As the pithy title of this book suggests, it was written by someone with a mission. Susan Neiman’s central aim is to challenge the kind of back-of-the-envelope relativism that she argues is a consequence of too much high theory and not enough historical awareness or common sense, and which leads inexorably to a debilitating pessimism about the real possibility of social progress. The Left, she argues, must recognize that its raison d’ être is and has always been a commitment to three overriding and connected principles: the ideal of universalism, the denial that might makes right, and the hope that human beings can together create a better world for all. The audience to whom her plea is directed is broad: anyone who is worried that American liberalism has gone astray, but also those who aren’t but should be. … [please read below the rest of the article].
Rider, Sharon. 2023. “Philosophy is Not Politics: A Review of Susan Neiman´s Left is not Woke.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 12 (10): 28–35. https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-89z.
🔹 The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers.
Left is not Woke
Polity Press, 2023
Not a Scholarly Book?
In the Introduction, the author states outright that Left is not Woke is not to be read as a piece of scholarship. It would therefore irrelevant to accuse her of pamphleteering, as has happened, since, in a sense, that would suggest that one has missed the point entirely. Shifting style and tone depending upon the matter under discussion, in some places the text is an anguished cri de cœur; in others, it is filled with wisecracks and jaunty bons mots. The stylistic variation should be read as reflecting the purpose, which is to engage and provoke, rather than to meditate and nuance. Like a latter-day Thomas Paine, she is in the first instance pleading for understanding the commitment to social progress and the above-mentioned first principles animating it not as some otherworldly idealism but as common sense. Taken in the way it is intended, that is, as addressing us in our shared humanity and not as credentialed intellectuals, the passion is persuasive and the jokes are funny. In the first chapter, for example, there is not much practical need for detailed argument and analysis (which, she acknowledges, others have provided) to note that “To say that histories and geographies affect us is trivial. To say that they determine us is false” (11).
The rest of what she has to say in this first section, on tribalism and universalism, consists largely of a marshalling of compelling examples to illustrate the point and drum it home. She makes it abundantly clear throughout that there is no way of proving one way or another once and for all what we should believe or not regarding the kind of normativity involved in embracing universalism and renouncing tribalism. The essence of her argument can be summed up in her remarks concerning the failure of the most profound Enlightenment thinkers, just like the rest of us, to write and live consistently in accordance with to their own highest ideals and guiding principles: “That Jefferson and Kant did not practice what they preached is no argument against the sermon” (23)—to which this reader at least responded, “Amen, sister!”
Other readers might take offense at the troubling parallels that she draws between, for instance, the tendency to reduce the Enlightenment to nothing more than an ideology in the service of white, male Western European hegemony and the reasoning by way of genetic fallacy upon which Nazis relied (such as the claim that arguments for universalism are propagated by Jews to serve their interests). But here she is expressing misgivings that have been formulated in different ways by others; the problem is that these have not in the main been taken seriously and addressed properly, but themselves interpreted so as to assail the source of the statement rather than its substance.
Let’s take the term ‘genetic fallacy’ itself, coined as it was by white male philosophers. The question is whether this necessarily matters to the validity of the analysis to which the term applies. The issue at stake is whether or not rejecting or accepting reasons and explanations on the basis of their origin rather than their form and/or content, i.e. judging a claim, proof or argument by focusing on its source or history, tells us something essential about its validity or soundness. There are variations on this distinction, with a much longer lineage: context of discovery vs. context of justification in evaluating scientific claims; de facto vs. de jure in evaluating legal ones. In each instance, there is no denial of the reality of context, experience or situation described; to the contrary, the distinction assumes its real effects, but establishes and upholds laws or principles that are not reducible to them.
One has thus not actually responded to the challenge of universalism by simply rejecting it. And this is a theme running throughout the book, which makes it, if not a piece of scholarship, at least of a piece with philosophy: the author wants to convince the reader that ideas and ideals matter, even, or perhaps especially, when they are not fully realized in practice. If “humanity” is, as the Nazis claimed, a Jewish invention, or, as Foucault would have, a recent one, all the better! It means that we can, in fact, reinvent ourselves. It means that we are not slaves to our history, geography or biology but are in a fundamental sense free, self-determining, future-oriented beings. To deny this, Neiman argues, is to take the chains that over the centuries have been loosened from our bodies, and fetter them tightly around our minds.
Is Enlightenment Worth Trying?
The standard-bearer of Neiman’s book, Immanuel Kant, relentlessly insisted that Enlightenment is not a given, but an ongoing and arduous task. Importantly, it can be argued that it has no doctrinal core. Its character is entirely negative: the intellectual and moral effort to free oneself from the shackles of one’s own biases and the authority of others. The method is “critique”, which is pretty much synonymous with the activity of thought: the spontaneous exercise of our capacity for investigation and examination. Nothing—no organization, institution, artefact or tradition—is de jure exempt from the tribunal of reason, which is to say, critique. The reason why “critical thinking” is such a challenge is not that it requires exceptional cultivation or cleverness; that is, it’s not in the first instance theoretically challenging. What makes it difficult is that it is primarily directed inward rather than outward. Selbstdenken, thinking oneself, makes moral demands. One has to examine and interrogate one’s own thinking, its sources, its conditions and its limitations, and to do it persistently and with no holds barred. That is quite an extraordinary requirement, to say the least. But Kant’s point is not that we can achieve it as individuals or a society in the present or in perpetuity, only that we can and ought to try, and indeed, that he is only reminding us of something that we already ken implicitly (“ideas of reason”).
One way of formulating the Kantian view is to say that the conditions of knowledge for the investigation of phenomena are neutral with regard to the “owner”. It is the appearance itself that is explained when we speak of knowledge, not how it is first “experienced” by the subject to whom it appears. The phenomenon is not something occurring “inside” the experiencing subject, but rather something happening in the world, the determination and explanation of which requires active conceptual processing and clarification on the subject’s part (i.e., cognitive agency). In order for the phenomenon to be generally communicable and amendable, it has to be “re-presented”, “processed”, or “distilled”. To “experience” something in the sense of having an impression in some situation, even if it recurs, is not to know, strictly speaking, since knowing something entails an activity, namely, a conceptual determination and explication that is available or communicable to someone who has not had the direct personal experience of the particular instance of observation (say, in the laboratory).
Take Galileo’s observation of sunspots. Galileo acknowledges that his vision might have been somehow impaired, or that the appearance of dark spots on the surface of the sun perhaps caused by the optical lens of the telescope. His scientific activity, then, consisted of establishing just what the appearance that he observed was an appearance of. In so doing, he moved from an occurrence that happened to him as the subject of perception of the appearance, to experience properly speaking, that is, an active attempt to construe, and thus contribute to its development for the scientific commons. The knowledge sought by Galileo was not tied to the particular circumstances of his discovery (except as an instigation to understand and explain), and the discovery did not “belong” to him, but to anyone anywhere with an interest in astronomy (regardless of their geography or history).
Parsing the doctrines of Enlightenment thinking along similar lines, Neiman’s irritation when she grumbles that “what was once called ad hominem is now called positionality” (47) is fully understandable, since despite the technical jargon and sophisticated conceptual apparatus of much of the contemporary critique of the Enlightenment and its legacy in gender studies, queer and postcolonial theory and so forth, it is all too often based largely on a caricature (or rather, a cartoon)
Heirs of Thrasymachus?
On Neiman’s reading, the profound influence of Carl Schmitt and especially Michel Foucault on the Left has been harmful. It is some irony that her critique of progressivism from the Left is reminiscent in places of the Leo Strauss-inspired philosopher Stanley Rosen, who argued already in 1987 that contemporary theory talks
incessantly of presence and absence, epistemes and semiotics, difference and différance, even of phallocentrism and domination, often in explicit political projects, but in such a way as to leave us with the impression that politics is a subspecies of ontology […] The predominant view seems to be that, since the Enlightenment has failed, or even in certain cases, since we are merely bored with it, and since Western philosophy ” […] is simply a preliminary stage of that failure, all that remains for us is technical badinage.
With respect to Foucault’s own writings as a response to the question “what rules of right are implemented by the relations of power in the production of discourses of truth?”, Rosen notices that Foucault himself took to task those who assume a mere equivalence or even isomorphism between knowledge claims and domination:
What makes power hold good, what makes it accepted, is simply the fact that it doesn’t only weigh on us as a force that says no, but that it traverses and produces things, it induces pleasure, forms knowledge, produces discourse. It needs to be considered a productive network which runs through the whole social body, much more than as a negative instance whose function is repression.
Like Neiman, however, Rosen regrets that Foucault was not deeper and more consistent in following through on the promise of this formulation, since his failure to do so has invited precisely the kind of simplistic claims and arguments that he here rebukes. In particular, Foucault might have said more about the picture he paints of a kind of inescapable, metaphysical occupying force that controls and permeates every thought and every action. In Nieman’s rendition of Foucault’s position, she might be a little more generous in her interpretation of his stated aims. After all, it is one thing for him to say that his engagement with prison reform, for instance, was not so much an expression of a political will to change real conditions, an almost objectivist theoretical interest in the social and moral distinction between the innocent and the guilty. It is quite another to read this as denying that there can be any sense to the political project, such as Neiman interprets him. One might, with Rosen, note that Foucault seems to waver between a call to radical insurgency, a revolutionary and, if necessary, violent overthrow of the institutions of truth-saying that maintain the status quo, and a cool and remote bourgeois spectator interest in them merely as cultural phenomena.
Schmitt is an easier case to make convincingly, since, well—you know, he was sort of a Nazi, and as such a close-range target. At the same time, one might give him credit for showing where you end up if talk of “humanity”, “human rights” and such is perceived as just so much smoke and mirrors produced by cosmopolitan liberal elites to blind us to the basic conditions of human social, cultural and political affairs: that might makes right, or, if one prefers, that justice is a social construction. This being the case, justice in human affairs amounts to helping your friends and harming your foes; in short, clan morality is natural and relative to time and place. But it can be scaled up to the level of the state, which is to say, the political sphere.
Schmitt suggests several times, however, that, in contrast with personal conflicts, one need not harbor hatred for one’s political adversaries, and indeed he admits that one can see the secularization of politics and thus of war since the earl modern period as progress; but that doesn’t mean that it is advisable to pretend that they are not the enemy. While war is neither normal nor desirable, conflicts between collectivities and nations arise, and the state or sovereign must prepare vigilantly to mobilize if and when they do. The problem that he describes in The Concept of the Political is that the development of the juridical distinction between enemy and foe described above had not only ceased, but in point of fact collapsed. And in the face of social, economic, cultural and political disintegration (the immediate concern for Schmitt being the fate of the Weimar Republic), the pluralism promoted by liberal democracies—competition between different associations (such as unions and political parties) for the loyalty and involvement of individual citizens—would seem to exacerbate the conditions causing the fragmentation. With the weakening of the nation-state as the source of unity par excellence, the Other once again becomes a foe, and not just an adversary. For this reason, he thought that allowing parties that aim to subvert the government to run for Parliament would inevitably lead to its dissolution, for which reason extremist parties should be excluded from elections.
These ideas are obviously not in themselves identical to Nazi ideology. But Neiman locates and deploys enough artillery in the form of explicit statements by Schmitt that the reader is inclined to lock her doors and run for cover. She does this to great effect, but the problem is that in the barrage, serious concerns about the nature of the Political (as opposed to mere politics) in the era of late-capitalism are swept away. One is reminded of Hannah Arendt’s warning that we should not protect people from “dangerous thoughts” such as Schmitt’s:
What we commonly call nihilism—and are tempted to date historically, decry politically, and ascribe to thinkers who allegedly dared to thing ‘dangerous thoughts’—is actually a danger inherent in the act of thinking itself. There are no dangerous thoughts; thinking itself is dangerous, but nihilism is not its product. Nihilism is but the other side of conventionalism; its creed consists of the negation of the current, so-called positive values to which it remains bound. All critical examination must go through a stage of at least hypothetically negating accepted opinions and ‘values’ by founding out their implications and tacit assumptions, and in this sense, nihilism may be seen as an ever-present danger of thinking.
Is it possible, one might ask, to allow for such philosophical reflections in a book that by its own lights is not scholarly? I would claim that it is, and that Neiman herself demonstrates how to do it in the section at the end of the chapter where she introduces Rousseau as an honest broker in the debates about nature and nurture, and freedom and necessity.
Perhaps the best part of the book is to be found on pages 81-91, where with clarity of purpose combined with the kind of sprezzatura that only someone who really knows what she’s talking about can carry off, Neiman gayly topples the idols of the academic marketplace. Already Popper had expressed concern that evolutionary theory was in danger of mutating from a bold scientific conjecture challenging to be rigorously refuted into a hazy all-encompassing Weltanschauung. He wrote:
Darwin’s revolutionary influence upon our picture of the world around us was at least as great, though not as deep, as Newton’s. For Darwin’s theory of natural selection showed that it is in principle possible to reduce teleology to causation by explaining, in purely physical terms, the existence of design and purpose in the world […] Although this was a great achievement, we have to add that the phrase in principle is a very important restriction. Neither Darwin nor any Darwinian has so far given an actual causal explanation of the adaptive evolution of any single organism or any single organ. All that has been shown […] is that such explanations might exist (that is to say, they are not logically impossible).
At a lecture at Emory University in 1969, he recanted his (and others’) critique that the theory of natural selection, and in particular the doctrine of the survival of the fittest, is tautological and thus untestable, and asserted instead that, as a metaphysical research program for empirical testing, it was as successful at explaining the empirical facts as any, and more successful than most. But on Popperian grounds, it can still be wrong for all that. The importance of fallibilism, as well as its less well-known cousin, corrigibilism, often associated with pragmatism and the philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce, is central for Popper because it is forward-looking.
What Neiman does in this section is reveal how sociobiology and evolutionary psychology turn a testable scientific thesis into a teleological inevitability (or, in her words, “faith-based speculation”). Since altruism can’t exist within the framework of their suppositions, whatever looks like altruism must be reinterpreted as selfishness, which not only confines and constrains scientific creativity, falsifiability and careful attention to detail, but in its popularized forms undermines hope that things could actually be otherwise by virtue of our individual and combined efforts to better ourselves and improve our world.
To recall the earlier discussion, it essentially argues that we’re ultimately stuck in our biology and history, since, after all, we’re just the vehicles for the transmission of our genes; the particular human capacity that was the great hope of the Enlightenment, that our intelligence—our faculty for thought—is essentially a capacity for freedom, is a delusion. In this respect, whatever the actual politics of those who embrace the paradigm of evolutionary psychology, they are committed to a reactionary worldview, in which scientific institutions are the Church, professors are the clergy, an “informed” public is the congregation, and our genetic history is God. The call not to doubt or question is the same.
The chapter ends with a good example of Nieman’s penchant for the artful use of black humor to make a point. She proposes a reductio ad absurdum of Richard Dawkins’ notion of “the selfish gene”, and concludes: “A world in which that model was truly universal would be a world in which everyone behaved like Donald Trump” which is, of course, unthinkable in more senses than one.
This is an especially nice touch because, in her concluding arguments, she makes the case that the image of homo economicus as the go-to model for thinking about human choice and action, is just a more vulgar version of the just-so-story about our ruthless genes.
Breaking the Chains?
The last chapter of the book begins by castigating Foucault for being satisfied to notice that man is everywhere in invisible chains without taking the next step, in the spirit of Rousseau, of seeking ways to break them. That’s a legitimate criticism if the aim is social and political change. But surely in the kind of pluralist, open society that Neiman is at pains to defend and improve, there is also room for the kind of “dangerous thinking” that just keeps self-reflecting without any specific aim or goal? And in that case, can we not be grateful to Foucault for the many useful tools that he left us? Not everyone can be Rousseau, after all.
For the warden interested in the question of prison reform, the high-school principal concerned about the consequences of the neo-liberal reconstitution of public schooling, or the head of a psychiatric unit having doubts about the medicalized treatment of social problems, just seeing that they have assumptions that could in principle be otherwise might be liberating enough, since, in the best-case scenario, after reading Foucault they simply don’t know what should be done. And doubting, being unsure, is a kind of freedom—although a difficult one. Nieman does reflect a moment on doubt at the very end, proposing it as a fourth principle to the three mentioned at the outset. But on a generous reading, doubt or hesitation, one might even say “dawdling”, is at the very core of the postmodern philosophical critique of modernity. Dubitare aude!, Foucault might say.
Sharon Rider, Sharon.Rider@filosofi.uu.se, is Professor of Logic and Metaphysics at Uppsala University, where she was Vice Dean of the Faculty of Arts 2008-2014. She is a government-appointed member of the Scientific Advisory Committee for the Swedish International Cooperation Agency (SIDA), and an elected fellow of the Royal Society of Humanities at Uppsala. Rider’s work focuses on the cultural conditions for autonomy, responsibility and knowledge, and how these might be conceptualized in ways that neither reject nor rely on conventional notions of rational agency.
Arendt, Hannah. 1971. “Thinking and Moral Considerations: A Lecture.” Social Research 38 (3): 417–446.
Foucault, Michel. 1980. Power/Knowledge edited by Colin Gordon. Pantheon.
Honderich, Ted, ed. 1995. “Genetic Fallacy.” The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Oxford University Press.
Hueneke, Samuel Clowes. 2023. “Critically Cringe: On Susan Neiman’s Left is not Woke” Los Angeles Review of Books. https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/critically-cringe-on-susan-neimans-left-is-not-woke/.
Neiman, Susan. 2023. Left is not Woke. Polity Press.
Popper, Karl. 1972. Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach. Clarendon.
Rosen, Stanley. 1987. Hermeneutics as Politics. Oxford University Press.
Schmitt, Carl. 1996. The Concept of the Political. University of Chicago Press.
 Regarding her accounts of Schmitt and Foucault, Neiman writes: “Here I am less interested in seeking the best possible reading of these and other thinkers than in understanding their influence on contemporary culture” (10). An example of a negative review based on ignoring or at least making light of this clearly expressed goal which guides the form and content of the text is Samuel Clowes Hueneke’s “Critically Cringe: On Susan Neiman’s Left is not Woke” (Los Angeles Review of Books, 17 September 2023).
 See Ted Honderich, ed. 1995. “Genetic fallacy.” The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Oxford University Press. Honderich attributes the first use of the term to Morris Cohen and Ernest Nagel’s An Introduction to Logic and Scientific Method.
 Stanley Rosen. 1987. Hermeneutics as Politics. Oxford University Press, 141–142
 Michel Foucault. 1980. Power/Knowledge, ed. Colin Gordon. Pantheon, 93
 Foucault, 81-83.
 Neiman, 65
 Carl Schmitt. 1996. The Concept of the Political. University of Chicago Press.
 Hannah Arendt. 1971. “Thinking and Moral Considerations: A Lecture.” Social Research. 38: (3): 417–446.
 Karl Popper. 1972. Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach. Clarendon
 Nieman, 91.
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