Seyla Benhabib

Seyla Benhabib

Seyla Benhabib (born 1950, Istanbul) is a Turkish Jewish 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 previously taught in the departments of philosophy at Boston University, SUNY Stony Brook, and the New School for Social Research and the Department of Government at Harvard University. She is the author of several books, most notably those concerning the philosophers Hannah Arendt and Jürgen Habermas. She has also worked with many important philosophers and scholars including Herbert Marcuse. Benhabib is well known for combining critical theory with feminist theory. She is married to well-known author and journalist Jim Sleeper, who is currently also a political-science lecturer at Yale University. She also serves on the editorial advisory board for the "Ethics & International Affairs".

Democratic theorists

Democratic theorists advocate discussion within cultures and support social change. Seyla Benhabib is a democratic theorist who doesn’t believe in the purity of cultures; she thinks of them as formed through dialogues with other cultures. Human cultures are, according to Benhabib, the constant change of imaginary boundaries. They influence each other and sometimes radicalize or conform as a reaction on other cultures. Benhabib argues that in democratic theory it is assumed that every single person should be able to determine his or her own life. She argues that pluralism, the existence of fundamentally different cultures, is compatible with cosmopolitanism, if three conditions are fulfilled. These conditions are:
1) Egalitarian reciprocity: Members of minorities must have equal civil, political, economic and cultural rights as the majority
2) 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.
3) 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.
It is a contested issue whether cultural diversity and democratic equality can co-exist. Many cultures are not compatible with one or more of the three given conditions. For example, the first condition is violated within several cultures, such as the Kurds in Turkey or the Roma in Eastern Europe. Every nation state has groups which are not accepted by the majority. Some governments do nothing to stop the discrimination of minorities. The second and third condition are also problematic. At this moment, pluralism does not seem to be compatible with cosmopolitanism.

Porous Borders

Seyla Benhabib prefers a world with porous borders. She argues that political boundaries define some as members, but also lock others out. She has written: "I think it is possible to have an empire without borders; I don’t think it is possible to have a democracy without borders". More and more people live in countries which are not their own, as state sovereignty is not as strong as in the past. Benhabib argues that somebody who is stateless is seen as an outcast and is in a way rightless. Current policy still sees national borders as a means to keep out strangers. Benhabib's cosmopolitan view is inspired by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. Kant’s "Perpetual peace" concerns three articles which together are key to creating perpetual peace. In the third article Kant says that the rights of world citizens shall be limited to the right of universal hospitality. In Kant's view, every single person has the right to go wherever he or she likes without fear of the hostility of their hosts. Seyla Benhabib takes this right as a starting point which resulted in her thoughts about migration and refugee problems. Seyla Benhabib goes further than Kant by arguing that the human right of hospitality should not apply to a single visit, but in some cases to long-term stays. For example, a country shouldn't send a refugee back when it is not sure whether he or she is safe in the country of origin. Nations should have obligations to exiles and refugees, these obligations are different from the obligations to immigrants.

Selected Bibliography


* "Another Cosmopolitanism" (Oxford University Press, 2006)
* "The Rights of Others" (Cambridge University Press, 2004)
* "The Reluctant Modernism of Hannah Arendt" (Rowman and Littlefield, 2003)
* "The Claims of Culture" (Princeton University Press, 2002)
* "Democracy and Difference" (Princeton University Press, 1996)
* "Critique, Norm and Utopia"
* "Situating the Self: Gender, Community and Postmodernism in Contemporary Ethics" (Routledge, 1992)


* “Modernity and the Aporias of Critical Theory”. "TELOS" 49 (Fall 1981). New York: [ Telos Press]

See also

*Judith Butler
*Iris Marion Young
*Deliberative democracy

External links

* [ Official Yale Site]
* [ Conversation with Seyla Benhabib]
* [ Radio interview] on "Philosophy Talk"

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