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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Being a Political Philosopher

In a second we'll talk about where you are now, what the current iterations are, to use your word. But before we do that, could you help our audience understand what a political philosopher does? At one level it's a silly question, but also it may be a way to then talk about your current work.

What does a political philosopher do? To be a political philosopher is more a vocation than a career. We can be in our universities, and in some context one can be a journalist, one can be a human rights activist, but basically I would say that it is a vocation for thinking about the political. Not just day-to-day politics, but about the phenomenon of the political, that all communities of any degree of complexity organize themselves according to certain principles of justice, equality, reciprocity, and authority. These are anthropological universals. book coverYou can go to ancient Indian communities, the aboriginal communities, and there will be a system of power and a system of legitimation, according to which goods are distributed, offices are distributed, and rewards are arranged. So in that sense, the political, understood as this domain, is fundamentally constitutive of our lives as humans. That's why, for example, Aristotle defined the human animal as the zoon politikon, that is to say, the animal who is capable of reasoned speech. And to be capable of reasoned speech, it means also that we are capable of persuading others, and that together we are capable of forming a system of values and system of principles using reasoned speak.

So in that sense, the political is fundamental to the human condition. Particularly today, we live in such a moment of the decline of the political. We live in a period when the political is simply understood as a strategic bargaining of various games. The way a lot of political science understands the political is various interests groups positioning themselves to try to get various gains, whether material, office, or authority. We have a culture at the moment, particularly in this country, that personalizes the political and reduces it to the sensationalistic and to the intimate, so that the political disappears in the sensationalist stories about the individuals.

We are at a very troubled moment as far as political culture is concerned, and so the vocation of the political philosopher becomes more and more difficult. We are part of the process of collective cultural reflection, and some of the work that we do is very close to cultural criticism. The other work that we do may be more systematic and reconstructive in terms of trying to understand what the principles of justice are for modern societies, what distributions should look like in our kinds of societies, what is the basis of authority. But in particular, I think that the political theories must remind one of the significance of the political, as opposed to what counts as politics in the everyday world, and the degree to which politics has almost become an increasingly pejorative term in our culture. "Politicking" is not something to which we attribute a lot of value, but that itself is a major issue and a problem, and it is a decline in public culture, to have come to that point.

What are the prerequisites of doing this kind of work? Obviously, abstract thinking is very crucial to these endeavors. You clearly draw on tradition and history, but as you've just said, you're going back to themes that recur, but, in fact, are being forgotten because of the processes today.

You need a certain kind of training in the history of political thought, first of all. There's a tremendously rich and important tradition, and I personally regret that I do not know as much about the history of political thought outside the Western tradition. I, myself, am more of a specialist, particularly on European and German thought, and it took me many years to acquire the German language proficiency that I have. There is a certain kind of dedication and training to this tradition that you have to have. But there also has to be a passion about politics. There has to be a passionate involvement with it. You must care about the world around you to really want to bring the principles of philosophy to bear upon the world, rather than simply seeing the world as fallen. It's a mess -- most of the time, if you read the newspapers, it certainly appears as a mess -- and the tendency to want to look beyond it may be great. That's why most philosophy looks beyond the world to something else. But the political philosophy is always in a strange situation. She is always caught in mediating very abstract principles with concrete realities, such as to think through, to use Arendt's term, "what we are doing," and to think through what we are doing and where we are going in light of this abstract principle. Of course, it involves training, but as I say, it also involves a passion and a vocation.

You're also, as you just suggested, affected by events and the chaos that those events are producing. In some ways it's an ordering process, a putting together of the facts by referring back to works that we think are not relevant in the first instance, but can be made so. You used the term in your lecture, "iterations." Talk a little about that, what that is. It's rethinking, I guess.

Yes. The term "iteration" seems at first very simply like repetition. You know, you reiterate a phrase, you reiterate in a song. Let's say, you have the jingle, the lyric that keeps coming back.

But iterations are complex processes of appropriating and transforming at the same time. These are cultural and intellectual processes where at times it may seem as if we are simply repeating the original, but what we are really doing is creating new meaning. These processes of iteration are particularly visible in certain domains like legal interpretation, and this is interesting because in any liberal democracy with a constitutional tradition, we live through the reinterpretation, reappropriation, and the reiteration of the past. In other words, what makes a tradition, a body of doctrine, a body of law alive for us in the present is our capacity to appropriate this body of law and yet at the same time to think it through in the present. These are processes of creative rearticulation through which traditions continue themselves, legal doctrine maintains itself.

I would even say that this capacity for iteration (and I refer to this in other works as the narrative constitution of identities), this capacity for narrativity is fundamental to the human condition. Another way to put it would be that we are story-telling animals, and when we are no longer capable of telling stories about ourselves, about our traditions, about our lives together, something critical dries up in the culture. The culture ceases to be a live legacy for it when we can no longer tell the new story, when we can no longer reiterate it and reappropriate it.

So I'm interested in understanding those moments of appropriation and the emergence of the new when it seems as if we are really just continuing the old. Continuing the old is always reinterpreting it from the standpoint of where we are at today.

Do women give a unique contribution to this? In contemporary political science, some of the great thinkers have been women. You've worked on Hannah Arendt, and we'll talk about her in a minute, but Judith Shklar, Hannah Pitkin here at Berkeley, and so on. Is there an interface between being a woman and doing theory well, or was it merely that theory was a place that women were allowed to occupy before the walls of discrimination came down?

That's a complex and fascinating question. I do think it is remarkable that among all theoretical fields -- there aren't that many women in theoretical physics or theoretical mathematics -- political philosophy has produced such significant names in the past century, and hopefully also into our century.

Some of the individuals whom you named, like Hannah Arendt and Judith Shklar, who was my senior colleague and whom I had the pleasure to meet at Harvard, I worked with her for several years, and Hannah Pitkin, whom I do not know personally, but whose work I greatly admire and respect; some of them have reflected upon the particular juncture in their own work and political philosophy.

I think that there is a certain, maybe, puzzle that women bring to the world of politics, which has always seemed so much an exclusively male world. Even today, in very simple numbers, when you look at the level of representation in the House of Representatives in our Congress, or in most parliaments all over the world, there is no parity anywhere. The number of women in the political sphere is usually somewhere between 10 percent to 25 or 30 percent in the most successful social democratic legislatures, for example, in Sweden and Denmark, where you will find higher numbers of women participating. So it has seemed for a very long time that the political has been an exclusively male domain. As Arendt puts it, the political seems to be concerned with honor, recognition in the public sphere, competition, which are very different than the virtues of the private sphere to which women have been historically assigned, which is more about continuing life, nurturing the young, attentiveness to everyday-ness. The virtue of the public sphere may be honor, but the virtue of the private sphere is care and concern.

So it could be that because of this understanding of the political as an exclusively male domain, women who have been outside it, who have been marginalized, have reflective upon this, and have reflected upon this critically. If you are excluded from something, sometimes you can have a better and more creative critical perspective on it. So I think that to a large extent women political philosophers have reflected upon the domain of the political, partially realizing its illusions, partially realizing that it is one sphere among others in human activity, but there has also been this heightened concern about it.

And what is it, really? Hannah Pitkin herself, who is also a feminist theorist, talks about this. In Hannah Arendt's work you have these categories of the public and the private very clear articulated. She always praises the public and the political, in many ways over the private. But on the other hand, only she could have written in the ways she has written about private and the intimacy, or about the principle of natality, that every child that is born introduces a new principle of freedom, and that there is no way to predict what any human being will bring -- this was before cloning! But natality: how does one introduce that into political thought? Inevitably, there are certain gender experiences there that flow into the theory.

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