Richard J. Bernstein  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Richard Jacob Bernstein (born May 14, 1932) is an American philosopher who teaches at The New School for Social Research, and has written extensively about a broad array of issues and philosophical traditions including American pragmatism, neopragmatism, critical theory, deconstruction, social philosophy, political philosophy, and Hermeneutics. His work is best known for the way in which it examines the intersections between different philosophical schools and traditions, bringing together thinkers and philosophical insights that would otherwise remain separated by the analytic/continental divide in 20th century philosophy. The pragmatic and dialogical ethos that pervades his works has also been displayed in a number of philosophical exchanges with other contemporary thinkers like Hannah Arendt, Jürgen Habermas, Richard Rorty, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Jacques Derrida, Agnes Heller, and Charles Taylor. Bernstein is an engaged public intellectual concerned not only with the specialized debates of academic philosophy, but also with the larger issues that touch upon social, political, and cultural aspects of contemporary life. Throughout his life Bernstein has actively endorsed a number of social causes and has been involved in movements of participatory democracy, upholding some of the cardinal virtues of the American pragmatist tradition, including a commitment to fallibilism, engaged pluralism, and the nurturing of critical communities.

Early life and education

Bernstein was born May 14, 1932 in Brooklyn to a second-generation Jewish immigrant family. The youngest of three children, he attended Midwood High School, a public high school in Brooklyn where he first met his future wife Carol L. Bernstein. Too young to be drafted into the Second World War, Bernstein enrolled as an undergraduate in the University of Chicago, where he fell in love with philosophy, eventually writing an honors thesis entitled “Love and Friendship in Plato: A Study of the Lysis and the Phaedrus”. His classmates included Susan Sontag, Philip Roth, Mike Nichols, George Steiner, and the person who would become one of Bernstein's closest friends and philosophical interlocutors, Richard Rorty. Upon graduation, and partly because he needed more credits to begin graduate studies, Bernstein returned to New York City for a couple of years to study at Columbia University where he took courses on a variety of subjects, ranging from ancient Greek to book binding, and obtained a Bachelor of Science degree, graduating summa cum laude. In 1953, following Rorty's advice, he went to Yale University to pursue graduate studies in philosophy, writing a dissertation on John Dewey's Metaphysics of Experience. This was a time when interest in Dewey was reaching an all-time low, partly due to the rising influence of analytic philosophy and the prejudiced conviction that there was not much to be learned from the Classical American Pragmatists. Indeed, for many philosophers under the sway of the analytic wave, the work of Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and John Dewey was just a half-baked version of the real philosophical inquiries being conducted by analytic philosophy. From early on, however, Bernstein became more and more aware of the damaging consequences of what he labeled “analytic ideology”, i.e. “the belief that the analytic style is the only game in town and the rest of philosophy is to be dismissed as simply not really worthwhile.” Of course, this “analytic ideology” should not be confused with the hard-won results of analytic philosophy. One of the reasons he decided to go to Yale was because it was one of the few departments that resisted this questionable ideology, offering a stimulating atmosphere where thinkers like Hegel, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche were read with the same enthusiasm and seriousness as Wittgenstein and Carnap. There, he studied under a remarkable group of teachers, including Carl Gustav Hempel, John Smith, George Schrader, and Paul Weiss.

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