Hypatia 18.2 (2003) 208-213
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Rethinking Evil: Contemporary Perspectives edited by María Pía Lara. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.
In Rethinking Evil: Contemporary Perspectives (2001), María Pía Lara has edited an outstanding contribution to the renewal and transformation of an extremely important theme: evil. This book will be a portal of entry and point of departure for future discussion on an issue that many would say reaches to the very heart of our age, and which at the same time belies hubristic affirmations that we have entered an age of enlightenment and secularization. What is noteworthy about this edited volume is the international character of its contributors, as well as the extremely high level of argumentation and insight. One can only hope that this attention to international cooperation, as well as attention to a gender balance in scholarship contribution, will become more generalized. [End Page 208]
The book is divided into four sections: the first gathers essays by Isabel Cabrera, Susan Neiman, and Peter Dews. These essays offer critical overviews of the emergence and transformation of the problem of evil in Western thought. Neiman's essay is particularly noteworthy, as she is linking the problem of evil and theodicy to the narratives of Western philosophy over the last three hundred years. In her view, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century philosophies were not about an unequivocal and unqualified celebration of the power of reason. Rather, in Neiman's view, the philosophies to emerge from these periods were deeply animated and informed by the problems of suffering, pain, and tragedy; by the possibility that in fact the natural world was meaningless and that the human species was condemned to live bereft of some ultimate meaning that would warrant submitting to the inequities and suffering inflicted by both nature and other human beings (27-32). I take it that Neiman is urging us to revisit the historiography of "modern philosophy" in a way that would overcome the simplistic opposition that was represented by the views espoused by Peter Gay in The Enlightenment: An Interpretation (1966-69) on the one hand, and Carl Becker in his The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers (1932), on the other. The Peter Dews essay on Albrecht Wellmer's reading of Hans Jonas's essay on the concept of God after Auschwitz is extremely suggestive, but unfortunately offers only glimpses of a forthcoming confrontation. In Wellmer's view, the only way in which we can read Jonas's injunction to transform the concept of God in light of extreme horror and evil is in a metaphorical way (1998, 263-86). Dews shares Wellmer's position, albeit pointing in a different direction. For Dews, that the notion of evil can be neither secularized nor naturalized requires that we revisit the very idea of a secular and enlightened reason.
The next section of the book focuses almost exclusively on Immanuel Kant and Hannah Arendt's treatment of the questions of radical evil, except for the synoptic essay by Gustavo Leyva that offers an overview of the treatment of evil in Friedrich Schelling 1977, Immanuel Kant 1960, and Georg Hegel 1984. The central question in this section concerns the relationship between human autonomy, the will, reason, and the possibility of radical evil, as these are studied and brought into debate in the works of Kant and Arendt. Richard J. Bernstein (1960) has presented perhaps the most exhaustive and detailed analysis of what Kant might have meant by "radical evil." Along with Henry E. Allison's contribution, excerpted from his own book on Kant's practical philosophy, we have in these two essays the best overview and analysis of the problem of human autonomy as it relates to evil. In the last analysis, Kant's views on radical evil were neither radical, in the sense of extreme, nor incoherent, in the sense that they were in disagreement with his general philosophical tenets.
The essay by Maeve Cooke, which looks at Jurgen Habermas's and Alessandro Ferrara's arguments for a linguistified deontic moral theory, is an excellent [End Page 209] contribution to...