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Seyla Benhabib

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Seyla Benhabib (1950- )


Seyla Benhabib was born in Istanbul, Turkey in 1950. Her family were Sefardic Jews who migrated from Spain in the Inquisition in 1492. Her fathrer was a rabbi and businessman. Her mother was well educated and the family was multilingual, speaking Turkish, French, English and Italian at home. She received her BA in Humanities there at the American College for Girls. She then traveled to the United States, where she received her BA in Philosophy at Brandeis University and her MA and PhD in Philosophy at Yale University. Since 1993 Benhabib has been Professor of Government, Department of Government, and Senior Research Fellow, at the Center for European Studies, at Harvard University. In 1996 she was a Visiting Senior Fellow at the Institut fuer die Wissenschaft vom Menschen in Vienna, Austria.

From 1994-1997 Benhabib was Editor-in-Chief (with Andrew Arato) of Constellations: An International Journal of Critical and Democratic Theory. Her areas of specialization are 19th and 20th century Continental Social and Political Thought, Feminist theory, and the history of Modern political theory. She has most recently been interested in issues surrounding refugees, exile, asylum, citizenship, cultural conflict, multiculturalism, and nationality.


Benhabib is currently a professor of political science and philosophy at Yale and director of the program in Ethics, Politics, and Economics, and a well-known contemporary philosopher. She is the President of the Eastern Chapter of the American Philosophical Society. She has taught in the departments of philosophy at Boston University, SUNY Stony Brook, and the New School for Social Research and (as already noted) at Harvard University. In addition to her many scholarly articles and edited volumes, she is the author of Critique, Norm and Utopia: A Study in the Foundations of Critical Theory (1986); Situating the Self: Gender, Community and Post-Modernism in Contemporary Ethics (1992), (which won the 1993 American Educational Studies Association Critics’ Choice Award); The Reluctant Modernism of Hannah Arendt (1996); The Claims of Culture: Equality and Diversity in the Global Era (2002); and The Rights of Others: Aliens, Residents and Citizens (2004), which won the 2004 American Society for Social Philosophy Award.

She is the author of several books in other critical theorists, most notably (as mentioned) Hannah Arendt, Jurgen Habermas ("Epistemologies of Postmodernism: A Rejoinder  to Jean-François Lyotard" in Feminism/Postmodernism (ed. L. J. Nicholson, 1990) and Max Horkheimer (On Horkheimer (1993 (co-edited). She has also worked with many important philosophers and scholars including Herbert Marcuse. She has also written extensively on Critical Theory itself (Critique, Norm and Utopia: A Study of the Foundations of Critical Theory - 1986). Benhabib is well known for combining critical theory with feminist theory  - (already noted) Situating the Self, Gender Community and Postmodernism in Contemporary Ethics (1992).

She admits to the fragility of cultural forms and characterises herself as a Democratic Theorist – a person who advocates discussion within cultures in support of social change. She does not believe in the purity of cultures. Rather she thinks of them as formed through interactions and dialogues with other cultures. Human cultures are, according to Benhabib, involved in a constant change of imaginary boundaries. They influence each other and are transformed in the process. Her argument rests on the assumption in democratic theory that every person ought to be able to determine his or her own life. She believes that pluralism, the existence of fundamentally different cultures, is compatible with cosmopolitanism (a belief in a unitary moral understanding of all cultures), if three (very unlikely) conditions that must be fulfilled:

  • Egalitarian reciprocity: Members of minorities must have equal civil, political, economic and cultural rights as the majority
  • Voluntary self-ascription: When a person is born, he must not be automatically be expected to be member of a religion or culture. The state should not let groups define the lives of individuals. Members of a society have the right to express themselves and it is desirable that adult individuals be asked whether they choose for continuing membership of their community.
  • Freedom of exit and association: Every individual must be able to exit their group. When group members marry someone from another group, they have the right to remain member. For intergroup marriages and the children of these people accommodations must be found.

All of this theorising is premised upon the (equally unlikely and perhaps unrealistic) a priori existence of freedom of movement between cultures. Benhabib prefers a world with porous borders. She argues that political boundaries operate as instruments of inclusion/exclusion, Borders, for Benhabib, are both a consequence and a requirement of democracy:
"I think it is possible to have an empire without borders; I don’t think it is possible to have a democracy without borders".
Democracy, then, is her primary concern. In her book The Claims of Culture: Equity and Diversity in the Global Era (2002) she poses the question:
"How can liberal democracy best be realized in a world fraught with conflicting new forms of identity politics and intensifying conflicts over culture? "
Realising that cultures are themselves conflicted about their own boundaries, she challenges the assumption that cultures are clearly defined entities. She argues that much debate is dominated by this faulty belief. She presents an alternative approach, developing an understanding of cultures as continually creating, re-creating, and renegotiating the imagined boundaries between "us" and "them."

Benhabib's theories are informed by her extensive research and prior analysis of the life and work of Hannah Arendt (The Reluctant Modernism of Hannah Arendt: 1996) and a later publication on the correspondence between Arendt her friend and counsellor Karl Jaspers regarding the jurisdictional realities surrounding the Israel trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961 - Reclaiming Universalism: Negotiating Republican Self-Determination and Cosmopolitan Norms, (Tanner Lectures on Human Values, University of Califiornia, Berkeley, 2004), Reporting upon Eichmann's trial, and his display of neither remorse nor anti-Semitism (saying that he was "Just doing his job", and  "Just obeying the law") Arendt had posed the important question of whether national laws (that is the laws developed and enacted by particular cultures) can be seen as subservient to laws of "humanity", and if so under what circumstances might this be possible. Following the logic of Arendt's analysis, Benhabib maintains that since the UN Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 we have entered a phase in the evolution of global civil society that is characterized by a transition from international to cosmopolitan norms of justice.

Yet she is aware of the tensions that exist between the increasing tendency to acknowledge and abide by international, cosmopolitan values and the need for nation states to control their own values, cultural identities and boundaries:

“How can the will of democratic majorities be reconciled with norms of cosmopolitan justice? How can legal norms and standards, which originate outside the will of democratic legislatures, become binding upon them?....
…we are facing the rise of an international human rights regime and the spread of cosmopolitan norms, while the relationship between state sovereignty and such norms is becoming more contentious and conflictual”
Benhabib suggests that the limitations in self-determination are those that are required by the self-determination of others:
…every person, and every moral agent who has interests and whom my actions and the consequences of my actions can impact and affect in some manner or another, is potentially a moral conversation partner with me: I have a moral obligation to justify my actions with reasons to this individual or to the representatives of this being. I respect the moral worth of others by recognizing that I must provide them with a justification for my actions. We are all potential participants in such conversations of justification… Due to the open-endedness of discourses of moral justification there will be an inevitable and necessary tension between those moral obligations and duties resulting from our membership in bounded communities and the moral perspective that we must adopt as human beings simpliciter.
A discursive approach should place significant limitations on what can count as morally permissible practices of inclusion and exclusion, engaged in by sovereign polities. This confronts the discourse theorist with a dilemma: a shared feature of all norms of membership including, but not only, norms of citizenship is that those who are affected by the consequences of these norms and, in the first place, by criteria of exclusion per definitionem cannot be party to their articulation.

This then gives rise to a dilemma: either a discourse theory is simply irrelevant to membership practices in bounded communities in that it cannot articulate any justifiable criteria of exclusion, or it simply accepts existing practices of exclusion as morally neutral historical contingencies that require no further validation.”

Unlike communitarians who reduce the demands of morality to the claims of specific ethical, cultural, and political communities, and unlike realists and postmodernists who are skeptical that political norms can ever be subordinated to moral ones, I insist upon the necessary disjunction as well as the necessary mediation between the moral and the ethical, the moral and the political. The task is one of mediations, not reductions.

The way out of this dilemma, for Benhabib is to make a necessary distinction between moral, ethical and political aspects of the cultural dynamic and to engage in a systematic and ongoing iterative dialogue about inclusions/exclusions. She cites two examples to support her case – the French government’s struggle to come to terms with the rights of young Muslim women to wear the burqa in highschool, and the German government’s attempts to resolve the rights of resident aliens to participate in local electoral processes.

She cites Kant’s concept of hospitality as a basic value for the relations between peoples and poses the need for Democratic Iterations as a means of mediating the tension between sovereignty and hospitality.

“Iteration” is a term that was introduced into the philosophy of language through Jacques Derrida’s work. In the process of repeating a term or a concept, we never simply produce a replica of the original usage and its intended meaning: rather, every repetition is a form of variation. Every iteration transforms meaning, adds to it, enriches it in ever-so-subtle ways. In fact, there really is no “originary” source of meaning, or an “original” to which all subsequent forms must conform”
Benhabib goes on to place the concept of iterations within the context of democratic political processes:
“Democratic iterations” are linguistic, legal, cultural, and political repetitions-in-transformation, invocations that are also revocations. They not only change established understandings but also transform what passes as the valid or established view of an authoritative precedent.”
In other words and put more simply, each time the issue of inclusion/exclusion is revisited with reference to a specific issue, the jurisprudential process reframes the issue within the context of both notional and international criteria and political circumstances. By this means, cultural norms and expectations are gradually changed in the direction of greater democratic freedoms and equalities. She suggests that “jurisgenerative politics signals a space of interpretation and intervention between universal norms and the will of democratic majorities.”

This space, according to Benhabib, exists between the rights claims that frame democratic policies and the democratic expectations of national citizens, who are seen as accepting and integrating these revised perspectives into acceptable policy transformations. Having grown up in a Jewish culture within an Islamic society, Benhabib is intimately aware of the intricacies of cultural mediation and negotiation, and applies this understanding to two European examples: In the first, she interrogates these issues against the French attempts to legislate against the wearing of the burqa. In the second, she researches the German dilemma raised by the desire of provincial governments to allow alien residents to participate in local elections. She concludes from these analyses that the world has already moved substantially to in the direction of cosmopolitan rights and that we really need to recognise and accept this universal change. She suggests further, that the process will continue to accelerate into the future as increasing numbers of refugees and transnational workers continue to populate our nations and transgress national and cultural boundaries. She further recommends an increase to iterative political processes.

Having studied Benhabib’s theories in some detail, I have personally come to believe that while her analysis is theoretically sophisticated, her conclusions are built upon a foundation of hope that is itself premised upon a misunderstanding of the dynamics of power that animate cultural processes. In the first instance, her examples and her models of the jurisgenerative processes are taken from the cultures of previously-colonising nations (France and Germany). What she fails to account for is the fact that for the previously-colonised or indigenous perspective the jurisgenerative process itself looks quite different. For these people, the law has continually been a source and instrument of their oppression and continues to be so. There is therefore no reason why they should continue to place their faith in a political process where the rule of the majority fails to account for their continuing oppression.

For the Maori of New Zealand, for instance, the legislation surrounding the Foreshore and Seabed Act was seen as a further act of governmentally-inspired confiscation and land-theft. This legislation was enacted by the Labour Government specifically to maintain its majority support in the wider (and racist) New Zealand community. The Act saw a further erosion of Maori rights under International Law and was soundly criticised by the United Nations representative who was appointed to review the legislative and consultative process. His report was not accepted and was in fact heavily (and sarcastically) condemned by the Government.

To view an extensive interview with Benhabib click here.
To download a copy of Benhabib’s Tanner Lectures on Human Valuesclick here .
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