‘We want to determine the world, not be determined by it’

Susan Neiman talks to spiked about the death of philosophy, the need for moral reasoning, and how the Enlightenment taught us to live without absolute certainty.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Books

This is a bit of random text from Kyle to test the new global option to add a message at the top of every article. This bit is linked somewhere.

‘I think philosophy, at its best, is about enlarging a sense of what is possible in the world.’ Susan Neiman leans back and takes another sip of coffee. If one accepts such a definition of philosophy, then Neiman’s own book, Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-up Idealists – an effervescent, often inspiring fusion of Kantian ethics and real-world critique – is to be judged a success.

Cover illustration by
Jan Bowman

In person, Neiman, like her writing, is spirited. Her passion for philosophy, indeed for the practical power and importance of ideas, is infectious. That Moral Clarity leaves you with a desire to read Immanuel Kant, that most rebarbative thinker from an era of highly demanding but hugely rewarding thinkers, is itself a testament to the force of her central idealist conviction: ideas matter.

It was partly Neiman’s desire to reclaim philosophy from the stultifying ‘scholasticism’, as she puts it, of Western academia that informed her previous book A History of Evil in Modern Thought. ‘The focus on epistemology and metaphysics [in philosophy teaching] as in “is the external world real, or is it all a dream?” is a huge diversion’, explained Neiman: ‘It is not actually the problem that these thinkers were grappling with.’ What Neiman suggested instead was that the history of philosophy was dominated far more by the kind of questions that inspire the young to study the subject in the first place, questions ‘of how to live, of the meaning of life, of the relation between morality and politics’. This is stirring stuff. Unfortunately what students find upon entering a university philosophy department is something very different: ‘an appalling distance from the real world’, according to Neiman.

However, groundless abstraction is not the only problem. After all, academic specialists have always been content to plumb ever more esoteric depths, discerning the nuance in the detail, the extra angel on the pinhead. The real problem, according to Neiman, lies elsewhere, with the academic left, which, although it was at least once verbally committed to changing the world, has in recent years retreated into what she describes as ‘obscurantism and equivocation’.

In the hands of the campus radicals, ideals historically associated with the left, such as progress, justice, freedom and even socialism, became suspect. Once held dear by those seeking to change the world, such concepts were literally de-valued. They became at best mere words, textual fodder for deconstructive analyses, lexical window-dressing in a Nietzschean universe of wills-to-power, a charge, as Neiman shows, that goes back in spirit at least as far as Socrates’ virtue-doubting adversary Thrasymachus. And where does that leave the contemporary humanities student? With dense verbal thickets that refuse to say too much at all. Judging the work of such modish figures as Judith Butler or Jacques Derrida, Neiman is severe: ‘I think it’s extremely dangerous, anti-intellectual and anti-progressive – I also think it is foggy thinking.’

Contemporary academia may be appallingly distant, but, as Neiman knows, such a distance between the realm of ideas and the world that matters is not the creation of disillusioned, but tenured ’68ers and their musty, jobsworth colleagues. It belongs, rather, to the history of the twentieth century itself, and principally to the ‘conceptual collapse’ of the traditional home of idealism: the left. Faced by the reality of struggles for a better world, and with the horrors of the Soviet Union, left-wing theory paled. As Neiman writes: ‘If [the Gulag] was the outcome of struggle for the ideals of freedom and justice, wouldn’t the world be better off if we sat on our hands?’

It is this, the profound demoralisation of the left, that spurs Neiman on in Moral Clarity. ‘The left is where I come from’, she says, ‘but it has been so remiss in the last couple of decades.’ Realism and pragmatism, the watchwords of a left bereft of even a residual utopianism, have been no substitute for a moral vision, she continues. Rather, such realism merely left the way open for politicians of the right, like George W Bush, to seize the moral high ground. So while the then president was wittering on about ‘evil’, and by default ‘good’, the left was left with little more than hard-headed nihilism. Neiman concludes: ‘While abandoning Marxist claims about progress in history, the left was united in its determination to believe in nothing else.’

As Neiman describes it, value-less and hopeless, the pragmatic left, content to unmask the workings of power, is content also to leave the world as it is. The left has come to see all idealism as tainted, and all talk of morality as an axis-of-evil-style charade. The left now appears to share the outlook of that arch-conservative Edmund Burke: ‘What kind of man would expect heaven and earth to bend to grand theories?’ How the world ought to be is not a question worth posing, apparently; it portends nothing but Soviet-style violence to the living, those breathing members of how the world is. As unjust, as wrong, as wretched as society might appear, There Is No Alternative.

This is where Neiman’s marvellously bright book comes in, sparking and fulminating against resignation and cynicism: there is always an alternative, she says. The disparity between how the world is and how we believe it ought to be is not to be wilfully ignored, she argues; it is to be seized upon, cultivated, pursued. She declares: ‘The distinction between is and ought is the most important one we ever draw.’ Here Neiman draws out Kant’s distinction between scientific and moral reasoning, between truth and ethics. ‘Truth tells us how the world is; morality tells us how it ought to be’, states Neiman. Ideals matter not because they exist, but because they don’t. For idealism, the very impulse the left seems desperate to suppress, rests on ‘the belief that the world can be improved by means of ideals expressing states of reality that are better than the ones we currently experience’, Neiman writes.

Ideals, then, are irreducible. They are not things in the world like tables or chairs; they are not reducible to self-preservation or, its more developed form, self-interest; and, try as evolutionary psychologists might, they cannot be explained away by some genetic urge to propagate the species. Rather, the idealistic impulse is precisely the transcendence of what is, be it our biology or our environment. Idealism defines our humanity.

Neiman chooses Kant’s own thought experiment to prove the point. A man is asked to lie, on pain of death, by an unjust ruler. This lie will see another man who has fallen foul of the regime sentenced and then put to death for a capital crime. We don’t know what we would do in that situation, but – and this is key – we do know what we ought to do. Neiman writes: ‘Not pleasure but justice can move human beings to deeds that overcome the strongest of animal desires, the love of life itself. And contemplating this is as dizzying as contemplating the heavens above us: with this kind of power, we are as infinite as they are.’

Neiman’s writing is often at its most lyrical at those moments in which she touches upon the essence of human freedom. In a passage that echoes the young Marx’s description of man as ‘the self-mediating being of nature’, Neiman writes: ‘We want to determine the world, not merely be determined by it; we want to stand above the things we may want to consume. You can call this the urge for transcendence, so long as you don’t call it mystical. We are born as we die, a part of nature, but we feel most alive when we go beyond it. And we go beyond it often – every time we explore the world instead of simply taking it in.’ She concludes: ‘To be human is to refuse to accept the given as given.’

The gap between ‘is’ and ‘ought’ is the birthplace of moral reasoning. In other words, it is the point of departure for a questioning of why things are as they are, a need for the world to make sense. Just as the sheer quiddity of nature makes demands of scientific reason, so the world of men makes demands of moral reason. This is Neiman’s principle of sufficient reason. We are intolerant of the sheer facts of existence, of their meaninglessness – we need them sufficiently to satisfy our reason. We are, to use the phrase of Martin Heidegger, one of Neiman’s anti-enlightenment nemeses, ‘The being for whom being is a question’.

Against the thoroughgoing empiricism of thinkers like David Hume, who attributed our thoughts and ideas to experience, Kant contends that the relationship is not one way: our reason also can also determine our experience. ‘Kant turned the empiricists claims upside down’, says Neiman. ‘Of course ideas of reason conflict with the claims of experience. That’s what ideas are meant to do. Ideals are not measured by whether they conform to reality; reality is judged by whether it lives up to ideals. Reason’s task is to deny that the claims of experience are final – and to push us to widen the horizon of our experience by providing ideas that experience ought to obey.’

That the antagonism between ‘is’ and ‘ought’ can never be overcome, that the imperatives of our reason will never be realised is, at points in Moral Clarity, seen positively. The unrealisable nature of ideals, their horizon-like beyondness, is part of the structure of reason, asserts Neiman: ‘Paradoxical, perhaps, but some paradoxes are brilliant, and absolutely invaluable. By demanding a world that makes sense as a whole, reason spurs us to make sense of every bit of it in our reach: through science and art in the world of understanding; through politics and ethics in the world of practice.’

And yet, for all this Kantian optimism, Moral Clarity strikes another, less trenchantly utopian note, too. At one point Neiman bemoans the contemporary lack of ‘a philosophical basis for understanding the difference between the actual and the possible, and a framework for getting from one to the other’. At another point, the tone seems almost melancholy: ‘The abyss that separates is from ought is too deep to bridge entirely; the most we can hope to do is to narrow it.’

The German philosopher Ernst Bloch called this ‘abyss’ the ‘pernicious chasm’. He was referring to the dualism at the heart of German idealism – that is, the irresolvable contradiction between the reasoning subject and the world as it is. It is, in short, a relationship between two separate entities. The world as it is, in all its senseless injustice, simply confronts a moral, denunciatory subject. With little sense of how the world came to be as it is, there is no reason why the world ought to be different save the sheer judgment of the individual. In fact, it is the very separation of the contemplative subject from the world to be contemplated – and judged – that gives the action its purely moral hue. As Georg Lukács, a thinker particularly concerned with the ‘antinomies of contemplation’, put it:

‘The “ought” presupposes an existing reality to which the category of “ought” remains inapplicable in principle. Wherever the refusal of the subject simply to accept his empirically given existence takes the form of an “ought”, this means that the immediately given empirical reality receives affirmation and consecration at the hands of philosophy: it is philosophically immortalised.’

The ‘ought’, like the subject of Kant’s dualistic idealism, remains forever outside the world it wishes to bend to its will; indeed, its formulation as an ought derives from the subject’s estrangement from the world it opposes. A groundless opposition faces down an entrenched reality.

As the figure whose work not only went beyond the static dualisms of German idealism, but sustained the left for many years, Karl Marx cannot but haunt a reading of a work like Moral Clarity. For he, above all others – including Hegel – sought to go beyond the ossified opposition of the world as it is and the world as it ought to be, by grasping reality as a process in which subject and object form a contradictory unity, in which the ‘ought’ inheres within the ‘is’. Where a dualistic perspective might render the conflicts of society as wrongs to be judged as such, Marx was able to grasp them as wrongs produced – and produced not by the labour of the concept, as with Hegel, but by the labour that produces not just use-values, but exchange value, too; that is, alienating labour, wage-labour. There was not simply a moral reason, there was also an actual reason, an actual possibility to change the world as it is.

In a sense, then, the collapse of not just the ideals but of the political movement underpinning Marx’s revolutionary perspective does seem to return us to a dualistic moment, a historical point in which the social world confronts a solitary individual. So does the dualism of Moral Clarity reflect the contemporary impasse? Neiman is resolute. The direction that Marx and Hegel took, she says, showed an impatience, a desire to force the ‘is’ and the ‘ought’ to coincide. That Hegel’s absolute idealism led him rightwards, to make the ‘real rational’, and Marx’s materialism leftwards, is neither here nor there. Both sought to identify how things ought to be with necessity, whether historical or economic.

For Neiman, then, the twentieth century shows the folly of the rash attempt to overcome the abyss in this way. Writing of the Soviet Union, and Stalinism in particular, she says, ‘the version of dialectical materialism that triumphed encouraged the picture that in the process of cosmic production, ideals were like the foam: the froth (or the scum) that bubbled up from the real stuff you need to quench your thirst.’

Kantian idealism, however, is, as Neiman tells me, a grown-up idealism. It resists the violent utopianism of youth, but also the cynicism of youthful dreams disappointed. ‘You live with the dualism’, she says. ‘You always keep your eye on your actions and how you want the world to be. But you also need to be bound to a recognition, especially in political life, to the way that things are.’ Such a realism doesn’t just mean taking account of what you can reasonably expect to achieve; it also means living without the old left pieties, too. It means challenging society as it is now.

A great strength of Neiman’s position is that it resists the tendency towards defeatism – that is, the elevation of a dualistic moment to an impasse. Neiman has plenty of grounds for hope, too. She mentions her experience of campaigning door-to-door for Barack Obama. The sheer number of people who actively volunteered to work for Obama clearly impressed her. Obama’s subsequent election reminded her ‘that all things are possible’.

However, Moral Clarity is not entirely successful, not least because her Kantian framework can help only so far. After all, the rejection of the world as it is is not a position with any specifically progressive content. A jihadist, rising above the extant mire of consumerism and Western decadence, would also, in Neiman’s terms, qualify as an idealist. Neiman’s response is to propose a battle of ideas: ‘If the yearning for idealism drives people to fundamentalism, they could be satisfied by other kinds of idealism as well.’

While attacking Marx and Hegel for their attempt to conflate morality with necessity, at the last she also betrays a willingness to do likewise. In her view, environmentalism represents a neat meeting between sufficient reason and sufficient necessity: ‘I’m arguing for hopes that are not irrational, for their signposts are concrete – as concrete as the evidence for global warming. That’s right. Both are real, and there is no way to be certain if humankind is progressing toward a better state or racing toward doom. Which one you take up is a matter of choice, but your choice need not be arbitrary. If you believe that progress is possible, you can do something about global warming. If you do not, you can’t change anything but the channel.’

This doesn’t seem to be moral reasoning so much as its suppression. Individual judgment gives way to a do-this-or-else imperative. All particular concerns, all particular judgments, are formulated not in terms of a human end but a planetary one. Moral judgment is short-circuited by the environmentalist equivalent of judgment day.

Yet Neiman at her Kantian best does not diminish but rather defends the autonomy of the moral subject. It is all about growing up for Neiman, about teaching people to use their judgment, their reason: ‘The Enlightenment gave reason pride of place, not because it expected absolute certainty, but because it sought a way to live without it.’ Indeed. There is something of the closing line of Voltaire’s Candide in Neiman’s Moral Clarity: ‘We must cultivate our garden.’

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

To hear Susan Neiman speaking about Moral Clarity at a recent Bookshop Barnie see here.

Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-Up Idealists, by Susan Neiman, is published by The Bodley Head. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Books


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today