Jay Bernstein, on Torture and Philosophy

Jay Bernstein is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at The New School for Social Research. His latest book is Torture and Dignity: An Essay on Moral Injury (University of Chicago Press, 2015).

Bernstein, who received his PhD from the University of Edinburgh in 1975, has been at the NSSR since 2001, where he teaches courses on Kant and Hegel, and on topics in ethics and aesthetics. His enormously popular lectures have been collected by his students and published online at The Bernstein Tapes.

He recently discussed his latest book, as well his approach to philosophy more generally, and how he feels about being a part of the faculty here, with Marianne LeNabat, a doctoral student in philosophy.

Marianne LeNabat: First, can you tell us what you work on generally? What sorts of philosophical problems interest you?

Jay Bernstein: Can I give two answers to this question?

Here is the first one: During my job interview at the New School for Social Research, when asked by graduate students what I understood the true purpose of philosophy to be, my mind immediately flew to the panoply of traditional answers to this question: philosophy is the installation of reason as the mechanism for distinguishing appearance from reality; philosophy is an underlaborer to the advanced sciences of its age; philosophy should address Kant’s four fundamental questions: What can I know? What ought I to do? What may I hope? What is man?; philosophy’s task is the comprehension of its own time in thought; philosophy must address the meaning of being.

These are all meaningful answers to the question. But what pressed itself into words at that moment was something more provincial: No academic discipline, no area of the humanities or the social sciences has, as its central task, the recognition, remembering, and addressing of the breadth of human suffering. While making occasional appearances here and there, suffering itself, its character, extent, and reasons, is virtually absent from university studies and research. Philosophy, if it is not to become irrelevant or complicit in what is worst, should become a repository of thought about human suffering. That is a good deal of what I have learned from reading Theodor Adorno for forty years.

The second answer is narrower. Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit blew me away when I first read it. It still does. It has two thoughts that have been decisive for my philosophical work: First, in the famous dialectic of master and slave there is the argument that in order to simply to be a person one must be recognized by another person. From this comes the unwelcome thought that we are radically dependent beings, that we owe our being persons at all, as well as whatever independence or freedom we might have, to the persons and institutions that surround us. Thinking about the depth of human dependence has been part of everything I have worked on and thought about. Second, it turns out that the dependence on others entails that we are historical beings through and through.

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