Neiman, Susan 1955-
NEIMAN, Susan 1955-
Born March 27, 1955, in Atlanta, GA; children: Benjamin, Shirah, Leila. Education: Harvard University, A.B., 1977, A.M., 1980; Ph.D., 1986; attended Freie Universitat-Berlin, 1982-88.
Office—Einstein Forum, Am Neuem Market 7, 14467 Potsdam, Germany. E-mail—[email protected].
Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences, Phi Beta Kappa.
Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst fellowship, 1980; Bowen Prize, Harvard University, 1980; Sheldon fellowship, 1982; Fulbright fellowship, 1982-83; Henrich Heine fellowship, 1984; Carrier Dissertation Prize, 1987; Ribicoff Prize for teaching excellence in the humanities, 1991; PEN Award, 1993, for Slow Fire; American Council of Learned Societies fellowship, 1999-2000; Rockefeller Foundation Study Center fellowship, 2000; Association of American Publishers Award for best scholarly work on philosophy, 2002, for Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy; American Academy of Religion Award for Excellence, 2003.
Slow Fire, Schocken Books (New York, NY), 1992.
Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy, Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 2002.
Also the author of numerous articles and chapters for scholarly publications.
After completing her education in philosophy at Harvard University, Susan Neiman taught philosophy at Yale University for many years before traveling to Israel, where she taught at the University of Tel Aviv. More recently, she has taken on the directorship of the Einstein Forum in Germany. Her specialty is moral and political philosophy and the history of modern philosophy, subjects that are reflected in her books. So far, she has written three books and won numerous awards.
Neiman's first book, Slow Fire, began her career as a book author and won a prestigious award granted by PEN, an international group of writers. In this book, Neiman recounts six years of living in Berlin, from 1982 to 1988, while she was enrolled in graduate studies at the Freie Universitat (Free University). Library Journal's Ian Wallace found Slow Fire to be an "entertaining memoir, strongly colored by the author's inquiring mind, bohemian inclinations, and Jewish background."
Neiman studies the efforts of many German people, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, to either come to terms with, or to ignore, their political past, in particular their history of Nazism. The book is written through what a Kirkus Reviews writer called "lively vignettes, verbatim barroom conversations, a journal kept with intellect and sympathy." While living in Berlin, Neiman discovers that anti-Semitism is not yet dead. She encounters people who are still frightened about revealing their Jewish ancestry. She also comes across a neo-Nazi computer game and an exhibit called "Synagogues in Berlin: Destroyed Architecture," which upset her. Her German friends, Neiman soon discovers, have great difficulties in talking about the Holocaust. This is, wrote Booklist's George Cohen, "a frightening and thought-provoking book." A reviewer from Publishers Weekly also found the book to be upsetting in many ways. Neiman's book, the reviewer wrote "provides a harrowing portrait" of Berlin and its inability "to cope with its past."
Neiman's next book, The Unity of Reason: Rereading Kant, is an extended essay and, as Richard Velkley for the Review of Metaphysics described it, "a very important general account of Kant's critical philosophy." In this book, Neiman claims that previous interpretations of Kant's work have led to misunderstandings. According to Neiman, Kant set out to demonstrate that the true function of reason was not purely to gain knowledge but rather to serve as a guide. In other words, at the core of Kant's work, the philosopher attempted to separate reason from cognition. Ethics contributor Pablo De Greiff highly praised Neiman's reinterpretation of Kant's philosophy, calling her study "the most careful analysis of this difficult area of Kant's work." The Unity of Reason is a re-working of Neiman's doctoral dissertation for which she won the Carrier Dissertation Prize while at Harvard.
For Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy, Neiman won the 2002 Association of American Publishers Award for the best scholarly work on philosophy. In this study, Neiman takes an historic view of evil, from the Inquisition through the Holocaust to contemporary terrorism. Through her examination she asks: What has humanity become in the three hundred years since the era of Enlightenment? How can there be meaning in life when innocent people suffer at the hands of evil? How does a concept of a god coexist in a world that also produces evil? In her attempts to answer these questions, Neiman reviews the philosophical stances of two distinctive groups of philosophers. From a period that included the thoughts of Rousseau to Arendt, she found that the conclusion these philosophers came to was that morality insists that evil be understood. However, in the group that runs from Voltaire to Adorno, she found a consensus among the philosophers that stated that morality demands no such thing.
In 1755, in Lisbon, Portugal, the people of this city were celebrating All Saints' Day when an earthquake completely shattered not only their lives but also the philosophical stance of the world. Lisbon's churches were demolished and over 60,000 people were incinerated in fires that lasted six days. Many philosophers asked: Was their god evil to have destroyed their city? Or was this an act of nature that could neither be judged as good nor evil? What then is the definition of evil? Can evil be produced only by people? Is there, for instance, a distinction to be made between the horror experienced by the citizens of Lisbon and the terror experienced in Hiroshima or Auschwitz? There is, wrote Jonathan Ree for the Times Literary Supplement, in his review of Evil in Modern Thought, "and the question leads to the center of Neiman's argument. The demand for a clear separation between accidental suffering and malicious evil, she argues, is a peculiarly modern obsession." Neiman believes that the understanding of evil is central to philosophy, central to living intelligible lives. "Philosophy is driven by the need to make sense of a world riddled with natural and moral evil," wrote Leslie Armour in her Library Journal review of Neiman's book. In order to better understand evil, Neiman separates it from acts of crime. Crime can be defined and understood by the experience of the individual prior to the commitment of the act. Evil, on the other hand, is not easily categorized or understood. Walter Sundberg, for First Things, wrote that Neiman uses Descartes' definition of evil as something that "shatters our trust in the world." It threatens, Neiman believes, humanity's ability "to act in the world and to understand it." Sundberg concluded his review by stating that Neiman's book was meant "for mature people who do not expect pat answers, who are willing to be disturbed by arguments instead of having their prejudices satisfied."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Neiman, Susan, Slow Fire, Schocken Books (New York, NY), 1992.
Neiman, Susan, Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy, Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 2002.
Booklist, February 15, 1992, George Cohen, review of Slow Fire, p. 1085.
Books and Culture, March-April, 2003, Alan Wolfe, "Desperately Wicked: Reckoning with Evil," review of Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy, pp. 26-28.
Choice, November, 1994, review of The Unity of Reason, p. 469; June, 2003, review of Evil in Modern Thought.
Common Knowledge, April, 2003, review of Evil in Modern Thought.
Ethics, January, 1996, Pablo De Greiff, review of The Unity of Reason, pp. 500-501.
First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, January, 2002, Walter Sundberg, "The Conundrum of Evil," review of Evil in Modern Thought, pp. 53-58.
Kirkus Reviews, January 15, 1992, review of Slow Fire, p. 99.
Library Journal, March 15, 1992, Ian Wallace, review of Slow Fire, p. 108; August, 2002, Leslie Armour, review of Evil in Modern Thought, p. 100.
New Republic, April 7, 2003, Erin Leib, "Earthquakes," review of Evil in Modern Thought, p. 35.
New York Review of Books, June 12, 2003, review of Evil in Modern Thought.
New York Times, October 5-6, 2002, review of Evil in Modern Thought.
Philosophical Review, April, 1997, Paul Guyer, review of The Unity of Reason, pp. 291-295.
Publishers Weekly, January 20, 1992, review of Slow Fire, p. 55; July 1, 2002, "Blessed Order for Rage," review of Evil in Modern Thought, p. 71.
Review of Metaphysics, March, 1996, review of The Unity of Reason, pp. 668-70.
Times Literary Supplement, October 18, 2002, Jonathan Ree, "A Mean and Rootless Fungus," review of Evil in Modern Thought, p. 10.
Wall Street Journal, September 3, 2003, review of Evil in Modern Thought.
Susan Neiman Home Page,http://www.susanneiman.de (October 31, 2003).