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The New Constellation: The Ethical-Political Horizons of Modernity/Postmodernity.

This book consists of ten chapters, an Introduction, and an Appendix. Of these twelve sections, eight have appeared previously. Although in the Acknowledgements he writes that "the essays have been revised for publication in this volume," the Introduction is more honest when it admits the failure of his "original plan ... to rewrite essays in order to relate a coherent narrative" (p. 12). The disdain for coherence and narrative unity is of course part of what Bernstein calls the "'modern/postmodern' Stimmung" (p. 11; cf. pp. 57, 199, 225-6), and the title's use of composite terms, as well as the (paratactic) guiding concepts of "constellation" and "force-field" borrowed from the Frankfurt School via Martin Jay (explained on pp. 8-9, 41-2, 201, 225) demonstrate the author's attempts at a sympathetic engagement with a direction of thought that is obviously at odds with his deepest philosophical impulses (cf. pp. 1-4). Viewed as a whole, the book bears a strong resemblance to the The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity (1987) of Habermas, a philosopher with whose work Bernstein has long been identified and who is prominently mentioned in the Acknowledgements. Three introductory chapters precede a chapter on Heidegger in which a lengthy and sympathetic textual discussion is followed by a shorter, harsh judgement of Heidegger's silence concerning the criminality of the National Socialist regime, and of the connection of this ethical failure with his philosophy. Bernstein follows, as does Habermas, with chapters on Foucault and Derrida, in addition to one on the Derrida-Habermas controversy itself which arose from the publication of Habermas's book. Rather than treating Bataille, Bernstein devotes two chapters to the political implications of Richard Rorty's recent writings, and Bernstein also concludes with two chapters on his own position ("Reconcilitation/Rupture" and the Appendix), the first proposing a rehabilitation of (Hegelian) determine negation (pp. 309ff.), and the second outlining his pragmatic "engaged fallibilistic pluralism" based on a (Gadamerian and Habermasian) "model of dialogical encounter" (pp. 336ff.). Nietzsche, for Habermas the "turning point" of modernity, is thematically absent from Bernstein's book. This is emblematic of the collection as a whole, robbing postmodernism of its philosophical point and encouraging treatment of it as a "pervasive, amorphous mood" (p. 57). The thrust of Bernstein's analysis is less theoretical than Habermas's though often dependent on Habermas's conclusions. Replacing his previous focus on praxis with one on ethos, Bernstein is especially concerned with ethical and political implications of the positions he examines. The level of Bernstein's ethical-political "analysis," however, is concrete in what often seems to be an arbitrary way. He is indulgent of Foucault (p. 164) and Derrida (p. 187), but Rorty is warned about his similarity to "neo-conservatives" (whose views are never analyzed [p. 257, n. 28] and "[Daniel] Bell and his fellow travelers" (p. 249). Nothing is said about Derrida's ambiguous apologias for Heidegger and Paul de Man as exercises in the ethics of deconstruction. Bernstein notes similarities between Rorty's irony and Mussolini's cynicism (pp. 282-3), but is silent about Foucault's advocacy of Khomeini's Islamic revolution. Perhaps most bizarrely, Bernstein notes at the beginning of chapter 4 that "throughout his writings, Heidegger typically uses masculine forms of speech. To avoid artificiality, I have followed his usage" (p. 79). Needless to say, this "usage" is not "typical" only of Heidegger. The question of the ethical and political implications of postmodernism is certainly a deeply significant one. But this is philosophy that is "political" in a way that many will find repugnant as well as unedifying. Despite all talk of a "new constellation" and "openness to the Other," many--not only those who are familiar with Bernstein's previous publications--who sit down with this book will find themselves faced with the same old thing.
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Author:Rethy, Robert
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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