Democracy: A Radical Idea – Hobart and William Smith Colleges \
The HWS Update

Democracy: A Radical Idea

In the second Fisher Center lecture of the semester, “John Dewey’s Vision of Radical Democracy,” Richard Bernstein, philosopher, theorist and professor at the New School for Social Research,  stressed that  the word ‘democracy’ has had a negative connotation for much of its history.  “Today ‘democracy’ has taken on such a positive aura that we rarely think about what it means.”

Bernstein, in exploring Dewey’s “vision of radical democracy,” considered this semester’s Fisher Center theme, “Engendering Crisis,” by looking at the ways Dewey’s take on democratic ideals run counter to some of the practices that have lead to our present crises.

“The greatest dangers to democracy,” Bernstein reminded, echoing Dewey, “are internal ones.”

For Dewey, an influential American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer, democracy  is the guiding ideological principle of his life, but, as Bernstein pointed out, Dewey had “a reflective faith in democracy” and took “into account the human capacity both to do good and evil.”

While Dewey faced criticism force his strict adherence to his “radically liberal” notions, even depicted as “dangerously radical” during the McCarthy era, Bernstein said that “Dewey never wavered in his democratic faith.”  Though he defended Trotsky from Stalin’s charges, he rejected communism and absolutely objected to Trotsky’s notion that democratic ends could be achieved by undemocratic means. 

“The democratic means must equal the democratic ends,” Bernstein said.

Prompted by this notion, Dave Stalfa ’10 said, “I definitely plan on attending the roundtable discussion with Dr. Bernstein tomorrow in the Fisher Center to ask him in detail about Dewey’s position on violence.”

“I only knew Dewey in terms of aesthetics and education, but this lecture got me interested in other things, like personality’s role in Dewey’s democracy,” said Reina Apraez ’11, referring to Bernstein’s statement that “Personality is not something ontologically give, but an achievement.”

In his aim “to retrieve the core of what Dewey means about democracy” and “what we can learn from Dewey to foster democratic practices,” Bernstein examined the notion of the governance and the governed, the power of the government, ethics as they apply to democracy-and, in Dewey’s mind, how they are bound to democracy.

As he wrapped up the lecture, Bernstein turned to criticism of Dewey, such as his minor emphasis on institutional analysis and failure to put forth concrete ideas or proposals for areas like a reformed economy for a truly “radical democracy.”

But despite Dewey’s shortcomings, Bernstein said that Dewey was-as a leading social reformer of his time, a staunch, international defender of freedom and civil rights-continually informed by his faith in democracy and his understanding that “new complex problems require new complex solutions.”

Before a question-and-answer session with students, Bernstein told the audience of students, faculty and staff filling the Geneva Room, that Dewey’s vision of radical democracy, of ideal democracy, is the “critical standing for evaluating deficiencies in current democratic practices.”

“To create a democracy,” Bernstein said, “is still the task before us.”

Bernstein is currently the Vera List Professor of Philosophy at the Department of Philosophy of the New School for Social Research. His recent book publications include “Radical Evil: A Philosophic Interrogation” wherein he critiques the appeal to evil as a political tool that obscures complex issues, blocks thinking, and stifles public discussion and debate. He is also the author of “Freud and the Legacy of Moses” and “Hannah Arendt and the Jewish Question.”

He received his Ph.D. in philosophy in 1958 from Yale University with a dissertation on “John Dewey’s Metaphysics of Experience.” In addition to the Graduate Faculty at the New School for Social Research, he has taught at Yale University, Hebrew University, Haverford College, Catholic University of America, University of Pennsylvania, and Frankfurt University. He was chair of the Department of Philosophy at the Graduate Faculty of the New School from 1989 to 2002.

The Fisher Center was endowed with a $1 million gift from Emily and the late Richard Fisher, whose son Alexander graduated from Hobart College in 1993. Creation of the Fisher Center for the Study of Women and Men reflects a perfect intersection of the Colleges’ coordinate history and trends in the study of gender throughout academe.

Andrea Tone, the Canada Research Chair in the Social History of Medicine and professor of history at McGill University, will be the final Fisher Center speaker of the semester, giving a talk, titled “Elusive Elysium: Women, Men and Anxiety Over Time,” on Wednesday, Nov. 11, at 7:30 p.m. in the  Geneva Room.

Tone’s scholarship explores women and health, medical technology, sexuality, psychiatry, and industry, particularly the intersection between patient experience, cultural contexts, and technological and economic change in 19th and 20th-century America. She is the author of several books and edited volumes, including “Devices and Desires: A History of Contraceptives in America,” “Medicating Modern America: Prescription Drugs in History,” with Elizabeth Siegel Watkins. Her work has been featured on ABC News, PBS, National Public Radio, the CBC, the History Channel, and in the New York Times.

For more information about this year’s Fisher Center lineup, check out the news release here.