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Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy [Paperback]

by Susan Neiman
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (23 customer reviews)

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Book Description

March 21, 2004 0691117926 978-0691117928 New Ed

Evil threatens human reason, for it challenges our hope that the world makes sense. For eighteenth-century Europeans, the Lisbon earthquake was manifest evil. Today we view evil as a matter of human cruelty, and Auschwitz as its extreme incarnation. Examining our understanding of evil from the Inquisition to contemporary terrorism, Susan Neiman explores who we have become in the three centuries that separate us from the early Enlightenment. In the process, she rewrites the history of modern thought and points philosophy back to the questions that originally animated it.

Whether expressed in theological or secular terms, evil poses a problem about the world's intelligibility. It confronts philosophy with fundamental questions: Can there be meaning in a world where innocents suffer? Can belief in divine power or human progress survive a cataloging of evil? Is evil profound or banal? Neiman argues that these questions impelled modern philosophy. Traditional philosophers from Leibniz to Hegel sought to defend the Creator of a world containing evil. Inevitably, their efforts--combined with those of more literary figures like Pope, Voltaire, and the Marquis de Sade--eroded belief in God's benevolence, power, and relevance, until Nietzsche claimed He had been murdered. They also yielded the distinction between natural and moral evil that we now take for granted. Neiman turns to consider philosophy's response to the Holocaust as a final moral evil, concluding that two basic stances run through modern thought. One, from Rousseau to Arendt, insists that morality demands we make evil intelligible. The other, from Voltaire to Adorno, insists that morality demands that we don't.

Beautifully written and thoroughly engaging, this book tells the history of modern philosophy as an attempt to come to terms with evil. It reintroduces philosophy to anyone interested in questions of life and death, good and evil, suffering and sense.

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Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy + Amidst Mass Atrocity and the Rubble of Theology: Searching for a Viable Theodicy + Deconstructing Theodicy: Why Job Has Nothing to Say to the Puzzle of Suffering
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The word "evil" gets thrown around pretty frequently, especially in connection with certain Axes, but Einstein Forum director and former philosophy professor Susan Neiman reminds us that the existence of evil is a theological and intellectual dilemma through modern Western intellectual history in fact, she argues in her erudite and accessible Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy, the question of evil is at the heart of modern philosophy. Neiman looks at how philosophers and writers Leibniz and Arendt, Pope and Sade have sought to explain evil, and traces two divergent strains of thought: one that insists we must try to understand moral evil, and another that maintains we must not.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

The current director of the Einstein Forum in Potsdam, Neiman (The Unity of Reason: Rereading Kant) examines the problem of evil, which she posits as central to philosophy since the 17th century. Philosophy is driven by the need to make sense of a world riddled with natural and moral evil and by our failures to do so. Leibniz (who thought this must be the best of all possible worlds) and Hegel (who thought reality must ultimately prove to be rational) are keys to her story, but Kant's effort to show that our best insights into reality stem from moral sensibilities, and Nietzsche, on the other side, who regarded most attempts to find a meaningful transcendent as moral cowardice, play large roles. Neiman begins with the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, perceived at the time as a manifestation of evil, but science and technology are (slowly) teaching us how to deal with such natural calamities. Moral evil, on the other hand, has not elicited as effective a response. Neiman is sympathetic to Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer and attentive to Emmanuel L‚vinas, who insisted that we must recover the transcendent or lose our rationality. Oddly, she ignores 20th-century attempts (by Samuel Alexander, Alfred North Whitehead, Teilhard de Chardin, etc.) to bring logic to bear on the subject. Still, this is a deeply moving and scholarly book that will interest many general readers. Leslie Armour, Univ. of Ottawa
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press; New Ed edition (March 21, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691117926
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691117928
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 6.2 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (23 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #40,217 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
92 of 96 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Thoughtful Inquiry into the Problem of Evil February 4, 2003
"Evil in Modern Thought" is a well-written and thought-provoking review of Western philosophy's struggles with the problem of Evil. Susan Neiman views this problem "as the guiding force of modern thought." Recognizing the controversiality of her contention she sub-titles her book, "An Alternative History of Philosophy." Neiman takes us along on her philosophical journey into the writings of important 17-20th century Western thinkers. She groups these thinkers under chapter titles that neatly summarize their attempts at understanding evil. While presenting the salient features of their ideas, she asks them questions you'd want to ask yourself.
Neiman states that what constitutes evil has changed - evil today stands for "absolute wrongdoing that leaves no room for account or expiation." The author asks: "How can human beings behave in ways that so thoroughly violate both reasonable and rational norms"?
Chapter 1, "Fire From Heaven" includes the thinkers who stole God's fire for man: Leibniz; Pope; Rousseau, Kant; Hegel and Marx. We start with the words of an 11-th century Castilian king embodying man's growing urge to independent thinking: "If I had been of God's counsel at the Creation, many things would have been ordered better." At first, faith reigns supreme; we meet Leibniz, who thinks God has ordered all things for the best. His work, the "Theodicy" attempts the conformity of faith with reason. But the poet, Pope, nudges God aside with:

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan,
The proper study of mankind is Man.
Rousseau was the first thinker to treat the problem of evil as a philosophical one. He states evil "is a catalog of mistaken acts that can be rectified in the future." Knowledge, not penance is needed.
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89 of 93 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Is Evil A Dead Issue? August 6, 2003
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
The concept of evil has occupied a significant place in philosophy throughout the history of man's thinking. Dr. Neiman has written a very interesting book that explores the problem of evil as considered from early modern thinking to the present.
The question is, of course, how do you reconcile an omnipotent, benevolent Deity with the existence of evil. She starts the discussion with Leibnitz who felt that God considered all possible worlds, and decided that the one we have is the best one possible. Evil was divided into two types: natural evil that encompassed the cruelties of nature (floods, earthquakes, droughts, etc.) and moral evil i.e. those acts that we humans are responsible for. Pierre Bayle and Voltaire eagerly tore this idea to shreds. Rousseau came along and said that man, and not God was responsible for all evil, as man had become corrupted through the progress of civilization.
Neiman goes on to discuss the thoughts of Hume, Schopenhauer, Kant, Nietzsche, Feud, and even the Marquis de Sade. Then she delves into the topic of the Holocaust, and September 11. Of particular interest here is the thoughts of Hannah Arendt on the Holocaust, and her reflections during the war crimes trial of Adolf Eichmann. Arendt feels that the vast majority of those involved in the Holocaust, Eichmann included, had no malicious intent in what they did. They merely performed assigned tasks, and did not really have the evil impulses that might be found in one of de Sade's novels. Evil truly had become banal, a merely boring activity of a bureaucracy. September 11th did provide evidence of evil intent, however. Those involved were determined to destroy innocent human lives.
At this point one has to wonder whether Evil as a philosophical issue has become obsolete.
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38 of 40 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars brilliant evil October 12, 2002
By Adam
This is the kind of book you want to buy for all your friends so you can argue about it. It's the kind of book you want to get an extra copy of so your spouse can read it at the same time and you can talk your way through it. It's the kind of book that will be a required text of most philosophy 101 classes in ten years' time, and the one text you reread ten years after graduating. It is witty without being glib, accessible without being remotely condescending. It's both brilliant and brave because it dares to remind us why anyone was interested in philosophy in the first place and why we need it.
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Grand Tour of the Thought about Evil January 20, 2003
This book offers an extraordinary odyssey for the mind: Neiman gives us a grand tour of western philosophy, from the book of Job to Hannah Arendt, from Albert Camus via Rousseau and Sade, but does not explore these authors with the standard queries of philosophy (epistemology or metaphysics). Neiman examines how these various authors have raised what are perhaps the most burning questions of our times: Why do we suffer? What is evil?
This is an exhilarating book which philosophers and non-philosophers alike can only enjoy.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars If this is the future of philosophy-- January 10, 2003
I found this book so cogent and lucid that I couldn't put it down. And look forward to a second read. It isn't philosophy lite, but it can't be, given the subject. For a serious
reader both the style and the substance is a feast for the mind and spirit. Evil in Modern Thought manages to convey the rich complexity of modern philosophy and the childlike wonder that is it's cornerstone.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Several recent books discuss the problem of evil.
This is one of several books I've acquired recently on the problem of evil. We tend to think we've gotten beyond such a thing, but not so. Read more
Published 3 months ago by Mr.&Mrs. Peter R. Jordahl
5.0 out of 5 stars Good insights...
This work treats the early modern era with great care and creativity. This text would be good supplement to many of the primary sources studied in a modern philosophy course
Published 5 months ago by E O'Connor
4.0 out of 5 stars Sophistical review and summary
This book was recommended to me by a friend and I found it to be very educational and insightful. The book arrived from the seller promptly and in very good condition. Read more
Published 14 months ago by Elkgrove West
3.0 out of 5 stars Evil in Modern Thought
What follows is not a rounded summary. I read chapter one with appreciation, chapter two with less, chapter three with even less, and chapter four with little. Read more
Published on December 18, 2011 by Sam Adams
5.0 out of 5 stars a new look at "evil" in history
Susan Neiman gives us an unusual aspect of philosophy by looking at how the meaning of 'evil' changed over time. Read more
Published on May 1, 2011 by Nick Veltjens
5.0 out of 5 stars Evil that defies explanation must still be examined
This highly readable survey of the past three hundred years of Western philosophy explores how our attempts to explain evil events - both those inflicted upon us by nature (e.g. Read more
Published on November 15, 2010 by Tom Cummings
4.0 out of 5 stars Insights into psychopathology
Most interesting discussion in book is under Ch 4, Homeless. Previous chapters can be omitted. Author posits many pithy remarks, as in the following: "before it ever happened,... Read more
Published on July 25, 2010 by T. Kepler
2.0 out of 5 stars Relativize the Relativizers, Debunk the Debunkers
Dr. Neiman has produced a competent "history of [the problem of evil in] modern philosophy" from Leibniz to John Rawls. Read more
Published on October 6, 2008 by Joseph M. Hennessey
1.0 out of 5 stars Modern thought?: More like recently irrelevant.
Discussing evil, without serious consideration, of the thinking of theologians, like Gregory A Boyd (Evil and the Problem of Satan), is just not keeping up with current thought. Read more
Published on September 4, 2008 by Amazon Customer
5.0 out of 5 stars "Banal" Evil, Moral Responsiblity, and Interent Wrong
Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy

Not being a philosopher, I write only to offer a thought about the apparent view that "unintentional" or... Read more
Published on November 25, 2007 by Edward C. Brewer III
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