“Thinking Evil” by Susan Neiman: A Story of Disillusionment

Think evil. Another history of modernity

by Susan Neiman

Translated from English (United States) by Cécile Dutheil de la Rochère, Premier Parallèle, 478 p., €26

Susan Neiman is a bold philosopher. When so many of her colleagues withdraw, even take refuge, in a technical philosophy primarily intended for specialists, the American philosopher, director of theEinstein-Forum in Berlin, claims a thought in touch with the real world and “urgent matters”. Before Growing up(2014), in which she revisited the issues of education, emancipation and commitment, the philosopher, a specialist in the Enlightenment, had taken up the vast and dizzying question of evil head-on to make it the frame of a new history of modernity. His work, published in the United States in 2002, is released today in French.

For Susan Neiman, this question is structuring of modernity. “The problem of evil is the driving force of modern thought”she writes, refusing to follow the philosophers who have abandoned this question to theology. “The problem of evil can be framed in theological or secular terms, but it is primarily a problem that concerns the intelligibility of the world as a whole”she says.

In his eyes, modernity emerged with a traumatic event: the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, which produced an immense shock wave among the philosophers of the time. The debates questioned the « theodicy »this rational discourse aimed at justifying the state of the world by divine Providence, considering it as « the best possible ». After Lisbon, nature is no longer invested with a moral sense. Evil is the action of man.


From there, Susan Neiman reformulates the history of modernity according to a fault which opposes two philosophical lines. The first brings together philosophers who believe that another, better world order is possible, and that “Morality demands that we make evil intelligible”. It places Leibniz, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel and Marx in an unexpected neighborhood. The second brings together thinkers who deny that “reality is something other than raw appearance” and who ignores the question of the intelligibility of evil: Bayle, Voltaire, Hume, Sade and Schopenhauer… Susan Neiman places herself in the first “camp”.

In this history of modernity, Auschwitz poses a rupture. On a philosophical level, the evil of the 20th century has rendered us impotent”, notes the philosopher. We find ourselves » homeless « delivered to a « sense of conceptual devastation ». Susan Neiman seeks to account for it. His conviction is that this explosion is linked to the loss of the modern conceptual framework where evil is articulated with malevolent intent. However, as Hannah Arendt has shown, evil is often « trivial »fruit of mediocrity more than malignity.

Of course, the question that plagues Susan Neiman is knowing where we are today. For her, we still refuse to draw the consequences of what Auschwitz taught us: evil is not identified with the intention to hurt. We remain obsessed with « flamboyant cruelty »no doubt because it is « easy to guess and not too hard to avoid ». Thinking evil differently would put everyone before a greater responsibility. Under the pen of Susan Neiman, recounting the philosophical debate on evil is also a civic act.


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