Philosophy en Noir: Rethinking Philosophy after the Holocaust, by Miroslav Petříček

Robert Eaglestone applauds a bold, although not wholly successful, attempt to reorientate our thinking in the wake of trauma

July 13, 2020
Visitors at the Birkenau Museum
Source: Getty
Memorial: philosophy is implicated in the Holocaust, as it helped enable Nazism

Auschwitz did not take place so that elegant philosophical treatises might be written about it,” concludes Czech philosopher Miroslav Petříček. Absolutely. But at the same time, he suggests, philosophy needs to respond to the Holocaust in two ways. First, to use the conceptual apparatus of philosophy to think about those terrible events. Second, because the Holocaust arose from decisions taken during the years of the Third Reich and from the whole “development of Western culture”, as the great historian Raul Hilberg wrote. As philosophy is part of that culture – perhaps the most reflective part – it, too, is implicated in the Holocaust, not only because of individual thinkers who became Nazis but because, in some complex ways, it helped enable Nazism. Like many other philosophers since 1945, Petříček wants reflectively to “rethink” philosophy, to turn its very conceptual apparatus on to itself.

This reflexivity means his book is hard-going and, like some challenging experimental music, perhaps really only for initiates. Those familiar with the fugues of post-war thought will admire Petříčeks virtuoso performance as he plays through themes from Jacques Derrida, Theodor Adorno, Michel Foucault and others from the canon of European philosophy.

Petříček’s experimentalism extends to his approach, too. He argues that the catastrophe of the Holocaust was prefigured not only in the work of the German Jewish philosopher Edmund Husserl, founder of the philosophical approach known as phenomenology, but also in pre-war pulp-mystery fiction (part of the “noir” of the title; the other is the “darkness visible” of the Holocaust itself). Certainly, Husserl’s unfinished 1936 book The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology has an eerily prescient feel, and pulp adventures often concern, for example, over-powerful states, sinister conspiracies and questionable vigilantes beyond the law. But Petříček finds a deeper link (although, to my mind, not a very convincing one). Pulp stories make the mysterious appear as mysterious (while highbrow stories seek to explain the mysteries). In parallel, the “mystery that emerges in phenomenology is the mystery of how something mysterious can disclose itself”. What Petříček means is that phenomenology allows us to analyse those mysterious but essential parts of who we are: anxiety and fear; love and compassion; perhaps even a sense of the “wholeness” of existence in which we find ourselves.

This ability to disclose things that seem mysterious is why Petříček argues that phenomenology, appropriately rethought, can address the problems the Holocaust raises. For example, how can the Holocaust be represented if it was “beyond experience”? Here the author turns to the idea of the “trace”: the representation of things as an absence. How were Jews and others made into “socially dead persons” while living? Again, seen anew through phenomenology, an ancient division of human existence into the animal life, zoe, and the social life, bios, provides tools for thinking about this.

With Petříčeks work, as with experimental music, it just might not be your thing: you might want something more toe-tapping or unambiguous. Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly for an academic book, nothing moves on as fast as experimentation. Many thinkers have already extensively mined the same intellectual resources as Petříček. As a result, new questions have emerged for philosophy and history about the Holocaust and other genocides, European and colonial; issues of implication and guilt; the role of institutions and memory in Europe today. These newer questions do not lessen our ever-new astonishment at, say, survivor Charlotte Delbo’s bleak declaration about Auschwitz “None of us were meant to return.” And, while they extend the attempt to understand the Holocaust beyond the reach of this book, they do not take away from Petříčeks profound commitment to thought at its limits. 

Robert Eaglestone is professor of contemporary literature and thought at Royal Holloway, University of London, and the author of The Holocaust and the Postmodern (2008) and The Broken Voice: Reading Post-Holocaust Literature (2017).

Philosophy en Noir: Rethinking Philosophy after the Holocaust
By Miroslav Petříček
Karolinum Press, 380pp, £15.00
ISBN 9788024638539
Published 6 December 2019

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