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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Deva Woodly: The resonance of public discourse in social movements

We sat down earlier this year with Deva Woodly, Assistant Professor in Politics, to learn about her research comparing the living wage and marriage equality movements. According to Woodly, the political discourses “shared through social networks online, or spoken in the meeting houses of civic and social movement organizations … provide an empirical record of what members of the polity acknowledge as politically valuable as well as clues to the logics that people commonly use to associate their beliefs and values with the problems that they recognize in the world as they find it.”

Woodly recently published The Politics of Common Sense: How Social Movements Use Public Discourse to Change Politics and Win (Oxford Press, 2015).

The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.


NSSR: What is your research about, and what are you finding?

DW: My research is about how ordinary people impact politics. I’m particularly interested in the way that people are able to articulate and implement solutions to their concerns from within or outside of the political process.

My first book, The Politics of Common Sense, is a comparison of two social movements – the living wage movement and the marriage equality movement – with a focus on their activities and progress — between 1994 and 2004. I look at the ways that we can evaluate the success of those two movements, and I’m particularly concerned with the ways that communication—the communication of movements, and the communication from the people involved—influences the acceptance of political movements, and the ability for these movements to be enduring and effective over time.

The living wage movement gets a lot of policy ordinances passed with pressure and skilled organizing, but – in contrast to the marriage equality movement – it does not focus very much energy on changing the general political discourse around wages, employment, and politics. Instead, it is focused on discrete policy fights.

My research reveals that this focus ends up yielding wins that are less durable and less effective than those that are enacted after periods of widespread public debate. I argue that it matters how movements communicate to the general public, and whether they are able to persuade the public of the importance of their issue – and not just how they put immediate pressure on decision-makers – if they want to succeed over the long term.

First, policy wins can be ephemeral if public attention was never engaged in the issue, or, if it quickly shifts from the issue. We see this with the living wage. Many of the ordinances that were hard fought and decisively won in that period also went on to be unenforced because there was no sustained public attention to incentivize local governments to create well-functioning enforcement apparatuses.

And second, with consistent and resonant framing of movement issues, activists can change the way people think about their issue. This does not necessarily mean that activists can make everyone agree with them – we see no evidence that this is the case. Certainly, the marriage movement has, until very recently, been in an opinion environment in which the majority disagrees (a large plurality still does, by the way). However, by using consistently resonant discourse, activists can influence whether people think their issue is political, whether they think it’s important for the country, and they can change what people generally think is at stake in their decision about the issue.

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Lara Golesorkhi addresses discrimination against Muslim women in employment

The Muslim veil is not only a garment demonstrating religious faith, but also a highly politicized symbol, as seen by the proliferation of policies that regulate its visibility. In Germany, for example, the “veil has been perceived as a tool for gender segregation … and most notably a marker of cultural dissociation,” writes Lara Golesorkhi, a doctoral student in Politics at The New School for Social Research, in her recent piece published on the Heinrich Boell Foundation’s website.

This summer, Golesorkhi was one of ten winners in an international competition, co-sponsored by the United Nations’ Academic Impact initiative and the UnHate Foundation, part of the Benetton Group, for her proposal addressing Muslim women’s employment rights in Germany. Winners were chosen based on proposals that aimed to end various forms of intolerance, and each will receive 20,000 euros for the implementation of projects over the coming months.

WoW Full Logo
Logo Design: Eliana Perez

In addition to raising awareness of the challenges that Muslim women face in securing jobs in Germany’s employment sectors, Golesorkhi’s proposal is “to promote tolerance, equality, and respect, in the workplace, and to increase the number of Muslim women in the German labor market.” The project, linked here, has several components: a program to prepare Muslim women for the German job market; a launch of two initiatives, the iPledge Campaign and the WithorWithout (WoW) Campaign; and a fellowship program to recruit leaders for the project.

The Initiative
Golesorkhi’s proposed initiative stems from her goal for Muslim women to become “the face of the solution we’re seeking.” The aim is to give Muslim women the opportunity to gain work experience, and to develop leadership and communications skills. The program’s “Job Ready” program will provide formal preparation for the German job market through a series of professional development workshops and trainings.
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Miriam Steele: Breaking Cycles of Neglect Using Attachment Research

“I never get to see myself from the outside, I’m always judging myself from the inside,” reports a parent participating in a New School-Albert Einstein Medical Center clinical research collaboration directed by New School for Social Research psychologist Miriam Steele and her colleagues. Steele suggests that stepping outside of the interaction prompts reflective functioning, a theoretical framework she developed with her collaborator and husband Howard Steele over a decades-long examination of parent-child attachment. They have used the lens of attachment research to examine everything from the intergenerational links in parent-child relationships, intervention approaches to address child maltreatment, adoption, and the development of body image. She describes her work as bridging “the world of psychoanalytic thinking and clinical practice with contemporary research in child development.” In the course of our recent conversation it became clear that, for Steele, to research is to learn, to teach, and to help people – and to discover the next big question.

Group Attachment-Based Intervention

Steele’s focus is a psychological intervention called Group Attachment-Based Intervention (GABI), and she assesses its impact in a randomly controlled trial, federally funded by the Human Resources Services Administration.  The research team – comprised of faculty and graduate students at NSSR, as well as clinicians and researchers from Albert Einstein College of Medicine – brings together parents and young children from the Bronx for a thrice-weekly session of a group-based clinical treatment. As described in her co-authored article, Looking from the outside in: the use of video in attachment-based interventions (Attachment & Human Development, 2014), GABI is designed “to reach parents with histories of multiple adverse childhood experiences and ongoing exposure to poverty, domestic and neighborhood violence and risk of child maltreatment.”  This intervention grew out of a community-based intervention, setting it apart from interventions conceptualized in an academic setting and then delivered to patients.

The project started with one fundamental assertion, said Steele: “We know from neurobiology that well-nurtured brains look different from those that are not. That’s been well documented. The question is, how can we bring about change ?” Steele thinks that such a transformation in a parent could be brought on in part by an important aspect of the intervention: a parent watching video footage of her interactions with her child and being asked to reflect on what she sees while also hearing the reflections from her peers in the group.

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