The Greatest Moral Philosopher Ever

Susan Neiman is a moral philosopher with an interest in exploring the persistence of Enlightenment thought and reinterpreting past thinkers for contemporary contexts. She is the current Director of the Einstein Forum, having previously taught at Yale University and Tel Aviv University. The Wall Street Journal called her 2008 Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-Up Idealists “an argument for re-engaging with the moral vocabulary of the country.” Her 2002 work, Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy, explains philosophy’s quest, touching on Kant, among others, as one perpetually in search of a perfect understanding of evil. Born in Atlanta, Neiman received her doctorate degree from Harvard University.

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Neiman:  Well, Immanuel Kant. There are some people who would disagree with that but he would certainly be on anybody’s list of top three. I think he’s the greatest moral philosopher of all time for a variety of reasons but mostly because I think he gets the point about idealism right. He gets that both an eye for how the world is and an eye for how the world should be are perspectives that have equal value and I think that’s just a bottom-line deep insight. It’s a simple insight. Once you’ve had it, you say, “Gosh. How did somebody miss it?”  But in fact everyone--with the exception of Hannah Arendt, who learned that from Kant mostly--everybody goes overboard in one direction or the other. I think Kant made some serious mistakes in moral philosophy but for that insight alone he’s the greatest moral philosopher who lived. Plato and Aristotle come in as good, serious seconds in my book and in anybody’s book, and Nietzsche I believe offers a radical, deep and problematical alternative to Kant in the modern era. I think he is the one philosopher who deeply questioned moral philosophy but I think he can be answered.


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