Real Philosophy Re-Discovered 4: Simone Weil’s “Lectures on Philosophy.” With an Introduction by Z.

1. Introduction, by Z

Simone Weil was a French philosopher, religious mystic, and radical political activist.

She died of tuberculosis in 1943 at the age of 34.

Her Lectures on Philosophy is a 1978 translation of the transcript of a set of lectures Weil presented in French in 1933-34.

In his Introduction to the translation, Peter Winch writes this:

“Professional philosophers” have by no means been in the forefront of those who have taken an interest in her work. Part of the reason for this is that, though the pieces which have already appeared in English translation do often contain discussions of themes which exercise Anglo-Saxon academic philosophers, these occur in contexts, and in a style, which may create the impression that  their  bearing  on the central concerns of  such philosophers  is at best a glancing  one.

Right. In other words, even despite the worldwide and especially European fame of Weil’s work in the 1950s and 60s, up to and through the 1970s, 20th century English-speaking professional academic philosophers had almost completely ignored her.

Indeed, aside from a short burst of interest in Weil’s work by some Wittgensteinians in the 70s, as far as English-speaking professional academic philosophers taking her seriously is concerned, nothing has essentially changed since 1978.

Winch’s Introduction is OK; but there’s also something philosophically dodgy about his attempt to legitimate Weil’s philosophical ideas by showing how very Wittgensteinian they are.

The truth is that Weil was a philosophical original, working altogether outside professional academic philosophy, and a precursor of post-WW II Existentialism.

Camus said of her that she was “the only great spirit of our times.”

Correspondingly, the connected, intimate 1951 Introduction by a person who actually heard and saw the 1933-34 lectures, and who created the transcript, Anne Reynaud-Guérithault, is far more philosophically insightful than Winch’s. She writes:

Simone Weil is by now already well known and is portrayed by some as “the greatest mystic of the century” and by others as “a revolutionary anarchist.” So I thought it would be of interest to introduce her, quite simply, as a teacher  of  philosophy… Now I am about to reveal  to  the  public an aspect,  perhaps  an unexpected one, of the young philosopher…. I think I can declare that there are not “two Simone Weils” as people are beginning to say…. A careful study of the ‘”two Simone Weils” will thus reveal sometimes a development or a shift of thought, and sometimes apparent contradictions at which one will soon cease to be surprised;  underlying  all this there  is a  profound unity.

In other words, Simone Weil is, at once, and in a profoundly unified way, a philosophical mystic and a philosophical/political anarchist.

Philosophical mystics hold that the deepest philosophical insights are essentially non-discursive and aesthetic, ethical, or religious.

And philosophical/political anarchists hold (i) that the coercive authority of the State is rationally unjustified and immoral, and (ii) that we should reject and exit the State in order to create and belong to an inherently non-oppressive, worldwide ethical community, humanity, based on respect for human dignity.

Weil brilliantly and seamlessly fused those two philosophical commitments.

No wonder she has been almost completely ignored by Anglo-American professional academic philosophers, including, scandalously, feminist philosophers.

That’s because they’re pretty much universally and dogmatically committed to the deadly “triple threat” combination of

(i) conceptualism/intellectualism,

(ii) hard secularism/scientism, and

(iii) (neo)liberal statism.

God forbid they’d take a proto-Existentialist religious mystic and social anarchist seriously.

Weil is nothing but a “crazy Continental,” a “crazy theist,” and a “crazy communist,” therefore Not Like Us, therefore not a serious philosopher.

But it wasn’t the “crazy Continentals,” “crazy theists,” and “crazy communists” who fucked up contemporary philosophy.

Contrariwise: Us did it.

The full text of Weil’s Lectures can be found here.

Directly below I’ve excerpted, with some minor editing,

(i) the section on “language” from chapter 1,

(ii) the section on “mind” from chapter 2,

(iii) the sections on “the theoretical problem of oppression,” “the present state of affairs” and “the right practical attitude towards the state,” from chapter 3, and

(iv) the section on “the true foundations of morality” from chapter 4.

2. Simone Weil, Lectures on Philosophy

2.1 Language

Language is what marks off human beings from everything else. Descartes when he asked himself  whether  animals think, found an answer to the question thanks to language. If animals were to speak, they would be able to communicate with us. Not even with the best possible training, have horses or dogs been able to speak, though if Europeans go amongst the most savage of peoples, they are able to communicate with them through language. As for animals which have some kind of social structure like bees and ants.

There is no reason to believe that they speak. In any case, they have no written language, no written records. They have inherited instincts, but no education.

So, with language, we come to something that belongs to human beings alone.

Kinds of language

(i) Spontaneous language: it is something animal (and so human too). It is what conveys affections. It is natural in the sense that it is made up of natural reactions of muscles, glands and lungs. It varies from individual to individual.

(ii) Language proper: it is something that belongs only to human beings. It is what conveys thoughts. It is something artificial in relation to the individual (but natural for society). It is social. Traces of natural language are to be found in it: interjections, onomatopoeia (for imitation is a natural reflex), tone of voice, accent.

But generally speaking, words do not bear any resemblance to things. (One of the delights of  poetry  is that in it we have a sort  of fusion of artificial and natural language.) This feature of language is particularly striking with written language, which is artificial twice over in that the character of the letters do not bear any resemblance to spoken words. If language did resemble things it would lose its value. The relations of words to things are conditioned reflexes: all words can be  compared  to  Pavlov’s  disc.

With these two characteristics: language is artificial, and lan­guage is social, one should be able to explain everything there is  to explain  about the wonderful  power  language  has.

Language as a means of creating conditioned reflexes

It is through language that every being (for example a dog) undergoes and at the same time brings about (as Pavlov did) a conditioned reflex.

(i) Memory: it is on account of language that one can think of such and such a thing. (An example, already mentioned, is that of a prisoner alone in his cell who wants to stop himself forgetting those dear to him. So he writes their names on the walls of the prison to be sure of creating conditioned reflexes for himself), (one repeats a word, a phrase,  one commemorates  the  dead).

(ii) Emotions: one can make the conditioned reflex attached  to  a name so strong that no natural reflex will be able, later, to destroy it. Whenever a lover  is in a state which  is like that he is in when he is near what he loves, everything seems to him to emanate from what is loved (“crystallisation”1).

One can help to bring this kind of thing about by. words; it is words,  names that stay constant for  us.

N.B. The more fixed a form of language is, the more suitable is it to express feeling. (Cf. prayers, poems.) One cannot change the lines; the lines of the poem are written in language so formed as to be made unalterable. Due to this, the feeling expressed takes on an unchanging character. For example Lamartine’s “The Lake “2 has immortalised the regret which lovers feel when they see once more a place where they were in love.

(iii) Will: this comes into it too because one can will to react in  a certain way. Words are fixed, unchangeable as far as we are concerned. (Examples: ‘honour ‘, ‘integrity’,  ‘theft’, etc.) The role of maxims. This is why one uses different words which mean the same thing to bring about different effects. It is a means of influencing oneself , as well as the crowds.

Once, after hesitating, one has taken sides in an issue, one repeats the words which present the matter in the light of the side one has taken – just in order to maintain one’s position. So words are useful if one wants to act, but full of danger where it is matter of thought, because they egg us on to look at things from a single point of view. Once the word  is on one’s lips, it can be repeated  without end.

(iv) Attention (a form of will): this is the fourth way in which language is so important in the life of the mind. Once we possess language, there are words amongst those which come to our lips that we can reject: choice of words. For example, when we are doing an  exercise  in  mathematics,  we  do  not  write  ‘sun’,  but ‘triangle’, which shows that we are more interested in the problem of geometry than in the sun that shines outside.

Language  as having a reality of  its own

Language has a reality of its own because it is fixed, permanent, artificial.

It enables us to express ourselves: our tears, cries, groans are states of our own, often brought about unconsciously, but, they  are always felt as our own; on the other hand, the word ‘pain ‘ has nothing painful about it. As soon as one has given a name to one’s feelings one can look on them as objects which have a reality of their own.

Poetry: the wonder of it is that the feeling that is expressed is one’s own; the metre adds something artificial in order to compensate for this fusion of artificial and spontaneous language. The poet has a defence against abandoning himself to the feelings he expresses: rhythm, metre, rules.

As for prose, since it lacks these means, any prose work in which feeling is not elevated  to the level of  thought is weak.

Spoken language: the physiological structure of the ear and the voice can be divided into two parts, one of which acts and the other perceives, and this makes possible “internal dialogue.” Plato: “Thought is a dialogue carried on with oneself.”2 In so far as it is not dialogue, it is no more than reverie, thoughts of the moment. For it to rise above this, for reflection  to take place, there must  be the two.

Written language is something even more impersonal, especially when  it is printed.

Printed prose: (a) it is something external to us, it seems as though it does not belong to  us;  (b) it has the same appearance for others as for ourselves; in this way it is something that belongs to the whole of  humanity.

The more personal a form of expression is, the more implications it has. The more and more objective such means are, the better  and better  they express what  is personal.

It was because Michelangelo went through unbearable conflicts with himself that he felt the need to make statues. It was because Beethoven had felt unbearable joy that he wrote “The Ode to Joy.”

Language  is, in short, only one of  the arts, prose is one of the arts; because it is made up of definite signs which produce definite reflexes  it is the art that  is best  suited  for thought.

Language as something easy to handle

Language is something easy to handle because it depends on movements, it is well defined, fixed, artificial.

We can, thanks  to language, call to mind anything we please; it is language which  changes us into people who  act.

We are, of course, subject to what exists, but we have power over almost everything through words. I have no power whatsoever over the sun and stars; but I have complete control of the word ‘sun’. So, ‘Open Sesame’ is a symbol. Raising the dead, spirits: words alone call forth the reactions which the thing itself would call forth. (Cf. Faust, the sorcerer’s apprentice, words of good or bad omen.)

Everything becomes a plaything for us thanks to language. Through the words  I  speak,  I  have  the earth, the sun, the stars at my disposal. No thought would be possible if we were as passive towards things as we are powerless.

Magic expresses this idea that through spoken words one can act upon anything whatsoever (an idea which is profoundly true).

Language as a means of coming to grips with the world

(i) Through it we possess everything that is absent (it is a support for memory). We can, of course, have for a moment a general feeling of something being absent without language; but, apart from language, we cannot call to mind its characteristics exactly.

Without language, one would never be able to relate what one sees to what one does not see or to what one has seen. Language  is a bridge crossing over the moments of time. The past, without language, would only exist as a vague feeling which could not help us to know anything. Likewise, the future only exists thanks to language.

(ii) It gives us order. Thanks to language, the world is like the playthings which children take to pieces and put together again. Order is something which unfolds in time, and depends on a relationship between successive operations. Without language there is no recollection: so, an operation which has taken place would no longer exist.

It is language that enables us to represent the world to ourselves as a small machine (eclipses of the moon using oranges). Language, by allowing us to recreate the world, makes us like the gods, but we only achieve this through symbols. In that case, one sees two ways of thinking of the  world.

The two ways in which we come to grips with the world

(i) It is language that gives us everything: the past,  future, what  is far off and near at hand, what is absent and present, what is imagined, the celestial sphere, the atom, etc. but it does this only through symbols.

(ii) Action (bodily movements) gives us real power, but only on what is present, near to the body’s position in space, and is related to needs.

The really important  question  is to find  out whether  one has  to place all the emphasis on language or all on action, or on both together.

Ethics depends on answering  this  question.

Must knowledge consist in making principles subordinate to results? (pragmatism). It is one and the same question which has to be answered  in the two cases.

We assume that there are two kinds of relationships between ourselves and things: (a) the order resulting from the reaction of speaking; (b) the order which results from acting effectively, but only on that part of the world that is within our grasp at each moment.

Let us compare the relationships which depend on action and those  which  depend  on language.

(i) The relationships which depend on action are subordinate to our needs. The sphex, to give an example, only has a relationship with the  nerve centre of  the caterpillar; if we are running  away from a bull, our only relationship is with the bull’s horns. We have no control over what we need; its order is not something ordained: a grain of salt is useless, it is a handful that we can make use of.  In the case of a pulley, one needs a weight of more than ten kilograms to lift a weight of ten kilograms. Here, we have a break in continuity in the series of  numbers.  Hegel: “Quantity becomes a matter of  quality.”4 Other examples: modern  scientific cooking  is less healthy than farm cooking.

When one plays the piano, one does not need to know how the strings vibrate.

Needs are always related to wholes; the body is itself a whole which one cannot dissect without making a corpse of it. Needs follow one another by chance. So, it is attention alone that estab­lishes relationships over the order of which we have no control; there is then only  an  order which  is due to chance,  so no order at all.

(ii) What language alone can give us is  method,  and  it can  do this for only one reason: because it is so different from what is real. In the world, of course, we have to obey what is necessary. For example, we can carry no more than a certain number of kilos; beyond that all weights are the same for us since we are debarred from them all on the same score (they are too heavy). On the other hand, we can speak of whatever number of kilos we wish, for the word kilo does not weigh a thing. Language enables us to lay down relationships which  are completely  foreign  to our needs.

Take the phases of the moon as an example: we are able, thanks to language, to say that the moon exists even when we do not see it. Words cost nothing, they weigh nothing, we can make use of them to construct an order of things which depends entirely on ourselves.

So let us notice this paradox: it is the order, which depends only on us, that appears as objective, as a necessity.

Number is not something that we get from the world; we ourselves, and no one else, are the authors of the series of num­bers: for example, the world, in  a storm, is not  going to provide us with  I  grain, then  2, then  3 grains of  sand.

There  is no  relationship  at  all  between  the  necessity  that I + l = 2 and that of feeling the weight of 2 kilos falling on one’s head.


(a)        Language is the only source of   method.

(b)        It is language alone that provides us with the necessities which we call objective, in the sense that they are completely independent of our needs, the kind of people we are, our feelings, the situation in which we are placed, etc., etc. The two things go together; without method, no objective necessity. Without objective necessity, no method.

(iii) All the same, in so far as one rests content with words and nothing else, order and necessity disappear.

Take an example from algebra: there one can add a line to a surface.5 It is only in language, taken by itself, that one does not need to say  “I pace” before saying  “100 paces.” So, the value of language is to be found in a relationship between language and something else. It is action  that brings reality  with  it.

So, we meet a notion we have not come across before: the notion of reality. While action comes after language and depends on it, action itself brings with it something new. There is a difference between saying 100 paces and making 100 paces. It is impossible to deny that there is this “more” which action possesses in relation to language; or, rather, it is not a “more,” but something quite different:  it  is reality.  One will  never,  however  far one presses language, come face to face with reality. The question of the reality of the external world becomes then quite a simple one: the simple fact that making 100 paces is something different from saying 100 paces is a proof  of its reality.

The unforeseen is what is different from what we find in an ordered  language.

One gets the impression that there is some evil power in things when they present us with obstacles that we cannot overcome (landslides). The catastrophes which make us lose our heads, lead us to say: “Is this a dream?” If, now, one supposes that the same men, faced with the same blocks of stone, instead of reacting blindly, begin to reflect about the situation in an ordered way and use a lever,  everything  changes:  the lever is a means of  making a weight less without making the object any less. The stone then loses all its evil character; any weight can be moved by some force; all one needs to do is to establish a relationship  between  a force of 50 kilos, for example, and a weight of 300 kilos. “Give me a place to stand, and I will  move the world” (Archimedes).

It is this idea that overcomes all the evil force in the world. There is always, between the force at our command and that which opposes us, a relationship such that we will succeed in acting, in leaving our mark on the world, whatever the disproportion between them is. Provided one is able to make this decomposition, the very smallest  force can overcome the  greatest.

There is a real difference between the man  who hurls himself  at a stone, who wishes to conquer it through magic, and the man who goes to look for a lever. Notice that it is passion which forces one to take up the first attitude, and that an heroic effort is needed to take up the other. Work continually demands an effort of this kind.

When one hurls oneself against a stone, one feels one is in the middle of a nightmare; but a dream has nothing in common with an action that is governed by an ordered language.  But, in what  we are now saying in speaking of a stone, etc., there is nothing  real because there is nothing unforeseen. In science, in reasoning, one sees in the problems one is dealing with only what one has  put  there  oneself  (hypotheses).  If in  actions  there  was nothing except what we ourselves suppose them to contain, nothing would ever get done, since there would be no snags. All sorts of accidents can occur between  the time when  I have seen what the problem  is and the time when  I  have acted. Reality  is defined by that. It is what is not contained in the problem as such; reality is what method  does not allow us to  foresee.

Why is it that reality can only appear like this, in a negative sort of way? What marks off the “self” is method; it has no other source than ourselves: it is when we really employ method that we really begin to exist. As long as one employs method only on symbols, one remains within the limits of a sort of game. In action that has method about it, we ourselves act, since it is we ourselves who found the method: we really act because what is unforeseen presents itself  to us.

One can never  give a proof  of  the reality of  anything; reality is not something open to proof, it is something established. It is established just because proof is not enough. It is this characteristic of language, at once indispensable and inadequate, which shows the reality of  the external  world.

Most people hardly ever realise this, because actions which proceed from reasoning are rare. Or to put it more exactly, it is rare that the very same man thinks and puts his thought into action. (On the one hand we have the engineer who does the thinking,  and on the other  the  worker  who does the work.)

Kant has defined art as a miraculous harmony between nature and mind.7

This is what enables us to understand that a piece of music is  not just something which exists in the mind, but that there is, at each moment, something unforeseen about it. Man’s  greatness only exists in those moments when he is really conscious of reality. It is very sad that every man does not possess this relationship between  language and action which  brings reality with it.

We have now, at one stroke, solved both a scientific and a moral question:  virtue  is the  relationship  there  is between  an ordered language and action. Intellectual virtue consists in using language in an ordered way and in never making it the slave of success.

The influence which society has on the individual through language

(i) This influence makes itself felt first of all by the very fact that language exists. Society, it must be said, is not an aggregate of individuals; the individual is something that comes after society, who exists through society; it is society plus something else. The order is: society, individual.

The individual only exists through society and society derives its value from the  individual.

(ii) What is more, it is through the particular characteristics of such and such a language that society exerts its influence. For example, Greek and French are analytical languages which are exactly suited to reasoning. In England, one cannot mention one name like Montesquieu, Rousseau etc. but English is a wonderful means of poetic expression. German is a language which lends itself more to systems than analysis (Kant).

(iii) Then, there are words. Words have many senses, like:

head (tête): 

thought (lose one’s head) (perdre la tête)

will (to keep one’s head) (tenir tête)

command (to be at the head of) (être à la tête de)

value (valeur):

of money (d’échange)

moral value (valeur morale)

courage of a thoughtful, deliberate nature (courage réfléchi et voulu)

property (propriété):

personal possessors (ce qu’on possède)

essential characteristics (caracteres essentiels)

fortune (fortune)

goods and money (biens et argent)

chance (hasard)

hearth (foyer):

fire (feu)

family (famille)

origin of movement (origine d’un movement)

(a hotbed of conspiracy) (foyer de conspiration)

world (monde):

kosmos (arrangement, ordre)

universe (univers)

crowd (foule)

ceremonial gatherings (réunions cérémonieuses)

grace (grâce):

a natural harmony in appearance (harmonie naturelle dans l’attitude)

to grant pardon (faire grâce)

to show gratitude (rendre grâces)

divine grace (grâce divine)

sight (vue):

the sense of sight (sens de la vue)

a view (paysage)

attitude of mind, etc. etc. (vue de l’esprit, etc. etc.)

So, language itself already contains thoughts.

It is a natural creation of society; it would be impossible for us to invent a word just like that.

(When something new is discovered in science, the words used are quite barbaric, and moreover are derived  from Greek or Latin  roots, or the scientist’s name.)

(iv) So, due to language, we are steeped in an intellectual en­vironment. It is impossible for us to have thoughts which are not related to all the thoughts bequeathed to us through language. I n so far as we give expression to a state we are in, it becomes something that belongs to the experience of all men. So language is for this very reason a means of purification; it is a source of health in the sense that it expresses all the things which torment  us. As soon as it is expressed it becomes something general, human,  so something  that  we can overcome.

Aristotle:  “Tragedy  is a means of  purification.”6

Once Goethe had  expressed  his despair  in  Werther it became a phase  through  which  all people pass.

Any madness in us gains from being expressed, because in this way one gives a human form to what separates us from humanity.

(v) Conversely, thanks to language, we are related to someone else’s thought as if it were our own. It is impossible to receive a thought without making it our own.

In this way, an exchange of thoughts is made possible. This is what makes up culture; this is why culture is called the ‘huma­nities’. Language creates brotherhood among men. This is very true of written works, but also of popular sayings, myths (the Bible, Greek mythology, fairy-tales, magic), poems, works of art. All these things create community among men, a community not only of thought, but also of feelings. Everyone recognises in Phaedra jealousy, love etc. If, when two men are at loggerheads, the one were to recognise that the other’s anger  is the same as his own, the quarrel  would  end.

Language badly used

Language is dangerous insofar as it is something  mechanical.

One can put forward a materialist theory  of error by thinking  of it as language badly  used.

We have seen that language is something precious because it allows us to express ourselves; but it is fatal when one allows oneself to be completely led astray by it, because then it prevents one from expressing oneself. Language is the source of the pre­judices and haste which Descartes thought of as the sources of error.

One can, if one wishes, reduce the whole art of living to a good use of language.


1 See Stendahl, On Love.

2 See Lamartine, Penguin Book of French Verse, pp. 353 ff.

3 See Plato, Theaetetus, 189E and Sophist, 263E.

4 See Hegel, Logic, trans. William Wallace (Clarendon Press,  Oxford   1975),  pp. 158-60.

5 See Weil’s letter to Alain, probably written in 1933: “Descartes never found a way to prevent order from becoming, as soon as it is conceived, a thing instead of an idea. Order becomes a thing, it seems to me, as soon as one treats a series as a reality distinct from the terms which compose it, by expressing it with a symbol; now algebra is just that, and has been since the beginning (since Vieta).” S. Weil, Seventy Letters, trans. R. Rees (Oxford University Press, London  1965), p.  3.

6 See Aristotle, Poetics, trans.  I. Bywater (Clarendon  Press. Oxford  1940), p. 1449b27.

7 See Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgment, “Critique of the Aesthetic Power of Judgment” (Ak 5: 201-356).

2.2 Mind

Mind :  its characteristics

It is impossible to study the mind in a direct way because its characteristics are negative ones.

(i) Its duality does not involve two existent things. We can never lay hold of what it is in us that isolates our own thoughts and makes judgements about them.

(ii) Perfection, infinity.

The first thing that we know about ourselves is our imperfection.

This is what Descartes meant when he said: ‘I know God before I know myself.’

The only mark of God in us is that we feel that we are not God. We feel that we should not be imperfect and limited; if it were perfectly right and proper to be so, then we would not think ourselves imperfect; we feel that  this  imperfection  is  alien  to us.

(iii) Necessity points to mind well enough, but what we grasp is the necessity of things. There would be no necessity if the mind did not bring it to the  surface. The world  appears as an obstacle to the  mind.

So, if we ever think that we have got hold of mind, it  is  an illusion.

The study of the mind is not a study which can appeal to any kind of introspection, and a fortiori, to observation.

The study of mind can only proceed by looking beyond the thoughts  that  we  express  for  signs  of  doubt,  perfection, order (necessity). So one can say that the study of mind is related to metaphysics.

Consciousness – unconsciousness. Degree of consciousness

Classical philosophy did not raise the question because it ad­mitted only conscious thoughts. In this classical philosophy there was no idea of an unconscious psychological life. Today there is talk only of the unconscious. Leibniz introduced this notion in the following way: he remarked that when one is occupied with something and a very faint noise occurs one does not hear it (a  drip of water); nevertheless, one hears the sound of rain (a great number of drops). Leibniz came to the following conclusion: a conscious perception is made up of a number of unconscious perceptions. This is the  theory  of minute perceptions.

Leibniz also believed it is possible to perceive unconscious thoughts, not only unconscious perceptions. “Music is a mathematics of the soul which counts without knowing it counts.”

Once this notion was introduced into philosophy it was of great importance  in  the  nineteenth century.

General importance of the question

From now on, we have stopped thinking of ourselves as only coming to grips with the material world, as masters of our own souls. We have an idea of a second soul of which we are not masters. One can, in a sketchy way, say that this second soul is thought of  in two ways. It can be thought of as the better part of  us or as the  worse.

The first view is that of  Bergson.

The second is that of Freud. For him the subconscious is the place where one represses all the thoughts which should not be allowed to see the light of day because  they  are bad.  Thought, for Freud, is a choice made from among all the psychological phenomena and they are controlled by conformity to social rules.

For Bergson, it is the world and the demands of practical life that exercise this  control.

These two conceptions are alike in the sense that they both make appeal  to something outside  ourselves.

We are going to investigate whether “psychological phenomena” and “conscious phenomena” are  the  same:  we  shall  examine  the way in which the notion of the unconscious, of  the subconscious, once it is formed, is used and shall try to form a judgement about it.

Examples: scarcely conscious psychological phenomena: a dull ache which turns out to be toothache; a vague  feeling of  distress (for example in waking up) which  is found  to be a memory of  some misfortune or other; a vague resentment, etc., some vague feeling of affection about  nothing in particular.

Phenomena which are on the verge of consciousness: a continuous noise – one believes one does not hear it, but if it stops, one notices it, so one is conscious without knowing it.

Similarly, everything one perceives when one goes to sleep and when one wakes up; every psychological phenomenon which goes with a concentrated act of attention: “distraction ” (something which one did not notice, but which one later remembers); everything which goes with a state of lack of attention (reverie, so well described by Rousseau). There are people who never get beyond such states: children.

On the  other  hand,  when  one  is attentive,  one’s  consciousness is open to illumination: for example, when  one is doing a problem  in geometry, if one applies oneself to it; for one may be tired and think about it almost dreamily, unconsciously. Men of genius, one thinks,  are  those  who have unconsciousnesses of genius.

Freud and the subconscious

Examples of the subconscious:

In literature: Hermione, who,  subconsciously,  loves  Pyrrhus and hates Orestes (“Who told you to?”); in Phaedra; in the comedies of Moliere (The  spite  of   lovers).  Praise  of  a  man  in  a   high position whom one admires supposedly for  his  own  worth.  The way one criticises someone when one says: “It is not because I feel an aversion  to h im, but because he has such and such a fault,” etc.

(Comedy for the most part is an unveiling of such  secret motives.)

The case of the Bourgeois gentilhomme: Monsieur Jourdain who thinks he wants to become a cultured person, really wants to show off. Generally speaking, all actions which have vile motives appear to  consciousness  as  having  quite  different ones.

Every time there is a conflict between what we are and what we want to be,  we act so as to appear to be what we want to be.

Freud derived the idea of repression from this simple notion. Everything that we have repressed comes out again in everyday life in the form of dreams and unsuccessful actions and patho­logically in the form of neuroses and obsessions.

Examples: clumsiness which makes it impossible to do a boring piece of work; missed trains when, really, one doesn’t want to catch them,  etc.

So according to Freud, unsuccessful acts have their origin  in some disturbing tendency.

He studied dreams: they are satisfactions of unsatisfied tendencies, and in particular they are symbolic satisfactions of repressed tendencies or symbolic expressions of  repressed  thoughts.

But, in the dream itself , there is a censor;  and  for this reason they are only symbolic things.

He made a special  study of neuroses  (the young girl stricken by anxiety at the thought of staying at  home alone: she wanted to stop her mother from going to see the person whom she wished to marry). For Freud all neuroses, to put it generally, come from repressed tendencies which are satisfied symbolically. In  order to heal these illnesses,  Freud  thought  that it is necessary to find  out  the subconscious  (repressed) tendencies  by psychoanalysis (an exhaustive questioning). Then one sees  if these tendencies, once brought to the light of day, can be  destroyed. He thinks that repression comes from “taboos,” from social prejudices. Now, those things which come most under the influence  of  society,  all  have to do with sex.

The consequences of his theories are very far reaching. One has an inkling of their overall intellectual and moral significance: there would be in our minds thoughts which we do not think, in our souls wishes which we do not wish, etc. Realising this would result in freeing oneself  from all obstacles.

Freud goes a little way to correcting the demoralising consequences of his teaching by a notion which is nevertheless quite vague: sublimation.  There is no doubt that for some people love  is a violent desire (Phaedra), for others a work of art (Dante), but that is not clearly explained.

This is a correction from a moral point of  view, not a theoretical one.

Point to examine: are there really in our souls thoughts which escape us?

We shall make a closer study of this.

Degrees of consciousness

(i) A state of reverie, and other cases where one is in a very obscure state of mind (being half-asleep, very tired, certain illnesses).

Rousseau has analysed these very well.

In this state we can distinguish almost nothing; they do not, generally  speaking, last for long.

One might say that what is obscure is the object of consciousness and not one’s attention. The psychological state is obscure, the consciousness that one has of it is very dear. But why are these psychological states obscure? Because they are passive, emotional states.  One  is  conscious  of  their  passive nature.

The term ‘half-conscious’, if one uses it, only obscures the question.

(ii) Absent-mindedness: what is surprising about this state is that thoughts which one is not in the act of forming are present in the mind; there seems to be something paradoxical about this.

On this point one does not have to think that there are thoughts which no one thinks, because there is the body. The part of the body on which the mind acts, the action of the mind on the body, this  alone is something dear; nevertheless the whole body is in some confused way present to the mind. We are vaguely conscious of bodily mechanisms, not of  thoughts.


(i) Let us take up Leibniz’s example again (the minute perceptions). The mind remains insensible to the sound of a drop of water which does nothing to interrupt the body’s equilibrium. That is nothing surprising, and  has nothing  to do with consciousness.

(ii) Attention is often unconscious: when one gives all one’s attention to something one is not aware that one is doing it. Descartes: “It is one thing to be conscious, quite another to be conscious that one is.”

Complete attention is like unconsciousness.

(iii) Unconscious memory according to Bergson: one can explain it by a conditioned reflex. For Bergson, the mind is a store of unconscious memories which the body draws out of it.

(Those become conscious which are in harmony with the state of the body.)

One might just as well suppose that the body is a store of unconscious memories.

(iv) With regard to what is called ‘the association  of  ideas’ there are no ideas; this can be explained quite well by reference  to the body.

(v) Habit: whatever habit we think of we find they are completely determined by physiological mechanisms. Is there anything else involved? It is true that a mechanical act is very different from something done  through habit.

One often says: “I acted mechanically,” in the case of unsuccessful actions and “That’s what I am in the habit of doing” in the case of things one knows how to do. So things done out of habit (one’s job) are directed actions; it looks as if there is some unconscious knowledge in habit. This is a difficult question to which we shall return.

Let us point out that one does not need to refer to unconscious knowledge to explain this.

Habitual actions which are not mech­anical always demand control. (Example: crossing the streets in Paris, playing some game with ease, etc.)

Once something has become a habit, one has always to allow the body to adapt itself to the situation in which it finds itself, but control must always be exercised; only, moments of attention are immediately  forgotten,  when  there  is no correction  to be made.

One is conscious of the control that one has only when “things go astray.” No one knows what he is doing when he acts correctly, but, when he makes a mistake, he is always conscious of that. One can compare it to a continual noise one is not aware of ; when it stops, one notices it; very much the same kind of thing takes place in the mechanism of the body. So, in something done “from habit” consciousness can exercise its control in flashes, but one forgets that one has exercised this control. This attempt at an explanation may seem muddled, but it has the merit of trying to give an explanation,  whereas  the unconscious explains nothing.

The subconscious

The question of the subconscious only really arises in relation to what Freud calls repressed thoughts. It is the most  interesting point at issue here. We have to find out whether, in this case too, one can find another explanation of repression, without supposing that there is a container in our soul where we put our well-known bogies.

The phenomenon that Freud mentions has been observed at all times. The devil, in the Christian tradition, which leads one into temptation, can be thought of as the subconscious. Likewise, think of the ‘I know not what ‘ in seventeenth-century literature or of The Spite of Lovers.

It is certain that we often act from different motives, but that does not mean  that we are not aware of  these  motives.

It often happens that we feel that we are going to think of something; then there is some reaction which stops this thought from taking place. A whole lot of actions would become impossible in actual life if we did not have the ability not to dwell on our thoughts in this way.

Examples: in the case of a position gained through foul play, say that of gaining first place through cribbing, one ends up by being proud  not only in front of others, but also  by being proud with regard to oneself. A man who lives on financial speculation will not allow its true nature to enter his mind

–For it is, in brief, theft.

The question is one of finding out how this self-deception works. Are there  two kinds of  people: one who sets about intriguing to gain the Legion of Honour, and the other who takes it seriously? etc.

It seems that one could  do away with  the term  ‘subconscious’ as used by Freud, and retain the term ‘repression ‘. It may be that repressed thoughts come out again in dreams, etc. We can say that thought is essentially conscious, but that one can always prevent oneself from formulating it completely. There is a confusion in such ideas because one does not  want  to  make  them  clear, but, in the case of the subconscious, the consciousness which one has  of these thoughts is not obscure. Repression consists in calling something by another name: for example the ambitious man will call his ambition “public good.” When Hermione explains to Orestes that she hates Pyrrhus, this love of hers for Pyrrhus is not subconscious, it is repressed on account of language. Phaedra thinks that she is going to implore Hyppolytus  through  love of  his son; the repressed  desire  gets expressed  unawares.

There would be no repression if there were no consciousness. Repression is a bad conscience;  there  will  come a time when  one no  longer  needs  to  repress  it.

So, repression is the ability one has for self-deceit. It depends  on the duality there is in human nature. Bu t there is no need to  say, as Freud does, that one is in no way responsible for the things one represses. One has every right to reproach someone for his subconscious thoughts; one has  the  right, and even  the duty, to do so in one’s own  case; one has a duty  to control   them.

Moral  importance ( the “choice “)

So we have to choose between: believing in a clear conscience, or only believing in degrees of  consciousness.

The theories about the subconscious and the unconscious make of us wooden horses in which, following Plato’s comparison, there are warriors  (thoughts)  which  live an  independent life.

At the other end of  the scale, we  have  Kant’s idea: “I   think.”

What one calls the subconscious is something formulated; what is unformulated is what cannot be formulated  because it contains a contradiction. While Socrates stands for clear thought, Freud shows us purity and impurity as capable of existing together:  that is what is dangerous about his theory. But when Freud speaks of tendencies which come out again through  dreams and neuroses, he himself says that what is impure in us should come out again. But, the true way of fighting against subconscious ideas is not to repress anything, but to try to make everything clear in the way Socrates did.

What one must do, is to say: “What are you thinking about? About a murder. Very well, stop thinking about it.” That is not repression.

We have to bring into the light of open day the monsters within us; and not be afraid of looking them straight in the face. The Catholic religion says that there is no need to be afraid of what  we can find within ourselves; that we can find all sorts of monsters there.

So we can conclude that we are responsible for our evil as well as our  good thoughts.

What part does the “self “ play in repressed thoughts? It brings about in fact the act of repression. The essence of repressed tendencies is lying; the essence of this lying is the repression of which one is aware.

Freud thinks that psychoanalysis is something scientific; he does not  see that  it is before everything a moral  question.

We are completely  responsible  for  the degree of clarity there is in our own thoughts; we do not always make the necessary effort to become fully aware of them, but we always have the ability to become so. All the observations which tend to establish that there are degrees of consciousness can be accepted, but, when they are not explained by reference to physiological states, they are explained by reference to the non-activity of voluntary thought. So, in reality, psychological consciousness and moral conscious­ness are one and the same. One owes it to oneself to achieve this psychological consciousness. All absence of moral awareness is the result of an absence of psychological awareness. All bad action is an action which implies a repression; every action which does not imply  it  is good.

2.3 The Theoretical Problem of Oppression

Definition of oppression: it is the negation of Kant’s principle. Man is treated  as a means.

To find out how it is possible to try to get rid of oppression, or at least to make it less, one has first of all to put the following questions:

(i) Its positive side.

What is there in oppression which makes it into a weapon of defence against  nature and against men?

(ii) Unity of action.

Cf. Homer: “The rule of the many is not good, one ruler let there be.”

Goethe: “One mind is enough for a thousand  hands.”

Any work, if  it is to be effective,  must be coordinated. Now, all coordination is related to the intelligent activity of a mind. This  is an undeniable law. It holds good in the struggle against nature, and in the struggle against men. Nature will not allow centrali­sation in action to increase indefinitely; the struggle against nature is limited, that against men  has no  limits.

(iii) Distinction between “those who superintend action” and “those who act.” Due to this human forces can reach extreme limits (war – mines – aviation: cf. Night Flight by Saint-Exupery).

Man, in fact, does not know the limits of his powers. To achieve some kind of limit there has to be constraint. This distinction then, succeeds in accomplishing impossible things, miracles.

(iv) Limitation of consumption.

The principle of material progress is to produce means of production  and  not of  consumption  (roads, bridges, machines).

Men, when no constraint is put on them, show no self-denial.  (A simple example from fishing: if one did not limit fishing, there would soon be no more fish – so laws and police are necessary to protect  the fishermen against themselves.)

The division between the exploiters and the exploited necess­ arily sets a limit to consumption, for if the exploited consume (illegally that is) they are put in  prison.

(The example of the forests in the Middle Ages: there were dreadful  punishments  for those  who stole wood.)

Today, what would happen, for example, if a war exhausted mineral resources?

The mining companies who, quite obviously, are companies of exploiters, set a high price on coal; that preserves the coal  mines.

So, from this point of view, monopoly capitalism is the guardian  of  the wealth  of society.

(i) Its destructive side.

Now,  is there something negative, destructive in oppression?

(ii) From a material point of view.

Competition among oppressors – military war or economic competition – publicity: what efforts are wasted in advertising! It is the same kind of thing with armaments; one makes a little more because one’s enemy has done so; there is no limit (and that is one of the causes of crises).

(iii) From an intellectual point of view.

(a)        The separation there is between thought and the world: in fact, those who think, belong to a privileged class; the workers do not have the leisure time to think. All culture is, in this way, made into something false.

(b)        Thought subject to authority: whenever the oppressors realise that thought is something they cannot control, they put it down, (by hemlock, by the cross.) There have been two periods which are exceptions to this law: the great period of Greek thought (which nevertheless did not possess a feeling for the world, the presence of nature) and the period of the Renaissance (Descartes).

(iv) From a moral point of view.

Oppression  is an insult  to the dignity of  human  nature.

(v) In what direction is salvation to be  sought?

Now that we have seen  the destructive side of oppression, let us see if it is possible to restate in some other way its three positive advantages. First of all, one has to admit that one cannot deny their existence (we have seen this in studying the society of savages: otherwise one is delivered  up to  nature, to superstition.)

(i) Unity of action: is there some way of achieving it other than that of oppression?

If we think in terms of a necessity that must govern us, we have to say that it does not bring about a stable unity. Itis thought which creates unity. So, if, for example, all the sailors knew the purpose of the captain’s orders, they would be in a good position to see whether they must be accepted. In any case they would not be slaves.

(ii) Pressure on  human beings.

In this case, there must be before everything else a motive for work. Workers give themselves to some piece of work when they understand it. So, if the way the work is to be done and the principle which governs it are understood by each of the workers, they will be the real creators of  the  work.

(iii) Limitation of  consumption.

It comes about quite naturally.

So, it is a matter of ensuring that the workers work knowing what they are doing; of giving to the workers controlling power over the whole of production. ( N.B. not in the way this has been done sometimes  in Germany.)

(iv) Our duties in relation to social phenomena.

Above all it is necessary not to ignore their existence. One can give money to the unemployed, but that doesn’t stop them from being unemployed; one can do the same for miners, but that doesn’t mean that they no longer have to face the threat of death due to fire-damp; one can give one’s attention to the children of the workers, but that will not mean that they will find work when they leave school, etc.

It is quite impossible to avoid the social problem. The first duty that it places on one is not to tell   lies.

The first form of lie is that of covering up oppression, of flattering the oppressors. This form of lie is very common among honest people, who in other ways are good and sincere, but who do not realise what they are doing.  Human  beings are so made that the ones who do the crushing feel nothing; it is the person crushed who feels what is happening. Unless one has placed oneself on the side of the oppressed, to feel with them, one cannot understand.

A second kind of lie is demagogy. These  two  faults are serious ones.

They are faults committed by honest people, but it also happens that they take on a hideous  character.  For example, with regard  to the first kind of lie, there are people who make it their job to flatter oppressors; those in power always find people who spend their lives in praising and flattering those who spill blood. Nine journalists out of ten, optimists that they are, have taken up this job of telling lies on behalf  of the oppressors.

As for the second kind of lie, think of the bureaucrats in workers’ organisations, whose job is to make the oppressed believe that their freedom will be achieved overnight. It matters not a jot to them to see the workers killed by the police, if that serves their propaganda  purposes.

So, the first thing to be done is to rebut these two kinds of lie. One has to state the facts, and not to hide from anyone  that millions of people are crushed by the social machine; one has to find out the causes, not only of oppression in general, but of such and such oppression in particular, then find ways of making it less if one can. One should only advise the oppressed to revolt if it  can be successful. It doesn’t often happen that one can find things to do the results of which are perfectly clear. So, when one is in the position of supposing that a number of different courses of action are equally likely to succeed, one has to depend on inspiration, like Descartes’ traveller in the  forest.

2.4 The Present State of Affairs

Workers are nothing but “things” on the labour market Wage earners are treated like things on the labour market because they are bought and sold there and also because of the rate at which they  are bought.

In order to be in the favoured position of being able to sell themselves for that price they have even to buy over the foreman. We have only to think of the docks at Marseilles, of the women who are forced to sell themselves so that their rickety children can live – miserable beings who before long will undergo the very same slavery.

Unemployment  benefit  only  comes with  a slump. Apart from that nothing is done for the unemployed. The workers are treated much worse than Cato’s slaves; even able-bodied young men are thrown  to the rubbish  heap.

Workers as ‘”things”  in big business

Workers are again treated  as things when  they are no longer out of  work, and  have entered  a firm.

There with “rationalisation,” assembly line work, their lives are forever sacrificed (conveyor belts, buildings, mines). What is more, especially in America, the workers are often watched in their private lives. (Ford: they employ informers.)

Why all this? Because the machines need men less than men need machines. Men are now the slaves of machines. That is something Descartes never foresaw in his Discourse on Method.

Nature dominates man now through the machine. Those who are masters of the machines are masters of men and of nature. They have even  chosen  to be  the perpetrators  of  this oppression.


Palliatives  have  been  tried  often enough.

(i) Capitalists like Ford: the workers have a share in benefits handed out; this is nothing  but  a way  of  corrupting  them.  It is a bonus for producing more, a cause of the workers demeaning themselves even more.

(ii) Socialist parties: works councils; so-called participation of workers in the way the firm is run. It has changed nothing at   all.

(iii) Russia: the capitalists have been driven out. That only goes to prove that it is no use doing that as long as big industry survives. The capitalists are replaced by bureaucrats.

(iv) Workers’ syndicates (Germany – Italy – Austria): one can scarcely speak of them yet.

Their plans worked out on paper are not very precise. A situation like this cannot be changed by some palliative, but only by  a transformation  of  the means of  production.

Coercion: the “rights of  men” are trampled under foot.

The political consequences of such a state of affairs: our social system depends on coercion.

The workers submit to it but they can­ not accept it. Coercion does not go with democracy. It is obviously quite impossible for men to be treated like things in the labour market and in production and to be treated as citizens in public life. In effect, freedom of expressing one’s views is subordinated to the capital of machines; there are things which cannot be said in bourgeois  newspapers,  nor any  longer in the newspapers which appeal to workers, because  one is not orthodox.

There is no real freedom of speech  (it is difficult  to hire a room,  to stick up notices, etc.).

There is no personal freedom: one faces prison, an unjust sentence.

As for the magistrates, the rich can buy them; they threaten them with a campaign in the press, or promise them political support. Just to get the services of an advocate, one has to have money.

Besides, everything has to be bought at a price. One cannot go to war without money; the mines at Briey were not bombed although they provided the Germans with mineral resources throughout the war. All the laws guaranteeing freedom and equality in the Republic are illusions because the state is not con­ trolled  nor can it be.

It is impossible to bring about a reform of the state unless one first of all changes the system of   production.

It is very easy to see that the more the mass of workers are oppressed by the economic regime, the more oppressive the state becomes. And if one thinks of a totalitarian state, one form of oppression only brings another with it. When it is the same power which dominates big business and everything else, one is completely helpless: that is what it’s like in  Russia.

‘Fascist’ states are on the way to the same thing. In France there is still some freedom left.

2.5 The Right Practical  Attitude Towards the State

It is assumed that some functions of the state are in the interest of everyone; one has the duty in respect of these functions to accept what the state imposes with good grace. (Example: regu­lation of traffic.)

As for the rest, one has to give in to the state as a necessity, but not accept it within oneself . It is of ten very difficult to do this, especially if one has been brought u p in a certain atmosphere.

One has to refuse to recognise rewards (one can, fortunately, ref use rewards if not punishments),  and  make the greatest use possible of the freedom we are allowed by the state (it seldom happens that citizens dare to make use of  all the rights they   have).

One also has the duty, contrary to the law, to take liberties which the state does not allow us, as long as such action is worth the trouble. It is a duty, if circumstances allow it, to choose the least evil among a number of forms of government. The least evil state is the one in which one is least dragooned by the state, where the ordinary citizens have more power to control things (decentralis­ation); state affairs are publicly known, and not kept secret; the mass of  people  are educated.

There is a duty to work for a change in the way society is organised: to increase the material welfare and technical and theoretical education of the masses.

2.6 The True Foundations of Morality

Kant and the categorical imperative[i]

“Do what you should, come what may.” This is a categorical imperative,  not  a hypothetical one.

(Cf. Kant. While hypothetical imperatives have to do with means, categorical imperatives have to do with ends, ends of such a sort that consequences do not matter.)

What is the source from which we get the categorical imperative?

It is impossible to prove virtue. One might say that the proof’s proof  is virtue itself.

Every time one gives a proof, one only proves the part the mind plays. Proofs depend on hypotheses which in tum depend on the part  played  by thought, which  is by definition indemonstrable.

Kant:  “Act only according to that maxim which you can at the same time will to become a universal law.” “Act as if the maxim of your action were to become through  your action a universal law  of nature.” (To put it another way, one sees things from God’s point of view.)

Example of suicide when one is in despair; it is impossible to think of the destruction of everything. In the case of other people we want their faculties to be improved, so, we want the same thing for ourselves. There are two kinds of sin: those which have to do with a maxim that becomes contradictory if it is thought of as universal (examples: false promises, suicide, etc.); and those which have to do with a maxim which is not contradictory, but which no one could will universally. One can really be fully conscious only in so far as one is  virtuous.

But what Kant said is quite negative; it eliminates some things, but it does not give us any end; one has to look for the highest  end of  all, an end which can be  universal  for all human  beings.

For a reasonable being, there can only be one end: reason itself. A reasonable being is an end in himself in so far as he is a being who thinks. To sacrifice oneself as a thinking being is the destruction  of virtue.

Kant: “Act only in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in respect of your own person or in respect of anyone else, always as an end, and never as a means.”

For example, it is not forbidden to allow men to work  for us,  but we should treat these workers as thinking beings. Every time you speak to someone who serves you only as someone who is your servant, you think of him only as a means. Kant’s formula is like what  we find in  the Gospel: “Love your neighbour  as yourself.”

Duties towards oneself: to subordinate everything to this highest of ends: thinking. Even if one were alone in the world, there would be a reason  for living.

Duties towards others: this is a mirror image of one’s duties towards oneself.

The best known kind of devotion (of an old servant to her mistress, a wife to her husband, etc.) is a failure in virtue; the devotion in these cases is to the material welfare of the other person rather than to his nobility of character. Once one understands that all there is to  respect  in  another  person  is “virtue,” one cannot respect anyone else more than oneself; if one did one would be renouncing perfection. “Be ye perfect as your heavenly father is perfect.”[ii] Perfection is a duty. It is impossible to love a man because he is superior; if one loves perfection,  one loves it for itself ; so, one does not love it more in others than in oneself .

Social duties: in so far as social relationships overlap with one’s relationships with individuals, and, as far as it is possible, one must look to see how one can lessen, in society, those things which bring about oppression.

Conclusion: the moral end is to do nothing which sullies human dignity, in oneself or in another.

One cannot set out to save souls; to begin with that is pride with a vengeance; all one can do is to remove for others the things which prevent them from under­ standing things clearly. All  that  is purely  negative. The problem is not one of trying to do good, but  of  trying to avoid evil. One can never say one is generous, because, whenever one helps people in distress, one is only redeeming oneself  to a very small  degree.


[i] See Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, sections 1-2.

[ii] King James Bible, Matthew 5.48.

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About Z

Z is a 50-something cosmopolitan anarcho-philosopher, and previously was a tenured full professor of philosophy at a public university somewhere in North America, but still managed to escape with his life.