Pawlikowski on Lang, 'Philosophical Witnessing: The Holocaust as Presence'

Berel Lang
John Pawlikowski

Berel Lang. Philosophical Witnessing: The Holocaust as Presence. Tauber Institute Series for the Study of European Jewry. Waltham: Brandeis University Press, 2009. 260 pp. $50.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-58465-741-5.

Reviewed by John Pawlikowski (Catholic Theological Union) Published on H-Judaic (December, 2010) Commissioned by Jason Kalman

The Holocaust as Challenge to Philosophical Reflection

Berel Lang has a fine track record in the study of the Holocaust. The present volume is a collection of largely philosophical essays covering various aspects of Holocaust analysis. Drawing on such areas of philosophy as political theory, ethics, aesthetics, and history, he attempts to integrate these disparate essays around an overarching theme that he describes as “philosophical witnessing,” i.e., what philosophical perspectives might contribute to an understanding of the Holocaust, a question he has in fact pursued from the outset of his work in this area. Lang is not sure the question can ever be fully answered, but he does believe philosophy can offer some distinctive angles to the analysis of the Holocaust and also lift up its significance for areas of thought and practice not directly associated with that historical event.

Lang elaborates on the notion of “philosophical witnessing” in the opening chapter. He underlines his general belief that Jews living today have an ongoing responsibility to witness to the Holocaust because it is somewhat accidental that they were not direct victims of its fury. But he extends the responsibility of witnessing to the Holocaust beyond the Jewish community. For Lang the community of philosophers, the “lovers of wisdom,” as their title names them, carries a special burden to confront the moral enormity of the Holocaust and of genocide more generally as they seriously reflect on the human condition. By and large the academic philosophical community has failed in this responsibility, even those who come from a Jewish background. There are a few exceptions, such as Hannah Arendt and, after a delay, Emil Fackenheim. A few others, such as Leo Strauss, had a deep engagement with the Holocaust on a personal level. But they largely neglected the issue in their substantive writings. Lang attributes the overall lack of consideration of the Holocaust in modern philosophical literature to the general preference for generality by authors working in this area and their general reluctance to ground their perspectives squarely within history. He cites Arendt’s book Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963) as an example of how philosophical witnessing might be done. Arendt, he argues, took a major historical moment and added in-depth philosophical reflection on the human condition. He does not endorse all her conclusions, some of which have been discredited, but does endorse Arendt’s overall project with its emphasis on establishing a deep-seated linkage between historical particularity and philosophical generalization.

On the whole, I am in significant agreement with Lang’s analysis both in terms of responsibility and the lack of concrete response within the philosophical community. I would extend his critique to include the area of social ethics as well, both secular and more explicitly religiously based ones. Ethicians often tend toward generalization and often take an ahistorical approach. If anything, the experience of the Holocaust should turn both philosophical and ethical scholarship toward the person in history as the subject of reflection. This obviously includes the Jewish and other victims of the Nazis (i.e., Poles, Roma and Sinti, the disabled, gay people, and religious and political dissidents) but also victims of genocide, political oppression, and economic exploitation. Lang’s contention that the Holocaust carries moral implications far beyond its immediate timeframe and situation is a claim I strongly endorse.

The opening chapter on philosophical witnessing sets the tone and context for the remaining essays in the volume, which include an examination of the writings of particular authors, such as Karl Jaspers, as well as a focus on particular issues, such as evil, group rights, human identity for Jews, metaphysical racism, and the meaning of reconciliation. Philosophical witnessing is the glue that holds the volume together. In the chapter on the understanding evil in light of the Holocaust, Lang raises a central question that is also quite provocative. Has the Holocaust broken the traditional instruments of moral measurement in terms of our understanding of evil? Put another way, has the Holocaust produced a rupture that requires a transformation of moral conscience and consciousness? This transformation with regard both to perspectives on Jewish history and general history even applies to the very interpretation of the evil present in the Holocaust itself. Lang himself is not absolutely sure we can and should answer this question in the affirmative though he seems to lean in that direction. The burden of proof, however, lies with those positing an affirmative response. In some ways, Lang believes the evidence is more compelling with regard to world history than to Jewish history.

Lang here introduces questions that a number of other scholars, such as Steven Katz, have also addressed. It is something that I have also raised in my writings. While Lang does not offer us a clear-cut redefinition of evil in light of the Holocaust, I would tend to agree with him (and with Katz as well) that simply staying with pre-Holocaust understanding will not do. How far we wish to go in positing a disconnect between pre- and post-Holocaust definitions needs more reflection. At this point in the discussion I, seemingly along with Lang, am not ready to affirm a total rupture. But to simply repeat pre-Holocaust understandings is to fail to recognize the fundamental moral challenge that the Holocaust represents for all human understanding.

In the latter part of the volume, Lang takes up the thorny issue of Polish-Jewish relations in the context of the Holocaust. He presents a picture that on the whole is quite balanced. He is crystal clear that the camps in Poland were not “Polish” but Nazi. But he also argues, and rightly so, that the discussion of this issue needs to include a realistic assessment of the impact of antisemitism, both nationalistic and religious, on what happened during the Nazi era in Poland. Would the situation have been different if this antisemitism had not been present? This question cannot be avoided according to Lang. A particularly intriguing section of the book is the chapter on the Holocaust as beginning a sequence that moved to genocide and to the concept of group rights. Lang believes that we must maintain an integral connection among them but not simplistically as an example of moral progress. On this point the only legitimate response is at best equivocal.

Overall this is a fine set of essays. While they are a bit disconnected they do in the end come together in significant ways on basic moral questions of our time. Ethicists in particular will find Lang’s reflections extremely enriching.

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Citation: John Pawlikowski. Review of Lang, Berel, Philosophical Witnessing: The Holocaust as Presence. H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews. December, 2010. URL:

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