Epistemology & the holocaust



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EPISTEMOLOGY & THE HOLOCAUST
Epistemological problems may be resolved if we distinguish between teleologically structured forms of “knowing” and those grounded in the scientific method.
Scientific knowledge is based on the belief that we can “know” something by breaking down its components into bite-size parcels of fact. If a fact still appears problematic, we should break it down still further until we discover fact that we can say is “reasonably knowable”. Reason, of course, is a socially-determined factor which is why scientific knowledge changes in time. The fundamental scientific method is reduction: the ideal tool is the equation. The basic premise is that everything is knowable. Causation is a determinist extrapolation from statistical probability. If we could ‘know’ everything about the past, we could predict events.
Teleological approaches regard determinism as fundamentally problematic when thinking about causation. Whilst accepting probability theory as a reasonable way of describing likelihood, there can be no crossover into regarding this as the same as an explanation of causality. (cf. ‘Philosophical Investigations’ $109). Therefore, explanations of ‘cause’ can lead to investigations of ‘purpose’ or ‘intention’ – the roots of a cause are thrown into an uncertain future rather than an investigable past. The future becomes an arena for interpretation which, of course, is socially determined which is why teleological knowledge changes in time. The fundamental premise is that nothing is knowable, all is interpretation.
So understanding the holocaust is an activity that tends to divide on epistemological lines. There are those who study the minute details of 19th and 20th century European history and describe how events developed, how they were interlinked in complex patterns, and how personal motivation and sociological movements combined to “cause” the holocaust. And there are others who regard the “causes” of the holocaust as quintessentially unknowable. For them, the events are comprehensible only when we grasp – as an act of faith – the ‘dark side’ of humanity. This quasi-theological stance regards the holocaust as an inevitable result of humankind having fallen from grace. Brian Cheyette sees those who present the holocaust as documentary as believing that they can capture the shoah and its causes through this scientific approach. He sees those who present the holocaust more poetically as appealing to a more teleological approach.
There does appear to be a ‘third way’ which developed in the 1960s. This looked at representation through language as fundamentally suspect. This was in line with post-Wittgenstein thinking on over-elaborated language codes as well as the youth culture’s rejection of the way that language was perceived to be a debased form of communication. George Steiner (‘Language & Silence’) started to think about what language (and its opposites) might signify just as musicians were thinking about sound itself and visual artists were generating conceptual art. If, as Marshal McLuhan said, the “medium is the message”, the holocaust appeared to demand a yet-to-be-conceived medium. Elie Wiesel may have veered between the two approaches: but it was Primo Levi who appears to have worked at (or beyond) the boundaries of language until he took its expression, and himself, over the edge.
So in what does this ‘third way’ consist? I would argue that it is an exactingly Jewish way. Subsuming the entire teleological enterprise, it accepts that there are essential mysteries. If God is systematically inconceivable, there is no logical reason to believe that some of the causes of God’s ways may be systematically inconceivable. Having said that, however, it is then time to subsume the entire scientific enterprise and simplify (reduce) language for the sake of clarity of description. Perhaps Primo Levi’s writing style with its lucidity and metaphor hovers over all other narrative attempts to ‘express the inexpressible’. Alternative modes of expression can be experimented with (e.g. film) and would appear to offer other ways of perceiving the holocaust (Spielberg) and our own relationship to it (Bernini). The development of holocaust museums show text, photographs, film, music, 3-dimensional displays and even memorial gardens. All this suggests a more multi-layered ‘knowledge’ than those gained purely through reading and writing. They point, perhaps, to the post-modernist concern to know oneself through an understanding of one’s relationship to events rather than thinking about alternative ways of ‘knowing’ the events themselves. Often there is an overt intention to use this knowledge as part of a present-day anti-racist strategy. The third way certainly incorporates a self-conscious concern for self-awareness.
A perception of the holocaust as another attempt to establish an ideal society (as defined by the Nazis) defines it as another Christian enterprise where messianic ideals are felt to be practical arrangements that can be made real on Earth. The long Jewish tradition of scepticism has always projected the appearance of the messiah to some unknowable future – the end of time. So all enterprises where an ‘ideal society’ is the aim is treated with profound suspicion within Jewry (even when it is a Zionist enterprise, let alone a Nazi one). Therefore, ‘knowing’ the holocaust through the negative language of describing a ‘hell on Earth’ is not a knowledge that necessarily compares this hell with some supposed heaven. It is knowledge of a doomed enterprise because it is embedded in an alien ideology where such aims are regarded as laudable. In strictly orthodox terms, it could be seen as an enterprise where the Torah is not re-interpreted but re-written and, in places, torn up with huge new sections added without the authority of the ancient prophets. The most fearful of Jewish fundamentalists will see all non-Jewish semitic religions as little more than that. The Nazi enterprise can be seen as little more than a grotesque extension of this great tradition.
Perhaps the third way is also a generational issue. The first way – the silence in the face of the unspeakable by those with first-hand experience – was obsessed with issues of complicity and guilt. This may have been broken after the 7-day war. The second way – the many attempts to encapsulate the holocaust as descriptive text or poetry (Celan) – may have been the breaking of the dam as a post-war generation started to struggle with what was always just outside their personal experience. The third way – growing as the new century is about to begin – may be the first attempt to define a new generation’s identity in terms of grandparental experience and parental experiment. Perhaps with this slightly longer perspective, the place of the holocaust in the canon of European theology and ideology can be given greater focus. Perhaps, with an identifiable ‘history’ within which Jewish ideologies, Statehood and the arguments of the divergent (and convergent) traditions can be traced, the place of the holocaust as a way of understanding a 'ground' of Jewish identity in all its traditions can be brought to the fore.


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