July 6, 2022
Will Milberg, Dean and Professor of Economics, The New School for Social Research
To The New School community,
I am writing to share the sad news that Richard J. Bernstein, Vera List Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, passed away on July 4 at the age of 90. You can read his official obituary here.
As I wrote just a few days ago in his retirement announcement to the NSSR community, Dick (as we knew him) was an iconic figure in the Philosophy department, at the NSSR and The New School, and in the field of philosophy in the 20th and 21st centuries. He was a premier philosopher of pragmatism, a particularly American branch of philosophy, and was also one of few philosophers able to clearly bridge continental and Anglo-American thinkers.
While he was known around the world, Dick was a son of New York City with an unmistakable Brooklyn accent. He was born here on May 14, 1932, and while attending Midwood High School, he met Carol, who became a renowned literary theorist at Bryn Mawr College and his beloved wife of 67 years. He studied philosophy as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, earned a Bachelor’s degree at Columbia University, and received his PhD from Yale University in 1958. There, he wrote his dissertation on John Dewey's Metaphysics of Experience, commencing his lifelong association with Dewey and American pragmatism. He taught as a Fulbright scholar at Hebrew University, then as faculty at Yale and Haverford College before joining the Graduate Faculty of Political and Social Science (now the NSSR) in 1989. Among his many honors and awards was an honorary doctorate from the University of Buenos Aires, given in 2018.
During his 33 years at The New School, Dick was a leader in both scholarship and faculty governance. He served as chair of the Philosophy department multiple times and was Dean of the Graduate Faculty from 2002-2004. Even after leaving these leadership positions, he continued to be a strong faculty voice, and, most importantly, was committed to academic openness, radical and critical thinking, and humanism in its best form.
This list of leadership roles doesn’t capture the liveliness of his intellect and his commitment to principle, combined with the empathy and warmth that he brought to all his interactions with New School colleagues and students. Dick maintained close personal and intellectual relationships with Hannah Arendt as well as with Jacques Derrida, Agnes Heller, and other renowned philosophers who link us from our origins as the University in Exile through today’s NSSR. Together with Heller and Reiner Schürmann, he helped usher in a new era for the Philosophy department at The New School while “keeping it connected to its intellectual and moral mission,” wrote former New School President Jonathan Fanton.
As a proponent of pragmatism, Dick believed in a dedication to truth in concrete life and in experience, pursued within a community built on mutual trust, and in finding resonance in diverse figures across the philosophical spectrum. This commitment was central to his work as both a writer and a teacher. It also undergirded his belief that philosophy must engage with ethical action — something he tried his best to live, from taking part in the 1964 Freedom Summer in Mississippi to teaching with the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies’ Democracy & Diversity Institutes to, most recently, helping at-risk scholars as the seminar leader for the New University in Exile Consortium.
Among Dick’s many books are Praxis and Action: Contemporary Philosophies of Human Activity, Beyond Objectivism and Relativism: Science, Hermeneutics, and Praxis, The New Constellation: The Ethical-Political Horizons of Modernity/Postmodernity, and The Pragmatic Turn. In 2018, Dick received significant academic and broader media attention with the publication of Why Read Hannah Arendt Now?, his Institute for Critical Social Inquiry lecture, and his New York Times op-ed on the continued relevance of Arendt amid increasingly troubling political times. “Arendt’s lifelong project was to honestly confront and comprehend the darkness of our times, without losing sight of the possibility of transcendence, and illumination. It should be our project, too,” he wrote.
Dick’s courses — in particular his small seminars, which often centered on close readings of difficult single texts — were legendary, conveying philosophical detail and contemporary relevance with exuberance and energy. He was a challenging yet generous professor who created encouraging spaces in which students could think critically together, and a supportive doctoral supervisor who kept in touch with generations of alumni. Amid worsening illness, he taught through the end of the Spring 2022 semester; fittingly, his final courses were on American pragmatism and Hannah Arendt.
Dick was a consulting editor for and frequent contributor to NSSR’s Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal, and his last journal contribution will appear in Volume 43, Issue 1. Dick’s final book, The Vicissitudes of Nature: From Spinoza to Freud, will be published by Polity Press in November. The Philosophy department will hold a conference in his memory on October 14, “‘The Role of Philosophy as a Public Good’: A Celebration of the Life of Richard J. Bernstein”; registration information to come. Community members are encouraged to share stories, teachings, photos, and other appreciations and memories on this special memory board.
I have been fortunate to have had Dick as a colleague since I arrived at The New School. I have fond memories of running into him on his way to class, gleeful about a lecture he was about to give. “Will, we’re discussing Hegel’s Science of Logic today,” Dick would declare. “Want to join us?” He was a supportive and trusted advisor who shared with me his experience as Dean, his commitment to faculty governance, and his savvy approach to university politics.
On behalf of The New School and The New School for Social Research, I send our deepest condolences to Carol, their four children, and their six grandchildren, as well as to Dick’s many friends and colleagues, present and past. At the NSSR, we have indeed lost one of our greats. We will be forever grateful that he touched our lives, and we will miss him profoundly.