“There is a trend towards authoritarianism” Richard Bernstein

photo of Richard Bernstein

From a philosophical point of view, how pragmatic are we? The American philosopher Richard Bernstein answered this question. Bernstein has written extensively on classic American pragmatism and is known for his discussions in the different philosophy schools in which he has worked. The professor from the New School for Social Research was in the Universidad de los Andes as an invited guest at the international colloquium Education, Participation, and Democracy, which was organized by the Department of Philosophy.

What is pragmatism and is related to when we call someone pragmatic?

The common use of the word pragmatism has very little to do with the philosophical movement. When we say that someone is pragmatic, sometimes what we want to say is that they manage situations by asking practical questions, or sometimes it means that they are anti-intellectuals. This is far from the central concept of American pragmatism. This concept states that we are individuals that can fail, that we commit errors, that we have to test our opinions in public, that we have to be involved in collective discussions, and have a positive vision about democracy and equality. The understanding of the word is very different. Philosophical pragmatism also says that people should be flexible, which doesn’t mean that anything goes, but that you have to adjust to particular situations.

Why is pragmatism important in today’s society?

I think that it is particularly important in today’s society because, if I may speak from a political perspective, globally there is a trend towards authoritarianism, a trend towards absolutes, there is a lack of respect towards some types of people. And so, the American pragmatic philosophers’ vision of democracy is under threat. With this situation, it becomes more important to be thoughtful of these issues, and I believe that it is something that Colombia needs to pay attention to.

How can pragmatic thought contribute to democracy?

Allow me to give you an example of the current situation in Colombia. I think that after the referendum the great fear is that the different camps take hardline positions and that there is no spirit of working together to make advances and to commit to making a fair deal that promotes peace. In this sense, pragmatism is necessary as a kind of democratic spirit to try to and understand how to resolve the crossroads that you are at. And the danger to which pragmatism refers is when people say, “I am right and you are wrong”, and there is no way of them talking to one another. Pragmatists are always against this attitude.

And education, how does this help?

I think that in terms of pragmatism, John Dewey, one of the fathers of classic pragmatism, has always believed that to have democracy you need to have education. Starting with early experiences, children need to develop a critical mind, the will to cooperate, and to listen to others. Dewey said that all philosophy is the philosophy of education. I think he was right.

How can we use these philosophical contributions from academia?

I think that there is a danger in academia: that academics only speak to academics. One of the pragmatic philosophers’ –such as John Dewey or William James– models is that they can speak to a wider audience. I believe that this is an important role for people who are interested in developing ways of connecting with the man-on-the-street. At the center of a large part of pragmatism is the faith in people’s abilities. If this is indeed the case, people in universities need to learn to speak about the worries and needs of ordinary citizens.


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