Richard J. Bernstein
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Lecture SeriesJohn Dewey: His Contemporary relevance

  • Date: 17/05/2010
  • Presenter:
    • Lucía Franco

The fact that still nowadays the life and thoughts of the US philosopher John Dewey (1859-1952) can surprise us is not rare considering that we are in a time period in which intellectuals have given up their public and educational tasks. From his early days, Dewey always saw the task of thinking as something more than a profession. He never saw any barriers across disciplines and faced problems in psychology and education, in science and technology, in ethics and politics, in history, art and religion. His philosophy took on the technical, social and cultural challenges of the 20th century, combining a cosmopolitan spirit with the defense of a local community life.

It is not a surprise either that when Dewey was requested to make a historical parallelism of his philosophy, he could only think in the French philosophy during the Enlightenment. His ideas were indeed based on the European philosophical tradition, but also had a national substrate, a democratic tradition typical of the USA that dates back to Thomas Jefferson, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman. Since the decade of the 20's, Dewey defended the popular democratic ideas confronting the ferocious expansion of capitalism and the mass culture that blocked the development of a real participative public life. Dewey was also in favor of a radical reformism that should restore a sense of community not confronted with the development of differences and individualism.

Although after the Second World War his work was basically sent to oblivion, a new generation of intellectuals would bring back to life his thoughts along the decades of the 60's and 70's, causing an enriching conflict of interpretations. The version of Dewey elaborated by Richard Bernstein since then and until the present, is clearly differential for a number of reasons. First, due to his unusual synthetic capacity and open-to-dialogue style. And second, due to his ability to update the thoughts of Dewey to the current political debates. Only Bernstein, who was interlocutor and critic of key figures like Hannah Arendt, Hans George Gadamer, Jürgen Habermas and Richard Rorty, could bring Dewey back to life in the current political scenario. A scenario of uncertain horizons that claims more than ever for a radical reconstruction of the public life and the civic virtues.

In words of Bernstein himself: "Dewey was a public intellectual totally committed with the democratic perspective, but also showed a deep comprehension of democracy's fragility". He was aware that unless we work hard for the inclusion of a democratic ethos in our daily lives, democracy can easily turn into something empty and without sense. Nowadays, it is common to have lively debates around the democracy theory within the academic circles. Unfortunately these debates are mostly oriented to academics too. Dewey was in possession of the rare capacity to go beyond those circles, of speaking with large audiences made up of citizens, and doing it by referring to the worries of the common people. I am not saying that we should go back to the solutions proposed by Dewey in order to confront the problems and threats that democracy has in the present. Dewey himself would probably be the first one to insist in the fact that new conflicts and problems are in need of novel solutions. But Dewey's view of a radical democracy as 'a personal way of life in which we can be complemented through communication' can still be of inspiration for our task of rethinking and revitalizing the 'real democracies'. Nonetheless and without doubt, democracy is still a task to be address in the present and future that appears in front of us.

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