Seyla Benhabib
Stanford Humanities Center

Seyla Benhabib


Seyla Benhabib portrait

Seyla Benhabib portrait

In a 2004 interview in the Berkeley series Conversations with History, Seyla Benhabib reflected on her background as a member of a Sephardic Jewish family that had lived in Istanbul, Turkey, since approximately 1492. She spoke to the various contingencies of life for such a family — including the all-too-normal gender limitations experienced by her mother — as well as the remarkable cosmopolitan features of Istanbul and, by extension, “old Europe.”  She noted some aspects of the year 1492 less celebrated by most North Americans — that is, the Jewish experience of forced conversion, death, and flight from Spain; the end of the Reconquista that had also expelled the Moors from Spain; and the ongoing Ottoman domination of Byzantium, where her own family fled. As she put it with regard to her own and her parents’ biography, as well as to the Jews of 1492 generally:

So this [history] makes me very distrustful of collectivist ideologies of any kind. It makes me very attentive to what I would like to call practices of good governance and state-building, and makes me realize how fragile and unpredictable the course of history is. So it may be not an accident that in the last decade I have been writing more and more on questions of refuge, asylum, citizenship, and cultural conflict, multiculturalism, and nationality, because I have so much that I can also bring to this. My nerve ends are constantly sensitive to these issues.[1]

This sensitivity is a reflective and critical one. The topics and the political-philosophical and political-theoretical frames that Benhabib explores, those she argues for and against, those she uses consistently, are extensive. They encompass, inter alia, postmodernism, critical theory, feminism, gender, identity, the rights of others, deliberative democracy, democratic iterations, communicative ethics, a critical multiculturalism, communitarianism, citizenship, sovereignty, the public sphere, globalization, and cosmopolitanism.

While this range of topics is extensive, one can discern in them a common thread revealed in the title of the Presidential Lecture that Seyla Benhabib will deliver in October. In it she will speak to the underlying question that has occupied her for at least the last three decades (and even during her graduate student days) — regardless of the specific problems or phenomena that she addresses at a given moment, and regardless of whether she does so as a critical academic in scholarly works or as an intellectual activist in lectures, letters, and interviews:

[M]ost people who do philosophy…have a certain central question, an existential question that accompanies most of their lives. You write different works, you write different books, but I believe that you are basically asking the same question.  For me, the issue…[is] how to reconcile universalistic principles of human rights, autonomy, and freedom with our concrete identity as members of certain human communities divided by language, by ethnicity, by religion.[2]

When Benhabib speaks of the nature and conditions of freedom and democracy, you understand that she is speaking about real people with real and different needs, interests, desires, and opinions that are changeable and sometimes contradictory, and that vary both in direction and intensity of expression. As she put it when addressing the means and the necessity of democratic deliberation, persons are “finite, embodied and fragile creatures, and not disembodied cogitos or abstract unities of transcendental apperception.”[3]

This is not simply a generalized remark on the human condition or only an autobiographical self-reference.  It is both — and each has meaning for understanding who Seyla Benhabib is and what she is about.  Benhabib is a political philosopher who has worked throughout her academic career to clarify intellectually and critically what philosophy has to say about (and to) politics and social life. She has done that through critical examination of philosophers who speak to the political and social, from Hobbes, Hegel, and Kant to Arendt, Rawls, and Habermas. She has done this also by seeking empirically to relate and critique what political philosophers and political theorists of any era, including contemporaries, have to say about real-world issues that are both enduring and, for some, timeless — though of different scale. She also addresses issues that are, arguably, qualitatively different from those examined and experienced hitherto. And she has done this while acknowledging the fact that “[p]hilosophical discourse itself is challenged in how to take these concrete global problems seriously, including its own situatedness in a particular historical and political context.”[4]

One can obtain a basic understanding of her approach in an interview that she gave in July 2008:

Political philosophy has been my first orientation in philosophy for a very long time. What motivated this was primarily the fact that I’m the generation of the student movement. And the kinds of questions that we seemed to be asking in ’68 led to a certain intellectual orientation. Thirty years ago (1977) I wrote my dissertation on Hegel’s political philosophy, on a comparison of his concept of right with the natural rights tradition. Before that, my senior thesis was on Hobbes. So this is a long standing concern and interest. Of course, over the years one evolves and changes. The most important recent shift came around the mid-90s after I started working more empirically on questions of multiculturalism, citizenship and immigration within the European Union. I took a more institutionalist and empirical turn by beginning to look at some concrete discussions. Immersing myself in the new literature about the European Union, immigration and women’s rights, I had a feeling that to be able to do the political philosophy of the present as opposed to studying the history of political thought, one had to come to grips with the society around one and with the transformations that were taking place in the current moment.[5]

Indeed, the phrases “political philosophy of the present” and “transformations…taking place in the current moment” indicate the significance of both context and process for Benhabib. Neither “the present” nor “the current moment” appears to require any specific temporal bounding by calendar events — though, as stated above, the mid-1990s represented a time when she turned to analysis of issues still with us and a growing engagement with the still relatively inchoate form of the unbounded global setting of it all. In other words, all of the perennial questions of political philosophy remain and must be posed. The issue of reconciling universal norms of rights, autonomy and freedom with our existence as beings with cultural identities remains. However, the empirical geographic and demographic conditions of the contemporary era of globalization require different ways of addressing those questions.

In a series of articles and essays that she has published since the 1990s, in her Spinoza Lectures of 2000, and especially in two of her latest books, Another Cosmopolitanism (2006) and The Rights of Others (2004), Benhabib has pursued examination of the concept of citizenship, political membership, and the rights of others in an era of mass human migration and unprecedented flows of refugees and the internally displaced. These movements are taking place in a political and economic setting of diminished capacities of the territorial nation-state to regulate its own borders.[6] In this context, she invokes Kantian universal notions of “hospitality” and cosmopolitanism, operationally defined not as open or closed borders, but as the empirical and ultimately normative porosity of borders and the rights of admission and asylum for immigrants.[7] “From a philosophical point of view,” she writes, “transnational migrations bring to the fore the constitutive dilemma at the heart of liberal democracies: between sovereign self-determination claims on the one hand and adherence to universal human rights principles on the other.”[8] Or, as she suggests in one of her Tanner Lectures, there is a fundamental contradiction in the world order when it is viewed through the prism of the sovereign territorial nation-state and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “The modern state system is caught between sovereignty and hospitality, between the prerogative to choose to be a party to cosmopolitan norms and human rights treaties, and the obligation to extend recognition of these human rights to all.”[9]

Benhabib also argues for the universalizability of global cosmopolitan norms through a process of communicative ethics which allows bounded political communities — that is, states — and their citizens and residents to engage in “democratic iterations” at all levels of analysis.[10] How one concretely achieves a cosmopolitan order remains a matter of some argument, and any reading of the accompanying essayists’ contributions in Another Cosmopolitanism indicates the philosophical and real-world work yet to be done. However, one thing is clear — and Benhabib’s formulation is widely shared by her colleagues in the Academy, both in their scholarly work and in addressing real-world issues: “No human is illegal.”[11]


footnote divider


[1] Harry Kreisler, “Philosophic Iterations, Cosmopolitanism, and the ‘Right to Rights’: Conversation with Seyla Benhabib.” (Berkeley:  UC Berkeley, Institute of International Studies, 2004). (Conversations with History.) URL:

[2] Ibid.

[3] Seyla Benhabib, Situating the Self: Gender, Community and Postmodernism in Contemporary Ethics (New York: Routledge, 1992),  p. 5.

[4] From the “Cosmopolitanism in Philosophical Contexts” conference held at Fordham University (New York City), April 2008, where Benhabib gave the keynote address. The topics invited included citizenship, membership or rights for aliens, residents, or indigenous peoples; problems of translation; literature, margins, and the untranslatable; natural law and public reason; the local and familiar in relation to the global; and the history of cosmopolitanism as a value (for the Greeks, Kant, or more recent thinkers).

[5] “On the Public Sphere, Deliberation, Journalism and Dignity: Seyla Benhabib Interviewed by Karin Wahl-Jorgensen,” in the Reset-DOC series Dialogues on Civilization, 4 August 2008. URL:

[6] According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), in less than a century since the start of World War I, the world’s population has almost quadrupled from 1.6 billion to 6.2 billion. There are 191 million migrants worldwide, of which more than fifty percent have migrated since 1965; there is an estimated $276 billion in remittances from migrants to countries of origin, and another estimated 35 million persons are classified as internally displaced persons (IDPs) or refugees. See “IOM Global Estimates and Trends”:

[7] This theme is also met in a keynote address by Benhabib, “The Great Immigration Debate: Facts and Fiction, Ideals and Illusions,” held at the Annual International Conference on Human Rights, Conflict Resolution, Nonviolence, and Peace, February 28, 2008. Benhabib’s address is available as a Podcast from the Tanner Center for Nonviolent Human Rights Advocacy at the University of Utah:

[8] Benhabib, The Rights of Others (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 2. .

[9] Benhabib, Another Cosmopolitanism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 31.

[10] Ibid., p. 45

[11] Benhabib, The Rights of Others, preface.


Text by Tony Angiletta, Morrison Curator for the Social Sciences and Population Studies.
Stanford University Libraries & Academic Information Resources ©2008


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