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Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy (review)

From: Journal of the History of Philosophy
Volume 42, Number 3, July 2004
pp. 347-348 | 10.1353/hph.2004.0050

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Journal of the History of Philosophy 42.3 (2004) 347-348

Susan Neiman. Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002. Pp. xii + 358. Cloth, $29.95.

Contemporary philosophy in America tends to regard epistemological questions as the most fundamental of the discipline, but Susan Neiman's Evil in Modern Thought sets itself against this assumption in an attempt to sketch "an alternative history of philosophy." "It's possible to begin to worry about the difference between appearance and reality because . . . a dream is so vivid that you want to grasp one of its objects for a moment or two of sleepy half-consciousness," Neiman writes, but then "you wake up in your bed, slap your face if you have to . . . " (5). The problem of evil, in stark contrast to such skeptical speculations, is far more urgent and trenchant; it is "the place where philosophy begins, and threatens to stop" (ibid.). Moreover, the problem of evil, far from being merely a theological quandary, actually forms a link between metaphysics and epistemology by starkly posing questions about the intelligibility of the world: Why are things like that? wants the answer Because it's best that way. For the early modern period, these questions centered on the "theodicy" debates focused by the catastrophic Lisbon earthquake of 1755, while for us the holocaust threatens to explode all our hopes and expectations for the possibility of a world that is as it should be. Thus, Lisbon and Auschwitz frame for Neiman the historical topoi that ground discussion of the relation between natural and moral evils, the evolving philosophical understanding of which defines "who we have become in the three centuries that separate us from the early Enlightenment" (10).

The problem of theodicy is introduced through the figure of Alfonso X, king of Castille in 1252, and "the first Enlightenment hero" (14), according to Neiman. Having studied astronomy under the guidance of learned Jews from Toledo, Alfonso scandalously remarked "If I had been of God's counsel at the Creation, many things would have been ordered better" (15). Serving as a paradigm of blasphemy for half a millennium, Alfonso's boast also expresses the inevitable dismay that must accompany the delighted wonder at natural order exploited by the argument from design: while Creation is surely miraculous in its manifestation of seemingly intelligent structure, it is just as surely astonishing that so much of that structure seems so wantonly destructive. Can this really be the best of all possible worlds if innocent lives are cut short by cruel diseases or natural disasters while vicious villains prosper into comfortable old age?! Alfonso's remark serves Neiman as a leitmotif around which she orders central figures in the canon of western philosophy into two camps: those who struggled to reconcile natural evil with God's goodness or with reason (Leibniz, Pope, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel and Marx), and those who skeptically condemned reason by appealing to "brute appearances" (Bayle, Voltaire, Hume, Sade and Schopenhauer). Because the very categories of natural and moral evil tend to break down as a result of the development of psychology as a "science of nature" (to the extent that human motives are regarded as natural processes subject to empirical explanation, they cease to manifest a unique ontology), Nietzsche and Freud fall outside the philosophical canon thus construed—although Neiman's discussion of these two thinkers is perhaps the most compelling of the book.

No new interpretive ground is broken in the resulting exegesis of western philosophical history, but Neiman's treatment of each of these figures is intelligent and skillful. In discussing Kant, for example, a deep paradox at the center of his moral thought is brilliantly harnessed to the book's argument. Whereas theodicies from Leibniz onward had focused on attempts to show that Providence ultimately guaranteed a connection between virtue and happiness despite obvious evidence to the contrary, Kant took exactly the opposite tack. As Neiman puts it, "Solving the problem of evil is not only impossible but immoral. For knowing the connections between moral and natural evils would undermine the possibility of morality" (69). If we could be sure that good deeds would be rewarded...

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