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Returning from a two-week trip to Frankfurt on July 4, I found myself thinking about the opening session of a conference in honor of Richard J. Bernstein’s ninetieth birthday to be held in October at the New School for Social Research, where he had been professor of philosophy since 1989. I was on the program to introduce a conversation between Dick and Jürgen Habermas, my mentors and friends of the last fifty years. I was thinking of asking them how Hegel’s legacy was still present in their work.
I would have posed my question to Dick by first sketching what has now become Dick’s own distinctive legacy: “Hegel said, ‘philosophy is its own time comprehended in thoughts.’ For members of the Frankfurt School, including Habermas, this resulted in a critical theory of contemporary society, analyzing its pitfalls and contradictions with the goal of unearthing the potentials for an emancipated society of the future. I see Hegel’s legacy to be present in your work in a different way. You are a master at understanding immanently each Gestalt des Bewußtseins (shape of consciousness), at analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of each intellectual position, and at seeing how they must communicate with each other, even when each position assumes myopically that it alone has a monopoly on the truth. Whether you’ve been confronting the hubris of analytical philosophers to presume that they alone can think clearly and succinctly, or the self-imposed isolation of trends in continental philosophy such as hermetic forms of phenomenology and deconstruction, you have had an uncanny ability to bring them into conversation with one another. Would you agree with this characterization of your work?”
I would then have continued my dialogue with Dick: “In your early books such as Praxis and Action: Contemporary Philosophies of Human Activity (1971), The Restructuring of Social and Political Theory (1976), and Beyond Objectivism and Relativism (1983), you were concerned to emphasize how opposed positions would benefit from comprehending one another. Then you have engaged with the widest range of themes from rethinking radical evil, to assessing the roles of violence in the works of Carl Schmitt and Walter Benjamin, to reinterpreting Freud’s writings on Moses and Monotheism, and of course, to the magisterial rereading of American pragmatism with which you began your career—particularly the spirit of John Dewey. But I see Hegel’s spirit at work in each of these writings: you not only seek to make opposed positions see their inadequacies but in doing so, you also create a Zeitdiagnose—a diagnosis of the times, its pitfalls, dreams and illusions. Would you agree?”
Alas, I will never be able to ask this question and initiate that conversation. Dick died on July 4.
I first met Richard Bernstein in 1974 when, as the organizer of the Yale philosophy department’s graduate students’ colloquium, I invited him to give us a lecture. I knew very little about the so-called “Bernstein affair” of a decade earlier, when Yale denied the young and charismatic Bernstein tenure and much of the campus, including even its undergraduates, erupted in protest. The senior faculty in philosophy had managed to keep us in the dark about all that, and Dick told me the truth only in bits and pieces over the years. Surely, Yale’s treatment of him accelerated nearly twenty years of decline in a department that had once led the U.S. world of philosophy and that revived only in the mid-1990s.
In 1975 Dick invited me to the Dubrovnik Summer School in social and political theory. He and Habermas, together with Albrecht Wellmer and Charles Taylor, had revived the so-called Korčula School, where Ernst Bloch and György Lukács had met with oppositional intellectuals from countries behind the Iron Curtain. Dick already knew Mihailo Marković, whom he had invited to teach at Haverford and who at the time was the leader of the Praxis School of philosophy in Yugoslavia. Together with Marković, Habermas, Wellmer, Taylor, Agnes Heller, and his colleagues Sveta Stojanović and Zaga Golubović, Dick had formed the journal Praxis International in Spring 1981.
So it was that, in the presence of Bernstein and Habermas, in a small seminar room at the Inter-University Center in Dubrovnik, where the Praxis group met, I read my paper on “Rationality and Social Action in Max Weber’s Work,” which, whatever its other merits, began the deep mentorship and friendship with Dick that lasted half a century.
Upon finishing his term as co-editor with Marković of Praxis International, Dick proposed that I assume the position together with Stojanović, and I did so from 1986 to 1992. During the civil wars in Yugoslavia and the ensuing ethnic conflicts, it became increasingly difficult for the journal to continue in a non-partisan way. In a memorable meeting at the University of Frankfurt, Praxis International was dissolved and Constellations: An International Journal of Critical and Democratic Theory, was established, which Andrew Arato and I edited for its first seven years, until 1997.
These tumultuous years also saw the emergence of the Polish Solidarnošc Movement (1980–1989), the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989), and the transformation of Central and Eastern Europe, but Dick held our often-fractious group together. Many of us who had been members of the journal Telos—Andrew Arato, Jean Cohen, Dick Howard, Joel Whitebook, and myself—had regrouped around Constellations. Together with Heller, who had joined the New School as Hannah Arendt Professor of Philosophy in 1986, Dick kept alive the legacy of movements opposed to the “really existing socialisms” of that time.
No account of my friendship with Dick can be complete without noting the significance of Hannah Arendt for both of us. In 1996 we both published books about Arendt: his Hannah Arendt and the Jewish Question, and my The Reluctant Modernism of Hannah Arendt. At that time, news of Arendt’s love affair with Martin Heidegger colored many perceptions of her work and persona. Sensationalist accounts such as Elzbieta Ettinger’s Hannah Arendt/Martin Heidegger (1995) made it difficult to see the legacy of Jewish politics and traditions in her thought, which Dick and I were addressing. While Arendt’s observations about evil became dominant in Dick’s subsequent writing on her (as in his 2002 book Radical Evil: A Philosophical Interrogation), I turned to the question of statelessness and proceeded to work on the rights of others—migrants, refugees, and asylees.
In 2018 Dick wrote Why Read Hannah Arendt Now?, responding to the worldwide revival of interest in her life and work, including the several biopics that had been made of her, and the search by a younger generation for a new orientation in political life. Dick taught a course on Arendt during his last semester at the New School. In our last conversation, three weeks before his passing, he told me that he had been thinking about returning to Arendt’s work around the themes of narrative.
Dick’s commitment to the tradition of American pragmatism ran like a bright thread throughout his work. He favored Dewey over Charles Sanders Peirce and William James, a view he elaborated in The Pragmatic Turn (2010). Like Richard Rorty, whose classmate he had been at both the University of Chicago and Yale, Dick stressed American pragmatism’s critique of the spectator theory of knowledge and rejected the quest for the mind to mirror nature. Dick continued to engage with these themes by turning to the work of Pittsburgh philosophers such as Robert Brandom and John McDowell and increasingly by defending a form of Deweyian naturalism as opposed to the focus on language alone. His last book, to be published posthumously, is called The Vicissitudes of Nature: From Spinoza to Freud.
In 2004 Nancy Fraser and I edited a Festschrift for Dick’s seventieth birthday, Pragmatism, Critique, Judgment: Essays for Richard Bernstein. The list of contributors—Rorty, Habermas, Taylor, Heller, Jacques Derrida, Thomas McCarthy, Geoffrey Hartman, Carol Bernstein, Yirmiyahu and Shoshana Yovel, Joel Whitebook, Judith Friedlander, and Jerome Kohn—reveals not only Dick’s capacity to engage in conversations across genres of philosophy, cultural as well as literary criticism, and psychoanalysis, but also his extraordinary capacity for friendship and bringing people together. His public lecture celebrating Habermas’s ninetieth birthday in June 2019 in Frankfurt was dedicated to the topic of friendship, beginning with Aristotle.
I once asked Dick, during a dinner with friends from Berlin, whether the death of his older brother during World War II had left an emotional hole in his life. It may have been a bit too forward of me to ask, but it always seemed to me that there was a dimension in Dick’s capacity to hold family and friends together that originated deep in his soul. Among friends, we used to call him the “Rebbe,” who would often say, “now, now children, stop your squabbles; we are all in this together.” We have lost our Rebbe in New York, and a hole has opened in our souls as well. To honor the legacy of Richard J. Bernstein, we must not only continue as honest thinkers; we must also cherish friendship and share generously, as he did with so many of us.
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