University of Sussex
Roth, Alena Lynn.pdf (1.69 MB)

Thinking about evil through literature: an interdisciplinary approach to address the philosophical question on evil

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posted on 2024-06-10, 11:01 authored by Alena RothAlena Roth

This thesis argues that evil threatens the world’s intelligibility and human agency and proposes to think of evil as a limit term. By exploring concrete manifestations of evil in literature, the thesis emphasises the importance of describing evil as a phenomenon that resists facile explanation, necessitating continuous exploration. The thesis focuses on the effects of the non-theorisable experience of evil, intervening in the philosophical discourse by analysing the representation of evil in literary works and offering an alternative perspective to normative, abstract frameworks. The first case study critiques abstract and theoretical approaches to the problem of evil, particularly focusing on Kant’s critique of dogmatic theodicies, arguing that they often detach evil from its experiential reality. It advocates for accounts that present the non-theorisable experientiality of evil and explore its effect. The second case study focuses on the paradox of moral evil, discussing Kant’s radical evil and Milton’s Paradise Lost, emphasising the inherent ambiguity in their conceptualisations of evil. It argues that the inscrutable and multifaceted nature of evil resists clear-cut definitions. This aligns with the broader thesis that evil functions as a limit term and advocates for a nuanced exploration through literature. The third case study examines evil as a non-theorisable experientiality in the context of Auschwitz, prompting a rethinking of philosophical and literary representation by Arendt, Adorno, and Celan. The significance lies in showing how Celan’s conception of literary representations enables an encounter with the unspeakable. The fourth case study focuses on Morrison’s Beloved, which exemplifies the ability of literature to confront evil’s unspeakable aspects, to provide a voice to the silenced and marginalised, and to resist simplistic representations of the evils of slavery. The thesis calls for further development in thinking about evil through literature, shifting the philosophical concern from representation to remembrance and human agency.


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Department affiliated with

  • Philosophy Theses

Qualification level

  • doctoral

Qualification name

  • phd


  • eng


University of Sussex

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  • Yes


Paul Davies, Andrew Hadfield, and Tanja Stähler