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Review: Evil in Modern Thought.

I’ve been thinking for a couple weeks about a Derrida quote that somebody put into this AKMA’s blog awhile back: “Monsters cannot be announced. One cannot say: ‘here are our monsters’, without immediately turning the monsters into pets.” (here’s the link) One of the reasons I’ve thought so much about this is that I was reading Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternate History of Philosophy, by Susan Neiman. Neiman’s book traces the history of philosophy from Leibniz to Rawls, showing — quite convincingly, I think — that the struggle to understand, assimilate, or to bracket evil has been a central concern for modern philosophy, over and above such distinctions as epistemology vs. metaphysics or Analytic vs. Continental.

Neiman groups philosophers into two camps: Those who really want to explain evil by incorporating it into a larger scheme, and those who insist on the ultimate irreducibility — and ultimately unspeakability — of evil. In the former camp: Leibniz and Pope, famously parodied by Voltaire’s Candide: “It’s all for the best in this, the best of all possible worlds.” Also, Hegel, who wrought ever-more elaborate and rococo superstructures of thought in order to show how evil was, in fact, part of the overall Master Plan.

On the other side, Neiman puts thinkers such as Voltaire, de Sade, and Hume, who look at the existence of evil in the world and conclude that either God does not exist, or he’s impotent — or else human reason is itself inadequate to understand the coexistence of God and evil in the universe. Ultimately this thread finds its way to Nietzsche and Freud, who direct substantial firepower towards the notions of God, providence, and Reason.

This is a pressing issue. Neiman ranges over four hundred years of philosophy with clarity and confidence, and her book is persuasive in its argument that evil stands at the center of these philosophers’ thoughts.

In the final section, Neiman considers at length how Auschwitz stands as the ultimate emblem of evil for our time, and what that might mean. How are we to understand a world in which Auschwitz exists? In which dozens, hundreds of Auschwitzes exist? Thinkers such as Derrida (which Neiman does not address) argue for the unspeakability of evil. Some things cannot be spoken; even to name them is to miss their significance: to tame the monsters.

But still. Isn’t that the point? If we can name our monsters, understand them, tame them — sure, they may not be monsters anymore. Isn’t that what we should be trying to do, even if the effort may not succeed?

Neiman, to her great credit, maintains this tension — between the desire to understand evil and the imperative to take it seriously — throughout the book, and makes it seem significant even to a modern audience, for whom questions of Providence are no longer particularly relevant. But just because God is out of the picture doesn’t mean the problem of evil goes away, as September 11, 2001 showed so clearly. In fact, this creates a new problem: How do you define, and identify, and address evil, without recourse to a divine standpoint?

Neiman, Susan. Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy. Princeton Univ. Press, 2002. 358pp.


  1. marcus yeo

    can u please kindlly tell me what is modern thinking, example of modern thinking and what are the charateristic of modern thinking

  2. Dylan Tweney

    Neiman uses “modern” to mean “post-Enlightenment” — she’s talking about philosophy from about 1550 to 1950. People use the word “modern” in many different ways, so it is a slippery term, but Neiman’s usage is fairly precise, if broad.

  3. Leah Siefka

    I haven’t read Neiman’s book yet, and I am wondering if it is useful when taking into account a modern philosopher such as Wittgenstein (specifically his philosophy of language). Does the “incommensurability” (per Witt. et al.) of different lifestyles (more particularly religious lifestyles) and their non-normative existences change when evil is drawn into the matrix of modern thought, where evil is not addressed? This would change the largest ideas of the more modern, almost contemporary philosophies.

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