Academic journal article Contemporary Pragmatism

Royce and Bernstein on Evil

Academic journal article Contemporary Pragmatism

Royce and Bernstein on Evil

Article excerpt

This article has a twofold purpose. On the one hand, it aims to reconstruct Josiah Royce's views on evil. On the other hand, it intends to examine these Roycean views within the framework of Richard Bernstein's work, particularly his books Radical Evil: a Philosophical Investigation and The Abuse of Evil. I conclude that, despite some shortcomings regarding his notion of evil, Royce's philosophy should be recovered as a classical voice in order to fight against the abuse of evil.

"Realization of the evil men can do and have done to men is integral to any intelligent appraisal of human history." -Sidney Hook(1974, 30)

1. Introduction

On the first pages of The Abuse of Evil, Richard Bernstein relates how after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, evil unexpectedly became a concept of immense political significance. Just a few days before then, he had finished writing Radical Evil: A Philosophical Investigation where a very old philosophical, theological, and practical issue is examined, namely the problem of evil. Though universal in its scope, Radical Evil mainly refers to the intellectual (and political) history of Europe turning on the atrocity of the Nazi Holocaust. The core of his interpretation is grounded in two related axes: on the one hand, the enormous impact of Auschwitz on philosophy, and on the other hand, the impossibility to accept a healing theodicy. Unsurprisingly, Bernstein's research is focused exclusively on European thinkers.

However, as Bernstein writes, the political and intellectual context abruptly changed after 9/11, particularly in America, where evil became practically synonymous with terrorism.1 Consequently, after 9/11, war against evil and war against terrorism acquired the same meaning. In the face of this new situation, a philosophical investigation on evil centered only on Auschwitz without making reference to terrorism would be regarded as incomplete by contemporary (especially American) readers. Thus, Bernstein wrote The Abuse of Evil as a complement to Radical Evil. Despite the vastness of the topic, one could say that the former was a philosophical project serenely written (a historical and philosophical balance where the horror of the twentieth century and Auschwitz plays the central role). By contrast, The Abuse of Evil is an intellectual response to the immediate challenges of the present as well as an attempt to rethink evil within this new frame. Another major difference between both books is related to their respective sources: in The Abuse of Evil Bernstein relies mainly on classical pragmatism, America's native philosophy, rather than on European thinkers.

Why does Bernstein turn to classical pragmatism in this time of terror? He thinks that the new circumstances were favourable to a political American monster. In other words, one of Bernstein's theses is that absolutism, a political consequence of the war against terror, corrupts both politics and religion. Such absolutism is grounded in Christian fundamentalism, which in Bernstein's opinion is one of the central mentalities of America. Classical pragmatism (or "pragmatic fallibilism," as he labels it) constitutes another fundamental American mentality, too. Bernstein accurately relies primarily on Dewey and James (but also Peirce and Mead are within this vein looking for a political (and religious) alternative to fundamentalism.

Although Bernstein's account of this "clash of mentalities" is coherent, there is a classical American figure that is lacking in his reconstructive approach: Josiah Royce. For both Radical Evil and The Abuse Of Evil, Royce's philosophy arises as a relevant work in connection with Bernstein's purposes. First, taking Radical EviTs issues and developments, Royce's philosophy is connected with Bernstein's contemporary pragmatism to the extent that both deal explicitly with the problems of evil and theodicy as well as with their links with German idealism. Second, within the frame of The Abuse of Evil, Royce thinks that face to face interaction (what he calls "wise provincialism") constitutes an indispensable political element (here Royce's viewpoint converges with the other classics', namely Peirce, James, Mead, and Dewey). …

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