Seyla Behnabib Interview: Conversations with History: Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Philosophic Iterations, Cosmopolitanism, and the 'Right to Rights': Conversation with Seyla Benhabib, Eugene Meyer Professor of Political Science and Philosophy at Yale University, March 18, 2004, by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Where were you educated once you left Turkey and came to the United States?

I came to Brandeis University with a scholarship there.

The Wien.

Yes, funded by Larry Wien, the Wien International Scholarship. I was there for two years and did my degree in philosophy, and then moved to Yale from there.

What drew you to political philosophy? Was it the teachers that you had?

No, I think it was more . . . it was probably several things. First, it was simply the biographical background, and always the sense of being in Turkey but not really being Turkish in the ethnic or national sense, and negotiating those conflicts as I was growing up.

Then of course, in 1968, the student movement. I was in the American College for Girls, which was an elite junior college, and the news of the Vietnam War was coming to us. We had many teachers who themselves were, in many cases, draft evaders who had come to teach in Istanbul in an American school, and had refused to go to the war. So the news of the Vietnam War was what we talked about during our lunch hours. I remember seeing those pictures of people who had been exposed to napalm bombing, etc., and there was a speedy process of politicization. So there was the Vietnam War, there was the student movement, and in Turkey, in particular, there was the emergence of an independent left, a very significant mobilization among the workers. History was knocking at the door, and if you were a thoughtful or reflective person, you had to focus on the political issues.

I'm sure it was also a personal affinity that drew me. I was always interested in philosophy. I have a mind that tends towards abstractions, but I also am interested in seeing the way in which these abstractions and principles are at work, or play themselves out in the course of history.

So I would say that beginning with 1968 and the student movement, anti-Vietnam War movement, the workers' movements in Turkey, politics has never left my life since then.

What was your dissertation on?

My dissertation was on Hegel. It was on Hegel's philosophy of right, his philosophy on the state, and it was called "Natural Right and Hegel: An Essay on Modern Political Philosophy." So it seems in many ways, I was asking the same questions, and I have [still] been asking the same questions. I think most people who do philosophy, I really believe this, have a certain central question, an existential question that accompanies them 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 starting already in that work was how to reconcile universalistic principles of human rights, autonomy, and freedom with our concrete particular identity as members of certain human communities divided by language, by ethnicity, by religion.

I went to Hegel's philosophy of right because Hegel is one of the first systematic thinkers in modernity who says, "Look, we have three principles in the state. There is morality, there is legality, and then there is ethical life." Morality is what we all should have in common as moral rational beings, legality is the system of rights under which we live, and ethical life is basically the structure of a family, the mark of a civil society, and the concrete state to which we belong. That's what I focused on, and it seems to be for the last thirty years, I have been circling around this question in one way or another, and giving it different answers. But the question seems to me to have remained.

Next page: Being a Political Philosopher

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