The nicest part of teaching expository writing as blogging is the great variety of student projects I get to enjoy. This semester, I have one particularly talented student working on absurdist and existential literature. She recently read and commented on Ionesco's play Rhinocerus, connecting the play's critique of logic to a distrust of herd mentality and the Holocaust. I was writing on Heidegger, Levinas, and Derrida this morning, particularly Levinas's distrust of positivity in "The Thinking of Being and the Question of the Other," and I think traces of that essay can be found in my response to the student's post. Here it is:
The second half of the 20th century is dominated by the specter of the Holocaust. The values of the Modern Enlightenment are considered especially suspicious. Chief amongst them is the emphasis on logic--particularly on abstract thinking divorced from contextual reality. If you think about what we were talking about briefly in my office, then I think you can already see this. Heidegger's treatment of Being in terms of a verb, for instance, is an effort to put the philosopher's attention more on matters of movement than stasis. Movement requires a field of activity, and elements of time. Pure abstraction does not.
How this concerns the Holocaust is a more difficult question! But, I think it is safe to say that the divorce of philosophy from the practicalities of everyday life initiates an answer. Also, of course, is the matter of an unwavering faith in logic (since, logically, syllogistically, one can argue for the termination of an entire people.
Jews are evil.
Evil needs to be eradicated.
Eradicating evil is righteous.
Therefore, it is righteous to eradicate Jews.
There is an immediate need to discredit the possibility of such a syllogism, and to devalue any kind of thinking that resembles such form. What is needed is a philosophy dedicated to calling first principles to attention, to putting them under scrutiny, to rejecting the possibility of an unquestionable first principle.
And, as you point out, one way of doing this is to question, irrevocably, the herd mentality. But I am sometimes skeptical here--the idea that it is only in groups that evil occurs. That sounds to me sometimes like too much of a cop-out (i.e., none of us could produce such horror individually, it is only when in a group that such atrocity could occur). I firmly believe humans to be capable of atrocity no matter the number. But, I also like to hold onto the possibility that they are equally capable of love. It is a matter of rhetoric: kairos, identification, and mood. Most importantly, it is an orientation, an approach, an attitude (Burke fans nod here, right?). Here, of course, I am understanding rhetoric as a particular way-of-being-with-the-world, one that self-reflexively takes into account the unaccountability of others and conceptualizes power as a group process.