Bernard E. Harcourt | Factory Work: Simone Weil & Immersive Philosophical Praxis

By Bernard E. Harcourt

“I was able to realize a project that preoccupied me for several years now and that you, you must understand: to work in a factory.”

— Simone Weil, Letter to Nicolas Lazarévitch (1935)

Simone Weil pioneered a unique philosophical method that consisted of a constant confrontation of critique and praxis. She placed her own experiential practice at the very core of her distinctive way of philosophizing. Weil refused to theorize problems without having engaged them practically—without actually throwing herself, at the risk of her own peril, into the milieu about which she was reflecting.

Weil was, in fact, more than just a politically engaged philosopher like Jean-Paul Sartre for instance, the very personification of the philosophe engagé. Sartre could always be found with a bullhorn in hand, protesting, organizing, marching, provoking—and I do not say this in a pejorative sense, on the contrary, I genuinely admire Sartre precisely for his constant political engagement. Sartre stepped in as editor-in-chief of La Cause du peuple (the newspaper of the Gauche prolétarienne) as soon as the militant organization and its press organ were outlawed, risking arrest himself. Sartre led, as head prosecutor, the popular tribunal against the mining industry in Lens, in northern France, after the deaths of sixteen coal-miners in the Fouquières-lès-Lens coal mine in 1970. Sartre was relentless in his political commitments.

But Simone Weil took engagement to another level. Troubled by the living conditions of the men and women working in factories, Weil requested a leave of absence from teaching and went to work and live as a factory worker at three different factories in Paris, including a Renault plant, for almost six months in 1934-1935. Distressed at the ascent of fascism in Spain, Weil volunteered to fight alongside the anarcho-syndicalists in Aragon and Catalonia, heading off to Spain in August 1936, only weeks after Franco’s coup. Distraught by the rise of Hitler and Nazism, Weil enlisted in General de Gaulle’s Free French forces and sailed off from New York City to their headquarters in London in November 1942. And after several months working in the Free French bureaus in London, Weil decided she needed to implicate herself even more and return to occupied France to fight in the Resistance. (She died a few months later in England from poor health, at the young age of 34, without yet having reached France).

While Sartre and other philosophers and artists were living comfortably in Paris during the war—with the notable exception of George Canguilhem, Jean Cavailles, and Germaine Tillion, among others, who were deeply engaged in the French Resistance—Simone Weil literally put her life on the line for her ideas. She would not allow herself to theorize problems without having experienced them first-hand. For Weil, praxis was inextricably linked to theory. It is what sparked her unique insight into the world.

The philosophical method that Simone Weil pioneered—constantly confronting critique and praxis—serves as a model, an exemplar to me. I will refer to it as her “immersive philosophical praxis.”


“Cooperation, comprehension, mutual appreciation of one’s work, those are the monopoly of the managerial classes in the modern factory.”

— Simone Weil, Experience of Factory Life.[1]


From her months working in industrial, urban factories in Paris in 1934-1935, Simone Weil observed first hand that cooperation can infuse the modern factory, but only within the “superior spheres”—within the managerial class. There was no possibility of cooperation among the workers, or for that matter, of respect, mutual recognition and appreciation, or understanding for the workers. The men and women toiling in the factories could not talk to each other, or even glance at each other, at their workstations, and had no idea how the piecework they produced would later be used in society. They were treated as brutes, thoughtless machines, pure physical movement.

So Weil proposed a transformation of the factory workplace: to extend more autonomy to workers and workshops, to give workers agency and choice about their workload and future projects, to create an environment where the workers understood how their products fit within the larger social context.[2] Although her fellow workers experienced mostly disgust and alienation on the job, Weil believed that factory work could be rewarding, even joyful—if only it was reoriented to respect the humanity, dignity, and rationality of the workers. Weil called for more concrete instruction at school, explanations of their tasks and work product on the job, camaraderie, greater autonomy, choice, and self-determination for the workers so that they would understand their contributions to society, how they fulfil social needs, so that they would gain a stake and pride in their labor.[3] By those means, Weil believed, the cooperation, comprehension, and mutual appreciation reserved for the managerial class could extend to everyone in the factory.

It is not clear to me, though, how these alterations to the factory workplace would result in a deeper structural transformation of political economy. They surely advanced Weil’s unique conception of liberty and autonomy, which depended for her on a harmony between thought and action—between, on the one hand, human reflection and deliberation and, on the other, engaging in conduct necessary to achieve one’s goals.[4] This was her unique, “heroic” conception of freedom. Yet her proposals did not begin to address the question of the ownership of the means of production, of accumulated wealth, of private property, or of wealth distribution. Could it be that getting so close to the lives of the workers, to their emotions and feelings, made it more difficult to see the larger political economic forces that were at play in the factory? Could it be that the praxis of factory work, instead of enriching the theory, distorted it?

In the end, Weil proposed a number of concrete reforms to the operation of the factory, rather than taking the more radical step of arguing for abolition, radical transformation, or revolution. To be sure, she had a difficult relationship with the idea of revolution, fearing in this context that it would only lead to the slaughter of the working class.[5] But even setting revolution aside, Weil proposed reforms to improve the lives of factory workers, instead of focusing on larger structural changes and broader questions of political economy. It all fit seamlessly with her conception of freedom, but it leaves me wanting more.

Perhaps the problem stems from the fact that the oppression inside the factory produces a form of amnesia or forgetfulness that prevents those working in the factory, including Weil herself, to think properly about their conditions and formulate grand alternatives. As Weil emphasized, it is often hard to remember what it is like to be in a condition of servitude, because it is in itself so painful. “It’s only on Saturday afternoon and Sunday that a few memories and shreds of ideas return to me, and I remember that I am also a thinking being,” Simone Weil writes in her Factory Journal. “I am almost ready to conclude that the salvation of a worker’s soul depends primarily on his physical constitution. I don’t see how those who are not physically strong can avoid falling into some form of despair—drunkenness, or vagabondage, or crime, or debauchery, or simply (and far more often) brutishness—(and religion?).”[6]

Those experiences of despair can wipe clean consciousness of the present and memories of the past. Nothing is remembered. “The difficulty is at least as great for the former factory worker,” Weil writes. “It is easier for them to speak of their immediate condition, but very difficult to think about it later, truthfully, because nothing is more rapidly forgotten than past pain.”[7]


“I came near to being broken. I almost was—my courage, the feeling that I had value as a person were nearly broken during a period I would be humiliated to remember, were it not that strictly speaking I have retained no memory of it.”

— Simone Weil, Factory Journal.[8]


I too have retained nearly no memory of it, just faint recollections that reading Simone Weil’s Factory Journal brought back to my mind. I have never written about or spoken about these memories publicly. It feels unseemly to remember them now, because I do not experience them today as painful or exploitative. But reading Weil’s journal from her time working in the Alsthom and Renault factories in 1934-35 reminded me of the time that I spent working in a graphite factory in France during the summer of 1981.

I was a college student at the time, deeply immersed in the young Marx and theories of alienation, in Sartre and existentialism, in Hegel’s master-slave dialectic and Nietzsche’s genealogy of morals—and I had gotten it into my mind that I needed to experience what it was like to work in a factory. My intellectual milieu in college was very different than the Parisian intellectual circles of the post-May ‘68 period, where the dominant Maoist tendencies encouraged young intellectuals to go work in a factory. There was none of that at my college. We were encouraged to go work on Wall Street or Capitol Hill. But somehow, whatever I was reading or thinking about at the time had convinced me that I needed to experience working in a factory. It probably was the young Marx and his writings on alienation, or Hegel’s phenomenology of consciousness. I do not recall. But I am pretty sure I had not read Simone Weil before I was 18.

So I set off to France one summer having organized what was called a “stage,” perhaps one could translate that as an internship, in an industrial factory in the small village of Chedde in the Rhône-Alpes, in the department of Haute-Savoie. I spent the month of July working in a graphite factory called the “Société des électrodes et réfractaires Savoie,” a subsidiary of Péchiney Ugine Kuhlmann (PUK) that made industrial equipment for the steel industry. PUK was a huge industrial conglomerate in France, in fact the largest industrial group at the time. I had organized the summer job through an acquaintance from the Lycée where I had graduated a few years earlier.

At the time, industrial organizations like PUK organized three-month long stages for young people to work in different sectors of the company, usually three different departments over the course of the summer. I was told I could work in marketing or finance or international sales, but I specifically asked if I could work in one of their factories. I recall that the managers were somewhat surprised, but they acquiesced immediately, and after spending some time at the headquarters at 23 rue Balzac in Paris, near the Gare Saint-Lazarre, working in business management and experiencing the life of a manager at a large industrial conglomerate, I set off to the factory in Haute-Savoie to work for a month.

The factory was located in a small village at the bottom of the Alps, a hamlet called Chedde that is literally crammed into the rock slopes at the tip of a valley, over which the highway passes on elevated pylons to go up to the Mont Blanc. The factory itself was nested underneath the highway overpass, the Viaduct Égratz, a snaking two-lane road built atop towering pillars, about a mile long. The overpass was fully built when I was there, but virgin. It would open to traffic a few months later in December 1981.

Chedde graphite factory and Viaduct Égratz

I’m not sure how I got to Chedde from Paris. I must have taken a train and then probably a bus, I don’t recall if the train went all the way to Chedde. It was such a remote little hamlet, with, further down the main road, a huge industrial complex. It was a factory town. But the area felt like home to me even though I had never been there before. Haute-Savoie was where my mother’s family was originally from, before moving to Thônex, outside Geneva, Switzerland. Plus I had some family nearby that summer. My godfather, Raymond Stora, and his family spent their summers about a dozen kilometers up the meandering highway at Les Houches. He was a physicist and he directed the international summer school for physics up there at Les Houches. I was 18 at the time and close in age to his teenage boys.

When I got to Chedde, the management had arranged for me to stay in the room above the bar-restaurant in the center of the village. It was kind of like an auberge with the bar and brasserie downstairs for the locals and a room to let upstairs, but without the charm. It was pretty much the only establishment in the center of the hamlet. It was run by a young woman who appeared stern, at least that was my first impression when she showed me the room. Camille[9] was good looking but severe, she must have been in her forties. At the time, it was hard for me to tell the age of adults, but she did not seem that old to me.

I moved in and would stay there with my racing bike, which I kept in the room. I hadn’t brought a lock with me and I definitely wasn’t going to find one in the hamlet. I was a cyclist at the time, a member of the cycling team at my college, and was committed, so I brought my racing bike, an English-made Raleigh Record that I had bought a few months earlier at Kopps Cycle. I had brought the bike with me to Paris and had been racing it in the banlieus in June. I brought it with me down to Chedde in a big red cloth bag, a cycling bag for a racing bike. That’s the only thing I really remember bringing with me.

From the bar-restaurant, it was a fifteen-minute walk to the factory, basically straight down the main drag to the end of the valley. I remember the towering chain-link fence when you got to the factory at the end of the journey. In France, it was common to have chain-link fences with barbed wire at the top. I recall that from my public camp, the colonie de vacances at La Rippe in Saint-Gervais where I spent part of my summers starting when I was 6 years old. It had chain-link fences and barbed-wire at the top all around it. So I was not surprised to see the factory behind barbed-wire, just maybe surprised at the size of the factory plant. It was awesome. A town to itself.

The factory plant had lots of different buildings, but the part where I worked made graphite and carbon electrodes for steel smelters. The electrodes were huge graphite obelisks, massive rods that get placed in steel smelters and go to very high heat, melting the iron ore.

I frankly don’t remember how it all worked, but the unit to which I was assigned was the research and development department running tests on the different graphite electrodes and other products. The unit was called “C.R.D.G.” I wonder now if the R stood for research. I remember the acronym well, perhaps not just from that summer in 1981, but from looking at it, right now, on the blues that I wore at the factory.

They issued me a set of workman’s blues, or “bleus de travail” as they’re called in French—blue pants and a jacket. They are this sharp Prussian blue color, in thick cotton fabric, slacks and a smock-looking jacket that buttons up. It’s the workers’ uniform in France. I still have the jacket. I’m looking at it right now. On the inside of the coat at the back, just below the neck, there are faint initials written there, a faint B, a dash, and a faint H. My initials had been written in there by the worker who issued the blues to me, with some kind of white-paint marker. The shadow of the white paint initials is still there, as well as the laundry tags that were ironed into the blue fabric. Like the other workers, I would leave my set of blues I had worn during the shift to be laundered overnight (or over the daytime depending on my shift), and would get a fresh set back when I returned. There were little tags ironed into the blues that said “CRDG -” which meant, I assumed, that they would be returned to that unit after being laundered.

My jobs, at least those that I remember now, forty years later, revolved around slicing the electrodes to test their quality and resilience. One task I had was to stack up sliced pieces of graphite electrodes the size of tabletops, rectangular pieces, maybe three or four inches thick, and place them into a kind of cylindrical container that we would then submerge in different solutions to impregnate the electrode slabs, so that they could be tested to see whether they were more resilient to heat and pressure. Once the containers were in the solution tanks, we had to tighten the top of the contraption and all the seals with these hefty wrenches. Other workers later would test these saturated samples, but somehow my task with another worker was to place the sliced electrodes into the cylindrical containers and the containers into the solution tanks—and then, when they had saturated, to reverse everything, take them out, stack up the sliced electrodes like pallets, one on top of the other with wood splints between them, so basically lift them carefully and place them on top of each other, stacking them up carefully for pickup. When they came out, they were impregnated with sticky chemical stuff, we’d get our gloves and our blues covered with gunk as we unpacked them.

Another job I had was to be in charge of this huge saw that would cut the electrodes in half. These were the full electrodes, so they were massive, over twelve feet long if I recall and several feet in diameter. The ultimate purpose was to inspect the inside of the electrodes, to see whether there were fissures, cracks or problems within. So, the huge graphite electrodes would be placed in this massive saw that operated like a cycling conveyor beltline. There was a metal wire that had threading on the outside of the wire, and the way it worked was that it would revolve, spinning very fast along the length of the electrode, with water and sand being projected at it, so that the wire would take the water and sand into its thread and slowly, very slowly start to grind into the electrode. It was a huge contraption of a machine in a doublewide metal building that looked a bit like this photograph.

My task was to monitor that the water and the sand were coming in at the right place, to ensure that the wire was moving in the right way to keep steadily cutting into the electrode, and to slam shut the machine down whenever the wire would snap. That would happen every once in a while, the wire would snap, and I’d have to quickly shut down the equipment because as soon as it snapped, the wire would go flying all over the place. I had to do it really fast and be super careful not to get hit by the wire. Then, I had to replace the wire, which was time consuming and elaborate. I don’t recall now whether I did that by myself or if, once it snapped and I turned off the huge contraption, I would call for another worker to help me put the wire back on. I think it was the latter, but I remember most spending long evenings looking out at the mountains and the stars in the sky, behind the contraption, by myself, daydreaming while the machine rattled away and the water and sand rushed through the ditch that the wire was cutting.


“Revolt is impossible, except for momentary flashes (I mean even as a feeling). First of all, against what? You are alone with your work, you could not revolt except against it—but to work in an irritated state of mind would be to work badly, and therefore to starve. Cf. the tubercular woman fired for having botched an order. We are like horses who hurt themselves as soon as they pull on their bits—and we bow our heads. We even lose consciousness of the situation; we just submit. Any reawakening of thought is then painful.”

— Simone Weil, Factory Journal.[10]


At that point, I was working nights. After a week or so, the managers decided to put me on the midnight shift—I wonder now if they were giving me a taste of my own medicine. I would go to the factory when it was pitch dark, I forget whether it was 10 P.M. or midnight—it felt like the middle of the night. Whatever time the shift started, it was late night. I would usually be asleep beforehand, waking up from a nap after dinner, and would head to the factory in the dark. It felt lonely going to the factory at that hour, and I didn’t have a car and didn’t want to leave my bike, so walked the whole way in the pitch black.

I recall there was a break sometime around 4:00 A.M. All the workers in my unit at the CRDG would go into this small room on the second floor of a building overlooking the plant. The workers had all brought hearty meals to eat. It smelled and looked delicious. They’d pull out their Opinels (that’s the kind of knife you use in Haute-Savoie, it’s made of carbon and has a simple wood handle, but is the most trusted instrument) and carve into sausages and cheese, or pull out metal boxes with savory smelling stews. I just wanted to nap, I was exhausted. I remember the other workers told me to just lie down behind the bench and take a nap, which is what I would usually do, right there on the floor during the break. Most of the guys, all men, were older than me. They must have been in their forties or fifties, and they would wake me up when it was time to get back to work. I also recall there was canned beer and panaché (a mixture of beer and lemonade, half beer, half lemonade) for sale in the vending machines there. I was struck by the fact that you could buy a beer on the job, or in my case, panachés, from the soda machine at the factory. I recall on several occasions having one, probably at about five or six o’clock in the morning, toward the end of my shift, when the sun was rising, as a reward for having worked all night and mostly stayed awake.

One of my clearest memories, as I write now, is how dirty my nostrils were at the end of the shift. I’d blow my nose and there would be black particles all over the handkerchief. I recall standing there in the locker room where we would change back into our street clothes, trying to get all the dirt out of my nose. I watched how the other guys did it around me and tried to copy them. We’d pile our bleus into the bin and change back into street clothes, slam the lockers, and file out.

When I would get out, it would be early daylight. The mountains there are gorgeous, in the foothills of the Alps. I’d walk back down the main drag to the bar-restaurant. On my way, I’d stop at the boulangerie and pick up a baguette and, next door, at the épicerie, a camembert and a bottle of red wine. The wine there cost less than bottled water. I would head back to the bar and sit in the back. There was a table in the back, I would sit down, relax, and eat the whole camembert cheese, baguette, and drink down the red wine. There was nothing like that feeling of the richness of the cheese, the sweetness of the bread and the red wine, in an exhausted state, jet lagged from having worked all night, barely conscious, just tasting and savoring the mixtures as my sleepiness folded into mild drunkenness. And then I’d crash and sleep for the whole rest of the morning into the late afternoon. I had an inverted day, working at night, sleeping during the daytime, waking in the late afternoon to eat some dinner, before taking a nap and heading to work in the dark.


“An obviously inexorable and invincible form of oppression does not engender revolt as an immediate reaction, but submission.

At Alsthom, I rebelled only on Sundays ….

At Renault, I had arrived at a more stoical attitude. Substitute acceptance for submission.

— Simone Weil, Factory Journal.[11]


Looking back on my time at the factory, I wish I had spent it all speaking with my co-workers and getting to know their lives and sharing mine with them. But that’s not how I lived my life. I was living in the moment and wanted to experience authentically what it would be like to work in a factory. I was not there to study it. I didn’t go there to conduct an ethnography. I didn’t keep field notes. I wanted to live the moment in its fullest without placing other demands on myself. I wanted to experience factory work, not look down on it as an object of study. Plus, I was not too social and had a hard time coming out of my shell. So I spent a lot of my time by myself when I wasn’t working at the factory, and didn’t want to disturb the normal flow of social interactions when I was working.

When I had a day off, I would head up to see my godfather, Raymond. I would ride up on my racing bike. The climb to Les Houches is steep. The road takes a sharp incline, it’s called la route du Mont Blanc, and it’s literally an endless uphill climb to Les Houches on the way to Chamonix, Argentière, and then eventually Switzerland. It was about 13 kilometers from Chedde to Raymond’s summer institute, but it took about an hour of uphill pedaling. My godfather had two boys, both teenagers, and a deux chevaux, that classic old French minicar, with the stick shift in the steering wheel shaft. Raymond would let me take the deux chevaux with the boys and go into town to do things. I recall vividly taking them rock climbing. Raymond had cords, harnesses, and carabiners, and I thought I was a pretty solid climber, but the experience was harrowing as my cousin crossed the face of the cliff sideways rather than vertically. Still to this day, I am not sure how we made it down alive. I took them out to a discothèque one night too, and I’m not sure how we made it back in one piece either. Those are frightening memories, the kind that hit you with a wave of anxiety. But at the time, they felt well worth it, especially because they gave me the impression that I was at home at the factory. I felt that I was living the experience to the fullest.

There was one man I got along with well on my shifts, at least well enough that I remember, toward the end of my stage, having a drink with him and Camille at the bar. Eric was older than me, he must have been in his thirties or forties, but when you are eighteen it is so hard to tell. He had a family and kids. I remember talking with him at the bar. He had never met an American. I was struck by that. By how insular life was in the factory town. I was struck how you could go through life and reach the age of 30 or 40 and never have ever encountered an American in the valley of the Mont Blanc, where there are so many foreigners headed up that highway to vacation or ski in Chamonix. I suppose no one ever stopped in Chedde. It would actually have been a detour. The highway went straight over it.

It is strange the things you remember 40 years later. That was perhaps my most searing memory. It was if the life in that factory hamlet of Chedde was totally cut off from the rest of the world. It created quite a tight community for the workers and their families. Of course, you have to remember, at the time there was no social media, no cell phones, no computers even. There was no Internet or email or even cable news. There were TVs, with a staid nightly newscast, and that was about it. America was about as far as the moon. And yet I felt total solidarity with Eric.


“Only the feeling of brotherhood, and outrage in the face of injustices inflicted on others, remain intact—but how long would all that last?”

— Simone Weil, Factory Journal.[12]


Simone Weil was taken by Marx’s analysis of the mechanisms of capitalist oppression. So much so, in fact, that she had a hard time understanding how it would be possible to overcome them.[13] She was a keen reader of Marx but resisted Marxist notions of proletarian revolution. Weil was particularly troubled by the idea of revolution. Revolution, on her view, was simply a call to send the popular masses to their death.[14] It had no positive content. Instead of revolution, Weil believed in gradual, painstaking transformation of social conditions through the humanization, dignity, and respect for workers.

To get to the root of the problem, Weil proposed to change the way that people work. In order to eliminate the disgust and the alienation that the workers felt, Weil suggested transforming the relation each worker has with the functioning of the factory, with the machines, with the way that time operates in the workplace. Workers needed to gain a sense of accomplishment and an understanding of what they were doing. They needed to understand their role in society. To bring their families to their workplace so they could see what they were doing and where. They needed more autonomy, more choice, in order to overcome their disgust and alienation.[15] It would not happen through Marxist propaganda, Weil argued, not through the idea that the proletariat were destined to dominate everyone else.[16] Instead, schooling needed to be more concrete. Factory work needed to be transformed. Workers needed to be treated properly with respect and humanity.[17]

As long as workers had no idea how their work fit within the broader social sphere, they would always feel exploited. “It would be very different if the worker knew clearly every day, every instant, what part they are playing in the fabrication of the factory and what place their factory plays in society,” Weil wrote.[18] Taking the example of workers making parts for some subway car but having no idea of what the parts they are stamping were used for; Weil argued that if only they knew what they were doing and how it fit with social needs, they would start to understand and have greater pride and ownership of what they were doing. As for the menial, repetitive manual tasks, Weil proposed more automation, more automatic machines.[19]

Weil felt that it would be possible to achieve cooperation, comprehension, and mutual appreciation if the workers were free and not exploited, oppressed, subordinated, forced into forms of servitude. If people were free, then their collective work, even in a factory, would create bonds of collectivity. Workers would feel in her words “indispensable,”[20] part of a community, not just cogs in the machine. Among managers, mutual appreciation prevails; but for the workers, the relationships are inverted: “machines play the role of humans, and humans play the role of machines.”[21] And that, Weil maintained, is the source of all evil. It makes it impossible for the workers to enjoy the benefits of cooperation, collaboration, collectivity.

As I read these passages, I’m not entirely satisfied. I don’t feel as if it’s enough. Making life bearable, even pleasant, is surely important. But it does little to transform the underlying political economy. It is possible that this is what has happened in history. At the factory in Chedde, I felt comradery and solidarity. The times and conditions were vastly different than in 1934-1935. Simone Weil was paid by the piece, which put incredible pressure on her and her fellow workers to speed up their work. They were punished for glancing at each other or communicating or leaving their workstations. They would be fired for not making sufficient pieces. The conditions at the factory in Chedde were far different: no one was being paid for piecework, most of the workers were unionized if I recall, and they had some job security. This may have affected their relations with each other and with their work.

But even setting that aside, I remain unsatisfied. Weil spent almost six months working in factories to confront, through praxis, her own writings on political economy. She had just polished off what she called her “Grand Oeuvre,” her “Magnum Opus,” the long-form essay titled “Reflections on the Causes of Liberty and Social Oppression,” which she sent off at the beginning of December 1934, just when she began working at the Alsthom factory.[22] Weil considered her factory work a way to test her theories of political economy. She explained this when she applied for her leave from teaching at the high school in Puy, in June 1934.[23] And Weil disdained Marxist thinkers who had never had the experience of the factory. “When I think that the great Bolshevik leaders purported to create a working class that was liberated and yet none of them—Trotsky for sure not, Lenin neither, I believe—had even stepped foot in a factory, and as a result had only the faintest idea of the real conditions that determined the servitude or liberty of factory workers,” she complained to her friend, Albertine Thévenon.[24] Weil was passionate about being in the factory, it was her idiosyncratic way of getting right her own theorization of political economy. As Benjamin Davis writes, she was convinced “that academic theory is insufficient for comprehending how social relations function.”[25]

And yet the end result leaves me unsatisfied. Treating workers properly is, no doubt, essential given how it affects their lives, their families, their very existence. But is that enough?


“I want to prepare a philosophy thesis concerning the relationship of modern technique, the basis of large industry, to the essential aspects of our civilization—that is, on  one hand, our social organization and, on the other, our culture.”

Simone Weil, Request for a leave from teaching, June 20, 1934.[26]


Simone Weil’s immersive philosophical praxis was unmatched. Unmatched by all her peers, all those philosophers who, like Weil, would study at the École normale supérieure, take the agrégation, and become well-recognized philosophers. Hardly anyone compares to Simone Weil on that front.

After the month at the factory, I returned to Paris to the headquarters to work in another department for the month of August. I worked in the carbon sales department. I remember making bar charts for them in color. It was a study about the costs of assembling blast-furnaces. At the time, there was graph paper, and you had to use a ruler and pencil to draw the bars and then fill them in with colored pencils. It would take a day to make a nice set of graphs that you can make now on a computer in a flash. I also remember spending a lot of time correcting the English translations of technical documents. They were full of errors.

The headquarters were located right next to the Gare Saint-Lazarre, on the rue Balzac, on the left side when you’re looking at the train station. The main thing I recall there was the cafeteria. I remember best the food that they served there. It was so good and ample and healthy. For lunch, all the managers would sit down for a five course meal, with an appetizer, main course, cheese course and salad, and dessert. It wasn’t fancy, but the food was amazing. It was served on trays, and everyone drank red or white wine to accompany lunch. It was what I would have expected for a formal dinner, but it was a simple ordinary lunch, courtesy of the company.


“I got up in the mornings with anguish. I went to the factory with dread; I worked like a slave; the noon break was a wrenching experience; I got back to my place at 5:45, preoccupied immediately with getting enough sleep (which I didn’t) and with waking up early enough. Time was an intolerable burden. Dread—outright fear—of what was going to happen next only relaxed its grip on me on Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning. And what I dreaded was the orders.

The feeling of self-respect, such as it has been built up by society, is destroyed. It is necessary to forge another one for oneself (although exhaustion wipes out consciousness of one’s ability to think!). Try to hold on to this other kind.

One finally gets a clear idea of one’s own importance.

The class of those who do not count—in any situation—in anyone’s eyes—and who will not count, ever, no matter what happens (notwithstanding the last line of the first verse of the Internationale).[27] […]

One always needs to have some external signs of one’s worth for oneself.

The main fact isn’t the suffering, but the humiliation.

Hitler’s strength is perhaps founded on that…

— Simone Weil, Factory Journal.[28]


Weil was writing in 1935, several years before Hitler would invade France and spark the Holocaust. Her immersive philosophical praxis would take her next to Catalonia, to fight fascism and Franco’s army, and later to London to join the Free French. She was prescient in connecting the oppression of the working class to “Hitler’s strength,” as she wrote. It is worrisome to reread these passages today in light of the rise of authoritarianism, most recently in Argentina, and before that in Brazil, in India and Turkey now, and right here in the United States. It is particularly troubling to think about the next elections in this country and watch the polls favor Donald Trump in a rematch.

How does self-respect, suffering, humiliation translate into political opinions or ideology? And have we done anything to address feelings of self-worth among the people who are mostly exploited by the system?

Simone Weil was not sanguine about the possibility of salvation. “The only possibility of salvation would consist in the methodical cooperation of all, powerful and weak, with a view to the progressive decentralization of social life,” she wrote in “Reflections on the Causes of Liberty and of Social Oppression” in 1934; “but the absurdity of such an idea is immediately obvious. Such cooperation cannot even be dreamt of in a civilization based on rivalry, struggle and war. Without such cooperation, it is impossible to halt the blind tendency of the social machine towards increasing centralization…”[29]

Chastened, and perhaps suffering from some depression, Weil argued for incremental reforms: to try to awaken thought, to make efforts here and there to increase certain liberties.[30]

How could an immersive philosophical praxis promote more ambitious societal transformation? Or, to put it differently, isn’t it possible to work on larger structural transformation when one is engaged so deeply in praxis? This is a challenge for coöperism as well, because coöperism starts with one’s own praxis. It starts with collective acts of cooperation and mutual aid. How do we get from worker cooperatives, consumer co-ops, mutuals, and credit unions to a full economic regime of coöperism? I have argued that it can occur through critical mass and snowball effects, at least in the case of coöperism. I am confident it can transform society.

Immersive philosophical praxis thus raises important questions about the relationship between reforms, non-reformist reforms, abolition, and more radical paths. Weil ultimately adopted a reformist position, rejecting Marxism, rejecting calls for revolution, rejecting class struggle, in favor of transforming the conditions of workers to make their lives more bearable. Perhaps that was just a first step towards larger political economic transformation, although I do not get a sense of that in her writings. It is certainly not endemic to immersive philosophical praxis.

In the end, we are shaped as thinkers and actors in ways that are not always clear. Our impulses and desires and feelings are not always traceable to discrete experiences, they are often more impressionistically related. My goal back in 1981 was to completely immerse myself in the experience of the factory, without the remove of theorizing the experience or studying the factory. But there are many different ways that critique and praxis can relate to each other. I think I had identified five such ways in an earlier book.[31] One of them is for praxis to directly inform theory, or here, for an immersive praxis to shape one’s thinking. It is surely possible that a deep immersive experience, perhaps even unintentionally, informs one’s thought. But the relation I favor more is the constant confrontation of theory and practice, what I called the “unified field.”[32] I would like now to develop the method of immersive philosophical praxis as a way, not to inform theory, but to constantly confront critique and praxis.


“Jealousy between workers. The conversation between the tall conceited blond workman and Mimi, who was accused of having hurried so as to be there at the right time for a ‘good order.’ Mimi to me: ‘You aren’t jealous. You’re wrong not to be.’ However, she says she isn’t—but she may be anyway.”

— Simone Weil, Factory Journal.[33]


As I read Simone Weil’s factory journal today, and her accounts of the friendships, petty jealousies, and rivalries between her fellow workers, that is perhaps what sticks with me the most. What I recall best from my time in the factory was the ordinariness of the personal exchanges, the friendly gestures, like the guys waking me up to go back to work, the sharing of food and drink, but also the banal human interactions and pettiness. I was after all an interloper, a tourist, and a young kid compared to the other men. Although I spoke French fluently, I lived in the States, very far away from their lives, their families, their concerns.

I left the factory unsure of what I had experienced. I kept my blues with me. I still have the jacket today, 40 years later. I still wear it on occasion when I’m working on words, 40 years later, with a fondness for the men I worked with and in solidarity.

I had gone there wanting to genuinely experience factory work, with theories of alienation in my head and expectations of a political experience. I had been reading and was immersed in Sartre and Marx, and Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. I was fascinated by existential philosophy and would soon write a mini-thesis on Sartre, freedom, and political violence. I was obsessed with Sartre’s Marxist uptake of the Hegelian master-slave dialectic. I wondered whether that very dialectic played out in the factory. I was planning to write my senior thesis about this with Sheldon Wolin. I’d been studying Freud as well with Raymond Geuss, and reading Nietzsche obsessively with Rüdiger Bittner. And I was taken by the importance of experiencing how a factory worker lived the experience. I wasn’t that well versed in Maoism or the Cultural Revolution. What drew me to the factory in Chedde was not that, so much as my basic training in philosophy, lost as I was in the weeds of the primary texts of Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche. I didn’t go to the factory as a Maoist, but as a Marxist existentialist like Sartre, something that to this day makes little sense. A contradiction in terms, perhaps. A mess of a book.[34] But I just felt I had to experience factory work.

I expected to have a political experience, but I came away from it as a human experience. I felt a real solidarity with Eric and my co-workers. I was an outsider, though. There was nothing I could do about it. I must have seemed like a unicorn to the workers there. An 18-year-old French kid, raised mostly in the States, a tourist at the factory.

I’ve forgotten most of it now. The only way I could reconstitute it properly would be to get my hands on the letters I wrote at the time to my lover in Paris. That would be the only way.


“Keep this letter—I may ask for it back from you if one day I want to recollect my time working in the factory. Maybe not even to publish anything about it, I don’t think, but just to protect myself from oblivion.”

— Simone Weil, letter to a friend.[35]



Special thanks to Benjamin Davis, Kiana Taghavi, and Fonda Shen for comments and feedback on this essay.

[1] Simone Weil, “Expérience de la vie d’usine. Lettre ouverte à Jules Romains,” 289-307, in Simone Weil, Œuvres completes, tome II, Écrits historiques et politiques, Volume 2: L’Expérience ouvrière et L’Adieu à la Révolution (Juillet 1934-Juin 1937) (Paris: Gallimard, 1991), at p. 295 (“La coopération, la compréhension, l’appréciation mutuelle dans le travail y sont le monopole des spheres supérieurs.”)

[2] Weil, “Expérience de la vie d’usine. Lettre ouverte à Jules Romains,” 305-307.

[3] Weil, “Expérience de la vie d’usine. Lettre ouverte à Jules Romains,” 302-303.

[4] Simone Weil, “Réflexions sur les causes de la liberté et de l’oppression sociale (1934),” 29-109, in Simone Weil, Œuvres completes, tome II, Écrits historiques et politiques, Volume 2: L’Expérience ouvrière et L’Adieu à la Révolution (Juillet 1934-Juin 1937) (Paris: Gallimard, 1991), at p. 73.

[5] See Weil, “Réflexions sur les causes de la liberté et de l’oppression sociale (1934),” at p. 30-31; see, generally, Benjamin P. Davis, Simone Weil’s Political Philosophy: Fieldnotes from the Margins (London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2023), p. 16-17.

[6] Simone Weil, Factory Journal, in Simone Weil, Formative Writings 1929-1941 (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1987), at p. 171.

[7] Weil, “Expérience de la vie d’usine. Lettre ouverte à Jules Romains,” 290.

[8] Weil, Factory Journal, at p. 225.

[9] I am using pseudonyms.

[10] Weil, Factory Journal, at p. 171.

[11] Weil, Factory Journal, p. 226.

[12] Weil, Factory Journal, p. 226.

[13] Weil, “Réflexions sur les causes de la liberté et de l’oppression sociale (1934),” at p. 31.

[14] Weil, “Réflexions sur les causes de la liberté et de l’oppression sociale (1934),” 21.

[15] Weil, “Expérience de la vie d’usine. Lettre ouverte à Jules Romains,” 301.

[16] Weil, “Expérience de la vie d’usine. Lettre ouverte à Jules Romains,” 301-302.

[17] Weil, “Expérience de la vie d’usine. Lettre ouverte à Jules Romains,” 306-307.

[18] Weil, “Expérience de la vie d’usine. Lettre ouverte à Jules Romains,” 302.

[19] Weil, “Expérience de la vie d’usine. Lettre ouverte à Jules Romains,” 303.

[20] Weil, “Expérience de la vie d’usine. Lettre ouverte à Jules Romains,” 209.

[21] Weil, “Expérience de la vie d’usine. Lettre ouverte à Jules Romains,” 295.

[22] See Weil, Œuvres completes, tome II, Écrits historiques et politiques, Volume 2, at p. 18.

[23] See Davis, Simone Weil’s Political Philosophy, at p. 19.

[24] See Weil, Œuvres completes, tome II, Écrits historiques et politiques, Volume 2, at p. 154. Weil knew Trotsky personally, she had put him up at her place in December 1933, after which he reportedly said “You will be able to say that it was at your place that the Fourth International was founded.” Id. at p. 155.

[25] Davis, Simone Weil’s Political Philosophy, at p. 93.

[26] Quoted in Davis, Simone Weil’s Political Philosophy, at p. 19.

[27] “We have been naught, we shall be all.”

[28] Weil, Factory Journal, p. 225-226.

[29] Weil, “Réflexions sur les causes de la liberté et de l’oppression sociale (1934),” at p. 105.

[30] Weil, “Réflexions sur les causes de la liberté et de l’oppression sociale (1934),” at p. 106.

[31] Bernard E. Harcourt, Critique & Praxis (New York: Columbia University Press, 2020), at p. 34-42.

[32] Id. at 42-43.

[33] Weil, Factory Journal, p. 172.

[34] I am referring to Jean-Paul Sartre’s Critique de la raison dialectique (Paris: Gallimard, 1960).

[35] Weil, Letter to Albertine Thévenon, in Weil, Œuvres completes, tome II, Écrits historiques et politiques, Volume 2, at p. 159.