Usually upon receiving news of a death, I do not weep unless the deceased is a close relative, a dear friend, a teacher, or either a great musician or a comedian. That’s just the way I am. When I heard of Peter Berger’s passing on Tuesday’s night, I wept. He qualified thrice: as a friend, a teacher, and as a comedian.
Peter Berger (along with the late Thomas Luckmann) changed my life. When I read The Social Construction of Reality early in my graduate school career—it was probably around 1973 or so—a shiver of inner recognition went up my spine. Not many books do that to a person in a lifetime, so you tend to remember the ones that do.
The phenomenological approach seated in The Social Construction of Reality taught me a new way to understand the relationship between me as an active perceiver and the world—natural and social—being perceived. It hit me around page forty or so: an ontological bombshell.
I do not remember how exactly the book came to my attention, except that I am certain that no political science, history, or Middle East studies professor of mine at the time at Penn included it on a class reading list. I do remember realizing somewhere in my mid-twenties that the yawning poverty of so-called theory in international relations was pushing me to want to know more about the foundations of the other social sciences and of philosophy, which I had informally minored in during my undergraduate days. My best guess as to what happened is that a visiting professor in the History and Sociology of Science Department at the time, Yaron Ezrahi, alerted me to Ernst Cassirer, and from Cassirer it was an easy slide to Edmund Husserl, Susanne K. Langer, and Karl Popper. And from there, given the presence of Philip Rieff, E. Digby Baltzell, and, newly arrived from Berkeley, Erving Goffman in the Sociology Department, it was a short hop, perhaps with some faculty help, to sociologists Berger and Luckmann, and then from there flung forth toward Clifford Geertz in anthropology, David Apter in a rare corner of political science, and others until finally I plunged back to the ur-source of phenomenological sociology, Alfred Schütz.
(Some years later, after I received my doctorate, I was invited to pinch-hit for an ill faculty regular to teach the Penn poli sci “Introduction to IR Theory” undergraduate course. I included many of the aforementioned writers in my syllabus and gave very short shrift to the standard IR theory pretenders of the day. The students liked it a lot, especially Berger and Luckmann. But when the department elders got wind of what I was doing, they banished me from ever teaching that course again. That was one of several intersecting experiences that persuaded me never to become a full-time academic.)
Further neck trills followed in the ensuing years as I read more Berger—The Sacred Canopy, in particular—and others, and as I got to know Erving Goffman some. (By the time he got to Penn I had finished my Ph.D. course work, so I just sat in now and again when he taught, read his books, and on a few occasions visited him in his Rittenhouse Square apartment to talk and learn from him.)
I felt blessed for having passed through this gamut. Like most Americans of my generation, I had been a default two-dimensional positivist without even knowing what that was. I thought social science was about the picture alone, taking the camera for granted. I had no idea that natural and social reality obeyed different rules because the camera turns out to be a far subtler, and constitutive, tool than I had imagined. Now I knew: What had been a two-dimensional world had blossomed into a three-dimensional one, allowing me to look back on my former cognitive cage to behold how primitive, how childlike, it was. I felt like I had started to become an intellectual adult, and, more than anyone else, I had Peter Berger to thank for that.
Imagine my shock then when, some decades later, Peter Berger ended up on the editorial board of a magazine of which I became the founding editor—The American Interest. Never mind how that happened; the upshot was that over the past dozen years I got to meet, work with, and befriend a man who was to me a great personal hero. Peter was 22 years my senior, and of course his stature as a scholar only added to the natural distance between us. But he closed the distance with his collegial manner, and we became friends as well as colleagues. When I needed counsel in an area of his expertise, he gave it not just freely but gladly, in a spirit of creative collaboration.
I also from time to time asked for his help with my own thinking. To take but one example, about five years ago it dawned on me that the highly improbable nature of “origin” narratives in just about every religion was neither accidental, a vestige of primitive pre-scientific mindsets, nor anything of the sort. It was, I hypothesized, a deliberate means of solidifying “in-group” loyalty. So I looked around the literature some to find this idea, since it seemed unlikely to have been original to me. I couldn’t find anything in what was, admittedly, a truncated search, so I asked Peter. And here is how I described, in a brief May 2012 essay entitled “Improbable Beliefs,” what happened next:
Peter credited me with an original sociological point, but was immediately able to find those hints I suspected had to exist. The “core idea is not new”, he said, and directed me to the succinct remark of the early Latin church father Tertullian (c. 160–c. 220): “Credo quia absurdum”—“I believe because it is absurd.”…
In the sociology of religion, Peter noted that Durkheim implies a similar point in his classical work The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. There is a passage where he explains the (from his viewpoint “absurd”) beliefs and rituals of Australian Aborigines as “having the sole empirical function of supporting collective solidarity.”…
Finally, Peter reminded me that his early interest in the sociology of religious sects led him to define a sect by the rigid cognitive boundaries it set up. “I asked myself from the beginning”, he wrote me, “How can people hold such obviously improbable beliefs?” It was in this context that he coined the phrase “plausibility structure”, which, in harmony with Asch and Festinger, suggests that given the right social context, a person will believe just about anything…. And then Peter concluded: “…and, I agree with you, the more absurd, the better for boundary maintenance.” … Imagine, then, my ambivalence at being told by a master of the discipline that I had had an original observation, only to be shown in the very act of his bestowing the accolade that it was not so original as all that.
Not only was Peter Berger that rare combination of kind and shrewd, he was also really funny, and eager to share the joys of humor. Though a professed “liberal” Lutheran—his words, not mine—he reminded me of my 15 Jewish uncles and aunts (and their 15 spouses), most of whom never forgot a good joke (and others, too) and never tired of retelling them, whether you wanted to hear them again or not. Peter and I told each other many dozens over the years; a telephone call with him, no matter the reason for the discussion, never ended without the balm of laughter stuck somewhere in the conversation.
When I learned a week or two ago that Peter had left the hospital for Boston’s Hebrew Rehabilitation Center, I sensed an irresistible temptation because of an old joke I know about a Jew ending up in a Lutheran rehab center. So I wrote him a long letter containing two jokes I hoped he had not heard—if there were any he had not heard. Humor is medicine; to laugh is to help heal. In that spirit I sent it, and in that spirit I hope he got a chance to read it.
Peter could tell a serious story, too. In one of my last conversations with him, he told me a story I will never forget. Let me try to reconstruct it for you as best I can. It is Hapsburgish, as many fine stories are.
As is well known, when Emperor Franz Josef died in 1916, his son Karl ruled briefly in his stead until the Hapsburg Empire was dismembered by the victorious allies after the World War. Karl and his wife Zita, whom he had married in 1911, went into exile. Karl died in 1922, but Zita lived on for another 66-plus years. She died at the age of 96 on March 14, 1989.
Zita had a right to be buried in the Imperial Crypt in Vienna, and the Austrian authorities agreed to that on the condition that the Hapsburgs paid all the expenses. The funeral, held on April 1, was huge—more than 6,000 mourners attended, including a personal representative of the Pope.
But the clerics discovered a problem as they anticipated the funeral service. Zita’s titles, as befitting an Empire that had married more than fought its way into expansionary greatness over the centuries, were very lengthy—and according to the order of the imperial funeral, all of them had to be read out loud as part of the ceremony. The titles included her own royal identity in the House of Parma and ended, two and a half pages later, according to the official list, with: “and the Duchess of Auschwitz.”
Should the officiating clerics say that, given the acquired sensitivities of that place name? They fell silent for several moments. And then, as though at once, they all knew and agreed: Yes, “Duchess of Auschwitz” should be said, and they all knew why: Because if the Hapsburg Empire had not been destroyed, there never would have been a death camp in that place.
I will miss the stories. I will miss the jokes. I will miss the wisdom and the good counsel. But most of all I will miss Peter Berger the man, the whole man, who can not be reduced to the sum of his parts as scholar, husband, parent, and all the rest of the pieces of modern modularity we recognize in a person. May the True Judge assure him a place in Paradise—in the liberal Lutheran section.