Moral Philosophy in Need of Attention

Attending by Warren Heiti, is a remarkable book that deserves to be read at least for two reasons. The first one is properly theoretical: as a sustained, though not strictly systematic, commentary on Simone Weil’s work and its most competent readers, Attending unfolds a moral philosophy centered on the notion of attention, which offers an invigorating alternative to established and by now standardized philosophical positions. The kernel of the theory can be presented by two passages from Simone Weil’s La pesanteur et la grâce (55, 137) [Gravity and Grace, 44, 119], which as it were encapsulate the whole of Heiti’s book:


There are cases where a thing is necessary from the mere fact that it is possible. Thus to eat when we are hungry, to give a wounded man, dying of thirst, something to drink when there is water quite near. Neither a ruffian nor a saint would refrain from doing so. For Heiti,


The poet produces the beautiful by fixing his attention on something real. it is the same with the act of love. To know that this man who is hungry and thirsty really exists as much as I do—that is enough, the rest follows of itself (24).


It is fitting that the nucleus of Heiti’s presentation of Weil’s thought should not be a philosophical category, but an example, a micronarrative. Instead of the vocabulary of norm and normativity, choice, will, desire and belief, we have here a focus on being open, on passivity, unselfconsciousness and receptivity; instead on the search for universal abstract principles, the stress falls on the richness and fruitfulness of the particular moment: “This approach does not tell us who the moral patients are; nor does it tell us what acts are prescribed or forbidden. For those who are accustomed to moral theory, universal consideration may seem too indeterminate and too inclusive to be useful. But it is only by attending to particulars that we can learn what is required” (26).


Such particulars, however, are not immediately accessible; for the individual case to become visible as such, much training is needed. Attention is something that must be learned and can be perfected; it reaches fullness when it is converted into a habit:


Because, for Weil, attention is a cardinal virtue, and because habit has a role in the development of virtue being attentive will involve habitual (non-cognitive) acts. The expert cyclist attends with her body no less than with her mind, and her expertise includes trained sensitivities that do not rise into consciousness. Indeed, their not rising to consciousness is a measure of the cyclist’s expertise” (61).


In this approach, perhaps surprisingly, studying becomes ethically relevant, for if it is carried out in the right way, it disciplines will into patience, and prepares the way for a mastery of attention that becomes part of one’s own body. Indeed, as it ignores the division between sensation and intellect, this characterization of corporeality is one of the most fascinating aspects of Weil’s thought, as it is presented by Heiti: “For Weil, attending is not only an act of the mind, brain, consciousness, reason, belief or perception; nor is it only a set of cognitive processes operating in unison; it is an act of the whole agent, in which her passions and body are integrated with her intellect” (60).


Following the same logic, a moral philosophy based on attention does not recognize a hiatus between perception and action: the latter “is not the sudden effect of a free choice; instead, a particular action follows from a particular way of reading” (129-130) a given situation(129-130). Such reading involves the imagination as an integrative force that attends to what is relevant in a certain situation: “To act with full integrity is not to be moved by thoughts of one’s own integrity, but to be wholly focused on something else—an injustice, an ideal, a particular being” (237). In sum, the moral agent here is not an autonomous entity who operates according to laws; rather than a doer, she is “a medium through which the circumstances, clearly perceived, express themselves in action” (133). Thus, “if we attend and perceive clearly and accurately, then we will be relieved of the agony of choosing; the appropriate response will follow automatically” (81).


Of course, one could resist these claims and call them unrealistic, perhaps too facilely so. One might point to the lack of control inherent in this theory, the voluntary blocking of the general and abstract, the blindness resulting from its emphasis on habituation, and a possibly regressive de-differentiation of the moral realm vis-à-vis material labor, e.g.: “A virtue—such as bravery et cetera—is a skill (or an art, or expertise), and it is no more strange than other skills such as carpentry or playing the clarinet. Nor are its objects any more peculiar than dovetail joints or musical scales” (118). However argumentatively true dismissals such as these may prove to be, they are not satisfactory, because they just reenact the position Attending is itself rejecting. They thus fail to do justice to what is productive and eye-opening in Weil/Heiti’s theorization, the new light it throws on and the way it reconfigures traditional problems of moral philosophy. Interestingly enough, however, such resistance can be felt inside the text through a heightened attention Heiti devotes to a virtual unsympathetic reader, anticipating and trying to preempt possible objections, and even at times adopting the form a dialogue. If we add to this Heiti’s preoccupation “to draw on examples and images from literature, film, visual art and newspapers” (21), and the fact that instead of a conclusion Attending presents an “Exodus,” which consists of a series of quotations from various authors, including not only philosophers, but also poets and novelists, we realize that the book is somewhat uncomfortable with the field it speaks from and to. The second reason for which Attending deserves to be read is a symptomatic one, for unwittingly or not the text bears witness to the limits of Anglophone moral philosophy, how it has become scholastic and averse to anything not reducible to the structure of arguments. Attending seems to want to break free from such structure without being aware of it. Be it as it may, at the very least the book is valuable for showing that institutionalized moral philosophy is in sore need of attention.

This review “Moral Philosophy in Need of Attention” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 24 Jun. 2022. Web.

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