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The Other – as a suffering being?

PHILOSOPHY / Wolfram Eilenberger describes here the struggle four philosophers – Hannah Arendt, Simone de Beauvoir, Ayn Rand and Simone Weil fought to become independent people. The book succeeds well in putting them in context with the current events they got involved in and at the same time tried to get out of.


Wolfram Eilenberger is a best-selling author and philosopher. Among other things, he has taught at the University of Toronto and is obviously a capable guy. He deals with the four philosophers Hannah Arendt, Simone de Beauvoir, Ayn Rand and Simone Weil and puts their philosophy in context with how they related philosophically and personally to the Other – that is, to their surroundings, philosophically and existentially.

Simone de Beauvoir's relationship with Simone Weil

The book opens with Beauvoir sitting at the Café de Flore and thinking about her relationship with other people's being and their consciousness. Sartre and Beauvoir not only wanted to write philosophy, they also wanted mild the philosophy they wrote. Being a philosopher was a total, committed project for them. Beauvoir's relationship with Weil possibly represented an even greater challenge for Beauvoir than the relationship with Sartre, as Weil's existential project was even more radical than Beauvoir's own: For her, Weil's totally religious project was a kind of necessary corrective to her own non-religious project, but without Beauvoir would admit it herself. Weil was in many ways difficult for Beauvoir to take seriously, since Weil internalized the Other in a far more radical way than Beauvoir did. Weil's project was to become like the other, and thus perhaps to annihilate himself.

Weil's project was to become like 'the other', and thus perhaps to annihilate himself.

Perhaps it is fair to claim that Beauvoir did not understand Weil's personality and philosophy at all. Weil's existential project was so radical that it threatened her own life, as she was willing to starve herself to death out of compassion for suffering humanity. In addition, she was also, by her own admission, willing to kill Germans out of military necessity, since Germany, in her own opinion, was a threat to every other country in the world. Weil took on boring and pointless work in a factory to feel the emptiness as a separate bodily and mental project, and hopelessly impractical as she was – at least seen with normal eyes – she failed in her project of solidarity with the suffering. In other words, Weil represented a significant challenge to Beauvoir's rationality and philosophy of liberation.

Simone Weil

Ayn Rand

The Russian-American philosopher Ayn Rand had quite a different project: She developed a form of egoistic philosophical attitude, built on the tradition of Friedrich Nietzsche and Max Stirner. While Weil wanted to sacrifice herself, Rand wanted the complete opposite: She wanted to create an ego that would be totally independent of other people. Philosophically, she moved in what we must call a strongly libertarian direction. She wanted to cancel or end the struggle between the individual and the environment and become an individual who would not allow herself to be dictated by the being of the Other. She wanted to create herself as a completely autonomous and independent individual on her own terms.

Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt included the Other as a clear and strongly defining factor in her philosophy. "If you are attacked as a Jew, you must defend yourself as a Jew," she wrote. It means that when 'the Other' defines you as a Jew, you cannot avoid 'the Other's' definition of you, no matter how much you wish it were possible. You must defend yourself as what you are attacked as. We cannot build up an ego that exists independently of our surroundings, she believed. The Other is something that both defines and limits, but which also helps to create us, because we are all a product of our surroundings.

Beauvoir developed a kind of philosophical 'situationism'.

Arendt took up the problem of Rahel Varnhagen (1771–1833), who was both Jewish, female and German, and who fought with and against the facticity that helped shape her own life. Varnhagen wanted to create herself as something other than what she actually was, which meant that she ended up in a state of selflessness. Varnhagen fought against his identity as a Jew throughout his life.

The other

So the theme for The Visionaries can then be said to be these four philosophers' different attitudes towards being an individual in connection with and in the struggle against the environment. On the basis of the ego, Rand wanted to heal himself and enter "the earthly paradise". This means that she believed that total autonomy is possible. Thus, her existence became a battle against the others who are constantly helping to prevent one's own self-expression. The book moves as a historical-philosophical work through the works and lives of the four philosophers at a time when a world war is about to develop.

Weil tried to show that the path towards the development of a higher self was possible even in dehumanizing and warlike times, but only by becoming like 'the Other'. Rand tried to the greatest extent possible to create himself independently of external events. Weil wanted to develop an existence built on consideration for the Other, while Rand wanted to develop a proud self-love that should not be dependent on the judgments of others.

Weil tried to show that the path towards the development of a higher self was possible even in dehumanizing and warlike times.

In June 1939, Beauvoir has her first nervous breakdown. The Germans are about to invade France. At the same time, she thought and pondered over the phenomenon of freedom and how, as Sarte believed, it could be created out of nothingness. Beauvoir developed a kind of philosophical 'situationism' which implies that freedom must be created through the actual existential situation in which the individual person finds himself.

Simone de Beauvoir


This book is partly anecdotal, but I would still say that it rises high above weaker works on the history of ideas of which so many are published. The reason is that the author is a philosopher himself, and that he presents good knowledge of the four philosophers. He succeeds well in putting them in context with the current events in which the four became entangled and at the same time tried to extricate themselves from.

Weil's personality was perhaps weakened because she wanted to accept the suffering of others as her own. She thus risked erasing or annihilating herself. Her existential self-development had to eventually lead to her own self-annihilation. For me, Weil's philosophy is the most extreme, but also the most interesting of the four.

The book is well written and worth recommending to anyone interested in a philosophy book that is not too abstract in its observations.

Henning Næs
Henning Næss
Literary critic in MODERN TIMES.

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