How to ‘think’ without reducing the Holocaust?

International Criminal Court, The Hague (Wikipedia CC BY 4.0)
International Criminal Court, The Hague (Wikipedia CC BY 4.0)

Gerard Bensussan is a philosopher. He published , in 2023 La transaction: Penser autrement la démocratie (PUF)Dans la forme du monde et Marx le sortant (Hermann) and the article “The Holocaust, Evil and Philosophy”, in the romanian Babeş-Bolyai University review, the STUDIA UBB. PHILOSOPHIA, Vol. 68.

From all sides, and for often opposing or different reasons, there is talk of the philosophy of the Holocaust. The expression can be understood in various ways, depending on the philosophy of philosophy that one forms according to one’s choices, readings, and expectations. The genitives, subjective, objective, polysemic, here carry confusion. I would like to try to partially clarify the question.

If by philosophy one understands its loosest and vaguest meanings, as one speaks, for example, these days of the “philosophy” of pension reform, then one may well wonder about the meaning of the Holocaust and what its origin, function, in short, why the Holocaust. Any object can serve as fodder for philosophy thus understood, and not without legitimacy. It is in line with the “essence of man” to question the world, everything around him, about other men, what happens to them, about himself. I used quotation marks just now to talk about the “essence” and “man.” Not that I consider these words as pitiful ideological covers, like the social sciences, Marx, Joseph de Maistre – in agreement on this point of “man.” My quotation marks only mean that there is a presupposition to this representation of an essence of man that would be questioning. This presupposition is that of meaning. If there is a philosophy-of, it is because everything that can be an object of philosophy, here everything, holds a meaning, explicit, hidden, confessed, secret, distorted – but a meaning. However, the Holocaust does not have one; it existed, it exists, and for that reason, it has never needed meaning, neither a priori nor a posteriori. All those, historians, sociologists, sometimes philosophers, who have tried to decipher its meaning are constrained by their very gesture to reduce it, that is, to relate it to something other than itself, to inscribe it in a framework of intelligibility that would allow understanding and answering, as best as possible, the question: why the Holocaust?

If one understands more strictly by philosophy what it determines for itself, one will first say that its element, as Hegel says, is the concept, a certain way of articulating the universal and the particular – I am obliged here to state things broadly; otherwise, I would have to review the history of philosophy from its origins to the present day! Philosophy, therefore, forms a concept of its objects by determining the universal dimension, this dimension must “include within itself the particular,” as Hegel says again. It would be necessary to form a “concept” in the strict sense of the Holocaust to be able to constitute a philosophy of the Holocaust. One would have to relate its uniqueness, its extreme particularity, to a universality, obviously unfindable, according to the rules of what Kant called reflective judgment. One can attempt this from the very rich conceptual framework of the Critique of Judgment. One would again stumble on the question of meaning, other than how everyday philosophy of all men does it, the one that is said and speaks every day and everywhere. A philosophy of the Holocaust would run the risk of giving meaning and making the Holocaust intelligible. Philosophy by concepts would thus provide an answer to the expectations of everyday philosophy. Both feed on the same illusion, that of meaning, whether presupposed, postposed, or constructed.

But we must reaffirm that the Holocaust has no meaning, which does not exempt us from having to think about it, on the contrary, but in ways that would be neither that of common sense wanting to understand what seems incomprehensible to it, nor that of disciplinary philosophy that subsumes this incomprehensible under its concepts, both legitimate in their questions but powerless to account for it. “The problem… consists in asking whether meaning is equivalent to the essence of being, that is, whether the meaning which in philosophy is meaning, is not already a restriction of meaning, whether it is not already a derivative or a drift from meaning, whether meaning equivalent to essence… is not already approached in the presence which is the time of the Same” (2).

Levinas articulates well where a considerable difficulty lies. How to engage in thought while avoiding the quasi-inevitable “restriction of meaning” carried away by philosophy, according to its own nature, so to speak? How to think without reducing? My answer will be succinct: only literature can truly do it, thinking literature, of course, but not philosophizing literature. Primo Levi, Imre Kertesz, Etty Hillesum, and others instruct us about the Holocaust better than common thought or thought by concepts can. There is no philosophy of the Holocaust. But there is indeed a literature of the Holocaust, which precisely allows us to approach its non-sense. This expression, non-sense, is problematic because it seems to deny what precedes it, the existence of meaning. Whereas, on the contrary, meaning, the question of meaning, and the meaning of this question form a knot that comes well after the opaque enigma of what is there in its raw, massive state, older than any ontology, older than any metaphysics, and preceding any genealogy.

It has been rigorously and argumentatively objected to me that philosophy has posed the question of Evil immemorially, at least since it had to absorb Christianity and invent a hybrid reason/revelation, Judaism/Aristotelianism – its “Judeo-Greek” side, according to Joyce’s word, and then Derrida’s. It is certainly in these dark philosophical landscapes inhabited by Evil in its sinister stature that there is something to sustain, even fragmentarily, a meditation on the Holocaust, but on the condition of not making it “a figure of Evil,” which risks, upon closer inspection, not being much more satisfying than seeing it as the consequence of the Treaty of Versailles.

Here we must address Arendt’s thought on the banality of evil, and first its incorrect understandings and uses, sometimes to the point of caricature. I remember, for example, the statements of an actor who played the role of Merah in a play whose title I have forgotten, at the Avignon Festival in 2017. They were frightfully stupid and, moreover, betrayed Arendt’s own thinking. There is no need to try to straighten them out. It is Arendt that interests me, not its foolish trivializations. The category of “banality of evil” seems too broad to embrace well and, on a specific point, untenable. Evil in its banality does not equal what Eichmann in Jerusalem describes as an incredible “inability to think” of the executioner: “[Eichmann] always said the same thing, with the same words. The more one listened, the more one realized that his inability to speak was closely linked to his inability to think.” (3)

The question Arendt poses is whether thought can serve to combat evil, even to avoid it. Her answer is yes – although it should not be overly simplified. Indeed, for her, if thought is reduced to a simple examining procedure and if it remains completely unconcerned about its own consequences when it “applies” without caution to “objects,” if it is simply “thought thinking,” as Rosenzweig says, then it can blind itself to evil, its radicality, banality, inscrutability. But it would be enough, according to her, to associate it with the faculty of judgment, by which the thinking individual would place himself before the judgment of other thinking individuals, so that it could, at least partially, prevent evil and its propagation. The absence of “thinking thinking” (Rosenzweig) in Eichmann and his likes would characterize at least this type of thought detached from any ability to judge, since, by judgment alone, thought unfolds in the phenomenal world as the ability to distinguish good and evil. But even restored to its complexity, as I have just done summarily, this idea that an “inability to think” would congenitally be associated with the banality of hyperbolic evil seems to me profoundly mistaken. Evil thinks – and we have difficulty thinking that evil thinks. It has an exacerbated ability, it does not want to leave anything outside of its thought. I would even say that it exaggerates thought, enlarges rationality, and pushes philosophical demonstration to the absurd. Thus, one must try to flush it out where it only admits existence if guaranteed by the prior administration of proof, where the questioned existing must provide its own attestation, absolutely distinct from its evidence – one will have recognized in this insistence the perverse matrix of conspiracy theories. Kant discerns its power when he asserts with humble but bold insight: “It is a scandal for philosophy and common human reason that we can only admit the existence of external things as a belief… and that if anyone wishes to doubt it, we have no sufficient proof to oppose to him.” (4)

Here is laid bare the ontological-epistemological root of all negationisms, structured by the refusal of the “scandal” and the deployment of a “judgment.” Negationism constantly demands evidence of existence – gas chambers, extermination, six million, etc. This root is unrootable, uneradicable, for it is deeply buried, it is born and grows on the ground of meaning – of the Holocaust. If the Holocaust has a meaning, show it, demonstrate it, prove it! If it does not, it is because it does not exist! The vise is at work for both “philosophy” and “common human reason,” as Kant notes. It is all the more formidable. Its ultimate effectiveness lies in the asserted hypothesis of the equivalence of meaning and existence – here is precisely evil in its thought deployment, it presses exactly where it hurts reason.

If we look, in the history of philosophy, for the most eminent peak of the thought of evil, we must undoubtedly climb the high massif of Schelling’s Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, the great treatise of 1809. Jorge Semprun, deported in January 1944 to Buchenwald, discovers a copy of it in the camp’s library and immediately feels a fascination for this dazzling text on the question of evil, even as he himself undergoes its terrible trials every day. For Schelling, the “Foundation,” that is, for him what in God is not God, is the origin of evil, by inversion. It transposes into man and allows a man to one day seize himself and of himself against other men, and against God, and for love to yield to the will of self, stubborn in itself. The world is a world upside down. According to the treatise of 1809, without the possibility of evil coming from the Foundation, man would not even be, and yet he is, but he is as he should not have been. This paradox is the paradox of freedom: if men are, they are only as free. And this freedom is freedom for good and evil, quasi-definitionally, human reality. Evil is not substantial; it is an event of being, and it is being itself, “the terrible world of being” (Schelling), which “is evil” (Levinas) – which is neither absence of truth nor absence of thought, but inversion and perversion by excess of and on truth and thought.

Semprun, in Buchenwald, read these pages with painful exaltation, and he reported afterward on this experience in several works. Long after, he remembers this “formula that struck me at the most intimate level, to the point that I will remember it forever: ‘without this preliminary darkness, the creature would have no reality, darkness necessarily falls to its lot (5).'” Or again: “The darkness of the mystery of humanity of man, devoted to the freedom of Good as to that of Evil, kneaded with this freedom.” (6) And finally, this just conclusion drawn from the thousand times recommenced reading of the treatise on human freedom: “evil is not the inhuman… or else it is the inhuman in man… So it is derisory to oppose Evil… by a simple reference to man, to the human species. Evil is one of the possible projects of the constitutive freedom of the humanity of man, of the freedom in which both the humanity and inhumanity of the human being are rooted.”

I stopped, unable to develop further here, on the Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom and on the stunned reading made by a deported writer because they carry away in the same movement philosophy, literature, concentrationary experience, and because they pose or repose the question of meaning from which I started.

All the generic answers given to the question of evil or to the existence of the Holocaust, to their “reasons,” the absence of humanity, the lack of thought, empty of meaning the sensible elucidations they propose, barely have they posed them. Even the great hypothesis of freedom for good and evil received by the writer Semprun, where metaphysics and literature seem momentarily to agree, even Schelling, therefore, who goes as far as possible in the endurance of what seems to escape “sense,” ends, and it is inevitable, by leading back to something like meaning, even if evil, here, is by no means a substance, that is, an explanatory principle, but an irruption, a fatal surge, an eruption, an insurrection in being.

It goes without saying that the philosophical question of Evil constitutes the most appropriate framework for any thought that would attempt, with fear and trembling, to approach the Holocaust. But it remains a framework, that is, the framing in a sense of an enigma, of a “without why,” as the SS reminds Primo Levi who, even at Auschwitz, continues to demand a cause.

Outside the frame, the Holocaust questions the question, which always aims at the production of a meaning elaborated from a given pre-sense. Providing it with meaning, supplying the meanings, reasons, inscribing it in a chain of causality – is to lie, to lie about the Holocaust. There are, however, pious lies and necessary, as we know. The explanations of the Shoah are better than the silence, all in all. But they will not escape the perverse questioning which demands and will always demand indubitable proof of its existence. The alternative is terrible for this athlete of the senses who is the philosopher always attempted to administer them to ward off the “scandal” of exteriority.


(2) Emmanuel Levinas, De Dieu qui vient à l’idée, Paris, Vrin, 1982, p. 96

(3) H. Arendt, “Eichmann à Jérusalem. Rapport sur la banalité du mal”, in Les origines du totalitarisme. Eichmann à Jérusalem, Paris, Gallimard, “Quarto”, 2001, p. 1065.

(4) « So bleibt es immer ein Skandal der Philosophie und allgemeinen Menschenvernunft, das Dasein der Dinge außer uns (von denen wir doch den ganzen Stoff zu Erkenntnissen selbst für unseren inneren Sinn her haben) bloß auf Glauben annehmen zu müssen, und, wenn es jemand einfällt es zu bezweifeln, ihm keinen genugtuenden Beweis entgegenstellen zu können », Préface à la seconde édition de la Critique de la raison pure, GF Flammarion, trad. J. Barni, Paris, 1976, p. 53.

(5) La mort qu’il faut, Paris, Folio, 2002, p. 135

(6) L’écriture ou la vie, Paris, Folio, 1996, p. 89-90

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*Après le 7 octobre

About the Author
Alexandre Gilbert is the director of the Chappe gallery.
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