The Necessity and Limits of Thinking for Oneself


In a 1966 radio interview published as Education after Auschwitz, the critical theorist, Theodor Adorno declares, “the premier demand upon all education is that Auschwitz not happen again… The only education that has any sense at all is an education toward critical self-reflection. But since according to the findings of depth psychology, all personalities, even those who commit atrocities in later life, are formed in early childhood, education seeking to prevent the repetition must concentrate upon early childhood.” Adorno’s comments, made in response to the atrocities of the Holocaust, imply that barbarism is not something that poses merely a threat of a relapse. Rather, Adorno insists, Auschwitz was the relapse. Adorno’s solution lies in creating an environment that will prevent another Auschwitz by cultivating individuals who can resist authoritarian thinking.

Around the same time period, responding to questions about her phrase, “the banality of evil,” the political philosopher, Hannah Arendt replies, “The banality of evil,” is not a slogan—she is the first to use this phrase. She uses this term to convey that there is no depth to evil; it defies thought. When one tries to penetrate evil, there is nothing. Only the good, she says, has depth. What she sees in Eichmann while observing him during his trial is a man who cannot think for himself—he appears no different than a programmed robot or a trained monkey.

Briefly returning to her concern about one’s ability to think for one’s self, Arendt responds to an interviewer’s question about the Jewish response to her book that she is not concerned with public opinion, and indeed public opinion has a way of stifling individual opinions. She recalls the Founding Fathers who equated rule based on public opinion with tyranny, and we see a similar view advanced by the 19th century British philosopher, John Stuart Mill who argued in On Liberty that we needed to guard against the tyranny of the majority. Indeed, her need to defend herself against the Jewish community that vehemently criticized her for voicing her analysis speaks to this point.

Later in the interview she responds to the criticism of her term “banality of evil,” by again stating that those who commit evil have no depth. They are thought-less. She suggests “we resist evil by not being swept away by the surface of things, by stopping ourselves and beginning to think—that is, by reaching another dimension than the horizon of everyday life” (p. 479). The more superficial someone is—and by this Arendt means, the less someone thinks for himself—the more likely he is to commit evil, or to be co-opted by a machinery that is evil. She points to Eichmann precisely because at each turn he would say, “Who am I to judge… if all around me think it right to murder innocent people?” For Arendt, this statement becomes the example par excellence of the unthinking, the superficial, the banality of evil. How can one utter those words and not see the problem with that sentence?

It might seem obvious that the way to prevent evil is by thinking—more thinking, and more thinking for oneself. But is that really enough to prevent evil? Like Arendt’s argument, Adorno’s argument is compelling but I would add that resistance to authoritarian thinking will not by itself mitigate the danger that he fears. Although the critical thinking that Adorno advocates may help someone resist authoritarian thinking, and although thinking for oneself might be necessary to separate oneself from the herd, thinking for oneself will not necessarily provide one with good moral judgment nor will it necessarily provide the will or the motivation to act on such thinking. Critical thinking alone will not help someone become a person who resists authoritarian rule. Adorno’s prescription is necessary but I do not believe it is sufficient. His warning nonetheless echoes the concerns that the 20th century French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas began voicing soon after he was released from the German POW camp in 1945. I will return to this point later.

The Necessity and Limits of Thinking for Oneself

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Numero 10 EDUCATION febbraio, 2014 - Autore:  Condividi


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