Evil and the history of philosophy (Neiman)

As recent posts suggest, I am interested in finding appropriate ways of rethinking the philosophy of history so as to provide us with greater ability to confront the evils of the twentieth century. This involves some concrete questions about how we as human beings define ourselves in the world, in light of the histories our predecessors and contemporaries have created. How should human beings of the twenty-first century relate to the evil events of the twentieth century? And how can humanity grow from confronting this history honestly? I hope to address these questions through the idea that human beings can learn compassion and evil from history, and we human beings can change as a result. The idea is that reflecting upon the history of the Holocaust or the Holodomor seriously and honestly has the potential of changing our natures, making these crimes less likely in the future. 

Susan Neiman offers an abstract and philosophical treatment of evil in Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy (2002). (Fred Rush provides a highly thoughtful and detailed review of the book here.) Neiman describes her goals in the book in these terms:

This book traces changes that have occurred in our understanding of the self and its place in the world from the early Enlightenment to the late twentieth century. Taking intellectual reactions to Lisbon and Auschwitz as central poles of inquiry is a way of locating the beginning and end of the modern. (introduction)

The subtitle of her book is meaningful: “an alternative history of philosophy”. She wants to understand how philosophy changed its content by progressing from making sense of the Lisbon earthquake to making sense of the Holocaust. Plainly, her book is more about how philosophers have reacted to “evil” events in general terms, and less about the nature of those events themselves, or their perpetrators. (Indeed, there was no human perpetrator in the Lisbon earthquake.) Like John Kekes (link), she rejects the idea that the problem of evil is largely an issue for theology. But her interest is in philosophy, and how philosophers have conceptualized evil. “My interest is, rather, to explore what changes in our understanding of the problem of evil reveal about changes in our understanding of ourselves, and of our place in the world” (kl 264). And she proposes a novel way of classifying philosophers in the history of philosophy — not as rationalist vs. empiricist, and not primarily driven by epistemology and skepticism; but rather over their fundamental positions on the moral nature of the world: “is there another, better, truer order than the one we experience, or are the facts with which our senses confront us all that there is? Is reality exhausted by what is, or does it leave room for all that could be?” (kl 264). With this way of sorting philosophical approaches, Neiman finds justification in holding that the evolution of western philosophy is driven by the fact of indigestible evil in the world.

Here are the main premises of her argument:

1. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century philosophy was guided by the problem of evil.

2. The problem of evil can be expressed in theological or secular terms, but it is fundamentally a problem about the intelligibility of the world as a whole.

3. The distinction between natural and moral evils is itself a historical one that developed in the course of the debate.

4. Two kinds of standpoint can be traced from the early Enlightenment to the present day, regardless of what sort of evil is in question, and each is guided more by ethical than by epistemological concerns. (introduction. kl 199)

Here is a fairly concise statement of her view of the relationship between the projects of European philosophy and evil:

Since I do not think an intrinsic property of evil can be defined, I am, rather, concerned with tracing what evil does to us. If designating something as evil is a way of marking the fact that it shatters our trust in the world, it’s that effect, more than the cause, which I want to examine. It should follow that I have even less intention of solving the problem of evil than I do of defining evil itself. My interest is, rather, to explore what changes in our understanding of the problem of evil reveal about changes in our understanding of ourselves, and of our place in the world. (kl 244)

I have called this an alternative history of philosophy because its aims are as different as its style and methods. One aim, in the felicitous expression of an anonymous reader, is to reorient the discipline to the real roots of philosophical questioning. I am grateful for the metaphor, which allows me to argue that, in some form or other, the problem of evil is the root from which modern philosophy springs. Once brought to life, philosophical discourse can grow on its own, and its branches may extend or tangle in all directions. Thus entire schools of thought could develop that have little to do with the questions raised here. (kl 290)

Though her primary interest is in developing the “alternative history of philosophy” that she presents, Neiman offers a view of the Holocaust and Auschwitz at a number of points in the book. She describes the atrocities of Auschwitz and Nazi extermination policies:

What occurred in Nazi death camps was so absolutely evil that, like no other event in human history, it defies human capacities for understanding. (kl 118)

Auschwitz, by contrast, stands for all that is meant when we use the word evil today: absolute wrongdoing that leaves no room for account or expiation. (kl 154)

And she provides an extended discussion of Arendt’s treatment of Eichmann in the final portion of the book.

But even here, her interest is less about “what happened?” and “how should we make sense of this episode of human history?” than about how twentieth-century philosophers sought to incorporate this specific and complex evil into their moral reckonings of the world — the “metaphysics” of evil rather than its practical importance in how we conceive of our lives. So it is fair to ask whether Neiman’s approach has much to contribute to these more the more concrete and experiential questions outlined above. But interestingly enough, Neiman’s book does have something to say about this idea. Specifically, Neiman’s treatment of Rousseau emphasizes Rousseau’s view of the malleability of human nature and emotions such as compassion. Neiman holds that this is a crucial part of Rousseau’s approach to the situation of evil in the world as well; in fact, she maintains that it is the feature of Rousseau’s philosophy that made him the “Newton” of the mind, according to Kant.

For Rousseau, both the problem of evil and its solution depend on the idea that evil developed over time. This assumes, in turn, that human beings develop over time, both as species and individual beings. Human nature has been altered…. For Rousseau, by contrast, human nature itself has a history. Our choices affect it.

History is the right kind of category to introduce because it enables us to understand the world and gives us hope for changing it. History leaves space between necessity and accident, making actions intelligible without being determined. If the introduction of evil was necessary, we can be saved only by a miracle. If it was an accident, then the world, where it matters, makes no sense. History, by contrast, is dynamic. If evil was introduced into the world, then it might also be eradicated—as long as its development is not fundamentally mysterious. After Rousseau, we need not deny the reality of evil. We can, rather, incorporate it into a world whose intelligibility is expanding. Exploring evil as historical phenomenon becomes part of our efforts to make the world more comprehensible in theory, and more acceptable in practice. (kl 862)

These are suggestive ideas for the experiential questions, because they point to the fundamental malleability of human culture and morality. Human nature and history are reciprocally intertwined. And this in turn suggests the possibility of the kind of “self-positing” and learning from history that seems most relevant to the approach to evil I want to take when it comes to bringing historical understanding into productive conversation with the extreme evils and atrocities of the twentieth-century.

It is clear that Evil in Modern Thought presents a radical thesis in intellectual history. Neiman argues that philosophers have quite fundamentally misunderstood the driving questions of their traditions: not epistemology, not metaphysics, but theodicy; not the question of how we know about our position in the natural world, or what is the nature of the world we inhabit; but rather, how can nature, humanity, and a benevolent god conspire to create such vast and incomprehensible suffering? Is this reorientation convincing? I find her arguments interesting and thought-provoking, but ultimately unconvincing. Her position is unconvincing, most fundamentally, because it is categorical. Neiman suggests an “either-or” interpretation of the driving questions of philosophy. This seems in the end to be too simple to accommodate the patchwork and plurality of questions, themes, and frameworks that have stimulated the development of various tributaries of European traditions in philosophy. 

More narrowly, Neiman’s point of view is only glancingly relevant to the most pressing question: how should we as human beings respond and change as a result of honest encounter with the facts of the Holocaust, Holodomor, genocide, torture, and enslavement? Here is an allegorical effort to begin to answer this question through an act of imagination (link). And here is a discussion of literary efforts by veterans of the Great War to make sense of their experiences through poetry and narrative (link).

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