Skepticism Toward Logic in the Wake of the Holocaust

The nicest part of teaching expository writing as blogging is the great variety of student projects I get to enjoy. This semester, I have one particularly talented student working on absurdist and existential literature. She recently read and commented on Ionesco's play Rhinocerus, connecting the play's critique of logic to a distrust of herd mentality and the Holocaust. I was writing on Heidegger, Levinas, and Derrida this morning, particularly Levinas's distrust of positivity in "The Thinking of Being and the Question of the Other," and I think traces of that essay can be found in my response to the student's post. Here it is:

The second half of the 20th century is dominated by the specter of the Holocaust. The values of the Modern Enlightenment are considered especially suspicious. Chief amongst them is the emphasis on logic--particularly on abstract thinking divorced from contextual reality. If you think about what we were talking about briefly in my office, then I think you can already see this. Heidegger's treatment of Being in terms of a verb, for instance, is an effort to put the philosopher's attention more on matters of movement than stasis. Movement requires a field of activity, and elements of time. Pure abstraction does not.

How this concerns the Holocaust is a more difficult question! But, I think it is safe to say that the divorce of philosophy from the practicalities of everyday life initiates an answer. Also, of course, is the matter of an unwavering faith in logic (since, logically, syllogistically, one can argue for the termination of an entire people.

Jews are evil.

Evil needs to be eradicated.

Eradicating evil is righteous.

Therefore, it is righteous to eradicate Jews.

There is an immediate need to discredit the possibility of such a syllogism, and to devalue any kind of thinking that resembles such form. What is needed is a philosophy dedicated to calling first principles to attention, to putting them under scrutiny, to rejecting the possibility of an unquestionable first principle.

And, as you point out, one way of doing this is to question, irrevocably, the herd mentality. But I am sometimes skeptical here--the idea that it is only in groups that evil occurs. That sounds to me sometimes like too much of a cop-out (i.e., none of us could produce such horror individually, it is only when in a group that such atrocity could occur). I firmly believe humans to be capable of atrocity no matter the number. But, I also like to hold onto the possibility that they are equally capable of love. It is a matter of rhetoric: kairos, identification, and mood. Most importantly, it is an orientation, an approach, an attitude (Burke fans nod here, right?). Here, of course, I am understanding rhetoric as a particular way-of-being-with-the-world, one that self-reflexively takes into account the unaccountability of others and conceptualizes power as a group process.


Charles Roderick said...

Seriously, pogroms have occurred for centuries against the Jews & logic had little to do with that decision.

Your clinical reading of the Holocaust in relation to logic, in my eyes, has little value in light of the psychology & history of Antisemitism.

Name-dropping Levinas (& referring to a paper he wrote) without giving a proper synopsis of what he wrote about ethics as first philosophy only diminishes your argument.

Herd-mentality can involve individual acts as they are supported by the status quo, such is the nature of politics.

I'm sorry, but you are obviously too caught up in academia to think outside the box. I am only playing devil's advocate, so forgive my brusqueness. Cheers!

Casey said...

Did you just say, "What is needed is a philosophy dedicated to calling first principles to attention, to putting them under scrutiny."


I mean, ... !!!

Roderick's not fair picking on your use of Levinas, since you've done all kinds of "synopsizing" Levinas' work and thought. But I concur with his judgment that you too easily associate the Holocaust with what you call "logic."

Charles Roderick said...

Hi Casey,

No, I did not say, "What is needed is a philosophy dedicated to calling first principles to attention, to putting them under scrutiny."

Don't quote me if it's not in the text I sent you.

Secondly, I'm trying to give you feedback, so please calm yourself, we are on the same team, whether you realize that or not. I'm just trying to help you kick the ball better.

I, also, do not equate the Holocaust with 'logic', just the opposite. I find the Shoah much too complex to state in a tidy syllogism. Please read Remnants of Auschwitz (Agamben) to get a better reading of the Holocaust.

I wish that you wouldn't take what I'm trying to convey to you as harsh criticism of your blog. I don't think you actually read a word that I said without getting upset that someone was criticizing you. Critique is necessary to grow as philosophical thinkers. Sometimes you need outside advice to help you write better or see outside our own limited point of view.

I'd really like to hear what you have to say about Levinas & the paper that you cite, so please don't get upset about what I am taking the time to respond to your blog. I could easily have left it alone instead of giving you a fairly constructive critique of what you wrote.

Again, forgive me, but this is just devil's advocate work, if you don't understand what that means, I'm sorry that I've confused you.


Insignificant Wrangler said...

Well, I should probably look at the comments more often. I was combing through back posts today looking for something and came across this. Charles, I'm the author here, not Casey--in fact, the two of us are usually comfortable playing a fun antagonistic game. We're not used to outsiders jumping in. Hope you eventually come back.

In response to your response, which I do appreciate, I would remark that the comment was intended for an undergraduate student just beginning to wade into 20th century theory. My response is certainly underdeveloped, but I don't think it is as baseless as you make out. I am not investigating the Holocaust as much as I am pointing to a common factor in the development of many postmodern theorists--how did the Holocaust happen. And, yes, I would assert that many of them find fault with an overdeveloped appreciation for rationality or logos or Truth or whatever you want to call it.

Levinas is certainly one of these thinkers. My dissertation includes two chapters dedicated to unfolding Levinas's ethical phenomenology as a direct response to Modern ontology. I find the "name-dropping" comment a bit off base here. But, again, this is transcribed from a comment to a student, and I didn't exactly want to give her too much all at once.