The Ashby Lecture 2022 - Professor Susan Neiman: 'Why the Left is not Woke'

The Ashby Lecture 2022 - Professor Susan Neiman: 'Why the Left is not Woke'

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Clare Hall's Ashby Lecture will be given by philosopher and writer, Professor Susan Neiman. Book via this page for Zoom tickets.

About this event


"I will discuss the ways in which contemporary voices who consider themselves leftist have abandoned philosophical ideas which are crucial to any leftwing standpoint: a commitment to universalism, a belief in the possibility of progress, and a firm distinction between power and justice. All these ideas are connected, as I’ll try to show, and have their roots in the much-maligned Enlightenment. Though I’ll be criticising positions on much of today’s left, I’m well aware that today’s right is far more dangerous. Nevertheless I fear that today’s left has deprived itself of concepts which are crucial for resisting the rightwing lurch. I’ll discuss the notions of power in some of the works of Carl Schmitt and Michel Foucault, and argue that they need to be abandoned. In discussing what are now common criticisms of the Enlightenment, I will show that the Enlightenment invented the critique of Eurocentrism as well as the critique of colonialism. I’ll also try to show how the mistaken view of the Enlightenment as racist, Eurocentrist and colonialist could arise by looking not only at philosophical texts but some of the histories in which they were written. Showing that the Enlightenment fought for human liberation and dignity allows us to uphold the genuine universalism they championed, and to show how to reconcile human dignity and human difference."

About our speaker

Professor Susan Neiman is an American philosopher and writer. She has written extensively on the Enlightenment, moral philosophy, metaphysics, and politics. Her work shows that philosophy is a living force for contemporary thinking and action.

Born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia, during the Civil Rights Movement, Neiman dropped out of high school to join American activists working for peace and justice. Later she studied Philosophy at Harvard University, earning her PhD in 1986 under the direction of John Rawls and Stanley Cavell. In the '80s she spent six years in Berlin, studying at the Free University and working as a freelance writer. She was Professor of Philosophy at Yale and Tel Aviv University. In 2000 she assumed her current position as Director of the Einstein Forum in Potsdam.

Professor Neiman has been a Member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, a Fellow at the Rockefeller Foundation Study Center in Bellagio, and a Senior Fellow of the American Council of Learned Societies. She is now a member of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and the American Philosophical Society. She is the author of eight books, translated into 15 languages, which have won prizes from, among others, PEN, the Association of American Publishers, and the American Academy of Religion. Her shorter pieces have appeared in The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, The Globe and Mail, the Guardian, Die Zeit, Der Spiegel, die Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and many other publications.

Neiman is the mother of three grown children; she lives in Berlin.


The Ashby Lecture will feature responses from a panel consisting of:

Dr Christopher Brooke (Senior Lecturer in Political Theory; Fellow and Director of Studies in Politics at Homerton College, University of Cambridge)

Dr Emma Mackinnon (University Lecturer in History; Fellow of Emmanuel College, University of Cambridge)

Professor Richard Bourke (Professor of the History of Political Thought; Fellow of King's College, University of Cambridge)

Dr Lars Vinx (Associate Professor, Faculty of Law, University of Cambridge)

Dr Rebecca Buxton (Assistant Professor and Lecturer in Political Theory at the University of Cambridge)

Dr Samuel Zeitlin (Hong Kong Link Early Career Research Fellow and College Lecturer in Politics, Corpus Christi College, University of Cambridge)


Please note that Professor Neiman's lecture will be recorded and published as a video on Clare Hall's YouTube channel in May.

The section featuring our respondents is available only via the livestream and a recording will not be available after the event.