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Seeing Evil

Analytic philosophy rediscovers the eternal struggle of good and evil.

Jun 9, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 38 • By THOMAS HIBBS
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Evil in Modern Thought

An Alternative History of Philosophy

by Susan Neiman

Princeton Univ. Press, 358 pp., $29.95

DEISM, wrote Pascal, is "almost as far removed from the Christian religion as atheism." Pascal had Descartes in mind, but he seems to have anticipated along the way much of the distinctively modern project of "natural religion," with its assumption of the easy transparency of nature and nature's God. The problem, as Pascal saw, is that pure reason demands lucid clarity, while the rational evidence for the existence of the God of Deism is decidedly mixed. The God of Deism inevitably becomes that God that failed.

In her interesting "Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy," Susan Neiman examines in detail the enduring preoccupation of modern philosophers with the God of Deism--which is to say, with the question of the rationality and goodness of the universe. For Neiman, this is a version of the problem of evil, a problem that resides at the juncture of metaphysics and ethics; it concerns "the intelligibility of the world as a whole." In its initial formulation, Neiman's thesis seems to bleed into every possible topic about the meaning of the universe. Yet her narrative of modern philosophy has a compelling, dramatic unity.

The now dominant way to tell the story of modern philosophy, she argues, is of "tortuously decreasing interest." As told in the dominant Anglo-American departments of philosophy, modern philosophy is a story about the quest for certainty, first in metaphysics and then in the more constrained arena of epistemology. The received interpretation of modern philosophy is flawed on "literary grounds alone," since it offers a "narrative of philosophers who act without intention." It seems that "philosophy, like some people, was prepared to accept boredom in exchange for certainty as it grew to middle age."

Neiman thinks she has discovered a hitherto unnoticed motive: the desire to solve the problem of evil. So peripheral had the problem of evil become by mid-century that Bertrand Russell's famous "History of Western Philosophy" contained more entries under "Egypt" than under "Evil." To this day, in analytic philosophy, the problem of evil is relegated to the specialized field of philosophy of religion. But Neiman's retelling of the history of philosophy claims that many modern philosophers are engaged in the quest for theodicy, the attempt to offer an explanation for the presence of evil in the natural world.

To test a thesis as broad and ambitious as this would require reading not just primary philosophical texts but also rival historical accounts. Neiman's "Evil in Modern Thought" is woefully short on the latter. She gives the impression that there is simply nothing available except the traditional story of the search for certainty, though, in fact, in the last decade or so, histories of modern philosophy have proliferated. And she ignores important twentieth-century treatments of evil, particularly that found in Paul Ricoeur's "The Symbolism of Evil."

But Neiman's narrative is nonetheless a contender. It sheds light not just on the writings of particular thinkers, but also on their relation to one another. And it helps us begin to understand certain facts about the modern period that current philosophers find baffling. Why was Kant so enamored of the thought of Rousseau? Why are so many modern philosophers obsessed with the question of providence in history? And why, even where they proclaim a defiant secularism, are so many moderns preoccupied with theological questions?

Contemporary scholars of Kant insouciantly ignore the influence on Kant's thought of Rousseau, whom they deem a soft, poetic sort of thinker. Neiman shows that Kant's admiration for Rousseau, whom he dubbed a second Newton, has to do with Rousseau's discovery of the "laws of providence" in the social world. Kant's elevation of Rousseau is explicable only on the supposition that the problem of evil--in Kant's terms, the problem of how apparently irrational evils in history can be reconciled with progress--is a fundamental issue for philosophy.

NEIMAN'S HISTORY also restores the prominence of Hegel, Kant's successor and the modern philosopher most devoted to the philosophical demonstration of historical development. Hegel seeks to redeem particular evils by treating them as moments in a progressive history. A few centuries earlier, Thomas Hobbes could discern in the state of nature only the expression of brute, purposeless power. But Hegel sees a battle for recognition that starts history and sets humanity on the path toward the modern, liberal state.