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This review is taken from PN Review 67, Volume 15 Number 5, May - June 1989.

THE STUDENT OF AFFLICTION Simone Weil, Formative Writings 1929-1941, edited and translated by Dorothy Tuck McFarland and Wilhelmina Van Ness (Routledge and Kegan Paul) £14.95

As more of Simone Weil's early writings have appeared in print, it has become clear that the religious works for which she is best known represent a continuation, using a different set of metaphors, of her studies in philosophy, politics, sociology and the history of science, rather than the sudden break with her past that some earlier accounts had suggested. Weil did undergo a number of mystical experiences towards the end of the 1930s that convinced her of the immanence of Christ: she also came to reject some of her earlier views - on the desirability of armed revolution, for instance - but she never became a member of any Christian church, and her concern with secular issues continued unabated right up until her tragically early death in 1943. Formative Writings, a collection of Weil's essays, articles and personal notes on non-religious topics, provides further evidence of the underlying unity of her thought.

Weil emerged out of the rationalist tradition favoured by the lycées of her day and by the prestigious Ecole Normale Supérieure. It was for the latter that she wrote her thesis on 'Science and Perception in Descartes', the first and longest essay in this volume. Knowledge is based on work and perception, she maintains. Work provides the means through which reason grasps the world; perception controls the imagination and turns sensations into signs. Of the two, the most important is work, since this gives us the more immediate contact with reality. I work, therefore ...

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