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Hypatia 18.2 (2003) 222-226

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Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy by Susan Neiman. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002.

As Susan Neiman writes in her new book, Evil in Modern Thought; An Alternative History of Philosophy, one of the characteristics of twentieth-century philosophy is "the absence of explicit discussion of the problem of evil" ( 288). This disinterest in the problem of evil is especially characteristic of analytic philosophy, which nonetheless has reclaimed most other topics in philosophy.

Against the background of this philosophical view that evil is an awkward and uncomfortable term too heavily tinged with theological or psychological overtones, Neiman makes a compelling case that in fact the problem of evil is the central concern in the history of philosophy and is the "guiding force of modern thought" (2-3). The problem of evil most broadly understood is the problem of how to make sense of the world, when that world is ineradicably a [End Page 222] place of suffering. The problem of evil in her usage thus becomes coterminous with the struggle for meaning, with the effort of human beings to understand themselves and their place in the world. Through this lens, she considers her task not to be a task of ethics, where one might seek to define evil and give criteria for distinguishing that which is evil from that which is bad. Instead, her task in this book is to understand how evil "threatens the trust in the world that we need to orient ourselves within it" (8-9). Thus, her book is an inquiry into the human struggle for self-understanding expressed by philosophers. And since in our search for meaning we protest that the world is not as we think it ought to be, facing the problem of evil is also implicitly a demand to change the world so that it comes closer to our hopes. Neiman thus implicitly draws on her earlier interpretation of Immanuel Kant in The Unity of Reason (1994) to argue that reason's task is ultimately practical: the task of overcoming the gap between the is and the ought. Thus, even though she is addressing the problem of evil from the perspective of the history of philosophy, her inquiry is motivated by an ethical or emancipatory interest.

Since the problem of evil becomes the problem of the meaning of human existence, Neiman gives the concept of theodicy a central role in her discussion. Theodicies in her view are not merely the vindication of divine providence in view of the existence of evil, as in The Concise Oxford Dictionary (10th ed., s. v. "theodicy"). Instead, one must understand all searches for finding meaning within our grasp and holding despair at bay to be secular forms of theodicy.

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz's Theodicy (1985) provided a defense of God's justice in reference to three kinds of evil: metaphysical, natural, and moral. Metaphysical evil refers to the degeneration inherent in the limits of substance of which the world is made. Natural evil refers to our pain and suffering in the world. Moral evil refers to our crime for which natural evil is the just punishment (22). Neiman traces out in her book the fate of these three categories of evil. Metaphysical evil subsequently becomes incorporated as part of the category of finitude. 1 Her inquiry thus focuses on the fate of natural and moral evil in modern philosophy.

Neiman points to two paradigmatic shifts in this history: the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, which killed 15,000 inhabitants in a matter of minutes, and Auschwitz. Because the intellectual resources that were available in the mid-eighteenth century led thinkers to expect a transparency of knowledge of both the social and natural worlds, the Lisbon earthquake also led to an intellectual earthquake. This natural catastrophe led to a retraction of the scope of moral evil. Whereas some clergymen reacted to the Lisbon earthquake by seeking a reason and justification in human sins for this natural catastrophe, most thinkers refused to do so. Kant himself wrote to the readers...


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pp. 222-226
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