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  • Let Us Be Human:Primo Levi and Ludwig Wittgenstein
  • Davide Sparti

The demolition of a man is difficult, almost as much as creating one.

— Primo Levi1

The modest but also remarkable ambition of Primo Levi's most important book Se questo è un uomo is "to provide material for a quiet [pacato] study of certain aspects of the human soul [animo umano]."2 More precisely, its ethical core (and its title) concerns itself with the loss of our humanity, with the inexorable destruction of what is human.3 The book describes such patterns of dehumanizing through a number of mechanisms operating in the concentration camps of Auschwitz–Birkenau, where Levi was deported. By showing how the Nazis viewed the camp inmates as completely disconnected from their own lives, Levi bears witness to the Nazis' restricted willingness to grant humanity, to their denial of the internal relation which ties them to the inmates. Since the book offers insights for those who ask themselves "what is it to be human?" (and what remains of the human in extreme situations?), its main philosophical issue is whether or not something admits being seen as human.4

Wittgenstein describes the attitudes we adopt in reacting to other creatures by analyzing the grammar of "seeing something as something:" only of a living human being, he famously adds, can we say: he [End Page 444] or she has a soul (see also PI, § 281).5 That the human body stands as one of the criteria for the ascription of psychological predicates—that human beings are endowed with an expressive power that neither statues nor animals possess; that human beings around us exert by their very presence a power which belongs uniquely to them—is suggested by the fact that even when we fantasize about living chairs or tables, for example in cartoons, we tend to lend human features to such animated furniture. So, according to Wittgenstein there is a conceptual connection between psychological predicates and certain kinds of human expression. But, one must add, this connection is achieved only through use, and is given only within the context of a form of life. The context of a shared form of life is needed because without it those forms of expressive behavior would not be intelligible: only if I am prepared to regard the object before me as a human being will I smile back and even talk to it. A living body is hence not enough: what is needed is a role through which such expressions are performed and have a point.

In a similar vein, Levi shows the extent to which our experience of something as human depends on our relation to it—on the quality of our stance towards it. If it makes sense to speak of seeing somebody as a human being, it is because we can imagine individuals who lack or lose such a capacity or willingness. And it is precisely within the context of the concentration camp that what admits being seen as human changes drastically.

In this essay I will draw lines of connection between Levi and Wittgenstein by relying on Stanley Cavell's crucial notions of avoidance and acknowledgment. After showing how such notions play a role in Wittgenstein's remarks on the so called "other mind" problem, I will turn to Levi and show how his remarks on the denial of the human in the concentration camp supplement Wittgenstein's grammatical remarks and can also be fruitfully read using the categories of avoidance and acknowledgment.6

Although Wittgenstein does offer some remarks on Nazism, was personally engaged in protecting his family after the annexation of Austria, and mentions the Russian gulags in conversation with Rhees, he was never concerned with any empirical analysis of specific, let alone extreme, human situations. In light of this, it is clear that life in the concentration camp cannot be grasped and explained by simply relying on a few Wittgensteinian categories. However, the points Levi raises, as I will show in the conclusion, reveal an analogy with some of the [End Page 445] questions that worried Wittgenstein. This will also lead me to discuss a stylistic element that links the Austrian philosopher to the...


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pp. 444-459
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