Review of Richard J. Bernstein, Pragmatic Encounters (London: Routledge, 2016), pp. 244, hardcover $117.81, Kindle $54.95.


One of the many definitions of “dialectic” is “a method of examining and discussing opposing ideas in order to discover the truth”; another is “discussion and reasoning by dialogue as a method of intellectual investigation.”  On either definition, Richard J. Bernstein is indisputably the most proficient and prolific dialectician working in philosophy today. His style has centered on the close reading of important figures who at first glance have little to do with each other, and to play their thinking off each other in order to arrive at a higher synthesis. What emerges from this dialectical interplay of close readings is not so much a doctrine as a vision of what philosophy, at its best, is, has been, and promises to be. His work is a living refutation of the idea – still very common in more traditionally-analytic philosophy departments – that “doing philosophy” and “doing the history of philosophy” are two very different enterprises. Bernstein “does philosophy” by analyzing and synthesizing its variegated history, and the philosophy that emerges as his own is a refinement of the best of American Pragmatism.

Bernstein’s The Pragmatic Turn (Cambridge: Polity, 2010) was his most comprehensive investigation of the American Pragmatic Tradition. Starting with the “classic” pragmatism of Peirce, James, and Dewey, it traced its continuity with strands of the analytic tradition in the work of Quine, Sellars, and Davidson and in the continental in Jürgen Habermas’s critical theory, and its revival in the neo-pragmatism of Putnam, Brandom, and most of all Richard Rorty. Rorty, Bernstein’s classmate at Chicago and Yale and a lifelong friend, emerges as a key figure in The Pragmatic Turn and elsewhere in Bernstein’s oeuvre, someone whose work is much misunderstood (Bernstein always takes pains to defend Rorty against habitual “Rorty-bashers”), but also at odd angles to the main thrust of the pragmatic tradition. Rorty’s pragmatism showed, at least in its more acerbic and iconoclastic moods, a greater affinity to Nietzsche’s celebration of individual eccentricity and Wille-zur-macht than the more sober aim of James and Dewey to turn philosophy from arid metaphysical and epistemological speculation toward solving concrete problems and conducting rational inquiries into the state of the natural and human worlds. One can view Rorty and Bernstein as starting out from a shared pragmatism, but steering it in very different directions.

To “define” pragmatism, as if you could provide necessary and sufficient conditions for it, is utterly foreign to what pragmatism has always been; Bernstein has always paid close attention to the ways in which “pragmatism” has meant different things, sometimes radically different things, to different pragmatists. Still, there is a “family resemblance” between Peirce and Dewey, Rorty and Putnam, et. al., which Bernstein brilliantly teased out in The Pragmatic Turn and elsewhere. First, pragmatism betrays a deep suspicion and impatience with taken-for-granted philosophical dichotomies: Mind and Body, Subjective and Objective, Realism and Idealism/Anti-Realism, Objectivism and Relativism, Fact and Value, Spirit and Nature. Bernstein’s own pragmatism consists, in part, in a re-thinking of those philosophical commonplaces which give rise to these dichotomies, and the intractable philosophical problems that follow in their wake, thereby transcending the oppositions themselves. Pragmatism is a means of getting “beyond” all those conceptual and practical morasses which get us “stuck.” More importantly, for Bernstein, pragmatism is a kind of attitude that promotes getting “beyond” these stale dualisms: pragmatism is an “engaged, fallibilistic pluralism.” Engaged, because intelligent human understanding is never detached from practical problems and the world that gives rise to them, but is embedded in them. Fallibilistic, because we need not fall into skepticism by denying “unshakeable foundations” to thinking: inquiry neither has nor needs “a permanent ahistorical matrix” to touch base with the real or guide us in changing it. Pluralism, because we should neither expect nor desire that there be one final way of understanding, interpreting, or acting well. If Bernstein had a pragmatic motto, “promote engaged fallibilistic pluralism” would be it.

Pragmatic Encounters, Bernstein’s latest book, is a collection of essays written over the past decade, and can be viewed as an extension of The Pragmatic Turn, identifying pragmatic themes and thought-practices in thinkers and issues not usually associated with that tradition and its problematic. Throughout, Bernstein encounters these figures from a pragmatic sensibility, and enlarges this sensibility by charitably appropriating their insights while simultaneously subjecting them to critical questioning. In other words, by encountering them, pragmatically.

For example, in his essay “Richard Rorty: ‘So Much the Worse for Your Old Intuitions, Start Working Up Some New Ones’”, Bernstein returns to a criticism he has made of Rorty since the publication of the latter’s breakthrough book Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature: that Rorty’s penchant to shock, his obsession with “breaking the crust of convention” in the discipline of philosophy, leads him to overstate his case and obscure some keen insights on what it means to know and understand. For Rorty, “intuition” can mean one of two things: the kind of immediate, direct, and incorrigible knowledge-by-acquaintance skewered by Wilfred Sellars in “Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind” and other writings, or the “deep, philosophical intuitions” that some problems, such as the threat of skepticism (e.g., Stanley Cavell) or a strong defense of “objectivity” irreducible to “intersubjectivity” or “solidarity” (Putnam, Searle), cannot be simply walked away from. Rorty is unmoved by either sense of “intuition”. Sellars, for Rorty, has shown that knowledge is a matter of working within the “logical space of reasons” rather than incorrigible and immediate experience, and as for “walking away from” perennial problems, there is nothing wrong with doing so if those problems do not touch base with genuine human need. Bernstein links Rorty’s insouciance toward perennial philosophical problems with Rorty’s ironist brand of humanism: that the only kind of justification that exists is justification toward our fellow human beings, who are the only beings to whom we are answerable and the only beings who can exercise authority over us. Our “intuitions” become God-terms if they if they cease to be the products of contingent redescription and are misunderstood as inalterable first principles based on “the way the world is.” Yet, Bernstein muses, Rorty’s humanism is far too stringent, and self-undermining on pragmatic grounds. Rorty resurrects some very un-pragmatic dualisms: of “description” versus “argument” (as if pragmatic re-description is spontaneous and not the result of interrelated historical arguments), and of objectivity (as “getting things right”) versus pragmatic usefulness (as “what it pays you to talk about). The “good” Rorty (or, as Bernstein puts it, the “reasonable, beautiful” Rorty) is not opposed to talk of objectivity or argument, but rather opposed to bad, metaphysically and epistemologically loaded senses of the terms. Yet Rorty kept slipping back into his “bad” self – the self-conscious scourge of the discipline —  which although therapeutic had unfortunate effects. Rorty, through rhetorical excess, became his own worst enemy, reactively encouraging the very anti-pragmatic, realist “ressentiment that he so passionately opposed . . . “(p. 48)

In “Is Politics ‘Practicable’ Without Religion”, Bernstein addresses the claims made by his colleague Simon Critchley, in The Faith of the Faithless, that the “motivational deficit” that plagues today’s liberal democracies can only be transcended by a return to “political theology”, which in turn provides a basis for the kind of nonviolent left-anarchism Critchley favors. Critchley’s political faith is one that conventional atheists can recognize – “[not the] abstraction of a metaphysical belief in God, but the lived subjective commitment to an infinite demand”, the groundless ground of social hope that is inextricably linked to “a decisive political intervention.” Bernstein observes that this appeal to a “decisiveness” rooted in a political theology (or a-theology) is, in a way, the “mirror image” of the political philosophy of Carl Schmitt, a theorist at antipodes to Critchley’s own anarchism. It appeals to a “decisiveness” that, ultimately, rests on a faith that, for Bernstein, is too indeterminate to be of much political use. As Bernstein puts it,

Critchley’s characterization of faith seems to be at once too narrow and too broad. It is too narrow because it is only applicable to those who experience “the lived subjective commitment to an infinite demand”. This would certainly exclude most of those who profess religious faith. But it is too broad because it is difficult to see what is the difference that makes a difference between “faith” and a passionate commitment to a cause or ideal to which one is willing to dedicate oneself – perhaps even die for. The concept of faith is in danger of being banalized if it is used to encompass all forms of passionate commitment to an ideal that one knows can’t be fully realized . . . ? (pp. 188-189)

Critchley’s political faith is either not genuinely theological (Bernstein alludes to Tillich’s reduction of “religion” to any matter of “ultimate concern”), or runs the risk of repeating Schmitt’s authoritarian, arbitrary “decisionist” political theology in an anarchist mode. “Critchley”, Bernstein opines, “does think there is a need for the fiction of a transcendent authority and that such authority is inconceivable without religion.” (p. 191) Critchley advocates that this legitimating religious authority is fictive, made by human beings for human beings. But this fictive embrace of an order of infinite responsibility “isn’t political theology, but its antithesis.” The sort of pragmatic politics that emerges in Bernstein’s own reflection, which owes much to both John Dewey and Hannah Arendt, instead rests on a kind of worldly human plurality, rather than the unity of a shared commitment to an infinite demand, and the practical resolution of a conflict of opinion in the public sphere, which resists incorporation into any theology – even a thoroughly secularized one like Critchley’s.

Pragmatic Encounters also contains essays on Arendt and Dewey, and their points of contact as political thinkers “in dark times” such as our own, where politics has become absorbed in the maelstrom of P.R. “spin” and the cesspool of money. “John Dewey’s Encounter with Leon Trotsky” details the way in which, while defending Trotsky’s right to the fair hearing that he was denied in Stalin’s Soviet Union, Dewey opposed Trotsky’s view of violent revolutionary means as justified by the “scientific” laws of human development, reflected his Marxist views of the laws of human history. Such ersatz “science” has the unfortunate effect of obscuring not only how science itself progresses (its lawlike generalizations are always subject to error and revision), but it ignores the continuum of means and ends – that the worthiness of ends is partly constituted by the means by which they are pursued. Hence the kind of Marxism shared by Trotsky with Lenin will characteristically fall prey to the temptation to pursue liberatory ends through undemocratic means – a “dictatorship of the proletariat” that will ultimately be revealed as a tyrannical dictatorship over the proletariat by the party, or its most ruthlessly violent elements. Yet Dewey, for all his serious opposition to communism, was not a placid defender of corporate liberalism or conservatism: Bernstein cites Dewey’s texts, from roughly the same period as the Trotsky hearings, which constitute searing critiques of capitalist domination and New Deal Social Democracy from the left. Much of Dewey’s rhetoric could be employed today, against both the neoliberalism of DLC Democrats like the Clintons and the unabashed Leninism of Zizek and Badiou, not to mention the conservative defenders of plutocracy, without changing a word. Bernstein’s Dewey emerges as a consummate radical democrat, with considerable contemporary relevance.

The essay “Hannah Arendt: Thought-Defying Evil” traces Arendt’s developing views on evil from The Origins of Totalitarianism, which radicalized further the Kantian view on “radical evil” into that of “making human beings as such superfluous”, to her contention in Eichmann in Jerusalem that evil is never really radical but only “extreme”, and that sometimes the greatest evil is committed by “nobodies” whose chief fault is a willed inability to think. Against those critics of Arendt who take this thought-free “banal” conception of evil to be a tacit exoneration of Eichmann and his ilk, Bernstein notes

It is not easy to face up to “the sad truth” that “most evil is done by people who never made up their mind to be either good or bad.” To suggest that perfectly normal people can commit evil deeds for banal reasons seems to suggest that one is exonerating the evil-doer. But this certainly was not Arendt’s intent. On the contrary, although she did think that Eichmann was banal and even comical, she also thought that he was one of the greatest criminals in the Nazi regime, and that he was fully responsible for the deeds he committed. . . (pp. 150-151)

The connection between these Arendtian thoughts and the “engaged fallibilistic pluralism” that characterizes the Pragmatic attitude may be hard to spot at first – but they are there. Pragmatism abhors rigid dualisms, and one such dualism to which humans are quite susceptible is that there are good people and evil people, and that those who are evil are “other” – other than “us”. (One need not look further than the current presidential campaign to see ample, and disturbing, evidence of this dualism.) Pragmatism reminds us of the plurality of ways in which evil enters and dwells in the human world: there are Shakespearean-level villains like Hitler and Heydrich and Stalin, but many more are like Arendt’s Eichmann, refusing to take their unthinking complicity in evil social practices as itself evil. Even here, things are pragmatically complicated: Bernstein juxtaposes Primo Levi’s discussion of “the gray zone” in The Drowned and the Saved, a discussion of the Nazi death camps where he was himself imprisoned, with Arendt’s “banality of evil” rhetoric. The hunger, starvation, and brutality of the camps, as well as the horrors of being a European Jew during the Shoah, damaged the human capacity to “do good and avoid evil” – Thomas Aquinas’s “first principle of practical reason” – as surely as a social order that encourages moral somnolence. Those leaders of the Jewish Councils, such as Chaim Rumkowski and Leo Baeck, who aided the Nazis in the persecution of Jews, while guilty as Arendt charges, need also to be judged in the context of the horrors and inhuman stresses that prevailed in the ghettos. Moral judgements of good and evil can be made, indeed must be made, but we should be wary of simplistic moralizing. Thus Arendt and Levi, who certainly count as outsiders to the American Pragmatic tradition, echo the same sort of moral judgment made by pragmatists like Oliver Wendell Holmes and John Dewey: beware the temptation toward the stark dualism of “good people” and “bad people.” Sometimes the worst atrocities are performed by “ordinary folk”, as well as the most angelic acts of heroism. The one simple truth is: things are complicated.

While Pragmatic Encounters is a relatively short book, it covers far more ground than I could cover in a short review such as this: a pragmatic deconstruction of the idea that “universal moral norms” are givens rather that the ideal goal of pragmatic inquiry, a consideration of Paul Ricoeur’s Freud which explains the hermeneutic aspect of psychoanalysis, a comparative study of Arendt, Habermas, and Dewey on the public sphere and its relation to “bourgeois civil society”, Charles Taylor’s views on “the secular” refracted through a Kantian lens, an autobiographical essay on Bernstein’s own philosophical career from Chicago and Yale to The New School, and much, much more. It is an excellent way both to get a dialectical handle on these thinkers, and to see how they fit into the pragmatic attitude of “engaged fallibilistic pluralism” that Bernstein expounds and champions. I find little to disagree with in Pragmatic Encounters, but let me voice two concerns, or rather, suggestions for further dialectical development.

First, Bernstein has done more than any living philosopher to tease out pragmatic themes in traditions that are not, as a matter of historical fact, pragmatic. Other than Richard Rorty and Charles Taylor, no one has juxtaposed the analytic and continental traditions to greater interpretive effect. But while “pragmatic themes” are clearly there in analytic philosophers such as Wittgenstein and Sellars, or continental philosophers such as Heidegger and Gadamer, it is a bit of a stretch to consider them “honorary pragmatists” despite themselves. Wittgenstein is on record in saying that while On Certainty sounds like pragmatism, to assimilate his work to pragmatism is to be thwarted “by a kind of Weltanschaaung”; and despite the pragmatic thrust of Being and Time Division 1, it is hard to see Heidegger’s obsession with the history of Being and his wholesale contempt for Gestell as anything but contrary to pragmatism. Bernstein perhaps owes us an account of the ways in which many of the non-pragmatists he is influenced by stand in opposition to the American Pragmatist tradition just as much as they obliquely reflect it. Their “otherness” to pragmatism it is a difference that makes a difference.

Second, Bernstein is clear in his conviction that while philosophy can “orient” moral and political discourse, it is in no position to legislate over it – to deliver “knock down” arguments on behalf of a particular moral or political position. Fair enough: it is contrary to the pragmatic attitude of “engaged fallibilistic pluralism” to think that what is needed to address and meliorate philosophical problems is a theory to dictate to practice, rather than enhanced and improved practices of moral deliberation and dialogue. But we seem to stand at a kind of crossroads here, where the pragmatic and indeed philosophical commitment to engaged, fallibilistic dialogue is respected only in ever narrowing quarters. Our political debates have become shouting matches, games of assertion and counter-assertion that amount to strategic ploys to win over adherents through non-rational manipulation. (Recently, some pundit said of a Republican presidential debate that he was waiting for a participant to stop talking and throw a chair – which is funny, but not funny when you think about it.) Perhaps it is because many of us are in sour moods nowadays: contempt for rational discourse has always been around, so perhaps things have always been “this bad.” (E.g., Thrasymachus was around doing his thing a long, long time ago.) But I am not sure about that and, if Bernstein is right in his essay on Marcuse and the fate of critique, there may be some reason to wonder if human liberation through rational discourse is a lost cause, co-opted and de-fanged by late capitalism and the super-state. If that is not the case, if social hope is still a live option, in what concrete ways can we expect the practice of philosophy in general, and pragmatic philosophy in particular, to “orient” our lives in a way that we make these “dark times” a bit lighter, and the hopefulness that American Pragmatism has championed a bit more radiant?