Obituary: Harry Redner, Scholar

Harry and I were close personal and intellectual friends for some 40 years but most of all in the last decade or so of his life. With Harry there was always so much to discuss and disagree about at our joint lunches with or without our partners. But rather than talking about my friendship with Harry, especially after the warm and moving testimonies of Denis, Alastair and Peter, I would like to use this occasion to give some indication of Harry’s work and career at and after Monash. I can only apologize in advance for my bare catalogue and all too brief summary of his achievements. If I can give at least some idea of the systematic structure of his life’s work I shall be happy.

It is important to stress the two stages of Harry’s life’s work because the ideas which he was to elaborate in retirement had their genesis in his years of teaching and research at Monash from 1967 to 1996; and when I say elaborate I mean this quite practically. In his thirty years at Monash he published five substantial books, in the twenty five years following retirement he published ten books and at his death he left three completed books which await publication. Moreover, he combined this sustained intellectual creativity with a series of visiting professorships between 1997 and 2009 at Haifa University, in Paris at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, at Darmstadt Technical University and Kassel University, where he held the Franz Rosenzweig Visiting Chair in Jewish Philosophy. Earlier he had gained teaching experience at Yale, Berkeley and Colorado University during his Fulbright Scholarship 1987/88.  It was followed by a visiting fellowship at Harvard in 1994 in connection with his book on The Ends of Science (1987, republished 2021).

As I said, the defining themes of Harry’s wide ranging interests were laid out in his Monash years. The first major theme was established with The Ends of Science: An Essay in Scientific Authority and A New Theory of Representation: Toward an Integrated Theory of Representation in Science, Politics, and Art (1994). In the latter Harry advances a theory of culture in the form of a comprehensive reconstruction of four successive modes of representation from fetishism and iconicism in primitive societies to the mimeticism of the world’s classical civilizations and representationalism in European modernity, in order to pose the question of the future of culture in technological world civilization.  This volume was to become the first of four books directed to the state and fate of culture in the modern world. The second, Ethical Life: The Past and Present of Ethical Cultures (2001, German translation 2006), explores the conundrums of ethical life against the paradox of the contemporary decline in individual morality as opposed to the increase of public morality in the welfare state. The third volume, Aesthetic Life: The Past and Present of Aesthetic Cultures (2007), contrasts the inherited wealth of the past with the poverty of the present. It summons the past to the rescue of the present, where the collapse of all criteria of aesthetic criticism can only be remedied by a new critique of judgment. The final volume, Conserving Cultures: Technology, Globalization and the Future of Local Cultures (2004) returns, now more pessimistically, to the survival of culture in our technological age. The defining question remains the same: how are the symbolic values and meanings of traditional cultures to be preserved under the levelling impact of triumphant technology as it plays out in the conflict between the local and the global. Let me just note here that The Ends of Science in its investigation of the transformation of classical science to world science since 1945 already presents a first case study in the transition from modern European to world civilization and thus the link to the second major theme in Harry’s work, which goes back to his first book.

In the Beginning was the Deed: Reflections on the Passage of Faust (1982), republished by California University Press in 2016 in its series Voices Revived, dedicated to the cultivation of ‘the brightest minds,’ takes Faust’s pact with the devil from Marlowe through to Thomas Mann as the image of the fateful dialectic of progress and nihilism that came to a head in the twentieth century. A late companion piece is Ulysses and Faust: Tradition and Modernism from Homer till the Present (2018). The Faust theme announces the larger theme of the state and fate of civilization in the modern world, examined in four  related books, whose close interrelationship I can only indicate through their titles: Beyond Civilization: Society, Culture and the Individual in the Age of Globalization (2013), Totalitarianism, Globalization, Colonialism: The Destruction of Civilization since 1914 (2014), The Tragedy of  European Civilization: Towards an Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century (2015) and The Triumph and Tragedy of the Intellectuals: Evil, Enlightenment and Death (2016).

One last work must be highlighted, his final publication, a book of outstanding synthesis and insight in relation to a subject that had occupied him throughout his whole working life but that he had longed feared to enter as an outsider. It too forms part of his critique of the mindset of technological civilization. Taking its cue from Hamlet, it is entitled Quintessence of Dust: The Science of Matter and the Philosophy of Mind (2020). It takes the relationship between matter and life, physics and biology as the field of contention between science and philosophy. Neither physics nor biology has answers to the question of the origins of matter, life, mind and consciousness. Biology is closer to the new theories of emergentism but for the moment emergentism can establish only the non-causal logic but not the pathways of emergence in the course of the evolution of life. Harry defines the mind/body problem in terms of this non-causal logic of the indissoluble non-identity of the two, following Spinoza and his modern adherents such as Damasio and Atlan. He thus sets himself against Cartesian mind/body dualism, which has dominated science and philosophy since the Second World War, and in particular against the MIT concept of the mind as an information processing machine, espoused by Chomsky and Dennett among many others. Mind is embodied: it cannot be reduced to disembodied information, waiting to be downloaded or uploaded to other machines. Like all of Harry’s writings it is characterized by mastery of the material, a clear organizing structure and a lucid and compelling exposition.

The two phases of Harry Redner’s life and work themselves reflect the problems close to his heart. When Harry retired at 59 from Monash it was occasioned by the feeling that he no longer had a place in a university well on the way to becoming the corporate entity it has become today. The Monash that the refugee from the Holocaust thought of as his home was no longer the welcoming institution that he had joined in 1967.  Under its foundation Vice-Chancellor, Louis Matheson, Monash was a place of intellectual excitement and creativity and openness, where foundation Professors such as Rufus Davis in Politics and fellow refugees Leslie Bodi in German Studies could build up lively, stimulating and productive departments. Now the Humanities can scarcely lay claim to anything but a marginal role in the academy governed by the imperatives of technological progress.  So I am happy at this opportunity to recall the significant contribution that Harry Redner has made to furthering the self-reflective examination of our technological age and to probing the terrible tragedy of the destruction of European culture, in which he lost his father and almost all his extended family. I shall greatly miss him.

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