Interview with Richard Bernstein
Radical Evil: A Philosophic Interrogation (2002); Freud and the Legacy of Moses (1998); Hannah Arendt and the Jewish Question (1996); The New Constellation: The Ethical/Political Horizons of Modernity/ Postmodernity (1991); Philosophical Profiles (1986); Habermas and Modernity (editor, 1985); Beyond Objectivism and Relativism: Science, Hermeneutics, and Praxis (1983); Praxis and Action (1971); John Dewey (1966).
FH- Could you - could you remember when you start thinking about, when you start thinking about evil?
Richard Bernstein:- Yes. I was myself, during the last few years of her life, a personal friend of Hannah Arendt and I've written a book on Hannah Arendt and... It was really hot discussions of radical evil and the penality of evil, which I've written about. I have a chapter on each of those in my book on Arendt that started my thinking about the problem of evil.
FH:- So what, when you... Can you tell me more about the situation when you worked, when you met?
Richard Bernstein:- I originally met Hannah Arendt in 1972. I'd written and worked on Hannah Arendt to the course that I teach in the department that she taught at the new school. But I think that I really sort of seriously turned my attention to this problem in the mid nineties and the reason was not simply Hannah Arendt, but I felt that as we were coming to the end of the twentieth century that this is a century, not just because of the holocaust, but in general, of the most horrendous evil and it struck me that evil was not a topic that philosophers talk much about in the twentieth century and I wanted to go back and really sort of rethink the meanings of evil and what Philosophy could contribute to our understanding and that 's why I wrote this book called "Radical Evil".
FH:- And in your lecture here in Prague, you imagined the possibility of positive freedom, positive, it's a notion of positive freedom related to the...
Richard Bernstein:- Well I think I have to go back a little bit, as I said when I introduced my paper, I finished my book on radical evil just before September 11th.
Then suddenly, as a result of that, there was this tremendously popular discourse about evil, which I felt was an abuse of the concept of evil and I wrote then this little short general book called "The Abuse of Evil" which will be out in September and part of the thesis is not only what I call a clash of mentalities, but that this new talk about evil is anti-political and anti-religious, despite the fact that maybe people think that it is religious, I think it really is at heart, if you see what is going on, a portrayal of this. Now in the section, or, in writing it sounds paradoxical to say that it's anti-political when you think that its being so much used by various kinds of political figures. What I want is to really argue how if you think out the meaning of politics then you see that it really is apathetical and here again, in this context Hannah Arendt becomes important because I begin using some of her ideas to talk about the meaning of politics and in so far as I believe that all politics involves or ought to involve deliberation, discussion, negotiation, forming of opinions, critical discussion of opinions, the very introduction of absolutes destroys politics. She makes that point. Now in explaining her own ideas about politics and freedom, I speak about the distinction that she makes between liberty and freedom because I think its a very important type of distinction and very relevant to the world today because she wants to restrict liberty to always being liberty from something: liberty from tyranny, liberty from poverty, liberty from things. But freedom, or public freedom - as she understands it - only comes about by active participation in the public space and in so far as I want to relate that to a theory of democracy, I think that we're constantly caught up in a rhetoric that if you simply overthrow a tyrant or a dictator or so forth, then public freedom is going to come to be. That's the way our administration talks. This is not only naive and wrong, it's also dangerous, and it doesn't understand the practices that are involved and the kind of culture that has to be developed in order to really have a genuine democracy.
FH:- And if someone investigates negotiation and uh then liberating in the public spheres, how has this to be analyzed or to be visualized uh that we can uh yeah, understand this as a kind of ...
Richard Bernstein:- Well I think the point is that: that is what she says public tangible freedom is. Public tangible freedom is people who are equal, they are mutual, arguing, discussing, deliberating... You see one of the things that I think is so interesting about Arendt's conception of public freedom is that, is that as the result, I mean there's, maybe because of Isaiah Berlin, you have a distinction between negative liberty and positive freedom which always suggests that positive freedom is on a slippery slope to totalitarianism. But what's so interesting about Hannah Arendt's conception is she develops a concept of positive freedom, which I share, which is thoroughly democratic.
FH:- So if you make political theories, and we have to look on social interactions in in advance for participation in the public sphere...
Richard Bernstein:- Yes. Exactly. Active participation in the public sphere among equals is the very meaning of tangible freedom.
FH:- Then this would be kind of fulfilling goal...
Richard Bernstein:- So in that sense, I'm very sympathetic. I mean there are some aspects of Arendt that I'm critical of, but this aspect and this distinction I think is not just an interesting academic, but very important political distinction.
FH:- Yeah, but first you have to investigate it, maybe...
Richard Bernstein:- - Yes. Of course, well, I mean... When I gave my talk yesterday, and in the book, I mean I think that the intelligent way of reading on Arendt on this issue and I would say the same thing for John Dewey, is they 're not giving a blue print. They're not telling us what to do but it's a kind of reminder of what's vital to a genuine republican...
- Vitality and...
Richard Bernstein:- - So in that sense, right, so in this sense... It isn't as if by reading them you're going to know well "what do I do to bring this about?", but you will at least have a sense of what it is that you have to try to achieve.
FH: But how would you describe vitality? What do you...
Richard Bernstein:- Well I think that, you emphasize, look, I mean, if you - have to bring in various concepts, you have to bring in the notion of action as something which takes place between people, the relationship of speech, and the importance of this, or you have to understand this notion of opinion formation, the testing of it, public discussion, debate, realizing that no body is ever going to have "The Truth" in politics and a willingness to engage in persuasion. All of these I think are constituent to - of this notion of tangible freedom and a creation of public spaces.
- You see my feeling is you can take something like the public and its problems. Dewey was worried about the same problem as Arendt: the eclipse of the public and the need for this kind of discussion. I think it some important differences between Dewey and Arendt but on the issue of what's quintessential for democratic politics, I think they both... There's an overlap.
FH:- ...in this kind of participation and this mentality...
Richard Bernstein:- Yes. Always, always the act of - the emphasis on participation and mutuality and equality. And the other thing is, you know, in Arendt, she says that - contrary to what many traditional definitions of politics - it's not ruling, it's to pay a discourse, a deliberation, that's the heart of it. And you know, appearing in a public space.
FH:- I call this communicative freedom, but you would say it's better to call it common freedom?
Richard Bernstein:- No, I think it you call it, the only uh, the only reason... They don't use the term communicative freedom, you can use the term, but it has now become almost a term, I mean, there are ways in which some aspects of Habermas overlap with this, but differ. I mean I think that in both Dewey and Arendt and myself are much more skeptical about the idea of a rational consensus, and the element of conflict, and the aegon, and the conflict of opinions is I think highlighted in someone like Arendt in ways in which I think it's not highlighted in Habermas. But when he speaks about community freedom and the thing, it's very close to the Arendtian conception of this and how this is important for any type of democratic calling.