An Undergraduate Essay: Simone Weil’s Critique of Rights-Based Doctrines

18/9/2023 ☼ essayweil

The following is an essay I wrote in 2007, in a third year undergraduate class on political philosophy. I was not altogether surprised to learn from my tutor, many years later, that although he had offered essay questions on Simone Weil for a decade or more, I was perhaps the only student to answer one. My encounter with Weil, prompted by that course, was one of the most powerful of my undergraduate career, and continues to shape my thinking. It might have had further ramifications for me as well: of course I had known T. S. Eliot as a poet since high school, but was I aware of his social thought before noticing his introduction to The Need for Roots? (Note that this is not an endorsement–I feel towards Eliot’s social thought as C. L. R. James felt towards the Four Quartets: He states most clearly and exactly whatever I do not believe; I can find it there.”)

I have interspersed some commentary and some edits–pleasingly, there was less to do on the latter score than I would have thought. (This is not to say that I wouldn’t write the thing wholly differently today.)

If you say to someone who has ears to hear: What you are doing to me is not just,’ you may touch and awaken at its source the spirit of attention and love. But it is not the same with words like I have the right…’ or you have no right to…’ They evoke a latent war and awaken the spirit of contention. –Simone Weil

With reference to this passage, describe and assess Simone Weil’s case against taking the liberal contractarian idea of respect for persons and their rights as the basis of political morality.

Simone Weil’s political philosophy is difficult to characterise. It fails to occupy any single place on the usual left-right continuum, yet is deeply engaged with the both the liberal and socialist traditions. It would seem as though The Christian element of Weil’s thought sets it somewhat apart from most other twentieth-century political theories, and the frequency with which Weil takes Christian precepts as given is likely to alienate readers of a more secular persuasion.

Sign of the times–would one feel any compunction to pose the question of secular and non-secular readerships like this today? But this was the era of the new atheism,” and one seemed tetchily aware of these debates going on in the background. Hence, I guess, the absurd disclaimer, I do not wish to imply that Weil is a fundamentalist”–not only overwritten, but simply silly. There is no comparison between the seriousness and strenuousness of Weil’s work and the carnival-barking inanity of American political Christianity.

Indeed, whereas a liberal conception of society holds the freedom of individuals to pursue their own conception of the good as the highest value, Weil recognises only one good, that is, the ‘divine order of the universe,’ from which justice, truth and beauty flow (Weil 1977, 338). In a sense, Weil has no choice about this; if one accepts the Gospels as true, one almost necessarily believes that a broadly Christian way of life is the best choice for all human beings, regardless of whether or not they think so themselves.

There is a more interesting point here than I simply gloss over here, taking it as a given that Weil’s faith commits her to a particular universal view of normative goods for human beings; more interesting is the way that a particular doctrinal position illuminates the normative black hole of modern liberalism.

I do not wish to imply [Undergraduate overwriting–more declarative statements, fewer hedges] that Weil is a fundamentalist in any regard, and I have no reason to suspect that she would oppose religious toleration; but nevertheless, she holds that truth, the highest need of the human soul, originates in a realm above that of human beings that we know through revelation. Despite these reservations, Weil offers a cogent and necessary critique of liberalism, particularly in its contractarian aspect, by arguing that the concept of rights rests on faulty notions of respect for human persons. The inadequacy of this notion of personality underlies the concept of rights. It is my intention to I will read Weil as a critic of contract theory, particularly as Hobbes and Locke expound it, by examining the concepts of personhood on which their theories rest. It is not the broader notion of human nature put forward by either Hobbes or Locke that is at issue. Rather, it is a question of their definitions of personhood insofar as it they serve as a basis for political morality. I will also comment briefly on the notion of personhood implied in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen’ of 1789. I will then outline Weil’s critique of personhood thus conceived as a basis for political morality. I will conclude by demonstrating how Weil’s attack on rights-based doctrines rests on her critique of human personality.

Hobbes’s Account of Personhood

Hobbes’s definition of personhood is legalistic in nature and in intent. He defines a person as follows:

He whose words or actions are considered, either as his own, or as representing the words or actions of an other man, or of any other thing to whom they are attributed, whether truly or by fiction. (Hobbes 1991, 111)

Hobbes goes on to discuss the etymology of the word person,’ commenting on the fact that its Greek equivalent, πρόσωπον, refers to the face, that is, the outward appearance of a person. In this sense, the person for Hobbes is that which acts and participates in the life of civil society. Hobbes distinguishes between cases in which a person acts for himself, and those in which he is acted for by another; in this instance, the former is referred to as the Actor and the latter as the Author (Hobbes 1991, 112). Thus, When an Actor makes a covenant, the Author is bound by it.[It’s not really clear that this follows from the previous sentence, nor that the following sentence follows from this one] Hence, A person is that which enters into a covenant, either directly or indirectly. On Hobbes’s account, the very nature of human society is by its nature contractual, both in its origin and in its day-to-day operation. Hence, Just as the sovereign is conceived as the guarantor of covenants, the person is conceived as contractor (Hobbes 1991, 112–13).

The second important element of Hobbes’s concept of the person is its ability to join with others and thus create a collective:

A multitude of men, are made One Person, when they are by one man, or one Person, Represented; so that it be done with the consent of every one of that Multitude in particular. For it is the Unity of the Representer, not the Unity of the Represented that maketh the Person One. (Hobbes 1991, 114)

Did I have this aspect of Hobbes’s thought in mind when, later, I became interested in Michael Oakeshott’s political philosophy? Or did I already have Oakeshott in mind? I remember exactly where I came across Oakeshott–in an episode of an ABC radio programme called The Philosopher’s Zone,” first broadcast on 6 January 2007–but not when I actually listened to the programme. It might have been during 2007, or it might have been the following year (the essay was handed up on 9 November 2007). I recall seeking out the edition of Hobbes’s Leviathan that Oakeshott introduced, but not until sometime later. I didn’t consult it for this essay, for instance.

Hence, in order to be properly considered a unity, a group of people, who constitute a number of authors, each delegate authority to act on their behalf to a representative. This authority may be of a greater or lesser degree depending on the situation. On the other hand, The representative may consist of several persons, in which case decisions are taken according to the majority opinion (Hobbes 1991, 114–15). Furthermore, Hobbes stipulates that Children, Fooles, and Mad-men’ cannot be considered authors; therefore, it seems that capacity to reason is the central characteristic underlying this conception of the person. Hobbes does not specify in which concrete situations would apply, but we may reasonably assume that they apply to most situations in which individuals form associations, be they businesses, clubs, trade unions, or indeed, democratic nations.

Locke’s Account of Personhood

Locke’s concept of the person, like that of Hobbes, emerges out of the central motif of his broader political philosophy. While for Hobbes this was is the making and enforcement of covenants, for Locke it is property. The famous account of how property arises through appropriation in Locke’s Second Treatise of Government discloses certain presuppositions about persons and their rights. For Locke, the body is the origin of private property:

Though the Earth, and all inferior Creatures be common to all Men, yet every Man has a Property in his own Person. This no Body has any Right to but himself. (Locke 1988, 287)

From this it follows that one also owns one’s labour, and it is mixing this labour with previously untouched resources that creates private property. Notice that Locke stipulates that no Body has any Right to’ one’s body but oneself; in this sense, slavery and every kind of criminal offence against a person’s body are represented as offences against property. The position of property at the basis of political morality is reinforced in the following:

But because no political society can be, nor subsist, without having in itself the power to preserve the property, and in order thereunto punish the offences of all those of that society, there, and there only, is political society where every one of the members hath quitted this natural power, resigned it up into the hands of the community in all cases that exclude him not from appealing for protection to the law established by it. (Locke 1988, 324)

Locke refers here to the handing over of the individual’s right of punishment to the sovereign, the act that separates political society from the state of nature. Notice, however, that the power to preserve property, rather than the power to guarantee rights, is seen as constitutive of political society. As Lowe puts it, The state’s principal purpose, in Locke’s eyes, is the protection of persons and their property’ (Lowe 2005, 174). It would seem as though The notion of a person as owner of property sits at the heart of Locke’s account of the social contract.

The Notion of Personhood Implied In The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen’

Weil often credits the men of 1789’ with launching the doctrine of rights as we understand it; as such, and for the purpose of elaborating in order to state Weil’s critique, one we must attempt to discern what articulate what conception of personhood underlies their Declaration (Weil 1977, 314). Article 2 of the declaration sets forth four natural and imprescriptible rights of man.’ These are: liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression’ (Van Kley 1994, 1). The meaning of each of these rights is elaborated in the following articles; for instance, liberty’ is defined in Article 4 as follows:

Liberty consists in being able to do anything that does not injure another; thus the only limits upon any man’s exercise of his natural rights are those that guarantee enjoyment of these same rights to other members of society. These limits can be determined only by the law. (Van Kley 1994, 1)

This is a disorganised and vague paragraph; it’s not clear to me now what I was trying to say about Hobbes and Locke vis a vis the Declaration. Part of what’s missing here is a framework for understanding how earlier texts influence later ones–the sort of thing that contextualist intellectual history offers, for instance. Before we even get to that, there’s the basic empirical question: did the framers of the Declaration read Hobbes and/or Locke?

This is a far more explicit statement of a right to liberty than one finds in either Hobbes or Locke. Indeed, Hobbes seems to regard the struggle for individual liberty as quixotic, even in the context of the absolute monarchies of his day (Martinich 2005, 131). Locke, on the other hand, seems to conceive of liberty less in terms of the structure of government than its day-to­-day practice. For Locke, liberty consists in organising political society such that individuals have the right to participate in the making of laws; hence his advocacy of parliamentary democracy. Furthermore, Locke’s contention that a member of society may withdraw his or her tacit consent through emigration or rebellion serves as the ultimate guarantor of liberty in his system (Locke 1988, 347–48). Furthermore, Articles 13 through 15, concerning tax, and Article 17, elaborate on the individual’s right to property; Article 17 reads as follows:

Property being an inviolable and sacred right, no one can be deprived of it, unless legally established public necessity obviously demands it, and upon condition of a just and prior indemnity. (Van Kley 1994, 2–3)

Hence, The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen’ takes account of both Locke’s conception of the person as a possessor of property and Hobbes’s conception of the rational participant in covenants, while simultaneously broadening the reach of individual liberty beyond either philosopher’s system. However, in terms of its notion of personhood, the Declaration subordinates both Hobbes’s and Locke’s concepts to that of the person as possessor of rights. According to the revolutionary National Assembly, ignorance, disregard, or contempt for the rights of man are the causes of government corruption and societal breakdown.’ The rights elaborated by the seventeen articles of the declaration are natural, inalienable, and sacred’ (Van Kley 1994, 1). The goals of the Declaration are to offer a standard of comparison between the specific actions of governments and their eternal goals, and to ground the demands of the citizen’ in principles which are directed towards the welfare of all (Van Kley 1994, 1). Thus, the Declaration implicitly conceives of the human person as the possessor of various rights. [This point needed to be landed in a much stronger way…]

Weil’s Critique of Human Personality

Following on from the point about method above, the literal claim here is hard to substantiate. That Simone Weil would probably have detected the vice she calls personalism’ in Hobbes and Locke is a different claim than that Hobbes and Locke were personalists. It looks even less tenable given the definition of personalism’ I go on to offer: did Hobbes care about human personality’?

I love this little excursion into Oxford philosophy, i.e. establishing a distinction by means of an intuition prompted by a hypothetical, as in the example of putting out a random pedestrian’s eyes later on.

Simone Weil terms the body of ideas outlined above personalism’ insofar as because it privileges the expression of human personality as the highest good in society. Weil distinguishes between one’s person,’ in the sense of one’s physical body, and one’s self as a whole by means of two examples. [I would have to go back to the original essay here, but I strongly suspect that this doesn’t come close to nailing Weil’s meaning of personality’] While one could say to another person, Your person does not interest me’ without causing offence, the same does not hold for You do not interest me.’ Similarly, while My person does not count’ does not degrade oneself, I do not count’ certainly does (Weil 1977, 313–14). Weil is here arguing for a distinction between one’s physical person and oneself that may be read as partial critique of Locke’s account of the origin of property. On Locke’s account, the purpose of civil government is to enforce the individual’s right to property, while the origin of property is in the individual’s ownership of his or her body. Thus, Weil’s critique alerts us that there is an element of the self that is relevant to the question of political morality, insofar as it is implied in our respect for ourselves and others, which is not exhausted by Locke’s conception.

Having rhetorically demonstrated that the physical person does not exhaust a relevant definition of personhood, Weil seeks to shows that neither does human personality doesn’t either. That is to say, the notion of human personality also fails to provide a sufficient basis for political morality. Weil makes this point by taking the example of a man walking down the street, and posing the question of what would stay her hand should she feel the impulse to put out his eyes. Weil argues that respect for human personality cannot account for this; she could put out his eyes while leaving him just as much a human personality as he was before (Weil 1977, 314). Furthermore:

It is impossible to define what is meant by respect for human personality. It is not just that it cannot be defined in words. That can be said of many perfectly clear ideas. But this one cannot be conceived either; it cannot be defined nor isolated by the silent operation of the mind. (Weil 1977, 314)

Allowing such a vague and indeterminate notion to serve as a standard of public morality’ opens the door to tyranny (Weil 1977, 314). Given their determination to found political morality on notions that are comprehensible to all, it is likely that the men of 1789’ would agree with Weil on this point. However, they clearly did not anticipate that their notion of personhood would be judged inadequate to the task. Hence, according to Weil, human personality is unfit to serve as the basis of political morality.

Weil’s own answer to the question that she poses emphasises the human being taken as a whole, privileging neither the human person nor the human personality:

It is neither his person, nor the human personality in him, which is sacred to me. It is he. The whole of him. The arms, the eyes, the thoughts, everything. Not without infinite scruple would I touch anything of his. (Weil 1977, 314)

In this, we can discern something of an implicit criticism of Hobbes’s position on personhood; Hobbes’s rational contractor would seem to privilege the human personality over the person as a whole. Indeed, Weil could put out the eyes of her imaginary pedestrian without compromising his ability to enter covenants with others. Weil clarifies her argument that the human being is sacred as a whole by denying that a person is sacred in every respect; her imaginary pedestrian is not sacred insofar as he may be a duke or a dustman, or insofar as he has blue eyes or long arms (Weil 1977, 314). On this point, Weil is in agreement with the men of 1789,’ who argued that Social distinctions can be based only on public utility’ (Van Kley 1994, 1). In short, though, Respect for another person must be for the whole of him’ (Teuber 1982, 223).

Weil, the Marxist-anarchist-Catholic, is having it both ways; body and soul are distinguishable but indistinguishable; the soul doesn’t transcend the body, instead the former is lacerated by harm done to the later; to eliminate either is to eliminate both.

What stays Weil’s hand despite her impulse to assault the stranger is her awareness that by doing so, his soul would be lacerated by the thought that harm was being done to him.’ Weil contends that each of us lives, despite whatever experiences of life we may have had, in the expectation that good, rather than evil, will be clone to us. This expectation, above all, is sacred in a human being (Weil 1977, 315). The essence of Weil argument would seem to be that the conceptions of personhood that underlie the theories of Hobbes, Locke and the men of 1789’ lack the attentiveness to suffering, the awareness of the reality of evil, in short, the ethical depth to found a political morality that is equal to the reality of our time. Indeed, Weil’s contention that the institutions of government must be reformed so that they are able to hear and respond to the cry of injustice must strike one as particularly pertinent in the present clay. Callousness and indifference to suffering are two of the most common accusations levelled against governments around the world, whether or not they may be justified. Furthermore, Weil’s argument that political parties, busily maintaining themselves in power,’ are inattentive to suffering also accords with our experiences in the present day (Weil 1977, 316–17). [This puts it mildly…]

Pernicious Consequences of Rights-Based Doctrines

Weil’s critique of human personality extends beyond arguing its conceptual limitations to contending that rights-based doctrines have certain pernicious consequences. The first of these criticisms is the proposition that rights-based doctrines treat these rights as if they themselves were property. Such a conception can be traced back partly to the role property plays in Locke’s theory (Andrew 1986, 65). What Weil objects to about this notion is the sense in which that it evokes connotations of connotes the marketplace:

The notion of rights is linked with the notion of sharing out, of exchange, of measured quantity. It has a commercial flavour, essentially evocative of legal claims and arguments. Rights are always asserted in a tone of contention; and when this tone is adopted, it must rely upon force in the background, or else it will be laughed at. (Weil 1977, 323)

Indeed, This gives us some clue to the passage that begins this essay. The latent war’ and spirit of contention’ that claims about rights awaken are related to this commercial element dimension: when one asserts one’s rights in whatever sphere of social life, others may feel as if they are in competition for their own liberty. It also opens the possibility of rights being traded off amongst powerful groups in return for the holdings of other groups. The inarticulate and afflicted members of any society cannot hope to profit from, or even participate in, these kinds of power plays (Andrew 1986, 65). Weil juxtaposes this aspect of the discourse of rights with the demand for justice in the following analogy:

The motive which prompts a little boy to watch jealously to see if his brother has a slightly larger piece of cake arises from a much more superficial level of the soul. The word justice means two very different things according to whether it refers to the one or the other level. (Weil 1977, 315) [This is clearly an inappropriately truncated quotation: what is the other level?]

Thus, the notion of rights appeals to this more superficial level of the soul,’ through which people are concerned with assuring themselves victory in competition, and a larger share of the spoils.

The notion that the demand for rights awakens a spirit of contention’ can be corroborated in some senses by the social history of the twentieth century. For instance, the women’s movement, from the early suffragettes to present-day feminism, has been engaged in a project of radically reshaping the social hierarchy in order to end the subjugation of women. A great deal of this work has been carried out under the banner of rights: the right to civic and economic participation, the right to equal pay, reproductive rights, etc., Despite (or rather because of) its successes, feminism has engendered ongoing waves of backlash, whether it is the persistent stereotyping of feminists as shrill, spiteful and asexual, debates over affirmative action for women in the workplace or in government, or the fact that the regime of political correctness can imbue misogyny with an element of taboo humour.

From the Weilian point of view, the important thing about this backlash is that it has nothing to say about the suffering of women in situations of domestic violence, or because of misogynistic cultural practices, and so on; it is radically inadequate to their experience. For Weil, such a backlash is in part engendered because the bartering language of rights has been allowed to take precedence over the language of authentic suffering. Hence, perhaps, antifeminism’s false zero-sum reasoning: advances for women can only come at the expense of men. However, it may well be objected to the Weilian position that the discourse of rights has allowed women to articulate their situation in a cogent manner. There is certainly no guarantee that relying on the cry of injustice could have brought about social change on the order that we have seen.

Things really seem to take off at this point, and this is perhaps the part of Weil that I most need to revisit in light of my more recent reading, for instance Alvin Gouldner’s remarks about the culture of critical discourse’ in The Future of intellectuals and the Rise of the New Class.

Weil’s second criticism of rights-based doctrines has to do with the voice through which the demand for justice is articulated. For Weil, the cry that the infliction of suffering provokes, Why am I being hurt,’ is authentic, immediate and universal. This cry indicates, without ambiguity or indecision, the presence of an injustice (Weil 1977, 315–17). In contrast to the voice with which one demands one’s rights, a shrill nagging of claims and counter­ claims,’ the cry is unaffected, and belongs equally to all (Weil 1977, 326). Weil makes the point that it is often the least articulate members of our society who have occasion to feel that evil is being done to them,’ and gives the following example:

Nothing… is more frightful than to see some poor wretch in the police court stammering before a magistrate who keeps up an elegant flow of witticisms. (Weil 1977, 316)

Weil holds that truth is often mute before an intelligence that concerns itself only with the manipulation of opinions. Furthermore, the discourse of rights has a particularly deleterious effect with regards to those who suffer the most, in that the full ethical imperative of the cry of injustice is masked by a legalistic and artificial language:

To put into the mouths of the afflicted words from the vocabulary of middle values, such as democracy, rights, personality, is to offer them something which can bring them no good and will inevitably do them much harm. (Weil 1977, 328)

This language has the potential to deaden concern for suffering’ (Andrew 1986, 75). Thus, the voice of affliction, the cry of surprise elicited from the infliction of suffering, is seen to be muted or drowned out by a kind of language that is insufficient to express the moral gravity of injustice.

Weil’s Alternative Account of Political Morality

A full description of Weil’s own concept of political morality would not be practical in the context of this essay. It encompasses a fairly comprehensive critique of the political institutions of Weil’s time, reflections on the nature of industrial labour, an analysis of the state of uprootedness’ in which the French have found themselves during the Second World War, and far more besides. [Weil’s oeuvre certainly contains all these things, but to call it a fairly comprehensive critique” is to miss its essential attributes: essayistic, aphoristic, yet densely compacted. Not comprehensive.”] However, I do want to draw attention to the concept of the impersonal, and the role that it plays in Weil’ s critique of rights and human personality. Weil distinguishes between three broad levels of human life and endeavour: the collective, the personal, and the impersonal. Weil’s well-known opposition to Marxism [This remark is jejune–Weil’s relationship with Marxism was far more complex than simple opposition] comes into play here; collectives, whether they be political parties, trade unions, community associations, etc., have the effect of imposing uniformity of thought on their members; as Weil herself puts it, When a group starts having opinions, it inevitably tends to impose them on its members’ (Weil 2002, 27). What is more:

What has been called freedom of association has been, in fact, up to now, freedom for associations. But associations have not got to be free; they are instruments, they must be held in bondage. Only the human being is fit to be free. (Weil 2002, 33)

Also, if one recalls that Hobbes’s very conception of the person is a social actor with the potential to enter collectives and delegate authority for their actions to representatives,; one sees that in this important respect, Hobbes’s thought runs in the opposite direction to Weil’s.

This brings us to the level of the personal, the level on which concepts such as personality, democracy and rights operate. As we have seen, Weil regards rights as personal things, and she is deeply opposed to basing the respect that we supposedly owe to people’s rights on their status as an expression of human personality. This is because,

The full expression of personality depends upon its being inflated by social prestige; it is a social privilege. (Weil 1977, 326)

It is the personalisation of rights that makes them alienable; their status as possessions means that they can be lost or gained, whereas true justice is not subject to such vicissitudes (Andrew 1986, 65). The alternative to this state of affairs rests in the notion of the impersonal. For Weil, the impersonal is a level of reality that supersedes the individual; indeed, Everything which is impersonal in man is sacred, and nothing else’ (Weil 1977, 317). The cry of injustice that Weil describes is found in this realm of the impersonal, as is justice itself; this constitutes its great advantage over the discourse of rights. Justice, for Weil, is impersonal in that it involves a relationship between concrete human beings rather than between abstract persons (whose legal or moral status abstracts from their social standing) (Andrew 1986, 66).

The deficiency of the notion of rights as it is derived from the contract tradition emerges both from the insufficient concept of personhood underlying it as well as the inattentiveness of political theorists to this notion of the impersonal. Hobbes’s theory, for instance, operates entirely on the level of the personal and the collective; this is hardly surprising for a philosopher who is regarded as an atheist or agnostic in all but name. Locke, on the other hand, despite his sincere belief in Christianity [Jejune again–who am I to speak to the sincerity of Locke’s Christianity?], developed a political theory that was mostly secular in its outlook. And as Weil says of the men of 1789,’ they did not recognise a plane of things that is eternal, universal and unconditioned,’ hence their choice of rights as the basis of political morality (Weil 2002, 4). However, this concept of the impersonal, and the vital role it plays as the source of truth and justice and as the object of human aspiration, is a great weakness in Weil’s theory. It is just as susceptible to the accusations of vagueness that Weil levels at the notion of human personality, and what is more, it imposes a single conception of the good on all human beings, whereas liberalism allows each person to choose their own. Whether or not one finds Weil’s political theory acceptable, then, depends on whet her or not one believes human beings are capable and deserving of making that choice.

Thus, we have seen that the contract tradition, originating in Hobbes and elaborated by Locke, privileges on the one hand, a conception of personhood rooted in our rational capacity to enter into covenants, and on the other, our nature as possessors of property (including our own bodies) as the bases of political morality. These notions are transformed by the framers of The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen’ into one of the person as a possessor of rights. Weil’s critique of these ideas begins by demonstrating the inadequacy of either the human person or the human personality as a basis for political morality; rather, respect must be accorded to the human being taken as a whole, and to his or her impersonal capacity for suffering. Weil also attacks the notion of rights on two levels; first, insofar as they function as commodities, and thus awaken a spirit of contention’ whenever they are invoked. Second, the language of rights is inadequate to express the reality of suffering in its full moral significance. Finally, Weil’s own account of political morality places the impersonal element of the human being, that which links each of us to the origins of truth and justice, at the core of our obligation to respect others.


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