Susan Neiman

American philosopher, essayist and cultural commentator

Susan Neiman (born March 27, 1955) is an American moral philosopher, cultural commentator, and essayist. She has written extensively on the juncture between Enlightenment moral philosophy, metaphysics, and politics, both for scholarly audiences and the general public. She currently lives in Germany, where she is the Director of the Einstein Forum in Potsdam.

Neiman in 2015


  • [On members of the Nazi Party] [T]he most shocking, but also important thing, is they were not the uneducated masses. The majority had academic degrees. We like to think that education provides immunity to racist and fascist ideology. And it doesn't.
  • Whenever you say anything good about East Germany [...] immediately somebody jumps up and says, "My God, you’re a Stalinist..." I'm not defending everything about it, of course. But I laboured on the chapter that talks about the east. I fact-checked it; I had somebody else fact-check it. I knew that I was going to get a lot of flak for that. But in the beginning, East Germany did a better job. They just did.
  • It took Germans some time to learn this after the second world war, but they finally invented a concept for it: Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung, which translates as "working off the past". Now Berlin has a dizzying number and variety of monuments to the victims of its murderous racism. By choosing to remember what its soldiers once did, Germany made a choice about the values it wants to reject. Other choices, such as erecting glass walls in government buildings, reflect the values it wants to maintain: democracy should be transparent. The rebuilding of Berlin – a long, discursive process in which historians, politicians and citizens debated for more than a decade – was aspirational. No one, least of all a German, would claim the rebuilding and renaming of Berlin’s landscape eradicated the roots of racism. The city’s public space represents conscious decisions about what values the reunited republic ought to hold.
  • How do we remember the parts of our histories we'd rather forget? Repression and revision are always options.
  • French schoolchildren can be proud to become citizens of the country that gave the world the Declaration of the Rights of Man; need they be told that it was disregarded a few years after it inspired the revolution in Haiti, whose leader, Toussaint Louverture, was consigned to death in a French prison?
  • There's no question that the right-wing campaign to ban from American classrooms anything that might cause discomfort is dangerous. Anyone should be proud to belong to a nation whose heroes include Martin Luther King Jr. and Toni Morrison, two writers whom several school boards have banned. Along with a history of profound injustice, the United States has a long history of people who fought against it. Without examples of brave men and women who worked together to make progress toward justice, we will never have the will to make more. Those who cannot acknowledge past histories of progress are doomed to cynicism or resignation. Portraying all of American history as an engine of white supremacy, or all of German history as irrevocably poisoned by antisemitism, is bound to provoke backlash, and it already has. But even if it didn't, it wouldn't be true—and isn't the demand for historical reckoning itself a demand for truth?

Evil in Modern Thought: An alternative history of philosophy (2002)

Evil in Modern Thought: An alternative history of philosophy, Princeton University Press, 2002, ISBN: 9780691096087
  • The picture of modern philosophy as centered in epistemology and driven by the desire to ground our representations is so tenacious that some philosophers are prepared to bite the bullet and declare the effort simply wasted. Rorty, for example, finds it easier to reject modern philosophy altogether than to reject the standard accounts of its history. His narrative is more polemical than most, but it's a polemical version of the story told in most philosophy departments in the second half of the twentieth century. The story is one of tortuously decreasing interest. Philosophy, like some people, was prepared to accept boredom in exchange for certainty as it grew to middle age.
  • Like many others, I came to philosophy to study matters of life and death, and was taught that professionalization required forgetting them. The more I learned, the more I grew convinced of the opposite: the history of philosophy was indeed animated by the questions that drew us there.

Beyond Belief conference (November 2006)

Susan Neiman spoke at the Beyond Belief: Science, Religion, Reason and Survival conference (November 5-7, 2006) at The Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, which brought together a group of scientists and philosophers to explore questions and answers about human nature and society. She was asked to answer two questions: 1) Can we be good without God?; 2) Can there be a science of morality? The quotations below are from the talk she gave as well as the question period following it. A video of the conference is available. Neiman was the first speaker in session 6.
  • However long Jewish, Christian and Muslim theologians struggle to find multiple meanings in this text, the dominant seems to be this: Abraham’s unquestioning willingness to heed gods command to sacrifice the thing he loved most is what qualified him to become the father of what are called still the Abrahamic faiths.
  • [T]hough religious thinkers will fight fiercely to show its standpoint to be the one religion really sanctions, each religion has signposts pointing in both ways. One the one hand towards a fundamentalist, authoritarian strain that insists if you want to be faithful you have to crucify your intellect; that is to believe just because your belief is absurd. And on the other hand, each of the three western religions has a rationalist tradition... far from viewing our capacity for reason as threatening our capacity to obey god, this tradition sees thinking as its very fulfillment. There are actually some wonderful Jewish parables, which show God laughing with pleasure as human beings defeat him with a particularly good argument. That is, god would rather be impressed than right on certain Jewish rationalist traditions. So if reason is God’s gift then he meant us to use it even against him if he is wrong or hasty. On this tradition our ability to make sense of the world whether with science or through the right moral actions, is just one more proof of gods goodness.
  • Far less import than your belief of whether god exists is what you think your belief entails. Does it direct your behaviour by rules and commandments that are set out before you or does it require you to think them through yourself? Does it require you to try to make sense of the world, or does it give up on sense itself? And I think these are the crucial distinctions. Not whether you add belief in a god to them.
  • Any ethics that needs religion is bad ethics, and any religion that tries to do so is bad religion. Of course, there are plenty of both around.
  • [W]e should be clear that neither genuine religious nor genuine moral impulses will ever be expressed in terms that tie the two essentially together. If you view religion as necessary for ethics, you’ve reduced us to the ethical level of 4 year olds. "If you follow these commandments you’ll go to heaven, if you don’t' you'll burn in hell" is just a spectacular version of the carrots and sticks with which you raise your children.
  • I’m delighted to hear someone make the claim that there is moral progress because it can be such a incendiary thing to say, and its something that I say and deeply believe in.
  • One of the great moral advances of the Enlightenment was abolishing torture. Its interesting to think how far we've come when we think about the fact that 300 years ago in every square of every civilized city, certainly in Europe, torturing people to death was not just that took place, but was something you would've taken your children to go and see on a Saturday afternoon. Right? I mean, that's what was happening. Now, the question is what did people learn, empirically, when they decided, "Oh gosh, drawing and quartering actually causes too much suffering; I think we'll put it out?" I mean, I don't think there's a fact that changed there that somebody had to realize. I think the example, by the way, is particularly important because while it shows that there can be moral progress, it also shows that it's absolutely not necessary, and there can also be moral regression, as in the case of the current administration. But I don't see that what's taking place somehow when Bush decides to legalize torture and thereby cancel one of the major achievements of the Enlightenment (Well he has! Right? I mean many of the achievements of the enlightenment, but that one in particular.) I don't see that what's happened is that there's something that he doesn't know. That he could somehow be tutored on.
  • [I]t turns out to be the case that torture's not very effective. And so if you're dealing with someone who has no moral qualms whatsoever, like Donald Rumsfeld, it might be worth pointing out that its not in his interests to continue a policy that's simply feeding us false information. I mean, somebody where you know that the moral - whatever part of the brain that deals with moral reactions, they're defunct at some point - but … it’s a good thing that we found that out. It’s a bit or argument that we can use to make abolishing torture more appealing to people. But supposing it did... I mean the whole point is... I mean you're talking about two very very different levels of objection, right? Supposing it were true that every time you tortured someone, they actually revealed what you couldn't get revealed in some other way. Would you then continue torturing? One of the problems with those arguments is that someone like Rumsfeld or whomever will be able to come up with a case - somebody who was tortured and did reveal information that intelligence wanted to know (there'll be 70 other cases where it didn't). But they'll be able to come up with one. And then what do you say? Well it's alright??

Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-Up Idealists (2008)

  • Those who cannot find [moral clarity] are likely to settle for the far more dangerous simplicity, or purity, instead.
Extract online Farrar, Straus, and Giroux (US)/Allen Lane (UK), 2019
  • I was part of the national German committee to plan celebrations for the 2005 Einstein Year. One hundred years after Einstein made his most famous discoveries, the left-leaning government had decided to spend 20 million euros to show its support of science in general and of left-wing cosmopolitan (ahem!) intellectuals in particular. As the only Jew on the committee, my main function would be as what Orthodox Jews call a mashgiach—someone who guarantees that the premises are kosher. There were exhibits, there were banners, there were lectures, and more. What if they made a mistake?
    I spotted one in an early brochure, where Einstein was described as a "fellow-citizen-of-Jewish-background." Did the committee know, I asked, that Einstein had expressly ridiculed that weird circumlocution? "He just called himself a Jew," I said. "Jews don't consider the word insulting." "Is that so, Frau Neiman?" replied the minister of science. She was flustered. "That’s very helpful, just the sort of thing we need to know." Jew in German has two syllables, not one, and I suppose that buried deep in some dreams are memories of sinister mobs shouting Ju-dah! Ju-dah! Perhaps even for atheists, echoes of Judas Iscariot play a role. Germans use phrases with nine syllables, like fellow-citizen-of-Jewish-extraction or fellow-citizen-of-Jewish-heritage, in order to avoid using the obvious two. The habit is so engrained that despite my objection, the second draft of the brochure used the same phrase. "I know we all have many duties here," I said at the next meeting. "But perhaps it has been forgotten that I mentioned that Einstein didn't like this designation. He made fun of it several times." I was learning to use certain forms of polite circumlocution myself. "Of course," said the minister’s deputy. "We’ll see it gets changed." They never did; too many nightmares worked against them.

Podcast: Intelligence Squared US: "Statues, slavery and the fight Struggle for Equality with David Olusoga, Dawn Brutler and Susan Neiman" (2020)

  • Statues are not about history. We don't memorialize each piece of history. We memorialize things that we want to value and things that we want our children to walk by and say "This person embodied the values that I care about." Therefore, statues are about values not about history.

Left Is Not Woke (2023)

  • What concerns me most here are the ways in which contemporary voices considered to be leftist have abandoned the philosophical ideas that are central to any left-wing standpoint: a commitment to universalism over tribalism, a firm distinction between justice and power, and a belief in the possibility of progress.

About Neiman

  • Where the account goes awfully wrong is in the musings on East Germany, where Neiman is prone to accepting the GDR’s self-serving use of its "anti-fascist" badging at a face value it never merited, despite the good faith of many cultural figures in the idea. East Germany was sired by Stalinism. Former Nazis were allowed to take "useful" positions in the state apparatus. When I worked with Markus Wolf, the former head of East German intelligence, on his memoirs, his admission that most shocked me was that the east had, at one point, tacitly supported neo-Nazi demonstrations in the west, perversely in order to demonstrate the revival of fascism in the Federal Republic.
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