Post-Holocaust Hermeneutics – University of Copenhagen

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1) Post-Holocaust Hermeneutics and Philosophy of Language

The coinage that “historical continuity is shattered because ‘at Auschwitz not only man died, but also the idea of man’” (Emil L. Fackenheim referring to Elie Wiesel) draws attention to the unresolved problematic of post-Holocaust hermeneutics. As the art and theory of understanding and interpretation, hermeneutics is seriously called into question by the Shoah. In view of inconceivable crimes, the refusal to understand might be the most intuitive reaction in order not “to cauterize an inconsolable loss with the balm of explanation” (Paul Mendes-Flohr). While respecting limits of understanding, there is a need, paradoxically, to understand why one cannot understand.

How to account for a loss that is itself ‘lost’ when the fusion of horizons of the present and the past is impossible? The challenge posed by radical evil and the menace of meaninglessness is massive, and here earlier approaches from Schleiermacher to Gadamer seem to fail. Therefore we will extend hermeneutics to a critical theory of culture that takes into account the complexity of the human condition, of pluralistic societies marked by difference and dissent, and the difficulty of understanding oneself, others, texts, and situations when competing construals of reality are at play. If self-understanding as well as interpersonal understanding emerges from the dialogical sphere between I and Thou, the formative role of the 2nd person perspective needs to be reconsidered. We will draw on theories such as Fritz Mauthner’s critique of language, Franz Rosenzweig’s Sprachdenken, Martin Buber’s philosophy of dialogue, Emmanuel Levinas’ concepts of the ‘face’ and the ‘trace,’ and Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction – which will elucidate why hermeneutics cannot establish a closed universe of understanding.

The Star of David in the oldest surviving complete copy of the Masoretic text, the Leningrad Codex, dated 1008 (