A tribute to Richard Bernstein, 1932-2022
“All academic thinking, whether right, left or middle, is conservative in the extreme,” Arendt had written to him. “Nobody wants to hear what he hasn’t heard before.” Recalling these words, Bernstein leaned toward his laptop camera, growing bigger on our screens. We must all fight off this tendency to conformity, he said. Even intelligent people learn to go along with what is conventional, he explained, and they reject good philosophy.
This past spring, the philosopher Richard J. Bernstein taught his final two classes at the New School for Social Research, in New York, where he had been a professor since 1989. One was a course on American pragmatism, the tradition to which his own work belongs. The other was a seminar on Hannah Arendt, who, late in her life, was Bernstein’s friend.
Years ago, when I got my Ph.D., I was Bernstein’s student. I still am, in a way. And so I asked him if I could audit the class on Arendt and write about it. He said that he didn’t like passive auditors—I would have to participate fully. That requirement struck me as a good description of what Bernstein had done all his life.
He was already in his seventies when I first met him, in 2008, but he still appeared more energetic than most of his students. You’d hear him coming down the hall, engaged in animated conversation, and then he’d stroll confidently and generously into the classroom, a small man in a black turtleneck, his sleeves rolled up, his wavy white hair swept gently back. He had a distinctively raspy voice that was somehow always half ironic and yet deeply sincere, and which sounded more streetwise than the other professors. Even a foreigner like me, from Barcelona, could hear the Brooklyn in it.
Bernstein grew up in Borough Park in a family of Jewish immigrants who owned a furniture store. He went to the University of Chicago, where he wrote an undergraduate thesis on love and friendship in Plato’s works. One of his classmates was Richard Rorty, who would go on to become philosophy’s most prominent postwar pragmatist. (Another classmate was Susan Sontag.) Rorty went to Yale for his Ph.D. and urged Bernstein to follow him there. Bernstein did, writing his dissertation on the pragmatist John Dewey’s philosophy of experience—a daring choice, given Dewey’s diminished status at the time. The German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, echoing a comment Lessing made of Spinoza, told me that Dewey was generally regarded back then as a “dead dog.”
The great insight of classical pragmatists was to recognize that we conduct intellectual inquiries in the same way that we go about living and acting in the world. We clash with the world when we test our theories in the field and when we argue with our political enemies. Truth may be elusive, but our experience is real, and it forces us to think, to argue—possibly, to change. This conception of truth, and the social process by which we attempt to reach it, is more democratic, Bernstein believed, than trying to transcend our point of view by reasoning our way toward some supposedly universal perspective.
At Yale, Bernstein reconnected with Carol Lippit, whom he’d known in high school and who had become one of Yale’s few female graduate students. They married in 1955. Bernstein stayed at Yale to teach; in 1964, he went to Mississippi for Freedom Summer and wrote a short dispatch about it for The Nation, marvelling at the passion of the young and at the bravery of the Black Mississippians he met. Of a gathering of voting-rights activists, he wrote, “Whenever in future I think of what democracy can mean in the concrete, the image of that meeting in Eaton precinct will come to mind.”
About six months later, he was denied tenure. Students picketed Yale’s administrative offices in protest, and the so-called Bernstein Affair became national news. Just why he was denied tenure was murky; he’d published plenty and was a beloved teacher. One theory held that the department’s analytic philosophers—those who, broadly speaking, looked to formal logic to resolve philosophical questions—were pushing out the so-called continental types, whose work they deemed squishy and subjective. (“Yale Issue Seen as a Basic Rift; Dispute Traced by Some to Philosophic Cleavage,” the Times reported.) But Bernstein always maintained that the departmental politics at play were more complicated.
In any case, he was not really a partisan of any camp. He had an unusual ability to put philosophers from different traditions into dialogue. This was an intimate pursuit as well as an intellectual one: Arendt, Rorty, and Habermas were not only his philosophical interlocutors but his friends. Bernstein never coined the sort of phrase that becomes common currency outside the world of contemporary philosophy, like Arendt’s “banality of evil,” Rorty’s “linguistic turn,” or Habermas’s “communicative action.” He was, in a way, a backstage philosopher, indispensable to the play unfolding under the lights.
Above all, he was a teacher. His final Arendt seminar would bring together many of the questions that had mattered to him most. Fittingly, he would explore these questions in dialogue with others—in dialogue, especially, with Arendt, a brilliant thinker and departed friend whose journey through life had been buffeted by the major traumas of the twentieth century. The course would be conducted on Zoom and would proceed chronologically, from Arendt’s early Jewish writings to her late essays, with multiple sessions devoted to her books “The Origins of Totalitarianism” and “The Human Condition.” The course would allow Bernstein both to share Arendt’s insights with another group of students—there were fourteen, including me—and also to reëxamine his differences with her. Arendt made a sharp distinction between the social and political spheres, a distinction that, somewhat notoriously, prompted her to argue against the federal government’s forceable desegregation of schools after Brown v. Board of Education. Bernstein believed that the political and the social were inseparable.
The seminar’s first class—which was delayed a week, because Bernstein wasn’t feeling well—was a lecture on Arendt’s life. Born in 1906 in Germany, she studied, in the nineteen-twenties, at the University of Marburg, where she had an affair with a professor, Martin Heidegger, who would become one of the twentieth century’s most influential philosophers and, in 1933, a member of the Nazi Party. When Hitler assumed power, Arendt fled Germany for Paris, where she spent several years working for an organization that helped send young Jewish refugees to Palestine. In the spring of 1940, the French government rounded up “enemy aliens,” including Arendt, and moved them into internment camps, Bernstein told us, drawing an analogy with the Japanese Americans who were interned in the U.S. soon afterward. Arendt escaped; the women who remained behind, Bernstein noted, were sent to Auschwitz by Adolf Eichmann, who would become Arendt’s most famous subject.
Bernstein spoke in long sentences that you could have transcribed and sent to a publisher. At one moment, he would impart intimate confidences—he described Arendt as “slightly bohemian” and “flirtatious”—then he’d plunge into theory, characterizing Arendt’s conception of freedom as among the most profound of any thinker. After nearly two hours, he said that he’d kept us long enough. The next session would be more Socratic.
When I logged on to Zoom, the following week, some of my classmates were already present, their ikea shelves and art posters visible in their little Zoom windows. Bernstein was there, too, but his camera was off.
“Can you hear me?” he said. “I wanted to explain where I am. I am actually in the hospital. They sent me back here because I don’t have enough oxygen.” He had, I realized, been in the hospital during the first week of the semester. “I’m really, perfectly, intellectually fine,” he continued.
He turned on the camera and there he was: shirtless, in an adjustable bed, with electrodes strapped to his chest and tubes leading to his nostrils. His white hair, a little wild and thinning out on the edges, seemed to dissolve into the light.
“We may get interrupted,” he said, “but I decided that we should move on. There’s no reason not to continue. O.K.?”
That day, we were to discuss articles that Arendt had written during her first decade in New York. Bernstein began to tell us about the context for these writings when there was some noise in the background. The nurses had come in.
“I just heard you were teaching a class,” one said.
“Yeah,” Bernstein replied, matter-of-factly.
“What?” another said. “Amazing! You are amazing!”
“Do you want to participate?” he asked.
“Can I listen? What are you talking about?”
“If you stay, you’ll find out,” he said. And then, to the camera: “So, the nurses want to learn about Hannah Arendt!”
“To this day, I remember where we met,” Bernstein told me, recounting, not for the first time, how his friendship with Arendt began. “A place called the Haverford Hotel, at eight o’clock.” It was 1972. Arendt had been invited to give a talk at Haverford College and had asked to meet him. Bernstein was the chair of the school’s philosophy department at the time; after the controversy at Yale, he’d received multiple job offers, and he chose the school, situated outside Philadelphia, in part because Carol, a scholar of Romantic and Victorian literature, could find a position nearby. (She eventually joined the faculty of Bryn Mawr, later becoming the chair of its English department.) Bernstein turned the department into a place where multiple traditions and approaches could be studied. Students enrolled in record numbers.
The previous fall, he’d published a book, “Praxis and Action,” which examines a range of philosophical approaches—that of Hegel and Marx, existentialism, pragmatism, and analytic philosophy—and characterizes them all as reactions to what he called “Cartesian anxiety.” Thinkers after Descartes struggled to find an adequate basis for a meaningful life in the natural world. How, then, can we determine how to live? The manuscript had been peer-reviewed; one anonymous reviewer lambasted its failure to address a variety of obscure German sources. Bernstein was convinced that this had been Arendt, whose work he’d mentioned just once in the book, in a footnote. So he was a little nervous about the meeting. “She was the enemy,” he recalled thinking. “And that night we talked from eight o’clock to two o’clock in the morning.”
Bernstein clarified for his students that this was a purely intellectual assignation. Arendt was not the anonymous reviewer, it turned out—she admired his book, though she had some criticisms. They argued for hours. “But there was something agonistic and erotic, and somehow, even though she was really quite established—she’s in her sixties, I am in my forties—it clicked,” Bernstein told me. “We became very, very close.” Before long, he was visiting her in New York. “She would cook for me—she made sure I ate enough,” he said. She even organized a brunch with her editor and the novelist and critic Mary McCarthy to insure that his next book would be brought out by her publisher.
She also tried to get the New School to hire him. The institution was hugely important to her. Founded in 1919—after Columbia, amid the patriotic fervor inspired by America’s entrance into the Great War, had required professors to pledge their loyalty to the country—it had a special legacy when it came to intellectual freedom. After the Nazis began expelling Jewish and leftist scholars from German universities, the New School created a University in Exile. It assisted in efforts to arrange for artists and intellectuals to obtain visas and safe passage to the U.S. after the war started. Among those rescued by such efforts was Arendt. She taught at Princeton, the University of Chicago, and elsewhere, but, in 1967, she went to the New School, where she spent the last years of her life.
The school declined Arendt’s recommendation of Bernstein, and she wrote him a letter conveying her disappointment. He described parts of the letter in class. “All academic thinking, whether right, left or middle, is conservative in the extreme,” Arendt had written to him. “Nobody wants to hear what he hasn’t heard before.” Recalling these words, Bernstein leaned toward his laptop camera, growing bigger on our screens. We must all fight off this tendency to conformity, he said. Even intelligent people learn to go along with what is conventional, he explained, and they reject good philosophy.
It was a passionate and inspiring moment. But, as the weeks passed, his physical capacity waxed and waned. He was hospitalized seven times during the semester, once with a covid infection; apart from the one-week delay before the seminar began, which he made up, he never missed a class. During spring break, he had a pacemaker implanted. A month later, he was leading our sessions from his couch, wearing an oxygen tube.
At the end of April, his research assistant, Olga Knizhnik, e-mailed me to ask if I could help lead the next session. I suspect that she sent similar messages to other students, because our discussion that day was particularly vigorous—as if the students were coming to Bernstein’s rescue. It helped that our topic was Arendt’s most famous book, “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil,” based on pieces that appeared in The New Yorker, in 1963. Arendt attended Eichmann’s trial, for war crimes, in Jerusalem, and was struck by his reliance on cliché: he was not a monster, she concluded, but a bureaucrat. She also criticized the Israeli government’s handling of the trial, and the councils of local Jewish leaders in Germany who had, in her view, coöperated with the Nazi bureaucracy. She was immediately accused of being a self-hating Jew.
What did we think of that criticism, Bernstein asked? A student from Israel doubted that it was a fair charge, because, she said, really, Arendt was more of a German than a Jew. She also insisted that Arendt could afford to be simplistic in her assessment of the Jewish councils, because she wasn’t there; in that complex situation, the student said, the councils had no choice but to coöperate. Another student pointed to a line about how Jews went to “their death like lambs to the slaughter,” calling it victim-blaming, echoing another accusation made when the book was published. (Whether Arendt actually believed that Jews behaved like lambs is not clear from the text; the passage, like many in her work, is provocatively ambiguous.) Bernstein’s voice was almost without air—he had suggested that we might just meet for an hour that day—but he didn’t seem to want the debate to end. A student from Hong Kong compared Eichmann’s mind-set to that of the police beating up protesters there; an American student brought up Vietnam. Bernstein kept bringing us back to the early critiques of Arendt’s book. Were they fair? Finally, the student from Israel was emphatic: Arendt was wrong. She was wrong that Eichmann did not think. He was the product not of thoughtlessness but of German education. “He was thinking!” the student said.
After more than an hour, Bernstein let us go. I wondered why he pressed on; nobody would have faulted him for taking time off, or even cancelling the class. Did he feel compelled to complete the circle in his life, coming back to Arendt and to these questions? Did the alternative strike him as pointless or simply boring? Perhaps, I thought, the most important reason was that, for him, having these arguments was the only path to truth, however provisional and contingent. This was our one hope for understanding the world.
One day, during a session on “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” Bernstein told the story of his first visit to a concentration camp, at Dachau, in the mid-seventies. He went to Germany to visit Habermas, whom he had met in 1972, the same year that he met Arendt. Habermas was spending some time in Middletown, Connecticut, and Bernstein had just read his book “Knowledge and Human Interests,” which draws on the thinking of Marx, Freud, and the American pragmatist Charles S. Peirce—an uncommon reference at the time, especially for a European philosopher—in its effort to set out a new basis for critical social theory. Bernstein, who published a book about Peirce before leaving Yale, invited Habermas to give a talk at Haverford.
“I was not in the habit of immediately accepting invitations over the phone from a colleague unknown,” Habermas told me, in an e-mail, in German. But he found that Bernstein’s “friendly and direct demeanor” disarmed him and showed that they had much to discuss with each other. “So I allowed myself to be overpowered,” he said. Bernstein picked him up from the airport, and they liked each other from the start. “The beginnings of a philosophical conversation would effortlessly emerge from an everyday observation, or from helpful practical advice,” Habermas recalled. “By the time we arrived on campus—along the way we passed through ‘Black’ neighborhoods, which immediately provided fuel for the first political conversations—via the Northline, we were almost already friends.”
The two philosophers agreed that the seed of sectarian politics seemed to lie within the rational project of modernity: people had tried to establish the one true political system on the basis of reason when, really, all politics had to be rooted in a social give-and-take with others. But Habermas argued that, in the process of rationally justifying our moral and political beliefs to one another, the force of the better argument could lead us to moral and political norms that transcend the limits of our communities. Bernstein would not go that far. To think like that, he maintained, one would have to believe that there was a fundamental difference between the way we know the world and the way we decide how to behave—or, in Kantian terms, between theoretical and practical uses of reason. A mistake, in his view.
Still, their shared commitment to philosophical dialogue was the basis for a lifelong friendship. Habermas called Bernstein “a genius of finding a kernel of truth in the philosophy of the other.” After Habermas gave his talk at Haverford, Bernstein considered going to Munich to visit him—and to see Dachau. “I said, I can’t do this,” Bernstein recalled, “I am going to have nightmares.” But, in 1976, he decided to face his fears. He liked to recount how Habermas met him at the airport. Bernstein had been studying the origins and development of different types of camps. “I thought I was fully prepared, but I wasn’t,” he told the class. What shocked him even more than the evidence of all the dead bodies was the record-keeping.
After Bernstein recounted the visit, he asked a student to read a passage from “The Origins of Totalitarianism.” Bernstein knew the page number offhand, from repeated visits: “When a man is faced with the alternative of betraying and thus murdering his friends or of sending his wife and children, for whom he is in every sense responsible, to their death; when even suicide would mean the immediate murder of his own family—how is he to decide?”
Bernstein and Arendt last spoke in the spring of 1975. “She was very agitated at that time, because she thought that the New School was going to end philosophy,” he told me. Arendt, who died several months later, following a heart attack, at the age of sixty-nine, had reason to worry: New York’s department of education, responding to an overabundance of Ph.D. graduates without job prospects, announced plans to evaluate every doctoral program in the state, with the intention of closing down the weaker ones. The evaluation criteria appeared to favor specialized programs that trained students to do empirical research; an interdisciplinary program that sought to train theorists, like the one at the New School, seemed particularly vulnerable.
The department of education asked two philosophers to evaluate the New School for Social Research’s program: Alasdair MacIntyre and Richard Rorty. They saw value in the program, but, as Judith Friedlander details in her book “A Light in Dark Times,” the state’s rating committees nonetheless gave it an unfavorable review. Afterward, Rorty and MacIntyre sent letters to the New School’s dean of the graduate faculty, offering advice. “At this moment in the United States philosophy is to some degree in crisis,” MacIntyre wrote. He saw “the overproduction of Ph.D.’s” trained in analytic philosophy as a “major factor in distorting the job market.” Rorty recommended that the school hire Bernstein to help revive the department. But the university trustees did not want to invest in the program before the school examined it further, and, in 1977, the New School declared a moratorium on admitting new doctoral students in philosophy.
Five years later, the New School hired a new president, an administrator named Jonathan Fanton. He had gone to Yale in the sixties; he had participated in the protests in support of Bernstein. The dean of the graduate faculty asked Bernstein to join a committee that would help decide the fate of the philosophy department. Bernstein recommended that the dissident Hungarian philosopher Ágnes Heller be hired as the department’s chair. If the New School was rooted in an effort to protect intellectual freedom, its charge now was to support intellectuals who were stifled behind the Iron Curtain. Heller was appointed. She hired Bernstein, and he took over as chair in 1989. The ban on admitting doctoral students was lifted. The department became as idiosyncratic and pluralistic as the tables of contents in his books: analytic philosophers, pragmatists, phenomenologists. He told me that rebuilding the department “was like fulfilling a testament” left to him by Arendt.
In May, the morning before our seminar met for the last time, I went to see him at his apartment on Fifty-second Street. It was large and luminous, full of mid-century Scandinavian furniture that seemed to reflect his belief in the elegance of what works—and also the taste he acquired as the child of a furniture salesman. A nurse was busy in the kitchen. Carol read a book in the living room, next to her husband, who looked frail and wore an oxygen tube but spoke vibrantly, moving his hands and head in a vaguely birdlike way that he had. He was eager to begin class, and joined the Zoom meeting several minutes early. He had the oxygen tube removed. He asked the nurse for some candy. When students appeared onscreen, they asked him how he felt. “I am feeling euphoric,” he said.
The topic was “Thinking and Moral Considerations,” an essay that Arendt published in 1971. In it, she elaborates on the banality of evil. Some readers of “Eichmann in Jerusalem” were, and are, troubled by a kind of corollary to its thesis: if Eichmann’s great failing was an inability to think, does this mean that thinking is enough to keep us from moral collapse? The notion seems unlikely. But Arendt defends the idea, or some version of it, in part by deepening our conception of what thinking is, and how and when it is called for. “The manifestation of the wind of thought is no knowledge; it is the ability to tell right from wrong, beautiful from ugly,” she writes. “And this indeed may prevent catastrophes, at least for myself, in the rare moments when the chips are down.”
As the class neared its end, Bernstein reflected on his differences with his old friend. Arendt had little interest in presenting multiple sides of a story and trying to bridge them, he said. This can be infuriating, but, he said, “very frequently it leads her to a kind of brilliance.” He praised his students, and told them to write to him about anything at all. “I always loved the comment by Hans-Georg Gadamer: nobody has the last word,” he told us. “And the conversation will go on and should go on with you.” He added, “If there’s one thing I would like to leave you with, at the end of it, it’s the spirit of philosophy, and what I believe should be the authentic spirit of it, which I think, I hope that you all incorporate in your own lives. Good luck.”
He signed off and turned to Carol. “That’s it, my love!” he said.
I asked him how he felt. Great, he told me—he’d lived a good life. Then he cracked half a smile. “I have never understood the obsession in philosophy with death,” he said. “My obsession is with new beginnings. . . . I want to do more things.”
That Saturday, he would turn ninety years old. On Friday, he got an early birthday message from Habermas. “If I remember correctly it was almost exactly half a century ago when our friendship started,” Habermas wrote. “This has remained one of the very few happy events in life which I remember even after so long a period without the slightest shadow and any ambivalence. And ever since I keep thinking about your first philosophical advice: ‘detranscendentalize your view of the Kantian heritage.’ ” It was an almost comically specialized phrase for a birthday message. But it was one of great import: Habermas, Bernstein felt, was too attached to a conception of truth that is universal, without conditions. If philosophy proved anything, Bernstein believed, it was that things are never fixed, and our conversation never ends.
He spent the next several weeks grading papers. On the first day of July, he retired. He went to a house in the Adirondacks, which he and Carol had built decades before, with money from a teaching award. His family joined him. One night, before going to bed, he said to his daughter, “Today was a perfect day.” He died on the morning of July 4th. His last book, “The Vicissitudes of Nature,” was published posthumously, in the fall. The book picks up a thread that goes back to Bernstein’s dissertation on Dewey, written more than sixty years earlier: at the core of both our nature and our way of being within nature is a relentless, collective conversation about what is good and what is true