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.

ML: Who are your interlocutors in the discipline?

JB: I have always taken scientism – the view that natural science is in unique possession of what should count as knowledge, and its methods in unique possession of what should count as reason – as the dominant philosophical ideology that requires critique and displacement. That is the core of the problem of modernity for me, as it was for Nietzsche.

So, the philosophers I care about are ones who tend to see this as the theoretical problem of modernity, and the great social problem of modernity – capital domination – as a practical manifestation of scientistic reason. I take seriously all writers who feel the weight of these questions, not just the Western Marxists but also, say, Weber or Heidegger or Wittgenstein or de Beauvoir or Foucault or Sartre or Sellars or Cavell.

My own work, as a version of recognition theory, is closest to Judith Butler’s – I can’t imagine Torture and Dignity coming to be without the influence of her thought.

The late Gillian Rose was my non-stop interlocutor until her untimely death in 1995; it was she who started me reading Adorno. Given how close we were, I am sure my philosophy would have been somehow different from where it is now if she had lived.

ML: How does your work on aesthetics relate to this critique of scientism?

JB: The easiest way into thinking about the significance of aesthetics is consider what happens when we are struck – overwhelmed and blown away – by the painting in front of us. Two features of the situation need underlining: first, this is a sensory experience, however otherwise mediated through ideas, concepts, and language. (Even poetry emphasizes the sensory features of language: meter, rhyme, rhythm, breath.) Second, the engagement is with this particular painting. Now consider the contrast with natural science, which reduces matter to mathematics; particulars are no more than the classification they fall under – specimens of a species. Salvaging the sensuous, material and particular side of meaning and reason naturally works through the arts and so aesthetics.

ML: Why now a book on torture?

JB: Serendipity matters to intellectual life: without the occurrence of Abu Ghraib, I would not have turned my attention to the problem of torture. And without a friend putting Jean Améry’s At the Mind’s Limits in my hands, with its remarkable chapter on torture, I would not have found my way to a materialist reading of the master-slave dialectic that I had been thinking about for nearly 40 years.

ML: What sort of interventions were you hoping to make with the book, either with respect to the rest of the discipline, or with respect to public discourse?

JB: I take it that no one (well anyway, very few people) really truly, honestly believe any of the great philosophical accounts of morality – Kant’s theory of moral principles, Utility, Aristotelian virtue, Levinas’s face of the other, and on. They are, frankly, pretty unbelievable; but because we are deeply decent and moral people, we have invested all our energy in making the wholly unbelievable believable. This has been terrible for philosophy.

The heart of the torture book is in the subtitle: an essay on moral injury. I understand torture and rape to be paradigms of moral injury, paradigms of acts that we think no one should ever do. The book is for the sake of making moral philosophy believable by claiming, simply, moral norms and principles track moral injury. So my simple thought here is that when people do terrible things it is not moral rules that are broken but other persons that are broken, their bodies and dignity.

We tend to treat moral rules magically, like fetishes: somehow, if we break the rule, then terrible, terrible things will happen. And in religion, they tell you just what those terrible things are. That is how implausible rule morality is.

The moral harm of torture and rape, I argue, converges with what is generally referred to as “trauma”, and which I re-label “devastation.” With the notion of devastation, I am trying to describe how certain experiences of suffering and pain are related to the destruction of individuals’ standing as persons – as having dignity. Only if we understand humans as not just bodies, but beings who are values, whose value is held in place through their being recognized as valuable and lovable by their social confreres, does anything like the depths of moral experience begin to become visible.

That thought is directed both to my fellow philosophers, but I hope, also to the wider intellectual public. My conclusion means to reach out and offer a diagnosis of the persistence of rape culture. While the problem is complicated – misogyny persists – on the practical side I urge that saying clearly “rape is torture” (and not just very bad sex) is a vital first step that might lead men to start taking responsibility for one another.

As Donald Trump’s successes show, in a time when individuals’ sense of worth and dignity is being radically undermined, men will desperately hold on to the privileges of patriarchy. Patriarchy has always been the stakes in rape culture.

This makes the persistence of rape in our culture – including its shockingly high rate of occurrence on college and university campuses, and in the military – appear as more than anomalous: it is a vast form of sexual domination that uses sexual violence that is a form of torture as a means of ensuring its continuance.

My suspicion is that rape is downplayed – as just very bad sex, awful sex, but usually the fault of the victim – as a way of avoiding the problem, of everyone wanting to wash their hands of it. If we publicly agreed the rape is torture, then the continuing tolerance for it would have to be challenged.

ML: What are you working on next?

JB: Law. Somehow the philosophy of law has virtually disappeared from philosophy, with moral philosophy (meta-ethics and all that business) and political philosophy thereby permitted to be utterly abstract and unworldly. Law has to be the actuality of morals, and the realization of political purposes. I do not think that morals is about individuals deliberating about what they ought to do and consulting the rule-book in their head. Law is the living center of modern ethical life; real moral progress happens when the laws change and the lives of individuals are transformed. This also means that modern ethical life is a good deal messier and more fragile than our ideal of the Platonic moral rule-book in the sky (that is already written).

Socrates, by the way, clearly did not share Plato’s scorching skepticism about law (which one reads in his description of the trial and death of his mentor); he knew law was a kind of fragile, fallible social bond, but still valuable because fragile and fallible, not despite that fact.

ML: I’ve heard you comment on how much you enjoy the environment at The New School (that is, the rest of the faculty, and the students) as a place to work. Can you say why?

JB: I adore The New School. I admire that it is unabashed in its left political commitments: there is, in the final instance, a shared ethos that we all know gives point to our teaching, research, and other collective activities. What I particularly adore, however, about the students in the philosophy department is their commitment to philosophy as a moment in culture (and not just as an academic discipline) that can only stay alive by taking risks, by investigating new areas of experience, by being willing to fail. More than any other university experience I have had, at the New School I often feel that I am involved in undertaking a shared adventure and a shared project with my students and colleagues.

Marianne LeNabat is a PhD candidate in Philosophy at the New School for Social Research. Her work concerns political philosophy’s resistance to theorizing collective action. In addition to other publications, she has recently written for n+1 and New Criticals. She is an editor at Public Seminar.

Jay Bernstein is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at The New School for Social Research. His previous books include books include The Fate of Art (Penn State University Press, 1992), Recovering Ethical Life: Jürgen Habermas and the Future of Critical Theory (Routledge, 1995), Adorno: Disenchantment and Ethics (Cambridge University Press, 2002), and Against Voluptuous Bodies: Adorno’s Late Modernism and the Meaning of Painting (Stanford University Press, 2007).

For more details about Jay Bernstein’s publications, see a small selection from the NSSR Bookshelf.