Richard J. Bernstein (1932-2022) – The Great Legacy of American Pragmatism

With the passing at the age of 90 of Richard Jacob Bernstein, we salute a philosopher and public intellectual who left a great mark on political thought between the second half of last century and today. A friend and, among countless other things, a generous contributor to Reset Dialogues on Civilizations, Richard developed his thinking and vast output by weaving primarily the orbits of pragmatism and critical theory, but also drawing on the contribution of Gadamerian hermeneutics to nurture his idea of dialogue and, above all else, pluralism.

Richard was a great teacher, despite the rejection of a full professorship chair that was famously opposed to him by Yale, after ten years of teaching. This case, from 1965, went down in history as the “Bernstein affair” as a scandal that still shames this famous university and produced a reform of the method by which tenures were assigned. Bernstein went on to teach at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, where he was joined by Jürgen Habermas, who taught courses there, at the end of which he asked Richard to join the “Praxis” group. A formation of dissidents from the Communist East, the group later gave rise to annual appointments, the Dubrovnik seminars, and a journal, “Praxis International,” of which Bernstein became editor, gathering such contributors as Charles Taylor, Anthony Giddens, Richard Rorty, Alain Touraine, Agnes Heller and the younger Seyla Benhabib, Nancy Fraser, Judith Butler. He would later take the reins of the New School of Social Research in New York, working on its revitalization in the fields of philosophy, sociology and political theory.

In the meantime, his theoretical output grew, most notably with Beyond Objectivism and Relativism: Science, Hermeneutics, and Praxis, of 1983, with which he focused most effectively on his critique of the fundamentalism and foundationalism of the devotees of the absolute in the search for truth, of the purported holders of a rocky foundation on which to lay our knowledge and more, even the foundations of an ethos to which we entrust all our certainties in the moral and social realms. This perfectionism, the cause of so many atrocious consequences in the century of totalitarianism, was the fruit of what Richard called “Cartesian anxiety,” and of which we can rid ourselves by harnessing the best legacy of American pragmatism, which allows us to ground a more open and free perspective on the basis of an awareness of human fallibilism.

Bernstein cultivated the legacy of James and Dewey and the pragmatist and neo-pragmatist perspective in numerous subsequent works, all under the banner of cultural pluralism and in the critique of views that Isaiah Berlin would call “monist.” Thanks to him we were able to understand how much the pragmatist philosophy, revived by Richard Rorty, who has always considered it “the greatest glory” in the history of American thought, has inspired and accompanied the life of a composite and multicultural society such as that of the United States and the construction of an idea of citizenship that is open and never quite fulfilled, never quite exhausted in an identity other than that of common membership in a nation and state in the process of perpetual redefinition. His pages also made clear the historical nexus between a philosophy, the pragmatist philosophy, and the historical phase – the late nineteenth century and early decades of the twentieth century – when the great migrations from Europe, at the rate of over a million each year, increasingly populated the country via Ellis Island. An enormous and tumultuous social change that also produced waves of racism and intolerance, but which was reflected in a culture receptive of the plurality of contributions, in the challenge of a confluence of great human cultural differences, in the need to understand these differences through cultural anthropology that took its first steps in those same years, in tune with pragmatist philosophy. Bernstein’s vast reflection will still be needed for a long time to come.


Cover Photo:  Jerrie Speier / Wiki Media

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