Celebrating Richard Bernstein: Remarks on The Restructuring of Social and Political Theory
New School for Social Research
Presented at the Democracy & Diversity Institute, Wroclaw, Poland, July 17, 2016
Welcome to this evening’s celebration of Professor Richard Bernstein, on the occasion of the Polish translation of his The Restructuring of Social and Political Theory. This is a book that was originally published in English in 1978 and that today remains intensely, even urgently, relevant. For the sake of those of who don’t know the book, I will take a few minutes to underline its significance by situating it within the context of some highlights of Professor Bernstein’s career (and since he is my colleague of sixteen years I will refer to him, as I ordinarily do, as Dick Bernstein).
Dick Bernstein is a leading 20th and 21st century philosopher, a philosophical figure who is original in sense that comprises being both a provocative critic of aspects of the contemporary Zeitgeist and an intellectual bridge-builder. Dick did his undergraduate work in philosophy at the University of Chicago and, then, after a brief sojourn at Columbia, did a PhD at Yale, where he also accepted his first teaching positions. At these institutions Dick was exposed to central currents of Anglo-American analytic philosophy, and he rubbed shoulders and developed intellectual friendships with some of the most high-profile representatives of this tradition. Yet even as a student he had a sense of what he later called “the provincialism that has cramped philosophizing.”1 From the beginning of his publishing career he devoted himself to uncovering what he saw as neglected and important currents in American Philosophy – such as Pragmatism in both its classic and contemporary instantiations – and to creating and and sustaining conversations that included figures in and traditions of European Philosophy, such as Critical Theory, Phenomenology, Existentialism and Deconstruction. Within Dick’s thought, this distinctive form of philosophical ecumenicalism is driven by a refusal to ignore atrocities of the modern world, as well as by the conviction not only that philosophical thinking is a route to tools for effective protest but also that we must be as philosophically inclusive as we can if we are to give ourselves the best chance of finding effective tools. Dick’s commitment to this critically engaged posture is simultaneously practical and theoretical. As a young person, he participated as an activist in the U.S. Civil Rights movement and in protests of the Vietnam War, and this spirit of protest continues to animate his writings and activities, from 1965 until 1988, when he was in the Philosophy Department at Haverford College, and also from 1989, when he moved to the Philosophy Department in the New School’s Graduate Faculty, up to the present. Dick has a distinctive voice as a social critic, and his speaking style was brought vividly to mind for me just recently when I encountered a passage in a memoir of Anatole Broyard’s in which Broyard is describing his experience at the New School, forty years before Dick arrived, in the late nineteen forties. Broyard talks about taking classes professors from Europe who had fled horrors and persecutions of the Second World War and were part of what we call the New School’s University in Exile. With a warmly ironic touch, Broyard writes:
Because they were displaced themselves, or angry with us for failing to understand history, the professors did their best to make us feel like exiles in our own country. All the courses I took were about what’s wrong, what’s wrong with government, with the family, with interpersonal relations and intrapersonal relations – what’s wrong with our dreams, our loves, our jobs, our perceptions and conceptions, our esthetics, the human condition itself.2
As arguably the most prominent member of today’s Graduate Faculty – which is now known as the New School for Social Research – Dick is an heir to the critical tradition that Broyard here paints with a loving comic brush. But we utterly misunderstand the oppositional spirit of Dick’s thought if we don’t see that it is grounded in a commitment to productive political interventions.
As early as his first book – a 1966 monograph on Dewey3 – Dick resists trends toward narrowness in academic Anglophone philosophy by illustrating how the concepts and categories of relatively neglected historical and contemporary traditions equip us to make sense of the social world and to act constructively in it. In his influential 1971 book Praxis and Action, he accents the value of attending to things we can learn about the essentially practical dimension of social thought by, in his words, “tak[ing] off the blinders that have prevented [philosophers] from learning from each other” and inheriting not only from Hegel and Marx but also from Kierkegaard and Sartre, from Peirce and Dewey and from critically-minded analytic philosophers such as Charles Taylor.4 The image of the nature and demands of social thought that Dick develops in this wide-ranging investigation underlies some of his signature philosophical gestures. What emerges is an image on which non-neutral historical and cultural perspectives can be internal to undistorted thought about the social world, and Dick both defends this image and urges us to recognize its role in equipping us to escape what, in a central section of his 1983 Beyond Objectivism and Relativism, he describes as the “Cartesian Anxiety” that traps us between an impossible demand for metaphysical certainty and skeptical despair.5 His aim is to prompt us to engage constructively in the political realm in the decidedly non-skeptical spirit of what, in his 2010 The Pragmatic Turn and elsewhere, he calls “pragmatic fallibilism.”6
Dick is an unusually consistent thinker. He has in recent years continued to promote his preferred posture of pragmatic fallibilism while at the same time perhaps focusing somewhat less on a philosophical defense of this posture and somewhat more on demonstrations of its political pertinence. Notable in this connection are his book-length 2006 exploration of how talk of evil has been ‘abused’ since 9/11, becoming ideological in a manner that distorts political and religious discourse,7 and his 2013 monograph, Violence: Thinking Without Banisters,8 a work that critically examines a series of influential accounts of the role of violence in emancipatory political programs.
These landmarks from the philosophical path that Dick has traveled for the past half century are a helpful backdrop against which to discuss what is special about the book we are feting today, The Restructuring of Social and Political Theory. This book, a significant contribution to debates about the nature and challenges of social thought, intervenes in a set of debates about the status of the social sciences that were raging in the nineteen seventies and that – allowing for certain changes in terminology and emphasis – are still raging fiercely today. Dick attacks the tendency to assimilate the social sciences to the natural sciences, and, although he is not alone in launching such an attack, his method and his conclusions are distinctive. Bearing in mind that mainstream defenders of natural science-oriented models of the social sciences frequently suggest that any criticisms of these models depend for their plausibility on positivistic caricatures of what the natural sciences are like,9 Dick avoids generalizing about what it would be to treat social scientific research as continuous with the natural sciences, opting instead to carefully describe particular science-oriented views defended in the work of a number of his contemporaries. He includes a detailed and partly critical account of Thomas Kuhn’s contribution to philosophical reflection about the natural sciences, largely with an eye to showing that even a sophisticated analysis of natural-scientific modes of knowledge won’t by itself illuminate the structure the social sciences. He then begins to take steps toward the view he himself favors. He helps himself selectively to insights from phenomenology and Critical Theory, placing particular weight in the latter connection on the work of Jürgen Habermas, whom Dick met around the time he started work on his book, thus inaugurating a long and productive philosophical friendship. The view that Dick develops is one on which social thought is non-neutral in a sense that distinguishes it from the natural sciences (viz., in the sense of invariably reflecting particular historical and cultural perspectives) and on which it is yet capable of shedding authoritative light on our lives. A great deal of the power of Dick’s case for this view lies in the success with which he integrates the ideas of a wide array of thinkers, many of them personal acquaintances, while at the same time remaining justly critical. We might credit Dick with respecting the Aristotelian dictum: “While both are dear, piety requires us to honor the truth above our friends.”10 The particular ‘piety’ that is in question in Dick’s case is a passionate dedication to social engagement and liberating action, and, fittingly, he ends The Restructuring of Social and Political Theory with these words:
If we fail to attempt the project of critique – if we do not seek a depth understanding of existing forms of social and political reality; if we are unwilling to engage in the type of argumentation required for evaluating the conflict of interpretations; if we do not strive to realize the conditions required for practical discourse – then we will surely become less than fully human.11
So here’s to Dick’s book. Please join me in offering him congratulations.
1 Richard Bernstein, Praxis and Action, Philadelphia, PA, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1971, 305.
2 Anatole Broyard, Kafka was the Rage: A Greenwich Village Memoir, New York, NY, Vintage Books, 1989, 15. I am indebted to Rahel Jaeggi for drawing this passage to my attention.
3 Richard Bernstein, John Dewey, New York, NY, Washington Square Press, 1966.
4 The inset quote is from Praxis and Action, op. cit., 305.
5 Richard Bernstein, Beyond Objectivism and Relativism: Science, Hermeneutics and Praxis, Philadelphia, PA, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983, passim.
6 Richard Bernstein, The Pragmatic Turn, New York, NY, Polity Press, 2010.
7 Richard Bernstein, The Abuse of Evil: The Corruption of Politics and Religion Since 9/11, New York, NY, 2006. 8 New York, NY, Polity Press, 2013.
9 This is as true today as it was when Dick was writing The Restructuring of Social and Political Theory. See, e.g., the Roth piece.
10 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Ross trans., 1096.a11-1096.a16.
11 The Restructuring of Social and Political Theory, op. cit., 236.
Join us this Friday, October 14, 2022, for A Life in Thought: A Series of Conversations in Celebration of the Life and Work of Richard J. Bernstein at The New School. More info and registration here.