her own philosophy on this. It’s not that she was dealing with technologies in the classroom at her time. But she was talking a lot about how the most important thing we can do as educators is to cultivate attentiveness in students.

And really, what she understood and what she argued was that the cultivation of attention in the classroom can actually translate to empathic attention toward other human beings in the world, especially when others are suffering or going through affliction. What she suggested needed to happen in the classroom to accomplish this is that, for instance, students – instead of just focusing on what they do well – should try to pursue those subjects that challenge them.

For her, education is not about the successes – the material successes like the good grades, or the degree that you get, or certainly the work that you get after school. For her, the main point was the struggling process of learning and how that cultivates the mind to be able to sustain itself through difficult times.

How do you translate some of Simone Weil’s teachings in your own classroom?

I teach her essay on school studies that inspired me in grad school in my Introduction to Philosophy class. I get the students to think about what they have presumed about education and its value for them in their lives. I have started to slow down when we’re going over primary texts in my classes to make sure that we’re really struggling with the big questions instead of just trying to cover as much material as possible. Quality over quantity is what I’m trying to emphasize to develop that attention.

It is called slow pedagogy or contemplative pedagogy: just trying to slow everything down and get students to sit sometimes in silence over a question, not feeling like we have to fill the air with noise.

The future of higher education is a topic that is salient on a national level. How can Simone Weil’s philosophy be applied to that topic?

I think there’s a real struggle going on now. I don’t think it’s just two sides. But, I do think there’s a big push to move away from the kind of classes and content that gets us to slow down and think through thorny issues. There’s a push away from the so-called impractical subjects like the humanities and the arts and the social sciences and toward the much more practical or professional subjects and degrees. That is being combined also with a push for more technology into the classrooms. All of that goes against this idea of cultivation of slow attentiveness in people.

So, I worry a lot that we’re going to see more and more graduates who are, we might say, technocrats. They think very narrowly or they don’t think much at all, but they perform functions.

But, I do think there’s also a push that we’re seeing come about from the slow pedagogy or contemplative pedagogy that’s rebelling against some of those forces. Right now, I think it’s probably a minority of teachers and students who are aware of that movement and who are embracing it. But, I wonder if there might be a real revolution in the future to return to something simpler but more humane in our learning.

What can you tell us about your upcoming book?

It’s part of the Oxford University Press series called A Very Short Introduction. They have all manner of subjects and thinkers that are included as part of that series, and they wanted one on Simone Weil.  I’m planning right now for about seven chapters that look at different aspects of her philosophy as well as her life in addition to how she applies to the 21st century and beyond, in my view.

The purpose behind this series is really to introduce lay audiences to this thinker. I’m going to be writing it in a very accessible way that’s not just meant for other Simone Weil scholars but for people who’ve never read Simone Weil or maybe never even taken a philosophy course.

What is it like focusing your research on another human being and their worldview?

There is a tendency when we philosophers study other philosophers to become a “friend” to that person who has inspired your work. It’s hard not to. You spend so much time reading their works and reading about their life. You become really invested in them. It does feel like there’s a kind of strange, perhaps imaginary friendship that comes out of that work.

And yet, one of the things I try to guard against in my scholarship is what we call hagiography, which means elevating the person we’re researching to an idol status. We don’t want to put them on a pedestal in our own minds or to the public where they’re beyond criticism.

So, it’s something that actually Simone Weil herself talked about: the importance of being honest at all times, being truthful, being open to reality, and never inflating something beyond what it actually is.

When it comes to her work, one of the things that I have done in my writing is to always point out where I’m critical of her or where she has been criticized by others. It’s always to try and be extremely honest and fair towards her. I think it’s what she would want, but it’s also what is demanded of me as a responsible scholar.